Camper Trailer of the Year 2017: Mars Ares 1

By: John 'Bear' Willis, Photography by: Ellen Dewar, Matt Fehlberg, Nathan Jacobs


Mars conducts real world testing of its new prototype Ares 1 out on the CTOTY tracks.

The intergalactic crew at Mars Campers saw the Camper Trailer Of The Year competition as an ideal launching pad for market research on its new offroad discovery pod, aptly named the Ares 1. It seems that Ares 1 was the name assigned to a new crew launch vehicle being developed by NASA as part of its Constellation Program. The Ares 1 was intended to supersede the space shuttle with enhanced overall safety, reliability and cost-effectiveness and, hence, a well selected title for the all new Mars Ares 1 camper trailer.

The name originated in ancient mythology with the Roman God ‘Ares’ being the son of Zeus and Hera. Ares was said to ‘embody the physical valour necessary for success in war’ and was closely associated with another God, namely ‘Mars.’

Is it a camper trailer? Is it a hybrid? Is it a small caravan? We don’t really know, as it stands intentionally all on its own.

DEFINING THE CONCEPT

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Mars carried out extensive market investigation and found a growing group of customers to serve with the Ares 1. There’s a mind-boggling array of campers and caravans available that often confuses purchasers seeking a suitable alternative, and many with more bells and whistles than a travelling circus. However, Mars’ research returned the following prerequisites:

  • The new concept must be kept compact and lightweight to fill a void in towing suitability with commuter vehicles and mid-range RVs.
  • It must have aerodynamic on-road and tough offroad capabilities, perhaps not for the die-hard bush-bashing fraternity, but certainly suitable for long distances on rough corrugations, easily traversing sandy stretches and with the balance and clearance for considerable offroad touring.
  • It must be very easy to use and to travel with.
  • It must have excellent internal head height and volume, catering to a quickly growing population of very tall people.
  • It must have a maximum footprint similar to common towing vehicles.
  • It must have a unique look and feel with optional layouts.
  • It must have sensible water and power facilities.
  • It must be exceptionally comfortable, appealing, trend setting and affordable.
  • It has to accommodate sleeping quarters for two adults and two kids without exceeding 14ft in length.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

We must compliment Mars Campers for bringing its new concept to the judges for full evaluation and comment prior to going to market as part as its research and development. The results are very promising with its priority of ‘more headroom with less weight and better offroad than a caravan’, ringing loudly in our ears. There’s no denying that the Mars Ares 1 compromises but creates.

GONNA FLY NOW

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Our CTOTY judges were confronted with the theme from Rocky being blasted through the entertainment system as we opened the doors to reveal the first inspection of the concept trailer. Our initial external impression of the Ares 1 had us all whispering "wow, it’s tall" until we were presented with the concept and got our own heads around the customers it had in mind.

At first sight, we considered it in the hybrid category, but it really stands alone with marked differences to the hundreds, if not thousands, of competitive offerings. We were looking at the unit through our dedicated offroad camper goggles instead of the niche mid-range target market. It is a trailer that can be towed economically, but can still track down the beach or over a high country goat track.

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Its overall height of 2.65m is in the upper range for camper trailers but suitable for the caravan market. It may be a little obtrusive in tight bush scenarios, however, it allows the massive benefit of very high internal headroom to suit our growing generations of avatars. I can’t tell you how many times we get asked to recommend campers suitable for tall people and often stumble for an answer. These are the niche objectives that may only pertain to small percentages of a big market but still mean tremendous overall success.

The composite aluminium insulated roof pops open easily giving an enormous feeling of volume inside the trailer no matter your personal dimensions. It also creates a real feeling of well-ventilated security by camping under a solid roof instead of canvas.

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The overall width is 2000mm, a mere 20mm wider than a Toyota LandCruiser, which is not much more than a Nissan X-Trail (1820mm), Ford Ranger (1850mm) or HiLux (1855mm). The internal width has allowed optional layouts including a very large dinette with drop-down table creating a huge full-width bed with the length to easily satisfy tall campers. There are options for a more compact east-west double bed, or perhaps even twin single with optional ‘ledge beds’ for the kids. The internal length adds to the pleasing feel of space and quality windows with mesh screens and curtains all round add to the ambience.

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The camper supplied for evaluation at CTOTY was fitted with the large convertible table option, and it was simply huge! There was room for at least eight adults to be seated comfortably on the thick, exceptionally well-upholstered cushions that double as the mattress. I have no doubt that this camper will become the centre of under-cover entertainment when the embers die at night, and in inclement weather. The concept model had too many small cushions for the judges’ liking, however, that has now been rectified for production models. The prototype was really very simple inside with the large doorway on the rear passenger side leading to a single level floor with the main storage benches on the rear wall and the dinette taking up the front section.

DIVIDE AND CONQUER!

