We love our SUVs and crossovers, but there are times when something grander is in order. And while it's entirely feasible to pack up the family sport ute and hit the open road, I took roadtripping to the next level on a recent weekend by testing the Mercedes-Benz-based Airstream Interstate 3500.
The Interstate is classified as a Class B motorhome, a van-based iteration that's smaller (usually 16-20 feet long) and more maneuverable than a full-blown Class A rig. Unlike traditional bullet-shaped Airstreams, this one's built on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter platform and expanded for motorhome duties.
How did the $121,274 Airstream Interstate 3500 fare as a temporary home-on-wheels? To find out, I packed my bags and brought along my wife for a trip up the California coast.
First Glance: Everything But The Kitchen Sink. Oh, Wait…
Based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500—a $40,000ish, high-roofed cargo van—this Airstream is like a miniature luxury apartment ensconced within the Benz's tall, austere interior. The Airstream can be ordered in two floorplans: Twin Bed, which features two separate sleeping surfaces, and Lounge, with a sofa that slides to form one big bed. The Lounge can be ordered with a hanging wardrobe for clothing storage, though that setup requires moving the galley over, which ditches one of the three standalone passenger seats.
This Airstream's got virtually everything you'll need to make your home away from home. A "wet" (ie, shower equipped) bathroom incorporates a toilet and faucet for handwashing, and across the narrow walkway is a galley with a microwave, 3.1 cubic foot fridge, two-burner stove, Corian countertop, and—yes!—a kitchen sink. My tester had plenty of storage space for plates, non-perishable grub, and stowaway stuff like clothes, and the wood-finished cabinets opened with nice little chrome handles. Other goodies include a 19 inch flatscreen TV and two 12 volt, deep cycle batteries that power accessories when the engine's shut off. A built-in 2.5 kW generator can be fired up when the batteries run low. 32 gallons of fresh water are on hand for cleaning duty, and tanks below the floorboard can hold up to 27 gallons of gray (ie, drained) water.
Under the hood, a modest 3.0 liter V6 turbodiesel powers this 8,000+ lb beast, with 188 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque routed through a 5-speed automatic. Should you choose to bring along your motorcycle or lake toy, the Airstream can tow 5,000 pounds. On its own, this plus-sized highway loafer is rated at a combined 18 mpg—impressive for such a big rig, and capable of extracting a theoretical cruising range of 475 miles from its 26.4 gallon fuel tank.
In the Driver's Seat: Ridin' High, Livin' Large (and Narrow)
If you're familiar with the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van on which it's based, the Airstream Interstate's interior feels remarkably plush and luxuriously finished. Gone are the plastic and metal panels, replaced with ultra soft Alcantara and buttery leather. Wood surfaces abound, and roof-mounted spot and track lighting creates a pleasant dusky ambiance when the sun drops. But if you're a six-figure luxury connoisseur, you might be disappointed by the fit and finish of some interior panels; after all, you're essentially getting 22 feet, 9 inches of motorhome for the less than the price of a BMW 760Li.
Compared to a full-sized motorhome, the Airstream possesses relatively upright and skinny interior proportions. The dashboard is a plastic and faux wood-trimmed expanse that's not as luxurious as the rear quarters, but functional enough to serve its purpose well, with an aftermarket Pioneer nav system that feels a bit 2005 but gets the job done. What appears to be a traditional rear view mirror actually hides a video camera's fisheye view from the Airstream's hind quarters.
Behind the driver and passenger are two more seats with a removable table; all four perches can spin around for happy hour when the rig is parked.
On the Road: All About the Journey… And the Destination
Despite a formidable footprint, the Airstream manages parking lot maneuvers easily enough with the aid of big side mirrors and a rear-facing video camera. This degree of bulk takes some getting used to, even if you're familiar with oversized rides like the Cadillac Escalade ESV.
On the road, highway speeds are reached with reasonable (but not overwhelmingly quick) acceleration. Think tortoise, not hare. But there's enough power for passing, and the V6 pulls more than its weight in terms of twist, accompanied by the faint whistle of its turbocharger; this is a compact engine that sacrifices the torquey thunder of a big block V8 for fuel efficiency, a worthy sacrifice considering the Airstream's mile gobbling M.O.
Unlike car-like crossovers, the Airstream doesn't beg to be driven above the speed limit; 65 mph is plenty fast for this steed. While driving through one crosswind-plagued stretch of freeway, the Airstream's tall proportions produced somewhat tippy handling. But motorhomes aren't focused on just the driver. They're all about the overall experience of getting from A to B, and finally settling down for a relaxing getaway.
The Airstream's bed was positioned too far aft to be comfortable at speed—my wife was being so comically bounced around during a freeway stretch that sleep was next to impossible. But the seats proved remarkably comfortable, and once we arrived at the seaside town of Cambria, 219 miles away from home, the Airstream's amenities became evident. We didn't bother booking a campground, choosing instead to park our silver coach along a strip of real estate overlooking the dramatic cliffs on Moonstone Beach. After shutting the blinds and succumbing to surreally deep sleep, we woke up to the sounds of water lapping the rocks below. Exquisite.
I chose to spend the next day using the Airstream as a mobile office, against the striking backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. My laptop charged up using the Airstream's built-in inverter, and the rear doors opened to reveal a nice, wide view of the outside world.
By the time we headed back down to LA, I was more accustomed to the Airstream's acceleration and handling. It's still no sport ute, but considering this six-wheeled setup can sleep two and transport six in utmost comfort, its driving dynamics are altogether commendable, as are its creature comforts when parked.
It's in no danger of being confused with sprightlier sport utes, but the Airstream offers a compelling argument, especially given its decked-out Range Rover HSE-like starting price.
If comfort is king, consider the Airstream Interstate 3500 nothing short of absolute royalty.