A “Safari Condo” is not an apartment in the Serengeti…

Oddly enough, it is the name of a company in Quebec that makes recreational vehicles, including the camper trailer (a “caravan” in European parlance) that we purchased in early 2018.

I had never given much thought to owning an RV. While Airstream trailers looked cool, their shape was too retro for me. I didn’t want to buy a gas car with a big engine just to tow a trailer and I had no interest in a big motorhome. But in late 2016, after three years of Tesla Model S ownership, I got involved in a discussion about lightweight trailers on the Tesla Motors Club forum. I was immediately intrigued by the Safari Condo Alto which was one of the trailers being discussed.

5A6D6696-A1E2-461C-91CB-B26ABA280133My wife and I had never seen a trailer so sleek and modern, inside and out. And there was a version with a retractable roof that raised up to reveal an astonishing amount of window area! I started researching to see if there was evidence that the “teardrop” shape of the Alto R series and it’s low 83.5” roof height when retracted (allowing it to fit into most garages, a real advantage) would result in a usable towing range when employing a Tesla as a tow vehicle.

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Is a “teardrop” trailer shape an advantage?

Safari Condo claims “…the aerodynamic shape of the Alto, developed in a virtual wind tunnel, creates 75% less aerodynamic drag than a traditional travel trailer. This factor, along with its lightweight, makes the Alto readily towable by most compact cars and small SUVs.” And at about 1,800 lbs, the 17 ft Alto is definitely a lightweight compared to other trailers in its size range: the Airstream Sport 16 weighs nearly 2,900 lbs. Many Alto owners tow with 6-cylinder Subarus and other small vehicles.

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My conclusion was that while the retractable roof Alto certainly has less drag than a “traditional” box-shaped trailer, and the low weight does make it towable by smaller vehicles with more modest engines than a Ford F-250, for example, the sharply sloping rear roofline is probably not an advantage. An engineer with aerodynamic experience informed me that air flowing across the trailer roof peak would tend to separate from the roof as it sloped sharply downwards and then would interact with the air coming off the sidewalls, creating turbulence and acting like “twin parachutes” that would increase the energy consumption of the tow vehicle compared to a more gradually sloping roof. A Canadian RV dealership with extensive experience towing a variety of trailers, including every version of the Alto, said that the R series trailers offered no noticeable energy savings compared to the fixed roof version, the 95” tall F1743. Yet it was clear to me that the Model X was a suitable tow vehicle, since Canadian Model X owners Rolf and Silke Sommerfeld were towing their Alto across Canada and back!

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Why I chose the fixed roof Alto

782C84C0-55CE-4F14-A6FE-2DDF9C4EC3CCSo I turned my attention to the F1743 model, which still features a generous amount of window area all around while offering more storage and most significantly, an enclosed bathroom. As I compared it to other trailers on the market in the 15 to 19 ft size range, I realized that the 17 ft Alto F1743 had numerous advantages. In a very compact size it provides a queen size sleeping area aft that can be left made up all the time if desired because there is also a very usable two-person dinette table forward which converts to a single bed as needed (with just the two of us, we’ve never had the need for that). The kitchen counter space includes a sink and two-burner stove, lots of storage below and more storage above along with an optional microwave. The 12V 4.3 cu ft refrigerator is positioned below a generously-sized clothes closet. The compact bathroom has a toilet, shower and a small cabinet. Additional storage is available below the sleeping area and dinette seats. Exterior hatches provide easy access to the same storage areas.

Just as importantly, it is clearly made with care and to a high standard, with a very contemporary style. Lightweight materials are used throughout; the trailer frame, exterior walls, and interior walls are all aluminum, as is the floor. There is no wood anywhere; composites are used extensively and the only steel employed is in the axle,  suspension components, and tongue. LED lighting is used throughout. The double-wall acrylic windows, made in the Netherlands, include built in adjustable screens and shades. The fresh, grey, and black water waste tanks are located beneath the floor for a low center of gravity. A small exterior hatch next to the freshwater hose connection conceals a shower head and hot/cold water controls for outdoor showering.

The Alto F1743 base dry weight of 1742 lbs is astonishingly light, yet Alto owners with years of towing experience report that the trailer design holds up very well over tens of thousands of miles of travel. In comparison, the 16 ft Airstream Base Camp weighs almost 2,600 lbs, lacks a permanent dinette area, and costs 15% more. The more traditional looking 16 ft Airstream Sport weighs nearly 2,900 lbs and offers a twin size bed (48” wide) instead of the queen size (60” wide) that is standard in the Alto, yet costs about 60% more.

