Big Family Fun
The Ford Expedition EL and Denali Lite 2611BH travel trailer have more than enough room for your adventures
We’ve all heard the popular expression “Go big or go home.” But if you have a large family and you’re passionate about RVing, you pretty much have to go big or stay home. Finding the right setup to accommodate your own Brady Bunch used to require a station wagon or van, a travel trailer and a couple of extra tents, with the inevitable quarreling that would ensue about who was going to sleep where. Thankfully, the RV industry has addressed this need with a wide range of so-called bunkhouse models that not only are equipped with bunk beds but are designed from the very beginning for family comfort with larger sofas and dinettes that also turn into beds. Pair one of these trailers with a three-row SUV, and you have the makings for big family fun.
To get the party started, we selected Ford’s recently updated, top-of-the-line 2015 Expedition EL Platinum and hitched it up to a 2016 Dutchmen Denali Lite 2611BH travel trailer. The Expedition EL, which offers three-row seating and room for up to eight, has a longer wheelbase than the standard Expedition (131 inches versus 119 inches) and more cargo space. In fact, with up to 130.8 cubic feet of real estate available, the EL is best in class — but, more importantly, it still offers usable storage when the third-row seat is up. That’s not something every three-row SUV can claim.
Plus, when equipped with the towing package (standard in the Platinum), this big ute can tow up to 9,100 pounds, more than enough to contend with the Denali Lite’s claimed dry weight of 7,019 pounds. And though the trailer’s gross vehicle weight rating (gvwr) is 9,680 pounds, that leaves 2,081 pounds of cargo capacity with water and propane onboard before exceeding the Expedition’s maximum towing capacity. Just remember that if you pack the Expedition with as many people as seatbelts, you need to be aware of all that passenger weight, as the Expedition’s gross combination weight rating (gcwr) is part of what determines its tow rating.
Before hitching up, we spent several days using the Expedition EL as a family vehicle. Living in the greater Los Angeles area, driving something this large on crowded streets and highways, not to mention densely populated parking lots, could pose a problem, but Ford did an admirable job of keeping this SUV’s considerable bulk manageable. Mechanically speaking, the standard 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 engine, six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission with manual mode, quick steering, powerful brakes and composed suspension combine to make the extra-long Expo feel much smaller than it really is. Add the standard blind-spot info system (which incorporates rear-cross-traffic monitoring in addition to blind-spot monitoring), a standard rear backup camera and front/rear parking sensors, and it’s hard to make a mistake as long as you’re paying attention.
The Expedition’s 2015 facelift was a vast improvement. This new Expedition looks much more athletic and chiseled than its predecessor, which now looks bulbous by comparison. Resplendent in gorgeous Ruby Red paint and optional polished 22-inch aluminum wheels (20-inchers are standard in the Platinum grade), the test Expedition had an air of elegance that continued once inside the expansive cabin. Perforated leather driver and front-passenger seats with double French stitching and 10-way power adjustability are both heated and ventilated, and although we had no occasion to use the heating feature, the ventilation worked well to keep our backs dry when entering the sun-soaked vehicle. Getting comfortable behind the wheel is easy for drivers of any size, thanks to power-adjustable pedals and a steering column that offers power-tilt and telescoping functions.
Front and center is a large touch-screen display that offers entertainment, phone, voice-activated navigation (part of Equipment Group 600A) and climate-control functions, as well as a rearview camera display. The screen is large, clear and easy to read, and there are redundant controls for volume, tuning, media and climate. But it doesn’t end there. The steering wheel features buttons for cruise and Bluetooth phone functions, while a multidirectional control lets you cycle through various readouts on the display to the left of the speedometer. Ordinarily, this defaults to a small tachometer, but start pushing buttons and you can get readouts for trip/fuel, towing, off-road, settings, digital speed, oil pressure, oil temperature, transmission oil temperature and more. Once you get used to scrolling through the various menus, you can do it quickly and find what you want pretty easily.
In a family vehicle, there has to be plenty of room to put stuff, and the Expedition has two cup holders next to the shifter and two more at the rear of the center console for second-row passengers. The center console is large and deep, and features two USB ports, a 12-volt DC port and an SD-card slot. There’s also a handy pouch so you won’t lose small items in the compartment’s expanse, as well as slots for change and other small things. The lid is padded and comfortable, as are the armrests.
Second-row passengers won’t suffer. These seats offer a heat function, independent climate controls on the back of the second-row console, and both 12-volt DC and 120-volt AC outlets to power accessories. Air conditioning is ducted through the ceiling so everyone can remain cool and collected, even on the hottest days. The third row, as in most SUVs, is best suited for kids, or smaller adults on shorter trips. To access it, pull the strap at the second-row headrest to fold it down, pull a handle at the base of the seat to fold the seatback forward, then pull another strap at the back of the seat to tumble the entire assembly. It sounds like a lot of work, but once you understand the concept, it goes pretty quickly.
Loading gear for a family trip is easy in the Expedition EL Platinum. The power rear liftgate opens almost silently with two quick pushes on the key fob, and we found the cargo area behind the third row large enough to stow luggage for five adults. If more room is required, and you can sacrifice the third row, a simple push of a button folds those seatbacks down.
Overall, we found very little not to like about this rig, except for the expansive use of chrome interior trim. Sure, it looks nice — but on a bright day, the many chrome flourishes blind you from almost every direction. There is chrome trim on the steering wheel, around every air-conditioning vent, on/around the shift handle, around the cup holders and on the door handles. It would be nice if chrome were a stand-alone option on the Platinum, as its oppressive brilliance was the only thing we disliked in this interior.
