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5th wheel vs motorhome

Right now I’m looking into changing out my RV.  I keep going back and forth between buying a fifth wheel and going for a Class A motorhome.

It’s a difficult decision so I’ve spent months researching, looking at lots of different models, and getting opinions from other RV owners.  Here are many of the factors I’m considering.

[x_alert heading=”NOTE:” type=”success”]Please don’t “keep score” as you read this article. The purpose of the article isn’t to show that either the 5th Wheel or the Motorhome is superior, but only to point out differences. The number of benefits for one or the other are not as important as the few significant factors that are most important TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILY.[/x_alert]

Residential-Style Furniture – Winner: 5th Wheel

One benefit of the fifth wheel is the style of the furniture.  Don’t get me wrong, I definitely recognize that many Class A’s have extremely comfy furniture, but fifth wheels often use regular off-the-shelf residential furniture for use in their models.

In my experience, I find that–on average–the fifth wheels have comfier furniture that feels more like home; however, residential furniture has drawbacks: it’s heavier, uses up more floor space, and usually only serves one function without underneath storage or other “RV features.”

Cost of Maintenance – Winner: Fifth Wheel

Ever wondered what a standard oil change costs on a diesel Class A?  It’s between $200 and $300.  Ouch.  Cost for an oil change on an F-350 or other truck for towing a fifth wheel?  About $30.

Kitchen Island – Winner: 5th Wheel

Many, if not most new fifth wheel layouts have kitchen islands; however, I’ve never seen one in a Class A before.  If cooking an elaborate meal in a huge kitchen is on your radar, then a 5W may be your best option.

However, that kitchen island is a blessing and a curse.  It’s nice because of the space it provides for preparing food, but it also makes the room extremely squished when the slide-outs are in, which ruins picnics at the truck stop. Here, you can find an article I wrote where I list 5 fifth wheel floorplans that have rear kitchens.

A portable generator is not NEARLY as convenient as an on-board generator.

Onboard Generator – Winner: Tie

All Class A motorhomes (at least anything made in this decade) will have an on-board generator for boondocking.  Most fifth wheel trailers do not have an on-board generator, but some definitely do.

You can put add a generator to any fifth wheel, but often it isn’t quite as nice when installed as an afterthought because they aren’t always well-prepped.  A 5,500 watt Onan generator costs about $4,000 installed.

You can always go the route of the portable generator, but for me, this is a deal breaker.  On our travel trailer, this is something that is a bit of a nuisance to pack up the generator and get it in the truck each time, etc.

In this article, I list the best generators for campers, along with what the best generator is for a mini camper.

“Take Off” Time – Winner: Class A

If you’ll be traveling frequently in your RV, then the Class A has major benefits for “take off time”, or the time it takes to go from “Hey, let’s take off today to a new place” to actually hitting the road.

The major time savings here are the stabilizers and hooking up the truck; however, many newer fifth wheels are starting to include auto stabilizing jacks, so this is becoming a moot point.

Turning Radius – Winner: Fifth Wheel

Turning both a Class A and a fifth wheel have their own advantages.  The benefit of a Class A for turning is that you can drive forward until the flat front of your windshield almost touches an obstruction, and then just turn the wheel.  The view and form factor of a Class A makes the act of turning easier.

However, in terms of pure turning radius, the fifth wheel is the clear winner.  With a pivot point put at the rear axle of the tow vehicle, the turn comes much sharper.

So for driving around on tight city streets, the fifth wheel wins, but for the view and ease of doing so, the Class A wins (in my opinion).

Maneuverability to Small Spaces – Winner: Class A

If you’ve ever seen other campers trying to fit into a tight spot in an RV park or campground, you know that there’s always someone in a travel trailer or fifth wheel that struggles for 10 solid minutes to find its home in the spot.

A Class A is MUCH simpler to dock in a camping spot.  It’s very much like driving a long car.

