This luxurious home on wheels from Blue Bird Coachworks is built on the company’s own stainless-steel chassis and incorporates a number of company-designed innovations.
By Lazelle Jones
Blue Bird Coachworks builds luxurious motorhomes that compare favorably with the bus conversions offered by today’s custom coach converters. But Blue Bird units typically cost $500,000 to $700,000 less than those conversions.
How? For one, instead of using a bus shell, Blue Bird founds its coaches in a stainless-steel house, a structural design for which the company has become renowned over the years. In addition, Blue Bird’s luxury models incorporate cutting-edge technologies and amenities. This past July I visited the company’s manufacturing plant in Fort Valley, Georgia, for a look-see at the new Wanderlodge 450 LXi and to learn more about how this coach is constructed.
Suffice it to say that the LXi and its sister model, the M380, are virtual tanks, and that comment is in no way meant to be disparaging. The Blue Bird is a cage of stainless steel. It has a steel chassis; aluminum and stainless structural members are in the roof. The walls, floor, bridgework in the basement, and the exterior skin that surrounds the house and basement are made entirely of stainless steel. At every point where steel touches steel, it’s welded together, creating a totally unitized coach shell. This not only presents a substantial and exceptionally safe integrated structure, but, as I found out, it offers over-the-road benefits as well.
The 450 LXi has a manufacturer’s base suggested retail price of $774,215. As equipped, the unit I recently tested carried a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $837,305.
The gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of the 450 LXi is 52,000 pounds; the unit I reviewed (with a full 200 gallons of diesel fuel and empty holding tanks) tipped the scales at 47,220 pounds. Had the fresh water tank been filled (120 gallons and another 1,000 pounds), the cargo carrying capacity still would have been 3,780 pounds “” plenty sufficient to carry along as much as wanted and needed. In addition, the 450 LXi comes standard with a Class V receiver hitch and a towing capacity of 18,500 pounds.
The 450 LXi is powered by a 12.5-liter Caterpillar C13 diesel engine that develops 525 horsepower and yields 1,650 foot-pounds of torque. This is coupled with a fully automatic Allison 4000 MH transmission. This transmission has a programming capability that permits the pilot to select a special fuel economy mode when long steady-state operations are anticipated. During the course of the 750 miles I drove the unit, fuel economy came in at 4.9 miles per gallon. This included mostly interstate driving at 70 and 75 mph, with the chassis air conditioning operating.
Blue Bird has taken its chassis-dash air-conditioning system to new levels by increasing its cooling capacity from 17,000 Btus to 55,000 Btus. Even on the hottest summer days (pushing 100 degrees, with very high humidity), this capacity was a welcome blessing. In the evolution of things, perhaps one day Blue Bird will design this coach so this abundance of cooling can be delivered and utilized elsewhere in the coach as well (just a thought).
Fully functional desk in the Blue Bird Wanderlodge 450 LXiHowever, the 450 LXi comes standard with four 15,000-Btu roof-mounted air-conditioner/heat-pump units. Two units are mounted up front and two are in the rear; they delivered more than enough cold air. I did notice, however, that you can’t operate only one unit and have the chilled air delivered elsewhere, as Blue Bird designers have elected to dedicate each roof unit’s output to a specific zone. New on this coach is a plumbing configuration involving each of the rooftop air-conditioning drains. Each drain line is directed to an outside drain location, under the coach and out of the way.
The parameters and specifications of the 450 LXi’s heating system are also impressive. It’s well-designed and should be able to handle RV camping even when outside temperatures are hovering at zero. Engineers at Blue Bird told me that 20 degrees below zero is likely the limit. I do know that the way the hydronic heating system is configured, it will adequately handle luxury coach camping in very cold weather.
To begin with, Blue Bird builds its own hydronic (hot fluid) heating system, using a Webasto boiler as the heat source. The Wanderlodge 450 LXi has five heating zones “” four for the interior and one for the basement “” and each zone includes up to as many as three individual heaters. The total heating capacity of the Blue Bird hydronic system is a massive 80,000 Btus.
Each heater in each zone is plumbed as a single closed-loop system back to the boiler; this means that each heater gets its own full charge of superheated fluid from the boiler and doesn’t share with others. The hydronic heating system also produces domestic hot water and can be used to preheat the engine before starting in cold weather. The heat from the engine also can be used to warm the fluid for the heating zones while traveling.
