Piloting an 8,500-pound motorized house down the highway is far from my idea of fun, yet inexplicably, I'm enjoying myself. My grin has nothing to do with my camper's handling, as this heavily accoutered Mercedes-Benz Sprinter drives like a 25-foot long breadbox. My smile has nothing to do with on-road stability, as the ten-foot-tall, slab-sided vehicle reacts to wind gusts like the vertical stabilizer on a Boeing jet. My delight has nothing to do with its throttle or braking response, either, as both are as numb as your forehead after the eighth beer.
This monstrosity makes me happy for one reason - my passengers are undeniably having a good time.
Two days earlier, I had shoveled my wife and two kids into this Airstream Interstate 3500's sliding door, cranked over its six-cylinder diesel engine and pointed its black and chrome nose out of greater Los Angeles and towards the Grand Canyon. Now, with the 17-million-year-old fissure less than an hour over the horizon, and with everyone chatting giddily about the upcoming spectacle, I've pleasantly come to realize that the motorhome method of travel isn't just for those hobbled bodies with thinning gray hair.
Airstream is the Rolex of the luxury recreational vehicle industry. Tracing its roots back to the early 1930s, the manufacturer had become a household name by the 1960s as the public quickly took note of its trademark streamlined, polished aluminum shells. Even NASA jumped on board, welcoming the crew of Apollo 11 home from the moon at the end of the decade only to quarantine them within a specially modified bright silver Airstream trailer. The Airstream Interstate, a Class-B RV, isn't built for returning astronauts. However, it accommodates earthlings in an innovative package with "car-like" handling, performance and safety, says it maker. The magic is in its chassis, and the details are in its appointments.
Unlike most monstrous RVs cutting wide paths down the highway – nearly all built on steel truck chassis with lightweight wood, metal and fiberglass framing and walls – the Interstate starts as a steel-bodied Mercedes-Benz with a dually rear axle. Even though it's huge by passenger-car standards (nearly 25 feet in length, around 10 feet in height and almost seven feet wide), the RV industry considers this Airstream a compact. Yes, a vehicle that casts a shadow larger than your college dorm room is considered a "compact" in the recreational vehicle world.
A vehicle that casts a shadow larger than your college dorm room is considered a "compact" in the recreational vehicle world.
Airstream sells two versions of the Interstate, both with the same 170-inch wheelbase. The standard model, with a base price of $125,630, is 23-feet and one-inch long, and six-feet and eight-inches wide. This particular stretched Interstate EXT is 24-feet and five-inches long – with all of the additional length being welcome cargo space behind the rear bench. My EXT tester carried a base price of $136,657. Its optional equipment included a special golf bag storage rack ($452), additional rear flatscreen television ($808), black exterior ($1,260) and a roof-mounted solar panel ($1,307) to maintain the batteries. The grand total, after destination ($984) amounted to $141,468.
Even though you'd expect something this massive to pack a V8 or perhaps a V10, motivation comes by way of a smallish 3.0-liter V6. But this isn't a standard six. Instead, it is the excellent Bluetec turbodiesel from Mercedes-Benz, drinking its oil diet from a 26.4-gallon tank filled through a panel accessed just behind the driver's door. In motorhome application, the engine is rated at 188 horsepower and – more importantly – 325 pound-feet of torque, with that power routed through a traditional five-speed automatic to the dually setup in the rear. The suspension is pure truck, with an independent design up front and a live rear axle at the back end. Stopping the Interstate are four-wheel disc brakes with sliding calipers. It is unusual to find electronic nannies in an RV, yet the Airstream Interstate features electronic traction control, stability control and anti-lock brakes.
But the mechanical specs don't stop there. Slung beneath the rear end is a 2.5-kilowatt generator, fed liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from its own 18.9-gallon tank. It's used to provide fuel/electricity to the 13,500-BTU secondary air conditioning unit (there is an engine-driven A/C compressor too, but cold air is only delivered from the front vents when the V6 is running), 16,000-BTU furnace and the other appliances within the passenger cabin. Other goodies include a 45-amp multi-stage charger, with a 750-watt inverter to divvy and sort the power properly, and a 30 amp/110-volt shore power service. In addition to the diesel and LPG tanks, there is a 32 gallon freshwater tank, 27 gallon gray water (sink drainage) tank and a 15 gallon black water (sewer) tank.
In motorhome application, the engine is rated at 188 horsepower and – more importantly – 325 pound-feet of torque.
Most passengers will never know about that aforementioned below-the-deck stuff, but they will appreciate the Airstream's luxurious cabin – with a caveat. When we think of an RV, the first thing that comes to mind is stepping up into a cavernous interior complete with swivel captain's chairs, kitchen appliances and a rear bench sofa that turns into a bed with the pull of a lever. The Airstream Interstate does all of that, but in a skinnier... let's say... Slim-Fast version.
