I've gone from sea to shining sea in a high-powered convertible. I've crossed amber waves of grain from an empty train car and seen fruited plains from the back of a plane. But nothing made me feel the brotherhood of America more than the solar-powered, private-jet-like Mercedes-based Airstream Interstate.
(Full Disclosure: Airstream wanted us to drive their Interstate so badly they finally delivered us one, complete with bedding, after months of begging and prodding. I really wanted to drive this thing. Also, it took me like six months to finally finish this review. I’m the worst.)
Raphael Orlove isn't my brother. I like to think he's my friend but, at the end of the day, he's my employee. I decide how much money he gets, what assignments he has, and whether or not he has a job. Deciding to spend a week together in a van, sleeping and living together in a space that's only slightly larger than my tiny New York kitchen was a risk.
Maybe I'd want to kill him. Maybe he'd want to kill me.
I'm happy to say that didn't happen. We drove all the way from the Jersey Shore to middle-of-nowhere Ohio and back over the course of a week and it was delightful. Chalk it up to us being good guys if you want, but I think you've got to give the Airstream a lot of credit for that too.
Calling something a "trailer" invokes a certain cultural cliche. You picture a woman in hair rollers smoking menthols and looking over her shoulder, simultaneously fearing a twister and secretly hoping it'll whip her into space so she can restart a life that clearly didn't end up like she planned.
Call something an "Airstream" and suddenly you're picturing a young couple, maybe a little quirky, driving through the Grand Canyon while drinking coffee brewed in a Chemex using only ethically-sourced beans.
It's another kind of cliche, but one hard-earned from years of making a straightforward, iconic product. Airstream deserves the praise. Mercedes also deserves the praise for making one helluva van, which means the combination of the two is roughly perfect.
In the case of the extended 2015 Airstream Interstate EXT that we drove, the base is the Mercedes Sprinter 3500 Series with a 3.0-liter diesel V6 that puts out 188 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. In full RV trim, it's nearly 25 feet from the nose to the tail, nearly10 feet tall with the A/C unit, and a little over six-and-a-half-feet wide. A heavy duty suspension is standard because this thing ain't light.
Cleverly, the vehicle uses a blend of power sources running through an energy management system (with a 50 amp multi-stage charger/1000 watt inverter) to run the many onboard power hogs. These sources include the vehicles own diesel engine, a roof-mounted solar panel, a propane tank, or a backup propane system that holds about 15 gallons of LPG.
The interior is far more Gulfstream or yacht than it is kitschy retro throwback, with aluminum trim on the ceiling and around the mind cabin, glossy laminate cabinets and composite floors that, in our vehicle, were onyx in color.
In EXT trim there are two seats up front, two captain's chairs with plenty of room behind them up front. This is the traveling part of the cabin and not that distinguishable from a regular Sprinter van except for the lower ceiling that accommodates many of the electronics, which, speaking of, there's a Blu-Ray player, multiple speakers and inputs, satellite TV, and a pair of TVs (one up front, one in the sleeping area). There's also a spot for one of two removable tables.
Going further back you enter the "galley" where all the cooking and bathing is done. on the driver's side is the kitchen, covered in a cool-to-the-touch faux granite called Corian that's lighter and stronger than stone would be. There's a faucet and sink as well as a wide cooking service and small microwave/convection oven. There's nothing a smart chef couldn't prepare here and then stuff in the small fridge.
Your bathroom is also your shower is also your sink, which is a compromise to space but fairly consistent with most RVs this size. If that bothers you you're going to need to find another way to travel.
Finally, there's seating for five in the "lounge" area, which consists of two individual bench-style seats facing inward and a three-person bench facing forward. There's a power folding couch that, when extended, combines all of these chairs into one rather large bed that can comfortably sleep two. So that's nine seats and sleeping for two. Huh.
The plan was to pick up the Airstream Interstate in New Jersey, drive to Pittsburgh to spend a night with a friend, and then onto Western Ohio for the Mudsummer Classic at Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway for the greatest race there is. We’d be sleeping next to the track (literally 20 feet from the track entrance) for a few days before driving back in one long race against the night.
Because a Mercedes is a Mercedes, even when it's a truck, it feels as easy to drive as something half the size. This is my second time sleeping in a Sprinter and traveling long distance in it, and there are older full-sized SUVs that aren't as easy to drive.
I piloted a nice, fairly representative mid-sized Class A RV earlier this year and after about five hours I was in need of an equivalent number of yoga classes just to get my back and body realigned. Piloting something that large with such a rudimentary suspension was uncomfortable and slightly terrifying. I felt like if I sneezed too hard I'd end up crashing into a wall.
All of this has to do with the fact that the frame on many of those vehicles look like they were built in high school metal shop and the engine was Ford's we-make-this-just-for-U-Haul Triton V10. The Sprinter is a modern car with a modern frame and with the 3.0-liter diesel has enough torque to stay out of it's way.