Depreciation – Winner: Fifth Wheel

This one is probably unfair.  I’ll admit that right off the bat.  I did a full week study to see which type of RV held its value the best and wrote my results in this article on RV depreciation.

In that article, I found that the PERCENTAGE depreciation between a motorhome and a fifth wheel really was almost identical.  Both will lose about 20% of their value in the first two years, and then follow a similar PERCENTAGE decline over time.

However, Class A motorhomes simply cost far more.  There’s no getting around it.  An extremely nice, well-appointed fifth wheel costs well under $80,000; an extremely nice well-appointed Class A can cost $150,000 or $200,000 or more.  So 20% depreciation to a motorhome represents a far greater financial loss.

This is especially compounded when the tow vehicle is included in the equation.  A nice F350 truck depreciates more slowly than the RV it tows, which also helps to hold up the value of the rig over time when compared to a motorhome.

But most RV buyers frankly aren’t concerned too much with depreciation.  It’s a lifestyle, and as long as it doesn’t put us in the poor house, we’ll do what we have to do to live the lifestyle.

View – Winner: Class A

Nothing quite beats the view out of the gigantic windshield of a Class A motorhome when you’re traveling on the road.  It’s beautiful and makes the act of traveling much more appealing to many RVers.

However, that huge view has drawbacks as well.  The huge windshield is a FURNACE for the entire house on a hot day as bright sunlight pours through it.

While the view is not available while driving, many fifth wheels have very large bay windows in slideouts or in the rear of the coach which may lessen this advantage for the Class A.

Ceiling Height – Winner: Fifth Wheel

For those who are tall, or who are sensitive about being cramped in a small space, a fifth wheel has a major advantage in its ceiling height.  Over the last 5 or 6 years, motorhomes have made significant strides in removing this advantage from fifth wheels, but on average, fifth wheels still take the prize here.

However, the problem with the ceiling height on a fifth wheel is the front of the fifth wheel, which is most often the master bedroom.  This area usually has much lower ceilings–similar to what you’d see in a travel trailer.  But you lay down in the bedroom, right?  🙂

Storage – Tie

Both Class A and Fifth Wheel RVs have excellent storage, but the storage on both units is different.  Fifth wheels have more pass-through storage bays and have at least two HUGE storage bays near the front of the coach.  This is an advantage of the fifth wheel since it has no engine or other driving parts under the front area of the coach.

However, the Class A also has fantastic storage, because all of the middle compartments are typically larger on the Class A.

So really, the storage argument is a wash.  The storage bays are different, but there isn’t one clearly better than the other on average.

Here, you can find an article I wrote where I list 9 awesome hacks for smarter storage in a motorhome, making it easier to store the things you need without it feeling tight and cluttered.

Steps – Winner: Motorhome

If you are older and have a difficult time going up and down steps, then a Class A holds a distinct advantage.  Just getting in a fifth wheel often involves four steps with no railing.  Then once you’re in the coach, you have to go up and down a few steps to get into the bedroom in front.

A Class A motorhome is a flat, single level floor plan which is nice for those who have a tougher time getting around.

However, those steps may be a benefit for some fifth wheel owners who have kids.  The steps in a fifth wheel really help to define the spaces, reduce noise, and create visual barriers between rooms.  This is great for giving mom and dad a little privacy, as well as letting the kids feel like they have their own private bedroom.

Riding vs. Driving – Winner: Class A

This is, perhaps, the single greatest advantage of the motorhome over the fifth wheel.  This is the reason that many people will never trade their Class A–the experience of driving from within the coach.

I’m torn on this one.  I’m trying to decide right now between a Class A and a fifth wheel and this is the the factor that I keep going back to.  After trying out a class A with the family, we found that–to us–it just wasn’t much different than sitting in the truck.  We wouldn’t let the kids walk around without a seat belt anyway, so what does it matter if we’re buckled in the truck or the camper?