Remember how I mentioned that the Interstate is just under seven feet wide? For comparison, a brand-new Winnebago Access 26QP (built on Ford's evergreen E450 chassis) is eight-and-a-half feet wide. I am not saying that a Winnebago is any better than an Airstream, but during my time with this Interstate, I would come to learn that having nearly two more feet of vehicle width makes a huge difference from the driver's – and the passenger's – perspective.
Confession time: My family does not camp. We prefer fresh water flowing from vast networks of underground pipes and electricity sourced from a power station many miles away. Long, steamy showers, full-size mattresses and fancy warm meals cooked and served by others are integral components of an activity we call "vacation." Put another way, the phrase "self-contained living space on wheels" doesn't exist in a Google search on our home computers.
Without question, it would provide us with countless luxuries that a full-size sedan or sport utility could never match.
Yet we do enjoy road trips, and that is why Airstream suggested we take one of its luxurious Interstates on our 1,000-plus mile journey over a long weekend. Even though we weren't going to sleep, shower or relieve ourselves regularly inside this RV, it would serve as our land yacht. Without question, it would also provide us with countless luxuries that a full-size sedan or sport utility could never match.
One boards the Interstate through a sliding door on the passenger side. The interior is traditional RV in that the driver and front passenger sit in swiveling captain's chairs, with two more of the comfortable seats forming a second row about six feet aft. Immediately behind those four positions, each seated next to expansive tinted glass windows, is the shower/toilet closet on the passenger's side and the range/microwave/sink on the driver's side. Just behind the range is a single bench seat followed by a power-operated, three-passenger bench that drops flat to make a 69-by-82-inch bed (for reference, a queen-sized bed is smaller at 60 x 80). There is additional storage behind the bench in the EXT (15 inches longer than the standard version), but both models are configured with seatbelts for eight passengers, yet this RV is rated to sleep just two.
The upholstery fitted to this Jet Black Interstate is an attractive Light Camel Ultraleather (durable synthetic) on all seating surfaces contrasted with onyx handmade cabinetry and acrylic polymer Corian seamless countertop surfaces and backsplash. In addition to plenty of storage space, interesting details include a fold-down faucet to increase counter space and plenty of low-energy LED illumination on the ceiling and under the cabinets. There are also two televisions, both with built-in DVD players and a comprehensive monitoring dashboard to keep tabs on the entire electrical system. In contrast to many of today's RV interiors that remain seemingly stuck in the 1980s with their wood cabinetry and puffy cloth interiors, the interior of the Airstream is not just modern, it's impressively innovative.
The interior of the Airstream is not just modern, it's impressively innovative.
The driving position and operator accommodations are also a full two letter grades above most Class-B RVs – for the most part. The driver faces a plastic (why not leather wrapped?), four-spoke steering wheel emblazoned with the famous Three-Pointed Star. Behind the wheel is a large plastic dashboard housing a traditional instrument panel (the large analog primary instruments are easy to read and there is a smaller digital display with trip computer and additional engine monitoring). The climate controls mounted in the center console appear to have been lifted right out of a Mercedes passenger car, and there's a Garmin-based navigation screen in the middle. The gearshift lever (PRND +/-) is mounted on the lower left portion of the center console. Complete with fake wood paneling, the dashboard is functional and reasonably stylish.
The morning of our departure, we packed the Airstream's cabinets full of snacks, paper towels, blankets and pillows. I punched coordinates into the GPS, while my kids stacked DVDs into the cabinets. The refrigerator was loaded with bottled water. The extra length of this stretched Interstate is all found behind the rear bench, and it provides a generous amount of luggage (or golf club) storage area. Our RV easily swallowed four large suitcases, two camera bags, a plastic cooler and my tripod equipment with plenty of room to spare - again, the extended EXT trim is a no-brainer if you're ordering an Interstate.
Rather than bore you with an hourly play-by-play of our Grand Canyon family vacation with an Airstream Interstate, I'm going to cut right to the good stuff: The pleasantries – and miseries – of driving a mechanized house on public roads.
In the world of RVs, the Interstate undeniably borders on sports car athletic.
Airstream says its Interstate delivers "outstanding car-like handling performance." The marketer who penned that must have been a Blue Bird school bus operator in a past life. Yet in the world of RVs, the Interstate undeniably borders on sports car athletic. After just 15 minutes of navigating city streets, I began to appreciate its Slim-Fast waist. Unlike most motorhomes, ungainly and massive as they take up the bulk of a standard ten-foot road lane, the narrow Interstate fits neatly in the wake of a Chevrolet Suburban. After getting the hang of things, I was maneuvering in and out of traffic congestion like a champ, tackling small streets and circling parking lots without heart palpitations, though of course, length remains an issue and the turning radius is huge (about 55 feet). Thankfully, a bit of forethought, a very good rear-facing camera and decent mirrors are enough to make these sweat-free activities.
