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Motorhome Review: National RV Dolphin

The Dolphin motorhome from National RV handles the highway with ease and offers occupants a comfortable living experience.

By Jim Brightly, Technical Editor
June  2002

It was a Wednesday afternoon when the phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line said, "The coach will be ready for you on Friday. When can you pick it up?" It was Matt Howard, marketing director for National RV Inc., and he was confirming that a 35-foot Dolphin motorhome would be available for our appraisal. Because the Dolphin line has proved so popular of late, it was touch-and-go for a while as to whether National RV could fit our test into its delivery schedule.

"I can be there Saturday morning," I replied. "Oh, and is it set up to tow a vehicle?"

"It will be," Mr. Howard promised.

My wife, Saraine, and I packed enough supplies and clothes into our Jeep for a week's stay in Las Vegas, Nevada, where we would be attending a trade show. Afterward, we would drive the new Dolphin to its next home — an RV dealer in Denver, Colorado.

On Saturday we picked up the coach at National RV headquarters in Perris, California. By the time we'd filled the gas and water tanks, weighed the coach, loaded our supplies and equipment, found a campsite in which we could drop our levelers, and opened the slideouts, we were more than ready to take to the Dolphin's queen-size bed for that first night's sleep.

We were only beginning to enjoy all of the coach's amenities. On Sunday we completed our housekeeping chores, made sure that all of the appliances worked as they were supposed to, watched a little football on the 19-inch JVC television, and spread out to take up all the space that such a roomy, double-slideout coach affords. The 74-inch-long sofa bed proved to be a cocoon of comfort with its super-soft deep cushions and wide, roomy seats. The sofa and the recliner/rocker (which also swivels) became our seats of choice during television viewing. Both of us could stretch out without compromising the other's comfort.

National RV didn't skimp on appliances. Above the cockpit are cabinets that bracket the television with smoked-glass doors; behind them are the 12-disc CD player, a VCR, and the TV signal control box. Plenty of room is left for storage of tapes, CDs, and DVDs; a DVD player; and a digital satellite decoder box.

This Dolphin offers two convenient locations for setting up a computer, balancing the checkbook, etc. The copilot's chair faces a dash-mounted slideout tray and is adjacent to a 12-volt DC and a 120-volt AC outlet. (However, the wide-open vista through the windshield can provide more entertainment than bookwork.) The Dolphin's dinette is also equipped with a readily accessible 120-volt AC outlet.

The 35-foot Dolphin is nearly ideal for two people. However, up to four adults and two children would be very comfortable traveling in this coach, and each would have a seat belt. We found that the sofa, which is equipped with three seat belts, is a comfortable traveling spot.

Our test coach was a 2002 model. For the 2002 model year, Dolphins are available in three floor plans, with lengths of 34, 35, and 36 feet. The standard chassis for these coaches is the Ford Super Duty; the Workhorse W-22 chassis with which my test coach was equipped is offered as an option on the 35-foot and 36-foot editions. For 2003, all Dolphin models will be built on the Workhorse W-22 chassis and feature the 8.1-liter Vortec engine coupled with an Allison 1000 Series transmission. A 400-watt inverter and dual 13,500-Btu air conditioners, considered options on the 2002 models, are standard on the 2003 editions. The 2003 Dolphins are available in three floor plans, one 34 feet long and two 36 feet long.

The slideouts in our test unit were situated on opposite sides of the coach. The living area slideout was on the street side; the bedroom slideout was on the curb side. Having two slideouts can add quite a bit of weight to a chassis; however, in my opinion, the increased living space while stationary more than makes up for the additional weight.

The living area slideout, which encompasses the sofa bed and the dinette, measures 12 feet 6 inches long and 32 inches wide. It has windows on both sides. Even when the slideout is in travel mode, passengers riding on the sofa can enjoy a view through the windshield and the side of the coach. When the coach is under way, the slideout's rear-facing window overlooks the dining room sideboard.

This slideout offers a compromise between comfort and convenience. Like most driver's-side slideouts, it could be a few inches shorter to accommodate taller pilots; however, if it were shorter, it couldn't include the 6-foot 2-inch sofa bed, which is a perfect place to stretch out for an evening of popcorn and television after driving all day.

The dinette folds down to make a bed that is 70 inches by 42 inches, and the sofa makes up into a bed that measures 74 inches by 40 inches.

Plenty of windows are situated on both sides of the Dolphin, with a mixture of day-night shades and mini-blinds covering them. Throughout the coach, both inside and out, cabinets abound. Basement storage is cavernous, and includes several pass-through sections.

The bedroom slideout is 75 inches long and 22 inches deep. It includes the head of the 60-inch-by-80-inch queen-size bed and two small nightstands, one on either side of the bed. Each nightstand has a drawer and two open storage areas for books and magazines. Two side-by-side drawers are situated on each side of the bed, built into its base, and the mattress lifts up for access to additional storage below.