The coach’s utilities include a 20-kilowatt Power Tech diesel generator with an auto-start function. Blue Bird designed and built the soundproofing box that encloses the gen set. The 450 LXi is an all-electric coach; even the dual-burner cooktop in the galley is electric. At the heart of the coach’s 120-volt electric system (which includes all interior lighting) are two 3,600-watt Vanner inverters. Each inverter can power a single air conditioner from the house battery pack while the Caterpillar engine is running. However, if you use the inverters to power the air conditioning while the engine is not running, you’ll very quickly deplete the battery pack (just a heads-up).
Blue Bird Wanderlodge 450 LXi interiorThe house has eight no-maintenance AGM battery packs; the chassis has two. The 50-amp power cord and city water fill hose are mounted on power reels.
The entire domestic water system is serviced by a carbon-based filtration canister. The heart and soul of the fresh water system is a 60-psi 12-volt pump that maintains a constant 60 pounds of pressure (via pressure regulators) throughout the coach. The LXi’s gray water and black water holding tanks each have 75-gallon capacities; an electric dump valve is included.
We had one very long travel day, and even then the 450 LXi was a pleasure to drive. At the end of the day I did not feel “beat up” by the road. This can be attributed to several things. First, the rigidity of the welded all-steel chassis and house permits virtually no twisting or flexing of the coach (chassis, walls, roof, floor, exterior skin), and precludes the generation of interior noise and vibration. Not one of the cabinets or any of the interior appointments squeaked or vibrated. The interior of the LXi is virtually anchored in place to the house and the chassis.
Second, the air-ride system on the LXi is state-of-the-art. Created by Hadley and ArvinMeritor, it includes two very important features. First, eight large, high-volume, low-pressure air bags (each measuring 12 inches by 12 inches) are positioned above each wheel, including the wheels on the tag axle. But it goes much further than that. Hadley is an all-electronic/computer-managed air-ride system that continually adds or removes air from each air bag as needed to optimize handling and comfort. In fact, if you look at the as-tested weights for the coach, the actual weight of the front and tag axles (15,400 pounds and 12,380 pounds, respectively) were close to their gross axle weight ratings (GAWR) of 16,000 pounds for the front and 13,000 pounds for the tag. However, at 19,360 pounds, the drive axle was well below its GAWR (23,000 pounds). This is because the computer-managed Hadley air-ride system adds or subtracts air pressure from the air bags as weight is added to or redistributed in the coach.
The third reason is that the 450 LXi also has Koni frequency-sensitive dampening shocks, which block high-frequency vibrations from the road from transferring to the unit. (I believe this may be one of the first times they’ve been used by a U.S. manufacturer.)
Blue Bird Wanderlodge 450 LXi interiorFinally, the belly of the 450 LXi is dressed with welded-in-place sheets of exterior stainless steel that are then covered with soundproofing. This dampens vibration and mitigates road noise, and also protects the underbelly of the coach. The floor, walls, and doors of the basement compartments contain R11 polyfiber insulation, which controls the temperature inside the bay and helps dampen road noise below.
The exterior walls of the LXi are beautified with a five-step full-body paint process that can be tailored to accommodate the customer’s wishes.
Blue Bird uses polyfiber insulation with foil radiant barrier instead of conventional fiberglass spun insulation; it is cut to fit by an outside vendor that specializes in water-jet cutting. A depth of 1.5 inches in the wall is created by the dimension of the welded tubular steel wall studs. The insulation is 2.5 inches thick and cut to fit so it overlaps each pocket in the wall where insulation needs to be installed, by a quarter-inch. When installed, and with the interior marine-grade ½-inch plywood interior wall put in place and anchored to the metal studs, the thickness of the insulation actually pushes against the stainless-steel exterior skin, pushing it approximately ¼-inch away from the metal studs. This creates an air space between the metal skin and the metal wall and roof studs, which adds an insulation factor. And because the polyfiber panels are cut just a little larger than the area, the insulation is packed tightly in place.
The LXi I tested came with three slideouts: one encompassing the curbside galley; another, the streetside dinette and sofa bed; and a third, the head of the bed. Designed and built by Blue Bird, these slides are powered off the inverters and are simple to operate. Each of these structures is designed to handle 8,000 pounds, although it’s not likely that anyone will ever put that kind of weight in a slideout. In the future, Blue Bird engineers might want to consider adding a feature that either defeats movement of the galley slideout if the passenger captain’s chair is in the way, or automatically articulates the passenger chair forward and out of the way.
The interior of the LXi is nothing less than gorgeous. Designer Jeanette Bradshaw does her job very well. I especially liked the handsome and fully functional desk that was in the unit I reviewed; however, customers can have a second sofa placed there instead. A leather-covered Euro-style lounge chair with a separate footrest really fits the bill when it comes to relaxing.
