Among the many big trucks of Overland Expo, one particular green machine stood out. A collaboration between American truck manufacturer Acela and Dutch camper module maker Bliss Mobil, this particular expedition motorhome features exacting state-of-the-art engineering from bumper to bumper, roof to contact patches. Each company goes through great pains to push its product to the pinnacle of its respective segment, and the team-up results in a go-anywhere expedition vehicle ready to brave Arctic winters, make fresh water out of murky river, live astonishingly comfortably off-grid, and look pretty damn good doing it all.
Some partnerships feel almost inevitable. When we took a tour of Bliss Mobil's Abenteur & Allrad booth last June, the company told us that a big obstacle in its expansion into the American market was sourcing the right truck chassis to drop its motorhome boxes on. In Europe, it has a wide selection of large, capable all-wheel-drive trucks from MAN, Mercedes, Steyr, Iveco and others. Not so in the United States.
Old trucks, new life
Had we spoken in any depth with Acela at last year's Overland Expo, just days before we met with Bliss Mobil in Germany, we probably would have recommended the trucks ourselves, because the company's business lies exactly where Bliss was sniffing around. The three-year-old Montana company gives ex-military trucks new life as extreme-duty, high-mobility AWD trucks for everything from pipeline construction, to firefighting, to mining.
"Every continent on the planet, with the exception of North America, has a wide variety of trucks," Acela founder and president Dave Ronsen explains."There's probably 20 manufacturers on the planet for what is essentially just a standard NATO cargo truck. In North America, we have four truck manufacturers total in heavy duty trucks, and if they're not selling millions of a model, they have no desire to get into business. Our continent is left without a commercial variant of a high-mobility truck."
So Ronsen formed Acela to fill that gap, sourcing Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV), originally derived from the Austrian Steyr 12M18, directly from the US Department of Defense, stripping them down to bare chassis metal and building them back up to a standard that's virtually brand-new and, in many ways, better. Acela calls this process "resetting."
Acela works with both 4x4 LMTV and 6x6 MTV trucks, sourcing only A1 variants so they can use the CAN bus to identify the exact mileage and other key information. The trucks feature 46-in tires, nearly 2 feet (61 cm) of ground clearance, central tire inflation systems and 40-degree approach angles.
After arriving at the company's Belgrade, Montana production facility, each truck makes stop #1 at the diesel mechanics shop, where it undergoes an axle teardown, powertrain workup and fluid replacement, bringing it up to warranty condition before it heads into the general sales pool.
Once sold, the cab and chassis get split up, with each stripped to bare metal and built back up. Components are inspected, and those that don't pass muster get rehabilitated or replaced. The cab and chassis are splashed with new paint from Sherwin-Williams and secured back into one down the production line.
The process sees a total of 300 points carefully inspected and nearly 700 new parts swapped in, including components custom-engineered in-house. Ronsen says that every driver cab component, save for the transmission controls pad, is replaced, and comfort features like air conditioning and air-ride seats added to turn a sweaty, rattling military truck into something you don't mind spending your vacation (or straight-out living) in.
The trucks also receive ABS system upgrades and available high-speed gearing for a top speed of 74 mph (119 km/h). Each one has a 330-hp Caterpillar 7.2-liter six-cylinder turbo diesel engine, Allison seven-speed automatic transmission and full-time all-wheel drive with 50/50 front/rear off-road mode torque split.
Once finished, Acela fully tests each truck, puts its one-year bumper-to-bumper warranty behind it, and hands the keys over to a customer who will likely go on to absolutely abuse it under some of the most demanding conditions known to man. Extreme truck, extreme duty.
Commercial clients are Acela's primary target, but the company also identified the overland vehicle market as a part of its business strategy early on. The company builds custom spring mounting frames for attaching motorhome boxes to its trucks and works with British Columbia-based Total Composites, a specialist in German-engineered commercial and motorhome boxes.
Sounds like a pretty convincing solution to Bliss Mobil's American truck problem, doesn't it? We imagine that the day Bliss learned about Acela trucks was a pretty happy day indeed.
"We really do have the only purpose-built expedition vehicle chassis [in North America]," Ronsen says.
Spreading bliss around the globe
Across the Atlantic in the Netherlands, Bliss Mobil got in the expedition motorhome module business in 2012. The company is very clear that it doesn't build expedition trucks but fully self-contained living modules designed to mount on any variety of large trucks. A standout difference is that rather than bolting things like water and fuel tanks onto the truck chassis, its standard boxes carry everything inside the walls, designed to essentially plug and play.
Not only does Bliss' vehicle-independent approach create flexibility in truck selection and prevent motorhome equipment from interfering with vehicle ground clearance, it means that each module can be moved from chassis to chassis or even planted on blocks and used as a tiny home. The modules are also designed to easily ship, inside a standard container or as the container, depending upon size.
Bliss currently advertises five different model sizes, ranging between 11 and 20 ft (3.4 and 6.1 m). In walking through several of the ones it had on display in 2018, we were impressed not only by features like the bright, attractive bamboo interiors, optional washing machine and vacuum system, and Nespresso coffee machine, but even more so by the thorough attention to the smallest details, things we never would have thought twice about or looked at if Bliss hadn't pointed them out.
