As a mom and an avid traveler, I jumped on the opportunity to drive a deluxe camper van from Los Angeles to Sonoma County, Calif., with my husband and our two toddlers for an extended Mother’s Day weekend.
It allowed me to channel the growing number of people who are turning cargo vans into RVs to traverse the country. I was hopeful that the experience would provide the adventure, comfort and luxury drawing so many Americans to the “van life.”
The popularity of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is on the rise in the U.S. Last year sales of the large van rose to 26,357, an increase of 2 percent and a best-ever sales record since 2001 when the van launched in the U.S. And the large van segment also is catching fire. Last year annual sales jumped 13.2 percent to 372,000 units, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp.
Our 72-hour home was the Airstream Interstate Tommy Bahama Special Edition Touring Coach built on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 extended chassis. Marketing of the vehicle promises “refined relaxation” and a long list of top-notch amenities. It comes equipped with seatbelts for eight and sleeping accommodations for two adults, plus a galley and bathroom. The starting price of this special edition Interstate is just over $165,000. Lesser trim levels start at about $156,000.
We pulled up to the Airstream dealership in San Gabriel, and there she was – tall and skinny and draped in a Brilliant Silver Metallic paint. The overall height of the van is 9 feet 8 inches. It’s a svelte 6 feet 7.7 inches wide, and stretches 24 feet 4.5 inches in length.
The Tommy Bahama badging is prevalent. Though the breezy brand’s signature marlin is displayed prominently throughout, including etched across the rear window, I believe most onlookers are distracted by the oversized Mercedes star on the grille. The interior décor is “island inspired,” which means the color palette includes hues of greens, blues and yellows as well as hints of palm fronds and bamboo.
During my 90-minute briefing with the service technician from Airstream Los Angeles, my husband loaded up all the gear, including the two car seats. Both seats in the front “lounge,” which are the second-row captain’s chairs, have a LATCH system with safety tethers – perfect for mobile families like ours. They also recline, adjust forward or back or swivel to face the rear of the van. A detachable pedestal table can easily be set up to accommodate eating, drinking or building Legos.
As I pulled myself into the driver’s seat, I relished the spaciousness of the cockpit. The gap between the two front seats is at least an arm’s length wide. In the second row, the kids – who seemed worlds away – were giddy. The 8-inch touch screen Garmin navigation system was hard to reach without shifting forward in my seat. The space would be become an ironic theme over the weekend. There was so much, yet so little.
One of my favorite spots that offered abundant space was between the back of the driver’s seat and the second-row captain’s chair directly behind it. I discovered major mom storage where I could keep kid supplies organized and accessible. This helped keep my sanity intact.
The Interstate was easier to drive than expected. There is 360-degree visibility thanks to rear and side cameras that feed into a monitor mounted to the center of the windshield in lieu of a rearview mirror. The default image is the rear camera’s view, until the blinkers are activated. This shifts the screen to display the left or right side of the van via the side cameras. Blind spot alerts flash a subtle red light in the large side mirrors, and lane keeping alerts beep when the van veers outside the lines.
At first, it’s a bit unsettling not to see the kids through an actual rearview mirror. I quickly adapted when my husband began managing the kids’ incessant road trip demands for more snacks, iPad troubleshooting and dropped items.
The four-wheel drive Interstate weighs in at 11,030 pounds at its lightest. For how heavy the vehicle is, it’s spry on its feet. The engine is a 3.0-liter V-6 turbo diesel engine with 188 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. It’s mated to a five-speed automatic transmission and can tow up to 5,000 pounds depending on what or who is inside. Fuel economy is 18 mpg in highway driving.
The Interstate weaves among passenger cars in traffic with confidence, and the higher position permits a bird’s eye view of the road. Once we slogged through rush hour congestion and onto the highway I relaxed into my seat and turned up the mishmash of reggae beats. I was getting the hang of it, especially as I held my own at 70 mph among truckers.
The initial ride was smooth and steady. The overhead visors did not swivel to the window to block the late afternoon sun, which was distracting. I pushed the thought out of my head and focused on safely getting my precious cargo to our destination.
About 30 minutes into the trip, my four-year-old son had to use the bathroom. I think he secretly wanted to test out the onboard toilet. This is the scary part about the van – there is a sense you can move about invincibly. My husband affirmed to him that we were still in a car, and reluctantly ushered him into the tiny loo. He peed sitting down as to avoid any mishaps.
