Venture to the Summit
A Sonic travel trailer and Grand Cherokee make for happy camping
As a young lad, I spent many a weekend in my parents’ travel trailer. It was nothing fancy, but even today, I remember it as being cozy and comfortable, with all the things we really needed for a family vacation. Since then, I’ve longed for a travel trailer with the same qualities, but many entry-level trailers are too cheaply built for my tastes or lack the essential ingredient every small trailer should have: charm.
The Sonic from Venture RV is pretty much what I had in mind. The 22-foot, 10-inch SN190VRB floorplan features a front queen bed, midship galley and dinette, and a rear bath. No slideouts, no bells and whistles, just a well-conceived package that gets it right in the most important areas.
Starting with the exterior, the Sonic features a rounded front cap for improved aerodynamics, and the line continues to the roof before tapering down at the back. The jellybean shape evokes smiles, yet at the same time, it’s not too cutesy. The tan gelcoat exterior and graphics, combined with the polished tread-plate rock shield and optional aluminum wheels ($380) give it a handsome upscale appearance.
That theme continues as you walk inside, where you are greeted by a warm, contemporary living area. Unlike many entry-level trailers, this one doesn’t feel entry level; it’s clear that the designers put a lot of effort not only in the floorplan but how it is decorated, floor to ceiling. The cabinets look like dark walnut, and the upholstery on the dinette and bedspread feature contemporary earth tones for pleasing contrast. The countertops and table feature laminate surfaces, but have a pattern that mimics light granite. Even the backsplash, which is actually wall covering, was designed to look like the glass tile so popular in high-end homes today. The floor, while covered in durable vinyl, looks like brown slate that perfectly matches the rest of the interior. Energy-efficient LED lighting is used throughout.
We found the front queen pillow-top mattress ($220) to be very comfortable, with just the right amount of firmness. A roomy wardrobe is located on either side, but unlike some trailers we’ve tested with a rounded front cap, the bed still has plenty of walk-around room and isn’t difficult to make in the morning. There are cabinets above the bed as well, although these are really good only for small items like socks and underwear. Reading lights are placed below the cabinet and are within reach from the supine position if you’re tall; if not, you may have to sit up a little to turn them on or off.
Lift up the bottom of the bed, and you have access to both underbed and front exterior storage, which combined make for an enormous amount of space. The only problem here is that, while the bed platform is bisected, the mattress is not, and there are no struts on the platform to make lifting easier. So if you want anything from underneath the bed, you’re going to need a helper to hold it up for you. Splitting the mattress or redesigning the platform with struts or a prop of some kind would make access much easier.
The galley is adequate for cooking simple meals, and the double-bowl sink comes with a cover to provide additional prep space. There is only one overhead cabinet adjacent to the convection microwave ($310), but it is large enough for plates, cups and glasses. Likewise, there is a large cabinet underneath the stove where an oven would normally be located; this area would serve well as a pantry for canned goods and the like. There are also two drawers and another cabinet that is mostly occupied by plumbing. The upside to this is that accessing the sink’s P-trap, water pump and valves is easy.
There are, however, a couple of areas here that could use some improvement. The sink fixture, with its brushed-nickel finish, looks great but feels flimsy. And the stove has no striker, so you’ll want to keep matches or a lighter close at hand. The 6.3-cubic-foot Norcold refrigerator has a matching faux wood front and plenty of room for a small family’s necessities.
Overall, the living space works well. The optional 24-inch flat-screen LED television with a swing-away arm ($450) is within easy viewing from the dinette or bed and has cable and satellite inputs. The radio/DVD player is located on the cabinet right next to it and is easy to use, with switches for the interior and dual exterior speakers. Additional storage can be found underneath each dinette bench, which is a nice touch.
There are some things we’d like to see added or changed. The awning and interior light controls are located underneath the cabinet to the left of the doorway; we’d like to see them on the entry wall where they are easier to see and access. The trailer has day shades only, and there is no cover for the living area skylight, so you’re going to rise with the sun…whether you like it or not.
Most small trailers have commensurately small bathrooms, but that’s not the case in the Sonic. The rear bathroom is huge for a trailer of this size, with a glass-door neo-angle shower that has enough room for an average-size person to move around. There’s a linen closet with a shelf just behind the toilet, another wardrobe/linen closet on the street side, and the vanity has more countertop space than a lot of homes we’ve been to. The acrylic sink is tiny but usable, and there is plenty of storage space beneath it. There’s also a medicine cabinet with a mirror, as well as switches for the water pump and water heater, which we appreciated. At the bottom of the vanity is easy access to the water heater and related plumbing which, again, makes maintenance and repairs easy.
The trailer’s cargo capacity should work well for most small families. After deducting its 3,890-pound wet weight from its 4,500-pound gross vehicle weight rating (gvwr), there are 610 pounds left for cargo, personal gear and so on. Considering most small trailers are used for short excursions, this should be plenty.