Bliss doesn't just build a highly functional, comfortable motorhome module that's scalable to different sizes and types of truck; it offers a purpose-driven mobile living solution engineered to refuse to fail. Quick-access maintenance, automated problem diagnosis, double and triple system redundancy, smart control and alert, and automatic emergency shutoff help ensure that a Bliss motorhome works how it's supposed to, keeps working even when hobbled, and gets back to 100 percent as quickly as possible.
To start with, Bliss' steel-framed, aerogel-insulated 15-ft (4.6-m) module is LPG-free, powered entirely by a lithium-ion battery bank hooked to the 960-watt roof-mounted solar array and connected to the vehicle alternator via a quick-connect port under the single exterior hookups panel. The alternator charges the Bliss battery when the engine is running, and the system can be used in reverse to start the engine in case of vehicle battery failure. Two separate 10-kWh battery packs are wired in parallel so that one can be shut off independently in case of a problem. The batteries are monitored and controlled by a dual-unit battery management system with over/under-voltage protection.
The floor-heating system, air conditioner, water heater, induction cooktop and other appliances and systems all run on electricity, so there's no need to carry or fill LPG bottles and no need to have open flames flickering around inside a six-figure expedition vehicle parked hundreds of miles from the nearest paved road. Bliss includes reverse-cycle AC heating and a diesel heater with dedicated fuel tank to ensure that low battery power doesn't leave resident nomads in the cold. An optional generator can be switched on in the event of a dead battery pack.
The onboard plumbing system is equally well thought-through with redundancies. Water filters, pumps and other key components are all located in a single "water plate," which pops up from below the surface of the furniture, providing immediate access for filter changes, maintenance and repair. Leak sensors affixed in strategic locations around the piping communicate with the domotics (domestic robotics) system in the event of a leak, shutting down relevant pumps and valves and relaying location information out for faster identification and repair. The domotics system can also auto-activate the floor-heating system if interior temperatures drop too low, ensuring the plumbing doesn't freeze.
The 15-ft Bliss module packs 460 liters of fresh water, and those worried that won't be sufficient can tack on the optional "water maker," a high-pressure filtration system that can produce 70 to 100 liters of clean drinking water an hour from natural water sources. A rain water collection system is also available.
Bliss' domotics system helps tie the various systems and components all together, offering remote monitoring and control of every electrically based component on board. In and around the truck, the local Wi-Fi router lets users connect to the system using a mobile device. The GSM connection and available satellite receiver connect the truck to the web for remote monitoring beyond the immediate area.
With the domotics system, the Bliss owner can use a touch device to shut down each and every electrical component, if the system doesn't get to it first. As a backup, a central override panel stores neatly labeled shutoffs for all those components behind a single door.
Bliss has essentially thought of every last detail short of the food stocked in the refrigerator.
A most natural union
Different industries, same incredibly detail-oriented mindset – the universe simply couldn't allow Acela and Bliss to meander along on separate paths. They found each other in time for an Overland Expo West 2019 build-out, a Monterra 4x4 carrying a 15-ft (4.6-m) Bliss module on its back, a preview of what should by all means be a fruitful working relationship.
The two secured together truck and motorhome using Bliss' torsion-free, four-point mounting subframe. Bliss offers several bed layouts in each of its modules, and the 15-footer on this truck is the standard floor plan with convertible wraparound five-person sofa on one end and double bedroom on the other, sleeping a total of four people. The kitchen and dry bathroom slide between those end rooms, and the ceiling stands 6.6 ft (2 m) over the floor.
Bliss modules look and feel like well-appointed efficiency apartments, and they have many of the everyday conveniences thereof. Standard features include an indoor/outdoor audio system, air conditioning, and a dry bathroom layout with separate grinder-toilet and shower rooms. You can also get an instant hot water heater to back up the main boiler.
The kitchen includes a two-plate induction cooktop, microwave/oven/grill, sink, Corian countertops and 85L fridge/freezer. To ensure travelers are able to squirrel away plenty of food for long expeditions, a separate 40L freezer box hides away below the surface of the couch.
The Acela-mounted Bliss module also features some optional add-ons, including the dual 230-/110-V US wiring package, water maker filtration system, Arctic cold-weather package, 360-degree camera/infrared security system, and rear motorcycle carrier. Of particular interest is the slide-out bamboo-faced outdoor kitchen that spreads its wings to create a large meal-prep and cooking area with 2,400W electric grill, induction cook plate, sink, slide-out beverage cooler/holder, tool and spice storage, Corian worktops and LED lighting.
It's rare that we'd venture out on a limb and call a hulking, boxy ex-military expedition truck sexy, but this one comes close to drawing such a compliment thanks to the deep forest green that brings together cab and camper box and the bright, legible badging from both Acela and Bliss. So we're not surprised it didn't take very long at all to sell, even with a price tag just under US$400,000. The truck will make one more appearance at Overland Expo East in October before delivery to what has to be an ecstatic new owner.
I'll take two
Ronsen says that Acela can work with the full line of Bliss modules from 11 to 20 ft (3.3 to 6 m), using both Monterra 4x4 and 6x6 trucks. Customers will work independently with Bliss on the design of the cabin and Acela on the truck, but Acela will take delivery of the module from overseas and install it directly so that the customer can just pick up the turnkey vehicle and start traveling (Western Montana isn't such a bad place to begin a journey). Each customer will receive the full informational rundown and systems training from both Bliss and Acela at the time of pickup.
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