Airstream. Isn’t that an American caravan?
Indeed it is. The sort that even people who hate caravans have to admit looks quite cool. Ford decided they represented the ultimate American journey so it designed a car version and this is it. In the metal – or rather fibreglass as this is a concept car – it’s stunning. That silver paintwork shimmers in the sun and it’s impressive up close purely for its sheer size (its dimensions are roughly the same as a Range Rover Sport). You certainly wouldn’t lose it in the car park at Sainsbury’s on a Saturday afternoon. And if you drove it down the local high street people would probably start sending camera phone pictures to the tabloids as proof that aliens had landed.
So apart from those outlandish looks what’s the Ford Airstream all about?
Its designer Freeman Thomas describes it as ‘the ultimate MPV’ and he’s probably right on the money. It’s the Ford design team’s idea of what future MPVs might be like and if they’re right, motoring in the next decade’s going to be anything but bland. It’s a bit like a widened bubble car that’s been massively elongated and given room for five people to relax in comfort. Rather than seats in two or three rows, the interior has been laid out so the three rear passengers can sit around as if in a small sitting room – or a caravan even.
There’s plenty of room inside then…
Well yes and no. Climbing into the driver’s seat is actually quite awkward. While the door’s big, the aperture is pretty small because the designers wanted it to represent a spaceship’s escape hatch. And there’s a high sill so getting in involves standing on the step, putting one leg in and swinging yourself round while crouching down to slip into the seat and ensuring the door doesn’t slam on your trailing leg all in one carefully co-ordinated action. Once you’re in, the pod-like front chairs are actually quite comfortable. And that windscreen gives you a great view of the road and the sky. Along with the glass roof, it also turns the Airstream into a greenhouse when the sun shines, something Ford admits it’ll have to work on.
What about the other doors?
The rear is a curious arrangement. You open the tailgate and swing out a pair of barn doors. It seems a bit overly complicated but does mean you can get access to the storage bins under the rear seats. The long door on the passenger side makes it easier for the front passenger to get in than the driver. But then the driver comes a pretty dismal second in the Airstream scheme of things. That long wheelbase means it’s not the most manoeuvrable vehicle on the road. Combine this with its weight and you have a car with pretty leaden reactions. But while the body shape is a bit of a flight of fancy, the engine most certainly isn’t.
Yes, tell me about that
It’s Ford’s vision of future power: a battery driven engine that can be recharged on the hoof by a hydrogen fuel cell. Their view is that fuel cells like to provide a constant stream of energy, and the on-off nature of normal driving isn’t suitable for them. So instead it’s got Lithium Ion batteries that power a motor at the front wheels. This is charged by plugging into the mains and when the engine is decelerating it turns into a generator to recharge the batteries. However that won’t be enough to sustain the charge for long, so when battery power falls below a certain level it’s replenished by a hydrogen-powered fuel cell. It works remarkably well with instant power delivery and a range of about 225 miles before both hydrogen and the batteries are exhausted.
All sounds very futuristic. Goes with the interior then…
All that white plastic around the dash and the pod seats look a bit spacey which is no surprise considering the designers cite 2001: A Space Odyssey as their inspiration. But it’s in the back that things get really other worldly. In the middle of the floor there’s something that looks like the Time Rotor part of the console in Dr Who’s Tardis. It’s actually a 360-degree screen called a Dynascan. It’s the smallest ever made and can be used to play games on or simply as decoration so you can have it replicating a lava lamp or the flames of a fire to give the interior a really homely touch. Typical concept car detail...
The Airstream is certainly funky. But the interior takes things a step too far beyond practicality to be real. For example, we can’t see the bench seats lining the sides getting the go-ahead from Ford’s safety department. However, it’s eye-catching and looks like nothing else on the road, except er, an Airstream caravan. The engine is interesting. Ford is already testing the technology on various road cars so this feature at least is more likely to see the light of day than many of the Airstream’s other touches.