Off-roading and overlanding exploded throughout 2020 and 2021 as the Covid-19 pandemic led city and country folk alike to search for adventure in the great outdoors. Meanwhile, droves of millennials dissatisfied with their office jobs realized that a new mode of existence might provide income and happiness simultaneously in the burgeoning #vanlife craze.
Personally, I ended up taking a few 4x4 trips out on the Mojave Road and to the ranch where authorities finally captured Charles Manson in an incredible hideout near Death Valley. Pushing a Jeep Gladiator Rubicon and my 1998 Mitsubishi Montero through technical terrain, rocks, sand, and dirt lent me newfound respect for the fun challenges that four-wheeling presents, even at the slowest of speeds. But as winter approaches, even the prospect of camping inside the Montero sounds less fun now that high desert temperatures tend to dip below freezing every night.
That little bit of activation energy required to overcome the prospect of mild unpleasantry helps to explain the rise of do-it-all campers and vans that bring some of the comfort of home out on the trail. Having driven an EarthCruiser Terranova based on a Ford F-350 and checked out the campers built by MyBusHotel using the Ram 3500 ProMaster chassis, I found myself very excited when Airstream reached out with the opportunity to test an Interstate 24X, which chases that vanline fad with rugged, outdoorsy features added to the famed Mercedes-Benz Sprinter platform.
Based On The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 EXT
Where my Montero might fetch somewhere near $10,000 in my dreams if I sold it today, a brand-new Interstate 24X stickers for $230,000 and up on the Aistream website. Airstream bases the Interstate on a Sprinter 3500 EXT that Mercedes will sell for around $60,000 with a turbodiesel V6 pumping 188 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque through a seven-speed automatic transmission.
Airstream then installs all the Class B mobile home features like water tanks, showers, sinks, a stove, and climate control—but the 24X also gets an air-lift suspension system VB Air Ride and knobby tires that its 24GL and 24GT siblings don't. The 170-inch wheelbase and 24-foot length might seem intimidating, but I found the Interstate 24X actually quite easy to drive in town and on the highway. Narrower than expected and not as unwieldy as a nine-foot-nine box van might look, the Sprinter's diesel engine makes it feel faster than my Montero when the turbo spools up, and the multiple rearview cameras from Airstream also helped a ton.
Off-Roading A Big Motor Home
Even driving in town, though, all the cabinets, electronics, and accessories that Airstream adds to the big Benz do creak and rattle to an infuriating extent. And overall, the Sprinter increases its weight from around three tons stock to over five, so I definitely needed to test that four-wheel-drive system and suspension on the trail to see how it holds up. I jetted out of LA on the 14 freeway, turned southeast just before Palmdale, and found a semi-graded dirt road.
On the flat washboard sections, the air ride and tires do great at reducing bumps and bruises—but the entire interior still screams from every joint and connection. Turning up something of a steep hill where some tire ruts and rocks dotted the road, I tried the Interstate 24X's four-wheel-drive in both high and low range. Mercedes sells the Sprinter with optional all-wheel drive, too, but I was surprised that the full four-wheel-drive version didn't have a locking center differential. And hauling all that weight up a reasonably steep hill did result in plenty of tire spin; selecting low range actually combined the turbodiesel's torque with less aggressive tires and serious weight to result in a lot of wheel slippage. The gear reduction probably serves better for paved grades than dirt. Still, a stock 24GL or 24GT probably wouldn't make it up the hill at all.
Hauling The Comforts Of Home
Part of the attraction for #vanlife and overlanding fans involves getting all the best gear to bring the comfort of home out into the rugged outdoors. In the case of the Interstate 24X, those amenities include a kitchen counter with sink, propane stovetop, and microwave, plus a bathroom with toilet and shower. Many cabinets and storage options also fit into the mix, as does a 13,500 BTU air conditioning set up on the roof.
Personally, I found the space a little cramped due to the Sprinter's narrow design—but it's infinitely more room than the sleeping platform in the back of my Montero allows. The entire concept of off-road camping, at least in my view, requires spending as little time cooped up indoors as possible. But then again, after three days on the trail, a shower and a real bed sure feel welcoming.
Rugged Modular Interior Design
The Interstate 24X departs from the plush 24GL and 24GT interiors with a rugged, modular design including lots of racks for gear storage and two sofas facing each other at the rear. Tiedowns on almost every surface also increase the capability of the layout, though even packing my minimal bags and clothes still resulted in less headroom than ideal—if this were mine, I'd probably keep the rear backpads of the sofa on the crossbars to make a bed, while using the space underneath for more storage.
Probably the biggest problem, though, is that the bed setup didn't work on the 24X that Airstream loaned me. The design intends for a set of six aluminum crossbars to span the gap between the wooden frames under the sofa seats, then for the backpads to fill in the space. Unfortunately, four of the aluminum bars measured at least a half-inch too long for the space—and the backpads themselves were at least three inches total too wide. And so, now you know that while reviewing this Airstream, I never even got to camp in it (not for lack of trying, though).
The real process of camping with the Interstate 24X does sound appealing to me. I drove it through some pretty tight juniper and pinyon pine brushland and found a relatively flat area to park. The air suspension system will let out pressure to keep the cabin as level as possible (buyers can pay more for a built-in hydraulic jack system for even better leveling) and then, setting up camp requires little more than opening the side door and extending the automated awning.
A modular table system from just behind the driver's seats can switch to an outdoor mount and I did bring a camp chair along to enjoy nature, as well. But it wouldn't be 100% necessary—and a screen door does slide to cover the entryway and keep out bugs and critters.
Supported By Power & Fluids
Once parked, the Interstate 24X means you're set with 23 gallons of fresh water, 24 gallons of gray water, and 9.8 gallons of propane. A 400-watt solar array on the roof will help keep the cabin and engine batteries charged, while a 2.5-kW Cummins generator with an auto-start feature will kick in when necessary. The Airstream rep who handed me the key advised me not to stay out in the wild for more than a couple of days, though, especially given my amateur status.
The lightweight, high-quality components like two showers (indoor and out), solar array, and generator help to justify the Interstate 24X's price point. And I thought the kitchen setup felt very usable, plus having a toilet definitely sounded nice. The actual layout of the 24X, though, begs some questions—mostly about the strange table nook behind the driver's seat that seems like an inefficient use of space (already in high demand). And the headroom felt pretty scant, even though I stand six-foot-one (Airstream's advertising team must hire very short models).
By the end of a week with the Interstate 24X, I found myself glad to give it back. Parking in Santa Monica provided an exercise in absurdity, of course, and though the stellar driving abilities of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van shone through, the overall build quality and design of the Airstream interior left me with the heebie-jeebies. Issues cropped up everywhere I looked, from the incessant creaks and rattles to the bed not working and, with just over 1,000 miles on the odometer, an entire aluminum ceiling panel starting to collapse right by the side door. Of course, Airstream's three-year warranty would cover everything I spotted but for $230,000 and up, the Interstate 24X should arrive ready for years of hard service on roads and trails.
As #vanlife and overlanding continue to heat up—you can't walk into a dealership and buy one of these rigs because they're all sold out—the Airstream name and a handful of off-roading goodies lend the Interstate 24X a certain caché. Personally, I'll stick with my old Boy Scout ways and keep roughing it in a lightweight vehicle that can tackle the kind of terrain that allows for more distance from the nearest established campsite. For people with the cash to burn or a 30-year financing plan with low monthly payments, the real question remains whether you could buy a Sprinter from Mercedes for $60,000 and do a better job using another $170,000 to build it out yourself.
Sources: airstream.com, mbvans.com, youtube.com, and