There were other minor annoyances. We don’t understand the point of push-button start when you still have to pull the key fob out of your pocket to open the passenger doors — especially considering that the liftgate can be opened with a button on its handle with the key fob in your pocket. Either make the whole vehicle hands-free or don’t bother. And, as is common with vehicles with a system such as this, the vehicle sends an alert when you walk away from it with the engine running and the fob in your pocket — except, instead of a quiet beep, it issues an annoying full-blast honk.
When it came to attaching the trailer, however, we found that we couldn’t ask for a better towing companion. Once you specify Limited grade, you get the Heavy Duty Trailer Tow Package, which includes a Class IV receiver, wiring harness with four- and seven-pin connectors, auxiliary transmission cooler, heavy-duty radiator and an integrated trailer-brake controller. The engine has more than enough power to get the combo moving, and once under way, the ride is limo quiet. Turbo lag is noticeable at times, and the transmission can be lazy, especially when shifting between drive and reverse in a U-turn situation. Overall, however, this is a tow vehicle that will inspire confidence, and its extra length kept the nearly 34-foot trailer very stable, even with moderate side winds.
The Denali Lite 2611BH is a new floorplan for Dutchmen, and a well conceived one at that. As mentioned earlier, bunkhouse models are becoming increasingly popular, but a lot of interesting details make this model particularly family-friendly. For example, the rear bunks are not fixed; their height is power adjustable, similar to what you would find in a toy hauler. This is a pretty cool feature, because you can raise them all the way up, open the rear cargo door and have room for bikes or other items — sort of like a mini-toy hauler (but not for motorized toys).
Lower the bunks and you have enough height for two bunks with two sleepers on each, and if need be, Dutchmen supplies another thin mattress that can go on the floor for a triple bunk. The mattresses are thin and firm, but have a nice plush upholstery that should make them reasonably comfortable and warm in the colder months. There’s also a ladder for the kids to get up to the upper bunk and privacy curtains so they can get some shut-eye while Mom and Dad are still up. There’s even a location for an LCD television that is viewable only from the lower bunk, which may cause sibling rivalry but is a nice option, nonetheless.
The bath is thoughtfully placed right next to the bunk area and offers kid-friendly features like a bathtub with a curtain and separate entry door so kids can use the bathroom without tracking dirt, water, etc. through the living area. The toilet and a corner lavatory with mirror occupy the remaining space. There isn’t much storage here otherwise, but adjacent to the bathroom is a good-size wardrobe with room for hanging clothes and three large drawers beneath.
On the street side in the large slideout (the only one in the unit) is a big U-shaped dinette that can easily seat four and perhaps six, depending on the size of the family. The table is supported by two posts, so it’s nice and stable, and like all good travel trailer dinettes, it turns into a bed for two more sleepers. If you’re keeping track, that’s as many as eight smallish overnight guests so far, but we’re not done yet. Next to the dinette in the same slide is a 62-inch sofa that is not only comfortable but converts into another bed for two more guests.
Across from the living-room slideout is the kitchen, which is semi-L-shaped and offers plenty of space to work with. Laminate countertops designed to look like granite are functional and attractive, and play nicely with the Beauflor faux-plank flooring and dark furniture, a popular scheme these days. The sink and faucet are plastic, but the sink cover is genuine wood, which looks nice and can double as a cutting board. There are cabinets above, two large drawers below and a couple of cubbies, plus a large door underneath that will accommodate a normal-size kitchen trash can. On the other side of the kitchen L in the entryway are two more large drawers for food storage or anything else you might need quick access to.
A familiar three-burner Atwood stove/oven provides cooking heat, and for quick meals there’s a small High Pointe microwave oven mounted above. An 8-cubic-foot Norcold refrigerator with a wood front and generously proportioned pantry with two drawers underneath round out the chef’s quarters.
The forward entertainment center has a 32-inch LED HD Furrion television and features a large cubby to the left with a shelf in the middle. A Furrion radio/DVD player does the job and also operates exterior speakers located underneath a large awning with exterior lighting. There are cabinets underneath as well for additional storage. The living area is light and bright, courtesy of the LED lighting, large windows and a skylight/vent above the kitchen. Our only complaint here is that, on a hot day with the sun overhead, you’ll get cooked while making lunch. Plan on a skylight cover, and you’ll be fine.
Spoiler alert: You won’t be blown away by the forward bedroom. It has enough room to sleep on the queen-size bed, which, of course, is the bottom-line function of a bedroom — but that’s about it. There is a tall, narrow mirrored wardrobe on the left and a mirrored cabinet on the right (each with a drawer underneath), plus more cabinets overhead. The trailer we sampled had no TV, but there is a supplied mounting location on the forward wall that would put a TV in perfect view for watching from bed. A nice added touch is the sliding bedroom door, which offers more privacy and quiet than a curtain.
Outside, the Denali Lite has a large pass-through storage compartment up front, which is fairly common on today’s travel trailers. What is uncommon, however, is the placement of the utilities. The dump valves, power inlet, city-water connection and a port for the exterior spray hose are at the left rear of the trailer (where they should be), but the cable connection is in the front of the slideout, and the black-tank flush is on the opposite side.
Quirks notwithstanding, the Denali Lite 2611BH is a well-executed floorplan that can sleep as many as a dozen (albeit small) people, if need be, and when paired with the Expedition EL, makes for easy travel to wherever your family adventures take you.
574-537-0600 | www.dutchmen.com
Ford Motor Company