Pull-out drawers in the Wanderloge LXiAnd the galley is nicely equipped, with a stainless-steel (what else would Blue Bird use?), double-door residential-style refrigerator and ice dispenser. The galley has several pull-out pantry drawers; my test unit also had the optional wall-size pantry, built in three tiers.
The center-aisle bath includes a full-sized, curved-glass shower with a built-in seat. Two floor-to-ceiling double-door wardrobes are in the bath area, with each one housing two large drawers that are fashioned in Blue Bird’s own custom cabinet shop (as is all of the woodwork found in Blue Bird coaches). You can check your appearance using the mirrors located on the wardrobes’ doors.
As noted, the head of the bed is contained in the coach’s third slideout, on the streetside wall. Also in this slideout are nightstands. The rear wall of the coach is occupied by a large selection of drawers and a massive wardrobe space.
The only place where we would have preferred a different interior appointment was in the cockpit. We found ourselves struggling a bit with the day-night accordion-pleated shade that pulls down to the left of the driver’s seat. This could be replaced with a substantial spring-loaded type of shade “” or, even better, an electric-powered shade, like the ones on the windshield.
In addition, for me, at least, the first step in the entry stairwell could be just a little bit deeper.
As the 450 LXi continues to evolve and future generations of the coach are introduced, I imagine it also will feature a single-piece windshield, something it currently does not have.
As tested, the 450 LXi came with the following options: 32-inch LCD TV in bedroom; accent inlay for shower walls; etched shower door; king-size bed; 100-song musical horn; power shades in living room, kitchen, dinette, and bedroom; electric water hose reel; message center for Caterpillar engine; satellite receiver in bedroom; brass entry handle; double clear coat on paint; chip protection on front of coach; Girard power awning; Zip Dee chairs with add-a-loungers; interior décor package; J-lounge dinette; residential sleeper sofa with air mattress; 41-inch dinette booth in fabric and Ultraleather; modified pull-out pantry; cherry wood cabinets with arched doors and fluted panels.
The Blue Bird 450 LXi provides that missing price point “” and luxurious living space “” between high-end production motorhomes and custom coach conversions. It is Blue Bird Coachworks’ intention to continue to make this an attractive place for luxury coach owners to be.
Manufacturer … Blue Bird Coachworks, One Wanderlodge Way, Fort Valley, GA 31030; (800) 486-7122; fax (478) 822-2473; www.blue-bird.com
Model tested … Wanderlodge 450 LXi
Floor plan … Floor plan B, triple slideout
Chassis … Blue Bird Coachworks
Engine … Caterpillar C13 12.5-liter, 525 horsepower, 1,650 pound-feet torque @ 2,100 rpm
Transmission … Allison 4000 MH
Axle ratio … 4.89:1
Tires … 315/80R 22.5
Wheelbase … 296 inches
Brakes … all-wheel air disc brakes with six-channel ABS
Suspension … ArvinMeritor with independent front suspension
Alternator … dual 140 amps, 24 volts
Batteries … house “” (8) 4D AGM; chassis “” (2) 4D AGM; generator (1) Group 31 AGM
Steering … TRW
Electrical service … 50-amp shore, 80-amp generator
Auxiliary generator … 20-kilowatt
Inverter … (2) 3,600-watt Vanner
Exterior width … 102 inches
Exterior height … 12 feet 6 inches
Interior height … 79.5 inches
Exterior length … 43 feet 9 inches
Gross combination weight rating (GCWR) … 70,500 pounds
Gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) … 52,000 pounds
Gross axle weight rating (GAWR) … front “” 16,000 pounds; rear “” 23,000 pounds; tag “” 13,000 pounds
Wet weight as tested … front “” 15,400 pounds; rear “” 19,360 pounds; tag “” 12,380 pounds; total “” 47,220 pounds
Payload … 4,780 pounds
Frame construction … steel C-channel frame rails; stainless-steel body and bay structure; stainless-steel skin; aluminum/stainless-steel roof
Insulation … minimum R11 polyfiber with radiant barrier, maximum R38
Fresh water capacity … 120 gallons
Holding tank capacities … gray water, 75 gallons; black water, 75 gallons
Fuel capacity … 200 gallons
Fuel requirements … diesel
Water heater … hydronic heating on demand
Water delivery system … variable-speed pump
Furnace … 80,000-Btu, hydronic
Air conditioning … (4) 15,000-Btu roof-mounted heat pumps with remote drains
Refrigerator … 21.4-cubic-foot KitchenAid, 110-volt
Toilet … Microphor air flush, china bowl
Warranty … coach “” 3 years/36,000 miles; chassis “” 5 years/50,000 miles on body/chassis construction and paint adhesion
Base price … $774,215
Price as tested … $837,305