TESTED: BILLABONG GROVE 186
The Billabong Grove 186 caravan stakes its claim as a capable and affordable all-road tourer.
Admired from any angle, Billabong Custom Caravans’ Grove is big, bold and beautiful. From the black-on-white external graphics, to the colour-coded checkerplate, tinted acrylic windows and contrasting alloy wheels, it’s a good looking rig. And the visual delights aren’t limited to the exterior. Inside, contemporary styling steals the show with a charcoal-on-white colour palette and striking red highlights. But more on that later…
Up front, a 6in SupaGal drawbar supports a standard 50mm ball coupling, removable jockey wheel, dual 9kg gas cylinders and handbrake, while stainless steel mesh between the rails provides an external storage area. Looking after the business end of things, 6in main chassis members run the complete length of the van, coupled to simple seven-leaf spring packs and 10in brakes, while light truck all-terrain tyres hint of a future off the blacktop. Shielded water tanks are rear set, no doubt contributing to the van’s light unladen ball weight of 120kg.
Externally, construction comprises the traditional methods of aluminium cladding on an insulated timber frame. Checkerplate runs above the front boot and along the lower sections of each side for added style and stone protection. Up front, a gal-lined front storage boot houses the electrical management centre, sporting a sealed 110Ah battery, multi-stage 20A charger, individually fused distribution block and Camec Breakaway kit, incorporating a battery charging status LED and manual charging switch between car alternator and 240V charger. There is plenty of additional storage and a drainage port although, without a bung, it is likely to suck in dust. To complement any long term bush camping stints, the van comes pre-wired for solar.
Running an eye around the body, there’s a large window up front protected by a pivoting awning. On the nearside there’s a generator cupboard, a large awning, 240V and 12V outlets, aerial connection, a fold-out picnic table, dual wall-mounted LED lights, large tinted windows over the bed and dinette, and a Camec tri-lock security door.
The offside incorporates a small, high ensuite window, lockable water inlet, toilet cassette access, a kitchen window, appliance vents, aerial and a large bedroom window. A galvanised bumper bar supporting a single alloy wheel is fixed to the rear, with a contrasting trim panel and LED taillights.
Step inside to be dazzled by the modern interior, featuring flat-pack furniture and acrylic splashbacks, with red as the feature colour. Don’t despair if the colour isn’t to your liking, as each van is custom-built. The 18’6" interior with full ensuite is an ideal touring size without being too large. The interior is light, breezy and inviting thanks to the large windows, roof vents and open plan layout. All windows adjust on gas struts, with flywire and blockout blinds fitted. A nearside café dinette and table provide a comfortable place to relax and there is plenty of room to store your belongings in the overhead cupboards.
With the table above the wheel arch, leg room is limited for the window pews. The powerpoint above the table would be better suited at either table level or below, next to the open shelf. At least that way you can easily charge appliances without a dangling power cable.
The rear entry splits the café dinette and ensuite. The kitchen fills out the mid-offside of the van incorporating a 150L three-way fridge/freezer, a four-burner stove and grill, plus a window over the large stainless steel sink with drainer and mixer tap. There is plenty of storage at head height and below the bench. Both the stereo and microwave might be too high some people, although this van was built to a customer’s specification seeking that location, at least for the microwave. Normally it would be located further south.
A queen-size innerspring mattress running north-south fills the front of the van, nestled in between the mirrored wardrobes, bedside tables and drawers, with a red leather pillow-back to liven up the area. Windows in every direction help to bring the outside in, at least during the day. There is plenty more storage overhead or below the bed.
The ensuite fills out the far end of the van, incorporating a separate shower, cassette toilet and vanity unit with an inbuilt washing machine, stylish basin and cabinet storage. Interestingly, the basin is set a long way back against the base of the mirror. How it fares for day-to-day useability could only be assessed through use.
As attractive as this van is, the sealant around the external windows was not as neat as it could have been.
Despite its Tare of 2170kg, the van towed exceptionally well on our test run north of Melbourne, with only the steeper hills knocking some wind from the sails of our four-cylinder turbodiesel Patrol. In reality, with an ATM approaching 2.6t, a larger six or eight cylinder 4WD would make a much better long-term proposition.
Braking was fine, although we did forge over one hill to find a stationary vehicle attempting a U-turn on the other side. A firm application of the brakes ensued and, thankfully, we were able to haul her up in time.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Overall, it is hard not to be impressed by the Billabong Grove. It’s a handsome rig from any angle and, for the most part, well thought out and executed.
Some of the running gear such as the leaf springs, 10in brakes, manual charging system and 15in wheels hint towards cost savings, but that is fine with me when you consider the pricing starts from an affordable $53k or $64k as tested. The clincher is the custom nature of the van, where you can select the colours, laminate or furniture – either traditional or modern, depending on your needs.
I’m sure it will come as no surprise to learn that Mike and I don’t agree on everything. While there was consensus about most aspects of the Grove, I wasn’t a fan of the interior’s red highlights and stark white panels, but at least you can specify other colours. Bench space was limited in the kitchen and the ensuite mirror needed a surround for a better finished look.
While I’ve seen plenty of dual-axle vans in our travels, and at the shows over the years, this is the first one that I’ve towed and it was exceptionally sure-footed and stable, despite the high wind conditions.
With a few additions, it is the kind of van I could easily see myself racking up big distances in as part of an extended tour around the country.
- Modern interior
- Ease of towing
I WOULD HAVE LIKED...
- Bold appearance
- A better quality of finish on some items
- Relocated stereo fascia and lower microwave
Originally published in Caravan World #516,