“It’s probably some rich surfer,” echoes a voice through the open tailgate, across the wood-paneled cabinets, and toward the galley where I’m rummaging for a late-morning snack.
Flanked by Camrys and Civics, it’s not surprising that my weekend ride is the buzz of Moonstone Beach. I’ve been piloting a nearly 23-foot-long, 10-foot-tall Interstate 3500, a silver monolith made by Airstream. It’s not the evocative, bullet-shaped trailer from your parents’ Super-8 archives, but rather a less visually striking yet considerably more lavishly appointed Mercedes-Benz Sprinter-based RV that makes Winnebagos look like… well, Winnebagos.
Life is good here in the silver mothership, an apartment on wheels that’s propelled my wife and I over 200 miles from home. Cool air is billowing from the roof-mounted, 13,500 BTU air conditioner, Pacific Ocean swells are crashing against the craggy rocks below, and the missus is sunning on the rear seats, which fold flat to form a makeshift bed. When we arrived in Cambria, California the previous night, we maneuvered this hunk of rolling architecture along a plot of land overlooking the water, and slept the sleep of babies on the bed’s buttery soft surface. More on the road trip in a moment.
Many Class B conversions (that is, van-based RVs) are built on Ford, Dodge, or GM chassis. But this Airstream is the Mercedes-Benz of motor homes — literally.
The Airstream is somewhat of an oddity in the universe of recreational vehicles. Many Class B conversions (that is, van-based RVs) are built on Ford, Dodge, or GM chassis. But this Airstream is the Mercedes-Benz of motor homes — literally. And while I’ve tested numerous triple-pointed stars, this is the first I’ve driven halfway up the California coast that didn’t require booking a hotel room.
Unlike competitors and other models with American iron under the hood, the Airstream is powered by a petite 3.0 liter, intercooled turbodiesel that puts out only 188 horsepower — less than a base model Hyundai Sonata. But torque is the name of the game when it comes to tugging mass, and the mill’s 325 lb-ft of torque is enough to help it to get out of its own way. Kinda.
Launching the Airstream up to legal speeds requires patience for those accustomed to high-revving sports cars, or even reasonably frisky sedans. After all, you’re lugging along a microwave, a two-burner stove, a 3.1 cubic foot fridge, a 19-inch flatscreen TV, a bathroom with a built-in shower, and of course, the proverbial (and literal) kitchen sink. The Corian counter top and freshwater tank capable of holding up to 32 gallons don’t encourage forward movement either. Though once these 8,000-plus pounds of amenities get rolling, acceleration is acceptably expedient, with a subtle whistling that creeps into the cabin as the turbo spools up.
Despite a five-speed automatic gearbox, trundling along at 65 mph translates to a lazy 2,500 rpm. And thanks to the diminutive power plant, it’s possible to attain 18 mpg while draining the 26.4 gallon diesel tank. Handling can get topsy turvy in crosswind conditions and the vehicle’s wide sweep during low speed turns requires full attention from the uninitiated. But the Airstream is generally manageable by most drivers when posted speed limits (and common sense) are obeyed. Incidentally, ride quality is sufficiently controlled at most speeds, but the back of the bus has a tendency to gyrate at highway velocities, making at-speed power naps all but impossible.
Parking the beast requires acclimating yourself to its tall-yet-narrow proportions, aided by a video camera that transmits an aft view to a small screen where the rear view mirror would sit. Amateur arborists note: if you position this bad boy near any sort of low-lying trees, branches will be compromised.
Which brings us back to our improvised beachfront property here in beautiful Cambria. If we were entertaining guests, the front captain’s chairs would be swiveled rearward and the table inserted into its aluminum base for aperitifs, with incidental light and an ocean breeze spilling in from the sliding side door. We could run accessories off the twin 12-volt batteries and fire up the 2.5 kW generator when necessary (a 50-watt solar panel is an available option.) And while the Interstate can travel with up to eight passengers, it only sleeps two, which would leave our hypothetical guests scrambling to find some place to cozy up before nightfall. But it’s just the two of us, scribbling away at our laptops as we field questions from curious strangers.
If my weekend escape is any evidence, the Airstream is a surprisingly efficient, luxurious, and comfortable way to go road-tripping. While its skinny proportions don’t quite feel congruous with the broad scale of the American West, think of this six-wheeled ride as a Euro take on the RV, trading square footage for fuel thriftiness, a smaller footprint, and maneuverability. Nitpickers may fault the faux wood on the dashboard and a few rough edges around the Alcantara-trimmed interior panels, but the Interstate’s $121,274 starting price makes it, pound-for-pound, a relative bargain.
The Airstream Interstate 3500 uncovered intriguing aspects of the motor-home lifestyle, delivering an ultra-civilized camping experience that adds a new dimension to road travel. That said, I personally haven’t quite reached the life stage where I’m inspired to crisscross America, Albert Brooks-style, in an RV.
But would I indulge if I were a rich surfer? Like, totally, dude.
WIRED A Winnebago for the stylish set. Thrifty fuel economy enables 475-mile cruising range. Plush interior and swanky indirect lighting lends a sense of occasion to overnighting.
TIRED Plasticky dashboard bits don’t live up to the plush leather seats or wood cabinets. Wish it had more classic Airstream caché, less über-van mojo. Rear overhang turns the convertible sofa into a trampoline at highway speeds.
Photos by Basem Wasef/Wired