The new 16.6 ft Airstream Nest caught my eye with its modern style, rounded corners, queen-sized sleeping area, and sink in the bathroom (only available in the Alto by special order). But it lacks a permanent dinette table, costs 60% more than the Alto F1743, and despite featuring a fiberglass body shell weighs a shocking 3,400 lbs! How is that possible; are the countertops made of concrete?

CC193883-30FF-4ACC-ACE2-32135BAA0EC4By the way… in early 2018 Safari Condo introduced a new model of the Alto, the 101” tall, 21 ft long F2114. At four feet longer than the other Altos, it offers a king size sleeping area, a four person dinette table, more storage, a larger fridge and higher capacity water tanks. Yet it weighs just 2,346 lbs dry and still only uses a single axel.

I would love the larger bed! Unfortunately, it won’t fit in my small driveway. But if you have the space I recommend you take a serious look at it.

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Why trailer weight matters to me

My interest in trailer weight was not driven by concerns about the towing capacity of my Tesla Model X; with over 400 ft lbs of torque and a 5,000 lb rated towing capacity it can easily tow any trailer in the size range I was considering. And trailer weight is a minor factor in regards to how much energy the car will consume while towing; the aerodynamic drag produced by the trailer is what matters, so trailer size and shape is important. Towing has a severe impact on vehicle range, whether the car is powered by gas or by electricity; gas cars can take a 50% hit on mileage and EVs definitely do. So when driving electric, careful planning is required for charging stops. Fortunately, the Tesla onboard navigation makes that relatively simple; I also highly recommend the  EV Trip Optimizer app which is very good at factoring in the additional drag of the trailer and planning your charging stops; it knows where all the Tesla Superchargers are.

That said, there is another advantage to a low trailer weight; if it is no more than 50% of the weight of the tow vehicle than weight distribution bars at the hitch are not necessary. That makes hitching/unhitching easier and quicker. The Model X100D weighs over 5,300 lbs. Add in the weight of two people and cargo and it gets close to 6,000 lbs. An Alto F1743 fully loaded with cargo and water is still under 2,500 lbs, so no weight distribution bars are needed and the factory Model X hitch (made by Bosal) will work just fine. A Model X owner who tows an Airstream Sport 22 at a weight of nearly 4,000 lbs, using weight distribution bars, had to replace his factory Bosal hitch with a Draw-Tite model: the Bosal was loosening up and he was concerned it was unsafe (the Draw-Tite is working well).

There are many other trailers of similar size of course, from a variety of manufacturers who have been in the business for decades. But from my perspective none of them compared favorably to the Alto; they used standard heavy materials and were styled in a more conventional manner that I did not find appealing (aesthetics are of course subjective!). My choice was clear; we placed our order with Safari Condo in late 2016 and were informed the delivery was planned for early 2018. And delivery occurred in the middle of an extremely cold Canadian winter! The drive home was an adventure but our new Model X proved to be an excellent tow vehicle. (Note to US buyers: Safari Condo has no US dealers, so you have to go to Canada for pick up, either at the factory in Quebec or at one of their Canadian dealers. Call them directly to discuss your choices.)

The small company has been overwhelmed by the demand ever since introducing the first version of the Alto R-series in 2007. As I write this in late 2018 there is about a one year wait if you place an order now. But after seven months of ownership and multiple trips I can tell you it was definitely worth it. We are enjoying our trailer trips even more than we imagined!

Next: factory options I recommend, why they’re worth the money (or not), or skip ahead to read about why we went aftermarket to have 1,035W of flexible solar panels installed on the roof, connected to two big lithium ion storage batteries. Camping 100% electric and no propane.

Back home with the new trailer.

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7 thoughts on “A “Safari Condo” is not an apartment in the Serengeti…

  1. It depends on speed and road conditions. At 55mph (the legal speed for towing in California, and a speed I’m comfortable at) on a level, dry road with no significant headwind, I could conceivably go up to 195 miles before I would have to recharge. In practice I generally do not go over 150 miles because after more than 2 1/2 hours of driving at that speed I want a break so I can walk around a bit, eat, use the restroom.

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  2. Pingback: For Alto enthusiasts: factory options I recommend | Electric Travels

  3. Pingback: Flexible solar panels: how NOT to buy them for your Alto | Electric Travels

  4. Pingback: Towing with a Tesla | Electric Travels

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