Every so often, the recreation vehicle industry finds our number at the bottom of some filing cabinet and calls to offer a vehicle to test drive. When the phone rang recently, we quickly established the “what” part of the latest call, which is to say the new $95,544 Airstream Avenue, but it took us much longer to figure out the “where,” which is always the difficult thing when an RV is in play.
An RV is basically a one-bed, one-bath condo on wheels, which makes it ideal for visiting any spot in the One Nation Under God that is accessible by a paved road and offers septic-dump facilities. Just keep hosing in the gas—lots of gas, for the bigger RVs usually return only single-digit mileage—and America is your oyster.
Somewhere down the line, I read that Phoenix’s Papago Military Vehicle Show is the largest military-vehicle collectors’ meet in the United States. As we found out later, the whole “largest in the USA” aspect may have been something of an exaggeration, or faulty memory. Either way, if you haven’t been to a military-vehicle show, you haven’t seen the Second Amendment in its full glory, which means privately owned tanks. And helicopter gunships. And armored cars, Army ambulances, jeeps equipped with .50-cal machine guns, and so forth. This spectacle seemed as good a destination as any, so the wife and I (plus our two parrots) saddled up in the Avenue and joined the Friday afternoon cattle stampede out of Los Angeles on Interstate 10.
The Avenue is, by RV standards, small. As you can see from the pictures, it’s based on an extended 155-inch-wheelbase Chevrolet Express 3500 work van (base price with 6.0-liter V-8: $32,285) of the type driven by plumbers and HVAC repairmen. We soon discovered that this has its pros and cons. Click here to read more…
Airstream Inc. is known more for its travel trailers than its self-powered motorhomes, but the Jackson Center, Ohio-based company has been in the motorhome business for decades. If you’ve driven past a motorhome sales lot lately, you have seen an abundance of inventory, as the downturn in the economy and the upturn in fuel prices have crippled the industry.
People who can afford the huge, $250,000 motorhomes aren’t much affected, but potential customers in the sub-$100,000 market may be on the fence – is a motorhome a good buy? Will my family use it enough for it to be an asset instead of a liability?
Enter products like the 2011 Airstream Avenue, which is called a “Class B” motorhome. It is based on the chassis of a Chevrolet 3500 heavy-duty van, powered by a 6.0-liter, 323-horsepower V-8 with a 6-speed automatic transmission. If you can drive a van – and most everyone car – you can drive the Airstream Avenue. Sure, it isn’t as large as a lot of motorhomes that sell for a comparable price, but the ease of operation, even in very tight, in-city traffic, makes it the sort of vehicle I’d be willing to drive most anywhere. That isn’t the case with some larger motorhomes.
Make no mistake – this is a big boy, weighing in at over 8,000 pounds, with an overall length of 252 inches, about 20 inches longer than a double-cab Ford F-150 pickup truck. But it’s the width that is appealing to relatively inexperienced motorhome drivers. Rather than extend the width outside the normal van body, Airstream maintained the van’s regular width, meaning you don’t have to keep looking in your mirrors, wondering if the wider rear of the motorhome will clear obstacles. On the last motorhome I drove, the area behind the driver’s compartment was more than three feet wider than the front of the motorhome. Having the width remain the same, front to rear, allows you to drive it like a regular vehicle and, just as important, park it in a regular space.
That said, the interior of the Avenue is less spacious than a bigger, wider motorhome, but what Airstream packed into the package is remarkable. The Avenue sleeps two comfortably, and seats seven – there’s plenty of room for parents to sleep, and floor space for kids in sleeping bags, if you have a young family.
There’s a two-burner cooktop, a microwave, a 3.1 cubic-foot refrigerator, a 16,000 BTU furnace, a 13,500 BTU air conditioner and a 6-gallon water heater. Airstream designers have doine a remarkable job of packing a lot into a small space, but you don’t feel cramped inside, especially upfront, where leather-trimmed captain’s chairs make time behind the wheel effortless. A nice touch: The front seats turn to the rear, matching two identical seats, all four surrounding a small removable table which is great for meals or a card game.
Almost all the controls are standard Chevrolet-issue, meaning they are familiar and easy to operate, but since they are made for a truck, not exactly luxurious. It seems an oversight that there is no navigation system – though admittedly you can buy a good aftermarket unit for $100 – or satellite radio.
Like other heavy-duty vehicles, the Avenue isn’t EPA rated for mileage, but we averaged nearly 10 mpg on regular gas, which is quite good. Sure, gas is high, but if you aren’t paying for a motel room, you’re saving on that end. And the Avenue can tow up to 8,000 pounds, so if you need something to pull your boat or horse trailer, the Avenue can handle that, too.
The Avenue is priced comparably to other class B motorhomes, but none are cheap. The base price of the test vehicle is $95,594, and with a few options, including handsome aluminum wheels, the list price is $97,281. Skimming the web sites of some Airstream dealers across the country, it appears discounts – big discounts – are available.
The Airstream Avenue fits into a solid, and by all accounts growing, niche in the motorhome industry. Nicely executed.