In November, 2010, we sold our 2006 Toyota Rav4 and purchased a 2008, 19-foot Airstream Bambi SE and a base model 2010 Nissan Pathfinder. In a previous post, titled “The Backcountry Hikers’ Frontcountry Dilemma: Tent Camping vs. RVing,” we described the travel trailers (TTs) we considered before choosing the Airstream. In this post, we’ll describe our feelings about the Airstream now that we’ve been camping in it several months. We’ll also describe the tow vehicles (TVs) we considered and tell you how we feel about the Pathfinder now that we’ve put it to the test.
First, here are the TVs that made our short list:
Vehicle engine liters hp torque towing capacity
RAV 4 V6 3.5 269 246 3,500 lbs
FJ Cruiser V6 4 259 270 5,000 lbs
4Runner V6 4 270 278 5,000 lbs
Xterra V6 4 261 281 5,000 lbs
Pathfinder V6 4 266 288 6000 lbs
Liberty V6 3.7 210 235 5000 lbs
Touareg V6 TDI 3 225 406 7700 lbs
As we explained, we originally purchased our Toyota Rav4 with the intention of pulling a small, light TT. But after seriously researching TTs, we lost our enthusiasm for any of the options that were within the Rav’s towing capacity:
UBW – 1615 lbs
GVWR – 1939 lbs
15’ 6” total length, 10’ 3” interior length
The T@b is no longer manufactured, but this website… http://rosalindgardner.com/inside-the-tb-trailer/ … offers photos and stats that might help you decide if you want to purchase a used one.
Forest River Rpod 171
UBW – 2121 lbs
GVWR – 3181 lbs
18’ 4” total length, 15’ 8” interior length
UBW – 1900 lbs
GVWR – 2500 lbs
16’ 6” total length, interior length not stated on website
UBW – 1980 lbs
GVWR not stated on website
16’ total length, interior length not stated on website
UBW 1750 lbs
GVWR 3500 lbs
15’ 8” total length, interior length not stated on website
Casita Liberty Deluxe 17’
UBW – 2480 lbs
GVWR – 3500 lbs
17’ total length, interior length not stated on website
You’ll find subjective descriptions of the above trailers in our previous post titled “The Backcountry Hikers’ Frontcountry Dilemma: Tent Camping vs. RVing.”
Here are the Airstream options we considered:
Airstream Sport 16’
UBW – 2897 lbs
GVWR – 3500 lbs
16’ 4’ total length, 13 ft interior length
Airstream 19’ Bambi SE or 19’ Flying Cloud
UBW – 3792 lbs
GVWR – 4500 lbs
19’ 2” total length, 15’ 5” interior length
Here are some other interesting RVs we researched:
(They closed shop briefly a couple years ago, but they’ve resumed building quality TTs and truck campers in Edmonton, Alberta.)
(The ultimate truck camper. Excessive in every way, but fascinating to contemplate.)
(Luxurious, capable, camperized 4WD vans.)
Safari Condo (www.safaricondo.com)
(A unique TT made in Canada. The model 1723 is 17 feet long, looks fabulous, has a shower, but costs $31,000. Production is limited, however, and what if that lift motor malfunctions?)
(Similar to Casita and Escape.)
The Edge, MPG, and Focus models are light yet fully featured.
Choosing a travel trailer (TT) and tow vehicle (TV) is a complex decision, because you’re simultaneously choosing two vehicles and must inevitably make several compromises. What swayed us away from the Rav4 plus an Escape (our favourite of the lightweight TTs), and toward a more robust TV plus an Airstream, was three realizations:
(1) The GVWR of the Escape 15B and that of the Airstream Sport 16’ are identical. We could not fully load either of these TTs and expect our Rav4 to comfortably, safely pull them in all conditions.
(2) The materials, engineering and construction of an Escape are toy-like compared to an Airstream. If purchasing a new, stronger TV, we’d much rather own an Airstream.
(3) It’s possible to find a used-but-well-cared-for Airstream for about the same price as a new Escape. For example, a new Escape 15B sells for $19,600 plus options, and most people will find many of the options essential. While researching TTs, however, we found a 2004, 19’ Airstream Bambi in superb condition for $23,000, and a beautiful, 2004, 16’ Airstream International CCD Bambi also for $23,000. Both the Airstreams were luxuriously equipped. By the time we ordered the necessary options for the Escape, it too would have tipped the scale toward $23,000. Yet the Escape did not warrant comparison to either of these Airstreams.