All remained peaceful until the highway morphed into a series of bumps and gaps – a prime example of the horribly maintained California roads. While it was uncomfortable to cruise over such a battered surface, we discovered something that was worse: the bar cabinet.
The centerpiece of the galley – which consists of a sink, a two-burner cooktop, a drawer microwave and a 5.7 cubic foot fridge – is an acrylic bar rack with five vertical liter-sized cubbies. It rattles incessantly, and is exacerbated when traveling over battered highway roads. Fortunately the kids were unfazed by the clatter – by the time we passed through the infamous section of Interstate 5 known as the Grapevine, they were snoring in their seats.
One disadvantage to the height of the Interstate is its stability in high winds. For about 100 miles at the end of I-5 North, before the I-580 West interchange, I felt like I was driving a sail. I kept the speed below 70 mph, and activated cruise control. Once we turned off the dark highway toward the suburbs of the Bay Area, the blood circulation returned to my hands.
We finally pulled into the KOA campground around 2 a.m. The diesel engine purred as we crept along the rows of RVs and campers until space 115. Once parked, I tiptoed around the van to the trunk storage and unlatched the massive rear doors to retrieve the converter. I was underdressed for the brisk air. But my exposure to the cold Northern California night was short as I plugged into the site’s hookup with ease.
After hours of driving I was ready to sleep. I opted to use the galley faucet for bedtime duties, which had a gooseneck spout (also perfect for washing dishes). There is ample overhead storage around the perimeter of the van. The compartment above the sink worked well as a makeshift bathroom cabinet. The water warmed up within minutes and the pressure was good. I planned to hook up to the site’s water supply in the morning to preserve the onboard tank.
Beyond the galley and the bathroom is the rear area that also transforms into the bed. Two jumper seats face each other and a bench, or “power lounge,” reclines to a completely flat position with the flick of a switch. The side jumper seats pull out like a futon. Our van came with Tommy Bahama linens stored in the overhead compartment above the bed. The “UltraLeather” upholstery on the seats makes them cushy enough for sleeping.
The sleeping area is oversized and comfortably handled two adults, plus two kids who do not sleep in any one position for more than five minutes. It was snug, but not unlike what we experience most nights at home. The snoozing kids missed the initial bed transformation, but became enthralled with it every time after that.
I used the remote to lower the OceanAir power blinds and maximize morning sleep. This is the only thing on the Interstate that I found absurd. I am not sure why the blinds – which provide privacy at night and keep sunlight at bay during prime snoozing hours – would be controlled by something that could easily run out of batteries or get lost.
Around 6 a.m. my daughter was wide awake and poking me in the face. Time for morning duty. But first, coffee.
I sourced some brew from the campsite general store. We did not come prepared with proper supplies, but an electric kettle and a portable French press would do the trick (mental note). Walking back to the van for the first time with my store-bought coffee I felt like a camping novice. Amidst a slew of rugged RVs, trailers and full-size pickups sat this lanky silver Mercedes-Benz camper van. It was indulgence at its finest.
Another advantage of the campsite was the showers. Rinsing off inside the van would have pushed me to my limits – literally. When inside, my head touched the ceiling. While the shower would be perfect in a pinch, we skipped it this time.
One useful water source, however, was the exterior hose attachment. It had a spray nozzle for cleaning up after waste disposal, or for rinsing grimy little feet and hands before they enter the van. The “outdoor shower” was novel for the kids and help keep the interior clean-ish.
The kids were also enchanted with the two flat screen TVs and without fail demanded to fall asleep watching a movie on the DVD player. I am usually a stickler about screen time, but this weekend I let it go. Their request also forced me to quickly tackle the electrical system.
The idea is not to allow the house power to run down. Normally the van would be plugged into a site’s electrical source to keep power running. Overnight without a plug is not a problem, and if the lights get dim there is a generator that will slow the process. If the house power is too low to start it, running the engine battery for a few minutes will provide enough charge to kick start the generator.
Our trip in the Interstate underscored the saying that life begins at the end of one’s comfort zone. The van delivered the luxe experience I wanted, without losing the spirit of camping. The highlight for me was cuddling up together at night. I also liked the organizational challenge of resolving storage in the tiny living space. The kids loved every part of it. For me, it was a hotel on wheels. For them it was a giant fort in the middle of a huge playground.
Consider my family honorary van-lifers. Next time, I won’t forget the French press.