I was lucky to get about 6 MPG at 60 MPH (going any faster was not comfortable) out of the larger RV while this, thanks to its diesel engine, returned an excellent 18 MPG for most of the trip at a frequent 70 mph clip. Over long distances that 10 mph and 12 mpg difference adds up quickly, even when you factor in the price of diesel versus gasoline.
In order to integrate the vehicle's various systems, the Airstream used an aftermarket Kenwood NAV head unit as opposed to the stock one. It accepted the stream from my phone easily and we could run a MiFi while we drove so when Raph was driving I could stream Spotify and work simultaneously, although I'd have preferred the stock navigation. Either way, it has everything you need to get where you want to go. I think you could probably install a better system yourself, but if you don’t want to hassle with electronics it’s fine.
It would actually make a perfect rolling office if you were constantly on the go and needed to stay connected and sometimes work at a job site. I wish I could just park this thing in the New York Auto Show basement because it’s such a pain in the ass to get over there.
It’s a Mercedes Sprinter. You can read plenty on how it drives. What’s it actually like to share a small van with another person for a week? Walking the same narrow path between the seats. Sleeping together. Shooting the shit. Literally shitting.
Fantastic. More comfortable than some hotels I’ve been in and, sadly, also larger. Although it looks cramped as you peer back through the front of the van towards the back, it’s actually nicely compartmentalized so that it does feel like you’ve got three separate living areas. If Raphael was driving up front I could sit in the middle and prepare lunch or sleep in the back and feel like I had my own little office.
When we got to the track we realized that if we wanted to sleep as close to the action as possible we’d have to forgo an electrical hookup. Sewer? City water? Cable? Pipe dreams. We’d be living all on our own and driving out would mean having to go through security again (as nice as everyone was). Nah, we’d just post up right by the track and try to live self-sustained.
The weather wasn’t too warm nor too cold while we were there so we weren’t constantly having to run the heater or the A/C to stay comfortable, but we did keep it on about a third of the time while we were parked. The fridge was always on and we were always charging a MiFi or a camera or a computer. We never ran out of juice. The diesel unit provided enough energy to not drain the battery, but usually we’d just run off the solar. Only when taking a shower did we need to turn on the propane generator.
Oh yeah. Showering. It works. You could shower in it every day and, assuming you kept the propane tank full, you could take a warm shower every day. It’s not like an overhead rain shower at The Four Seasons, but it’ll get you clean from top-to-bottom. The downside to this shower is that it’s also your bathroom, so you have to avoid the toilet seat when showering but isn’t that bad and will drain properly if you’re parked on a level service (no self-leveling here so you’ll just have to find a nice spot or bring something with you to stuff under the tire). The toilet itself also works fine. Beats going outside.
For two people it’s easy to entertain visitors, and we had many, including NASCAR driver Kyle Larson. We had a fridge full of beers and a pantry full of snacks in the overhead storage.
When night falls everything collapses easily enough and there’s no hassle converting the rear seating area into a bed. It takes about 60 seconds to fold up the extended cooking area, fold the two in-ward facing seats and hit the electronic bench. What you’re left with is a roughly full-sized bed that can easily sleep two. If I were spending more than a week here I’d probably get a pad to put on top of it, but it was comfortable enough. (If you were curious, Raph and I didn’t share the bed exactly. If you’re only collegial with the person you’re sleeping with you can leave the inward facing seats down and it makes two twin-sized beds).
Even though it’s smaller than the RV we used to go to Watkins Glen, it was arguably more comfortable for two people.
With the shades drawn it’s quiet and well-insulated and dark. I felt safe. After the race we drove back to New Jersey and parked at the same Airstream dealer where we picked it up, it was late, so we slept in the parking lot amidst the other vehicle being services. With the front window covered, it was impossible to see that two dudes were eating microwaved Pad Thai and watching old sprint car videos.
This is where it gets tricky. If you’re planning to travel with four or fewer adults (or you’re a family of five) and you want a perfect turnkey solution and you have no desire to do serious off-roading it’s hard to top this. While it’s more expensive than some larger RVs, it’s about as nice as you’re going to get without ordering something more custom and thus even pricier than the $152,000 you’re spending on this. There are no slide-outs and you have to pack smartly, but the Interstate is as comfortable a way as you can cross the country without your own private train car or private driver.
However, if you need to sleep five in their own beds, you don’t care about driving, and you don’t mind paying a little extra for gasoline then you can get a nice Class A gas vehicle that’s much larger. I’d argue against it unless you absolutely need the room. I also suspect that for a little bit less you could spend your own money and design and build something with everything you need (bed, bath) and nothing you don’t (three cheap televisions). Could you do better than Airstream? It’s tough, but I’d love to see someone try.
If I had the money to buy an RV it probably means I wouldn’t have the time to worry about designing the best bathroom setup or figuring out how to get all the disparate systems to work together, which means I’d probably just drop $150K on the dealership, see if they’d cut me a deal for removing the televisions, and go about my merry way.
Photos: Raphael Orlove, Diagram: Airstream