Opposite the bed (on the street side of the coach) is a closet that measures 61-1/2 inches by 48 inches and features sliding doors with mirrors that are helpful when you're getting ready for a dinner out. Beneath the closet are six drawers in two stacks of three, which are flanked by two large cabinets with multiple shelves. Above the left-hand cabinet is another large cabinet, and above that is a 17-inch JVC television.

The coach's heating and cooling systems are controlled by a centrally located thermostat. The ducted forced-air furnace operates on one temperature zone, while the two air conditioners — one for the bedroom and the other for the living area — may be operated independently, enabling users to vary the temperature between the areas. We used both heating and cooling during our test, and both worked equally well. Daytime temperatures in Las Vegas were in the 80s, while the nights we spent in the Rockies were decidedly cool, with temperatures dropping into the mid-20s. Incidentally, both air-conditioning units can be operated on shore power via the coach's 50-amp service, if the campground is equally equipped.

Galley duties were easily handled in the L-shaped kitchen, which is equipped with Corian countertops, dual sinks, a drinking water filter, an optional fold-up counter extension, a microwave oven, a conventional LP-gas oven, and a four-burner stove top. For us, the microwave had so many high-tech features that it was somewhat confusing until we read its operators manual.

The optional 12-cubic-foot Dometic side-by-side refrigerator with ice maker was as convenient and as commodious as any fridge in a stationary home. If you've ever owned a refrigerator with an automatic ice maker, you're well aware of its convenience — from enhancing your evening's libation to filling an ice chest for a daylong side trip in your towed vehicle. This was our first experience with an RV ice maker, but we hope it won't be our last. Dometic's New Dimensions, a new refrigerator design, is said to create 25 percent more interior storage with no change to the exterior dimensions. Dometic also offers adjustable door bins and patented Versatile Racking System (VRS) shelves. Its doors have automatic locks that open easily but stay securely closed in transit.

Aft of the galley is the bathroom. The sink and tub-shower combination are on the street side, and a separate water closet enclosure is on the curb side. The toilet enclosure is plenty large enough for full-size adults and includes a porcelain toilet and a cabinet for supplies and magazines. The porcelain toilet includes a sprayer, but we would have preferred to have it equipped with a second water valve to fill the bowl when necessary. When the foot lever is activated, the water flows but passes directly through and into the holding tank.

The shower is well designed and of a good size, with a fixed showerhead and a wand.

The coach's plumbing and electrical systems monitor panel is located adjacent to the bathroom. Below it is the 120-volt AC circuit-breaker panel, set in an accessible spot behind a false-fronted cabinet door. The house 12-volt DC electrical connections and fuses — located in the forward basement compartment between the entrance door and the front tire — are easily reached as well.

As with any wide-body coach, the 102-inch-wide Dolphin can be a handful on the streets of town, especially with another vehicle in tow. You have to be sure you have enough room to make a U-turn before you commit yourself to any street. However, once you are on the open highway, you can relax. The Dolphin's Workhorse chassis took the work out of driving with its wide front stance and soft suspension.

It is my impression, after spending several days on the road with the Dolphin, that this chassis might be the sort on which the front-end alignment is critical for tire wear and driving comfort. Once you have the coach completely loaded, take it to an approved alignment shop and have it adjusted. From then on, remember your loading characteristics and weight distribution whenever you're packing for a trip. This will greatly ease driving chores and possibly lengthen tire life.

Keeping close tabs on expenses is one of the tasks of a test crew. After all was totaled, it cost us just slightly more than $300 to drive the Dolphin from Perris to Casey's RVs in Denver, and that included towing a 3,850-pound Jeep.

We began to calculate mileage while driving without the Jeep, when less than 30 miles were on the Dolphin's odometer. At that point, mileage was 8.6 mpg. This is a pretty amazing figure, considering this coach's wet weight was 19,850 pounds before we loaded any gear or supplies aboard.

A series of time trials during this part of our drive (without the Jeep) yielded an average of 28.5 seconds to travel from 0 to 60 mph. It did not prove to be a barn burner, but it is adequate.

Fuel economy while towing the Jeep averaged 6.1 mpg while we drove more than 1,000 miles from Southern California to the Mile High City. However, one must take into consideration that this engine was not broken in when we took delivery. With the first tank of gas we averaged 5.5 mpg, then 5.4 mpg, and finally 6.8 mpg. Mileage for the second tank should have been better, but we ran the generator for several hours, plus we were climbing the western slope of the Rocky Mountains after stopping in Las Vegas. The third tank's mileage may have been higher, but it was affected by our drive to the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70 at an altitude of approximately 11,500 feet. The steeper portions of this climb caused the motorhome to slow to just 25 mph in second gear. In other words, the more miles we put on the odometer, the better the fuel mileage became — even climbing the west side of the Rockies to Denver. The Vortec 8.1-liter V-8 is one engine that needs the proper break-in period to fully realize its potential.