But then again… there’s just something about driving around in the vehicle that has a real allure and adds a special feeling to the roadtrip.  It’s a really tough decision.  Even if all of the other factors weighed in favor of a fifth wheel, and I’d still be wondering about this one.

Towing vs. Toad – Tie

I think this factor is important to consider.  It’s one I wasn’t really thinking about until I spent some time talking to the Class A community.  Since I’m a bit tired of towing my travel trailer, I thought I wanted a Class A so I wouldn’t have to tow anymore.

That’s not realistic.

Even if you take your class A, you’ll probably still want to tow a car behind so you can get around town (a “toad”).  Almost all Class A RVers also tow a little car behind.  So you’re still towing, and in some ways, towing a toad is WORSE, because it prohibits you from being able to back up.

A toad is much lighter and follows behind the Class A, so it’s not really something you have to think about when driving forward, but for navigating in tight spots it can be a pain not to be able to back up, and hooking up/unhooking a toad takes only a minute less than hooking up a fifth wheel to a truck.

Toys – Winner: Fifth Wheel

If you want to haul jet skis, four wheelers, dirt bikes, or an ATV, the fifth wheel is the clear winner.  There are a select few Class A toy haulers, but they are few and far between.  If you want to bring toys, you probably want a fifth wheel.

It’s true that you could tow a trailer of toys behind a Class A, but then you lose your toad and can’t get around town any longer.

I wrote an article where I provide a list of the most popular fifth wheel toy haulers. Read the article here. 

Security: Motorhome

One benefit of a motorhome is security.  When danger comes knocking, you can simply drive off!  The entire vehicle is enclosed.

Also, it’s much more difficult to steal a parked motorhome than it is a fifth wheel.  Someone could always just hook up a truck and drive off with a fifth wheel unless you take the extra time to put a lock on it.

Another security factor is that most fifth wheels don’t have built-in generators.  Portable generators are a very common item to be stolen from unwatched campsites.

Thinking about possibly adding a security system to your motorhome? In this article, I listed 5 great security systems for motorhomes, and specifically, which one I would choose.

Pop-outs/Living Space – Winner: Fifth Wheel

Fifth wheels generally have more spacious living areas than motorhomes.  This is because fifth wheels are not designed to be used with the slides in, whereas motorhomes are.  Consequently, the slides in a motorhome are shallower which create less space.

Not only is the actual square footage of a fifth wheel generally larger, but the room also feels larger because fifth wheels generally have higher ceilings.

Backing Up – Tie

Obviously, backing up a fifth wheel–or any trailer–is not fun.  However, the reason I put this category at a “tie” is because most motorhome RVers also tow a toad car behind.  With a toad attached, you can’t back up AT ALL or else it can damage the steering in the car.

Type of “Get Around” Vehicle – Tie

Some RVers don’t like driving a big F350 around to get groceries and explore a city, so for them, it’s nice to have a tiny compact car behind the Class A.  For our family, we like driving our truck as our normal family car, so it’s much more comfortable than a little car.

This really only depends on personal preference.

Family Riding Space – Winner: Class A

The issue with riding space for our family and any other large family is seating space.  Right now we have three children.  If we had a fourth, we couldn’t all fit in a truck since younger kids can’t ride in the front.  Even if one of the kids could ride in the front seat, we’d then have three in the front seat, which is squishy.    Although the layouts of fifth wheels are ideal for many large families, be sure you actually can all fit in the tow vehicle!

If you have a crew cab or mega cab in your truck to tow a fifth wheel, you’ll be plenty comfortable as you drive down the road.  If you have a small cab and kids in the back, it won’t be as fun for them.

Floor Plans! – Winner: Fifth Wheel

To me, this is the #1 reason to pick a fifth wheel.  The variety of creative uses of floor plans to maximize the space are amazing!  Since the front of a motorhome has the driving area and a large window, there are simply fewer options for creative floorplans in a Class A.

I’m not saying that Class A’s all have the same floor plan, but in general, there are many more options with the fifth wheel. Here, you can find an article I wrote where I list favorite fifth wheel floor plans for families. I also discuss how to pick a fifth wheel that’s perfect for you and your family.

