The Airstream Sprinter: Not Your Grandpa's Camper
Among the many great oddities of the American highway, one of the greatest is the way we send some of our oldest and most unsteady motorists out in some of our most ridiculously large and difficult to manage conveyances. I’m talking, of course, about RV’s, those giant bus-like things that Grandma and Gramps Snowbird go gallivanting around the country in, carrying most of their belongings -- as well as their bedroom, kitchen and bathroom -- everywhere they go.
When not hammering down the interstates, the retirees barrel along two-lane state highways in these wide and lengthy projectiles with the almost unlimited blind spots that come as standard, plus five, ten or twenty tons of road hugging weight to amplify the potential carnage if anything goes wrong. And they might well be towing a car behind them for use when their rig is hooked up at the campsite and they want to go out on the town – making these leviathans practically as long as the longest semi’s, the kind for which you need special licenses to operate. That would be unlike RVs, which any shrunken oldie with the correct prescription for trifocal mega-sunglasses – the ones that make you look like a visiting Martian -- might legally operate, based on successful completion of a driver’s test administered c. 1946.
In 1998, I drove such a vehicle 1100 miles around New Mexico with my family. I won’t mention the brand – it was a long time ago – but our RV was actually on the smaller side of how these things run, based on a Ford Econoline E-350 van chassis, rather than something even truck-ier, and at just over 11,000 lbs, it was a comparative featherweight. Yet it was plenty large and ponderous nevertheless. A pure white knuckler to drive on the open road, even for the fit, alert and carefree young father I then was, its brakes were weak and it would move about on the highway seemingly of its own accord but likely only when the wind hit it just right. So in effect it might as well have been randomly executing lane changes. I started to fear for my life and those of my loved ones that week, not just when I was driving it, but ever since, whenever I see some senior piloting something as huge or even huger down the road. As near as I can tell, it’s a miracle that all these years later the scourge of tiny old-timers in monster trucks has gone so unheralded.
Americans, like most of the world’s peoples, are pretty immune to the scariness of the road. There’s that. But I’d also like to believe that part of the reason that no one seems to worry about these senior big rigs may be that these vehicles got, and are getting, better. For one thing, better safety technology – e.g, reversing cameras, lane-change warning devices relying on radar, anti-lock brakes – has come to trucks. And for another, the underlying chassis these things are built on have also gotten better – stronger and safer.
A good case in point would be the Airstream Interstate I rolled around in last weekend. It’s based on Mercedes Benz’ Sprinter van, in its most robust 3500 duallie (twin rear wheels) configuration. Compared to any American van built before 2014, the Sprinter is, as it has long been, a revelation, with superior fuel economy, handling, braking, load-carrying ability and build quality, all of it at a not too dramatic a premium over lesser domestic van offerings. We look forward to the new Ford Transit and new models from GM and FiatChrysler’s Ram division, but for now the Mercedes remains the class of the van industry.
Official collaborator Airstream occupies a space unique in the American psyche, too. At least in the post-ironic age, Airstreams have always been that little bit cooler than other camper brands. Of course a lot of that depends on the reflected glory of the American company’s lozenge-shaped trailers with their polished-aluminum exteriors that look like aerial armament from the Rocket Age, as warmly recalled from childhood by aging hipsters, who increasingly are the demographic RV merchants are after.
Today’s Interstate, on the other hand, looks more like a regular RV, slicker and more aerodynamic than some, bling-y, but a little less tacky than others. Perhaps Airstream should go retro-old-school and make one that looks more like the beloved long, long trailers of fond, fond memory. Until then, the Interstate is what they’ve got and I’ve got to say, it’s a major step forward, in driving ease and safety, with a panoramic camera for a rear view mirror and all the radar gizmos you need to keep you from side-swiping some kid in his mom’s Malibu without your even knowing it. This alone makes it light years more appealing than the RV I once drove. A turbo-diesel five-cylinder engine, capable of returning close to 20 miles to the gallon is another real improvement, as is plausible steering, a reasonable turning circle, decent if not exciting handling, and brakes that are up to the task of slowing a weekend cottage.
I’m not, if it isn’t clear by now, a motor home type of guy. And it’s not just that I like bellmen and linen sheets with high thread counts. I don’t mean to sound prudish or squeamish but, for me, I have difficulty getting around the fact that the RV driver is carrying a toilet and all manner of wastewater and everything that might go in and around it with him. Which takes the natural funkiness of any car -- as a person might be ordinarily, non-socio-pathically human in -- and turns it up several notches on the olfactory danger scale. There are of course hookups at many campsites, where you can lose the special sauce in your waste tanks, plug in and run your (electric or propane-powered) generator to keep the air conditioning running loud and all night long, but it’s all there for you to deal with. Hard enough, literally, and the psychic task seems just as daunting.
Still, they were kind enough to loan me this houseboat on wheels and I was determined to spend the night in it. So on a recent visit to my mother-in-law’s in eastern Long Island, I did. Unable to persuade any other family members, it was up to six-year-old Milo Kitman and I to execute the test and the fact that I am here to tell you about it tells you pretty much all you need to know. Pretty comfortable, I might even do it again. Even if the convenience of carrying my own toilet around doesn't fill me with a joy that's hard to hide, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more, er, commodious home on wheels. (For the record, we employed a neighboring woods as gentlemanly facilities, as the good lord once intended.)
The Sprinter Airstream Interstate’s $153,000 price tag will likely price out younger folk, except those in particularly well-funded major label start up rock bands, all two of them. The six-digit sticker also gives me pause – 153 large is a lot of hotel rooms, plane tickets, rental cars and candlelit dinners. But if you are, or know, some older, well-funded types looking to hit the road for large parts of the year, and plan to keep on hitting it until those polarized specs from Wal-mart won’t run no more, you could do a lot worse.