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Our judges were certainly divided about the internal cabinetry and its finishes, yet there is no doubt that new trends can be confronting. I personally didn’t like the treated timber edges on the plywood, yet other judges did – mainly the younger ones who were pleased to see some wood-grain instead of laminates. Further investigation has revealed that the edges are available with laminate edges as an option as it is actually a cheaper process than the manually intensive clear coatings. The back wall has a full-width cabinet with a handy elongated benchtop, upper console complete with the sound system and storage pigeon holes below for pantry and general items. There is a mounting position at the base for a portable electric fridge that needs to be pulled forward for top opening. It’s a bit cumbersome and Mars representative Celso Prado and I have been discussing further options in this area for greater access, including an internal slide.

Whilst many may like the simplicity of the open pigeon-hole storage, I didn’t and I heard others envisage the state of their Wheaties and Vegemite in the mornings. Mars is now providing many alternatives including fold-back covers for the existing cabinets right through to custom cabinetry complete with swinging doors, utensils drawers and so on. Yet, if you like it the way we saw it, you can still order it that way and save some money!

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There’s quality windows on every wall, and zippered screens on the pop-up roof awning providing every opportunity for great natural lighting and ventilation, however when ol sole hits the horizon, there is a great selection of work and mood lighting throughout including a long LED strip over the benchtop.

Overall, this prototype provides a very simple alternative to the complex world presented by many camper trailers, and I am reminded of the old principle that often leads to success, Keep it simple, stupid (KISS).

UNDERNEATH?

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Mars has spent 11 years in the offroad camper market, finding out what works and what doesn’t. The Ares 1 is built on a very solid full chassis foundation with our demonstration unit being offered with its own fully independent swing arm suspension complete with coil springs and dual shockers to each side. It has 12in electric brakes as standard and whilst our demo unit had breakaway brakes fitted it certainly didn’t need them with the Tare of just 1200kg and an ATM of 1800kg. Out in front we found an A-framed drawbar complete with DO35 offroad coupling, hand-brake and removable jockey wheel. There is a 65L stainless water tank up front that is fully shrouded with galvanised plate. Water is an essential of life so I would certainly recommend the optional second water tank taking the capacity to a more generous 130L.

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There’s a very large toolbox with a single section swing lid that pivots to the driver’s side for excellent kerb-side access to the large storage area where you can store all of your necessities including jerry cans. A replaceable mesh stoneguard surrounds the front of the trailer and all of the lower sections are checker-plated alloy for protection and longevity.

LET’S COOK

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The kitchen on our prototype was a little basic with the men from Mars having worked night and day to simply finish the camper for the event in a very short time. Hence, we didn’t get to see the inclusion of the outdoor awning, or improvements to the stainless steel slide-out kitchen that now includes a three-burner stove, pressurised water through the stainless sink, utensils drawer, more storage and extendable bench space. The original as displayed was simply a stainless steel twin-burner with sink.

The Ares 1 is fitted with a single 100Ah AGM battery and can accommodate solid solar panels on the roof with portable versions available as cheaper options. Mars prefer to concentrate its efforts on solar efficiency rather than storage capacity utilising clean renewable power plus the Anderson plug for vehicular charging. There is an AC/DC 25A charger to top up the battery at home or on powered campsites.

Whilst the Ares 1 was originally fitted with a permanent diesel hot water system under the bed it has now moved to a new portable, cartridge type unit that ads flexibility and opens up the space for more batteries and so forth. I personally like the idea of combining a separate portable shower/toilet tent giving at least some privacy from you travel companions.

CONGRATS AND THANKS FOR COMING!

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The good men from Mars deserve a hearty congratulations for revealing their new concept to all of the judges and competitors alike at the CTOTY competition on Bribie Island. They certainly weren’t there to win; they were there to continue their market appraisal before going into full production. Development of new ideas takes quite some time and the Mars team has accepted congratulations and criticism with the same vigour.

It’s terrific to see Mars concentrate on different solutions for old problems and developing a stand-alone product with real point of difference in the camper trailer/caravan market.

There are very few competitors with an equivalent product that was given fully scrutiny at the event, even challenging the rough offroad and beach crossing course with all of the other competitors.

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It’s great to see Australian innovation with the design, initial manufacture and testing all done in Australia. Once perfected and in full production the Ares 1 will probably be manufactured to high standards in China, however, consider this; the Mars facilities in Brisbane and Melbourne both employ around 15 employees each, and each of their 23 Australian dealerships employ between 2-5 people each. There is a further 140 people employed in the Chinese manufacturing complex, producing more than 150 campers per month for Mars Campers. Mars is proud to disclose annual 20-40 per cent growth year on year since inception some 11 years ago. The Ares 1 has already attracted over 100 enquiries with a number of forward orders.

Is it a camper trailer, or is it a caravan – who really cares? The Mars Ares 1 is about to launch with a truly unique concept.

Check out the full feature in issue #111 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.