It's easy to say good things about the Allison 1000 five-speed automatic transmission, which has overdrive in the fifth gear. There's no benefit to having a powerful engine if the power can't reach the road, and the Allison is exactly what's needed to get the most out of the Vortec big block V-8. It "senses" what gear you need to be in as you slow or accelerate. It's a no-brainer; you don't have to think about what the transmission is doing or whether it's going to shift up or down at the right time.

The transmission shift timing is well matched to the engine's power characteristics. The high-revving V-8 calls for a fast downshift when the accelerator is applied for a passing maneuver, for example, and each of the top four gears in the Allison has a lockup torque converter feature, so a shift is felt as a sharp two-stage affair. First the torque converter unlocks; then, if necessary, the gear change takes place and the driver feels the new shift selection locking in. Very little "hunting" between gears occurs with the Allison transmission.

The coach displayed impressive downhill control while using the Allison's engine grade-braking feature, which automatically downshifts to fourth or third gear and holds the transmission in that gear, as needed, when descending hills. If you're using the transmission/engine compression to hold the coach back while driving downhill, a touch of the brakes tells the transmission to hold at that speed. Depending on the length or depth of the descent, you may have to periodically reapply the brakes to maintain a safe speed, as the transmission will upshift if engine rpm forces it to do so.

According to a General Motors spokesman, the Allison grade-braking feature will not allow the Vortec engine to over-rev. If engine rpm reaches a high level, somewhere around 5,000 rpm, the transmission will automatically shift to a higher gear and the driver would then need to use the brakes to aid in the engine braking.

All in all, this is a coach that can handle the road well. However, with just slightly more than 2,000 pounds of payload, you'll have to carefully calculate the passengers' weight and how much you store in the huge basement compartments, or you could find this coach in an overweight condition.

It should be noted that the rear axle of our test coach registered 14,220 pounds at the scales. This is just 280 pounds less than the gross axle weight rating (GAWR) for that axle.

You may want to think about traveling with less than a full tank of fresh water and even storing some items in your towed vehicle to avoid overstressing the motorhome's running gear.

We tested the Dolphin's dry camping capabilities during an overnighter in Richfield, Utah. We just dropped the leveling jacks, slipped the lock on the door, and turned in. That night, as throughout our trip, the Dolphin proved to be very comfortable and enjoyable for living.

The base suggested price of this 35-foot Dolphin is $110,321; our test coach had an as-tested price of $117,668 with the following options: 12-cubic-foot side-by-side Dometic refrigerator with ice maker; Corian countertop extension; six-way power driver's seat; 400-watt inverter; awning package; driver's side door with power window; maple interior; dual-pane windows.


Manufacturer . . . National RV Inc., 3411 N. Perris Blvd., Perris, CA 92571; (909) 943-6007;
Model . . . 35-foot Dolphin
Floor plan . . . Model 5355
Chassis . . . Workhorse
Engine . . . General Motors Vortec 8.1-liter V-8, 340 horsepower @ 4,200 rpm, 455 foot-pounds torque @ 3,200 rpm
Transmission . . . Allison 1000 5-speed automatic with overdrive
Axle ratio . . . 5.38 to 1
Tires . . . Michelin XRV 235/80R 22.5G
Wheelbase . . . 228 inches
Wheels . . . 22.5x7, 8-lug steel
Brakes . . . four-wheel disc with ABS
Suspension . . . front -- leaf spring/mono beam; rear -- leaf spring
Alternator . . . 130 amps
Batteries . . . chassis -- (1) 690 cca; house -- (2) 6-volt
Steering . . . power
Convertor  . . . MageneTek, 50 amps
Electrical service . . . 50 amps
Exterior length . . . 35 feet 11 inches
Exterior width . . . 102 inches
Interior height . . . 79-1/2 inches
Exterior height . . . 12 feet 4 inches
Gross combination weight rating (GCWR) . . . 26,000 pounds
Gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) . . . 22,000 pounds
Gross axle weight rating (GAWR)  . . . front -- 8,000 pounds; rear -- 14,500 pounds
Wet weight as tested . . . front axle -- 5,630 pounds; rear axle -- 14,220 pounds; total -- 19,850 pounds
Payload. . . 2,150 pounds
Frame construction . . . ladder type, steel
Insulation . . . EPS foam
Fresh water capacity . . . 90 gallons
Holding tank capacities . . . gray water -- 60 gallons; black water -- 50 gallons
Fuel capacity . . . 75 gallons
Fuel requirements . . . unleaded gasoline
Propane capacity . . . 24.2 gallons
Water heater . . . 10-gallon LP-gas/electric
Water system . . . demand
Furnace . . . 35,000 Btus
Air conditioner . . . (2) 13,500 Btus each
Refrigerator . . . Dometic 12-cubic-foot with ice maker (optional)
Toilet . . . Porcelain with sprayer
Warranty . . . chassis -- Workhorse, 3 years/36,000 miles, limited; coach -- 1 year/18,000 miles (materials and workmanship), 3 years/36,000 miles (structural)
Base suggested retail price . . . $110,321
Price as tested . . . $117,668

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