By day one, hour three, my two kids had played with everything of interest and had found a routine. The television screen directly behind the driver and front passenger was the largest, but its speakers blared annoyingly out of its side right into the driver's ears, causing me to ban its use for the remainder of the trip. The smaller television, located in the way back, worked fine, but my eight-year-old daughter felt she was too removed from the family when watching it (let's see if she feels like that in another six years). We couldn't get decent satellite reception on the road, so both televisions were eventually shut off for the remainder of our journey.
We all liked the four captain's chairs, with integrated three-point seatbelts and armrests. So much so, in fact, that we only used the rearmost seats when eating or resting while the RV wasn't moving. But it was more than just cushion comfort that kept everyone in front of the rear wheels - the ride was bumpy for those behind the back axle.
Overall, the Interstate averaged 18.6 mpg - find another RV that can touch that.
The turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 appears underpowered on paper, but it offers the heart and determination of a steam locomotive while delivering very impressive fuel economy. Overall, the Interstate averaged 18.6 mpg - find another RV that can touch that. On the open road, the Airstream had no trouble maintaining 75 miles per hour on level highways and it would hold 70 mph on nearly all grades. I like cruise control, but unfortunately, the system on the RV gave me fits, as it wouldn't hold speeds downhill – I often caught the speed creeping over 80 mph. A more sophisticated system would be welcome, especially considering its mission and the vehicle's price.
Having loaded the cabinets with paper goods and utensils and packed the refrigerator with drinks and sandwiches, we stopped to stretch our legs only about every four or five hours. I'd pull the Airstream into a parking lot, flip the switch to activate the LPG generator and we'd break for a very comfortable meal with the A/C running and full electricity. The convenience was unmatched, as we had everything from running water to condiments and paper towels within arm's reach.
En route to the Grand Canyon, we stopped in Las Vegas. The Interstate proved popular on the strip, as its oversized limousine-like appearance caught quite a few glances and waves from passers-by who must've wondered about the identity of the celebrity that was surely on board. Narrow and tall, it was easy to drive in the congestion. However, its dimensions would also work against us, as the RV was too tall for the hotel's parking garage and I had to park it nearly a half-mile from the property.
Visiting the South Rim of the 6,000-foot-deep Grand Canyon by vehicle means traveling along a two-lane road, and pulling to the median every mile or so to take in the view. The Airstream would prove nimble enough to get into the tight spots, and narrow enough to park on the highway without interfering with passing traffic. With only one or two exceptions, it would fit everywhere a standard-sized SUV might. Even better, on more than one occasion, we would use it to park for several hours, eat and then hike in the vicinity using the Interstate as our comfortable climate-controlled base camp.
Narrow and tall, it was easy to drive in the congestion.
The multitude of outlets on the walls and counters were quickly put to use charging upwards of a dozen electronic devices, causing us to overpower the system more than once and trip a fuse (it may have been operator error). Everyone also appreciated the huge side windows. They were great for checking out the scenery and waving at the countless motorists who gave us thumbs-up as they drove by. It's also important to note the dual-mode pull-down curtains, as they were necessary for privacy (we found them particularly useful while driving at night with the interior lights on).
If asked to choose the Airstream's best attributes, they would include the impressive Mercedes-Benz diesel powerplant, the narrow chassis that allows SUV-like access while on the road and the interior's high-quality appointments. Oddly enough, the Interstate's worst attribute is also its narrow chassis – my family all felt the interior is not spacious enough to serve as home-away-from-home for more than two people – when all four of us moved around, it was cramped. Yet, as a family or executive road trip vehicle, the big Interstate has few peers.
Some readers will point out that my family will never be welcomed into the Good Sam RV Club as we didn't sleep, shower or use the Interstate's toilet, but that's just fine with us. Instead, we chose to utilize it to make our driving excursion more enjoyable. We expected first-class riding accommodations, and it delivered. We expected it to provide extraordinary convenience no matter where we stopped, and it did. We expected it to be comfortable on the open road, and it was. Unexpected, but welcome, were its well-controlled chassis dynamics, stellar fuel economy and the public's reaction upon its arrival.
Unexpected, but welcome, were its well-controlled chassis dynamics and stellar fuel economy.
Of course, my family isn't planning on plunking down six figures for our own recreational vehicle in the near future, but we now understand and appreciate the mindset of those who do.