Step inside an Escape and an Airstream. The difference is obvious and dramatic. If you intend to use your TT for only a few weeks each summer, an Escape is fine. If, like us, you intend to live in your TT for several months each year, you’ll probably prefer the Airstream. The Escape is adequate. The Airstream is sumptuous. The Escape feels like shelter. The Airstream feels like home. It’s also apparent that while Escapes hold their value, Airstreams are rare and coveted in Canada. Either should be easy to sell, but if I had to sell one or the other, particularly in Canada, I’d feel more confident selling an Airstream.
As for tow vehicles, any on our short list would comfortably pull the 16’ Airstream Sport. But only the Nissan Pathfinder or VW Touareg can manhandle a 19’ Airstream Bambi. The 2011 Touareg is the most fuel-efficient tow vehicle now available: 28 mpg hwy, 19 mpg city. Yet the price of a base “Comfortline” Touareg— $53,000 CDN—was far beyond our means. We figured if we had to switch vehicles, it would be a mistake to opt for one with a mere 5000-lb towing capacity, especially when we could get a rebate on a Pathfinder (towing capacity of 6000 lbs) that made it as affordable as any of our other choices. So we opted for a Pathfinder and a 19’ Airstream.
We left Canada in early December, 2010, driving the Pathfinder. We’d already purchased the Airstream from a couple in San Francisco who were purchasing a motorhome. We picked up the trailer at their house and continued down the California coast.
We’ve now pulled the trailer through dense traffic in L.A., Phoenix and Tucson. Most of the past three months, however, we’ve avoided cities. We’ve primarily camped in state and national-park campgrounds, but we have free-camped. Occasionally we’ve left the trailer and driven the Pathfinder on unpaved roads to remote trailheads.
We’re completely satisfied with the Pathfinder and the Airstream. They’ve met or exceeded all our expectations, and we’ve developed a strong affection for both.
We prefer the Pathfinder to the Rav. It’s much more spacious: leg room as well as cargo room. A couple times we’ve slept in it at trailheads, and in this regard it’s far more comfortable than the Rav. It also tracks solidly on the highway, whereas the Rav was slightly skittish. We miss the sports-car-like acceleration of the Rav, but the Pathfinder is no laggard. Best of all, the Pathfinder gets the highway gas mileage we were promised by Nissan: about 22 mpg on its own, and about 16 mpg pulling the trailer. That’s not a big drop from the Rav, which never did better than 26 mpg.
During our travels, we met someone pulling a new, 17’ Casita TT with a Rav identical to the one we owned. He was deeply disappointed because his highway gas mileage had dropped to 11 mpg. It was his first month with the Casita and already he was considering trading up to a more robust TV. His report corroborated our belief that our Rav, despite its stated towing capacity, would not have handled an Escape TT to our satisfaction.
As for the Airstream, it’s superb. It serves us perfectly as a mobile home and office: our company’s winter HQ. It’s intelligently designed, solidly built, highly functional, extremely livable.
The bed is narrower than we’d prefer, but it’s adequate. There’s no kitchen counter space, which can be awkward, but we’ve managed. Though we’d imagined ourselves towing it on unpaved roads to more remote campgrounds and trailheads, we’ve been reluctant to do so. It can probably take the abuse, but we’re disinclined to test it. We prefer to unhitch, leave the trailer behind, and take just the Pathfinder. That’s as critical as we can be of the Airstream, and none of these drawbacks surprised us. We were aware of them long before we purchased it.
We enjoy the Airstream’s spacious dinette. We can leave the table up, rather than be constantly disassembling and reassembling it. We love the panoramic, wrap around, front window. The insulation (including heated, insulated tanks) keeps us comfortable in very cold weather. The shower is huge. So is the fridge. Storage space is vast and convenient. We didn’t think we wanted a vanity/bathroom sink, but we’ve found it useful when the kitchen sink is full of dirty dishes. Even after continually working 30 hours a week in the Airstream, its interior remains very pleasing to us. And the trailer tows beautifully. We use a Reese weight-distribution hitch. No need for an anti-sway device. The Airstream tracks perfectly straight even when huge semis blast by us on the highway.
And the comments we frequently get…
“Love your Airstream!”
“That is the cutest trailer!”
“Oh, I’ve always wanted one of those!”
… are gratifying.
Having never towed anything, we were unnerved the first few days we towed the Airstream. But we quickly got accustomed to it. We’ve safely negotiated narrow, crowded, parking lots. We’ve even learned to back up efficiently, without devolving into the stereotypical wife and husband screaming at each other in the campground. She directs. I follow her directions. So far, no trees, homes, offices, other vehicles or people have been harmed in the process.