This is the view in a typical Class A motorhome with the slides closed. The entire RV is still usable even though it’s a little cramped.

Openness With Slides In – Winner: Class A

We’ve mentioned this one a couple times already.  When driving down the road with the slides in, the Class A is actually usable.  When pulled over for a bathroom break or a quick stop, a fifth wheel is difficult to use at all.

Heating and Cooling – Winner: Fifth Wheel

If size, number of air conditioners, etc is all equal, the fifth wheel has an advantage in keeping a consistent temperature because it doesn’t have the gigantic sauna of a front windshield to deal with.  Also, it doesn’t have the engine heat coming into the cabin.

Fuel Economy – Tie

Both are terrible.  Some say the 5th wheel does better, others say the motorhome is the winner.  It really just depends on your setup, but before you get sucked in by comments from motorhome owners promising 11-14 mpg, ask them if that’s while they are towing a car behind.  Not good.

However, remember that only some of your driving will be roadtripping.  A lot of the driving will be with just the tow vehicle or toad–going to the grocery store or sightseeing.  You can get much better gas mileage with a small toad.

This one is a wash as far as I’m concerned. I wrote a giant guide to motorhome gas mileage, where I give 21 examples of specific motorhomes. Find the article here. 

Insurance Costs – Winner: Fifth Wheel

Insuring a fifth wheel is significantly less expensive than a motorhome.  This is for a few reasons: (1) They generally cost a little less than a motorhome, they don’t drive so you don’t have to worry about collision with another vehicle, and (3) there is less mechanically that can go wrong in the driving of the RV.

If you’re wondering what RV insurance costs on a travel trailer, read this article.

Workspace – Winner: Fifth Wheel

There are a few motorhomes that provide a table space for working on a laptop while in the RV; however, most motorhomes make the RVer sit at an uncomfortable flat-back dinette to work.  More fifth wheels have work areas.

Bad Weather – Winner: Class A

When inclement weather hits, there is certainly an advantage to being in a Class A.  You don’t have to walk from the tow vehicle to the RV and then start to warm it up and get yourself dry.

Price: – Winner: Fifth Wheel

A very nice fifth wheel usually costs under $70,000.  A high-end Class A can cost $300,000 or more.  A new low-end fifth wheel costs about $30,000 and a low-end Class A costs about $85,000.

Obviously, the cost is a significant factor for most buyers. In this article, I talk about the average fifth wheel cost, along with things to think about before buying a fifth wheel.

Separation from the Kids – Tie

Fifth wheels have the advantage of layouts that often place the kids on one side of the RV, and the parents’ sleeping area on the other side of the RV.  That separation at night is really nice.

However, Class A motorhomes offer better separation during the drive.  The kids can be 15′ back on the couch drawing or playing on their iPods while the parents are driving and navigating up at the front.

Safety – Winner: Fifth Wheel

Safety when driving, I believe, goes to the fifth wheel.  Class A motorhomes have no airbags, are not crash tested, and do not have a “crumple zone” (the area where the engine goes down and the vehicle crumples to soak up front-end impact).

In a class A or a fifth wheel, there will be little risk to the driver because there is so much behind the driver in an RV.  It’s the front-end impact that is the real danger.

Also, in a motorhome when there is a car accident, knives, cabinets, appliances, and everything else in the RV becomes a projectile flying at 75 miles per hour at the driver.  The same is not true in a fifth wheel since the passengers and driver are in a separate vehicle.

Rent Before Buying

If you’re considering buying an RV or Camper, I strongly suggest you rent one first to make sure it’s one you’ll really love.  Campers can be very large investments, and buying the wrong one can be a costly mistake.  RVshare is a great place for finding RVs and Campers to rent in your local area. Here, you can find an article we wrote where we list the 7 most popular RV rental services. Be sure to check it out before renting.

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