The Sonic is towable by most small pickups and SUVs. For our testing, we paired it with a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee that, even with the base 3.6-liter V-6, has a maximum tow rating of 6,200 pounds. The test vehicle, however, was the top-of-the-line Grand Cherokee Summit 4×4 with the new 3.0-liter EcoDiesel engine (a $5,000 option), which has a maximum tow rating of 7,200 pounds. This is admittedly far more capacity than required, but considering that the diesel powerplant is the most significant addition to the Grand Cherokee lineup in years, we were eager to test its capabilities.
Even in its base Laredo trim level, the Grand Cherokee is a great-looking, well-equipped vehicle that offers a civilized on-road ride and surprising capabilities when the going gets rough. At the other end of the scale is the Summit, which takes a backseat to no other SUV when it comes to luxury, technology and off-road prowess. As you might expect, the sticker price reflects this: As tested, this Grand Cherokee with optional equipment came to $57,190, which is quite a bump from the base Laredo’s $29,395 price. But the Summit is, quite frankly, in another league by comparison; where the base model targets competitive vehicles like the Ford Explorer and Chevy Traverse, the Summit looks to capture the hearts and minds of potential Range Rover customers. And it is equipped to do so.
The EcoDiesel engine, the same used in Ram 1500-series pickups, develops 240 horsepower at 3,600 rpm along with 420 lb-ft of torque at only 2,000 rpm. It’s backed by an all-new ZF eight-speed automatic transmission that not only contributes to the EcoDiesel’s impressive 21 mpg/28 mpg highway/24 mpg combined fuel economy figure, it also offers a super-low 4.714 first-gear ratio, which can really help get a trailer moving.
When equipped with the available Quadra-Trac II two-speed transfer case, the transmission also bestows the Grand Cherokee with an impressive 44.1:1 crawl ratio to help navigate challenging off-road terrain. The test Grand Cherokee upped the ante with the available Quadra-Drive II system, which also incorporates an Electronic Limited Slip differential that instantly detects tire slip and distributes engine torque to the wheels with the most traction. Opting for either transfer case will get you the Quadra-Lift air suspension system, which works in concert with the Selec-Terrain system to provide the driver with maximum control, on- or off-road.
At normal ride height, the Quadra-Lift system offers 8.7 inches of ground clearance, which is adequate for most light off-roading. Selecting the Off Road setting nets 10 inches of ground clearance, while Off Road 2 yields a maximum of 11.3 inches. Conversely, the Aero mode lowers the vehicle to 8.1 inches for better aerodynamics and fuel economy, and the Park mode lowers the vehicle even further to aid ingress and egress.
Driving off-road can present a number of challenges, and Selec-Terrain stands at the ready to help you conquer them. Selec-Terrain is a driver-selectable management system that electronically coordinates up to 12 different powertrain, braking and suspension systems for optimum performance on a variety of surfaces. Simply turn a dial to select Sand, Snow, Mud or Rock settings, or just leave it in Auto mode and it will make the decisions for you. Not available in the test vehicle but coming soon to EcoDiesel models is the Selec-Speed Control, with Hill-Ascent and Hill-Descent controls to help the driver regulate speed on extreme grades.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit is also equipped with a number of driver aids for on-road use. Among these are the ParkView rear backup camera, ParkSense front and rear park-assist system, Blind Spot and Rear Cross Path Detection, and Forward Collision Warning with Crash Mitigation. We’re not huge fans of electronic nannies, and soured on the Forward Collision Warning system in the first few days of our testing when it screeched a warning simply because the truck in front of us slowed to turn off the highway. It did more to startle us than anything else.
Adorned in Cashmere Pearl Coat exterior paint complemented by 20-inch polished wheels, the tester certainly looked elegant — and stepping inside reinforced this impression. The Jeep Grand Canyon Brown interior color scheme was pleasant to look at, with lots of bright work for added bling. The seats are heated in the first and second rows, and offer eight-way driver and passenger adjustment with four-way lumbar support. It would seem like anyone could get comfortable in them, but sadly, that wasn’t the case. We found the seats to be too hard and could never get them into position where we felt like we could drive for hours.
On our test, the EcoDiesel performed beyond our expectations. At a time when diesel engines are being systematically stripped of their characteristic clatter, the Fiat-sourced engine still had enough of that happy noise to keep us satisfied without becoming invasive at any speed. It also has that characteristic diesel rush under boost; stepping on it hard with the trailer in tow made it feel as though the A-frame might rip free of the hitch. Lacking in power this engine is not, and the transmission offers paddle shifters to help you manually select gears when towing or for more driver involvement when driving solo.
As expected, the Jeep had no trouble towing the Sonic up a 6 percent grade at 55 mph and could easily surpass that speed if doing so were legal in California. The EcoDiesel also delivered impressive fuel economy, netting 15.2 mpg with the Sonic in tow. If you wanted the EcoDiesel engine and 4×4 without so many electronic gizmos or the Summit’s unique interior, you can get the Grand Cherokee Limited for about $40,000, which will give you the things you really want — and, of course, you can option up from there if desired.
The Venture RV Sonic and Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit make a handsome pair that work well together, both on the highway and off the beaten path. If out-of-the-way adventures are part of your plans, this lightweight trailer and capable SUV can get you there with confidence and style.