Volkswagen has been synonymous with camper vans since Westfalia converted a VW Type 2 van into the now famous Camper back in the late 50s. This, the Volkswagen California, is its spiritual successor.
You get two models to choose from – Beach and Ocean. The former has room to sleep four, but doesn’t provide a lot else in terms habitational creature comforts. By contrast, the Ocean has everything you need for a week away – including the kitchen sink – all you need is access to a toilet.
Volkswagen California camping
Beach models are the cheapest with prices starting from £39,651. They offer sleeping for four thanks to a pop-out roof that reveals a double bed above the cab and seats in the interior that fold flat to provide sleeping for two more people. Complete darkness comes thanks to a variety of different blinds that roll out and pop into the windows.
That’s not the end of the Beach’s tricks, though – there is a pair of folding seats hidden in the boot lid and a table that unclips from the van’s sliding rear door for alfresco dining, but if you’re holidaying in the UK you’ll also want to spec the £432 windout awning that’ll keep you dry in showers.
For basic camping duties, the Beach model will do just fine, but if you’re more of a glamper than a camper, you’ll need to go for the top-of-the-range Ocean model that starts from £48,918.
It gets the same sleeping arrangements as the Beach model but you don’t need to manually wind out your pop-out roof because an electric motor does it for you.
To the Beach’s hostel-style living quarters, the Ocean is more of a studio flat complete with a hob, sink (hooked up to a 30-litre water supply), cupboards and a 42-litre fridge. You can even have a shower, albeit a cold one, for an extra £258.
When you’re not sleeping ‘downstairs’, the Ocean’s front two seats swing round to face backwards into the cab and what was a bed pops back up to form a bench. Swing out the folding table from the left-hand side of the van and ét voila – you have a kitchen diner.
Like any studio flat, space inside the Ocean is at a premium, but Volkswagen gives you sporting chance of keeping things tidy by providing a variety of drawers, cupboards and wardrobes. Although, with no way of securing your baked beans and spam, it’s best to take corners with a degree of apprehension if you don’t want to spend most of your holiday reorganising cupboards.
Volkswagen California dashboard
From behind the wheel, the California feels much less utilitarian than you might expect. Much of the dashboard is made from soft-touch plastics and you can choose from a variety of trim pieces that, for a van at least, look expensive. The layout is typically Volkswagen with controls that are intuitively laid out and easy to understand.
You get three infotainment systems to choose from, starting with the standard five-inch Composition colour radio display. It’s really just a basic stereo with six speakers and a USB plug to charge your phone and play music. For £432 you can upgrade it for a 6.33-inch display, but this bigger screen doesn’t have any extra features so it’s not really worth having.
If you’re going to upgrade, you’re much better off buying the £900 Discover Media Navigation system that (as you probably guessed) has a built-in sat-nav. That said, even it lacks features that you would expect in a car – you don’t get live traffic updates or Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for smartphone mirroring.
Volkswagen California Driving
Infotainment excluded, getting behind the wheel of the California feels very much like driving a huge SUV, although it makes even a Range Rover look low slung. Its height means you can see over tall hedges and you feel elevated above the hustle and bustle that’s going on around you.
If you’ll spend a lot of time driving in town, or just want to make your California as relaxing to drive as possible, choose the £1,690 DSG automatic gearbox that shift gears extremely smoothly and gives you one less thing to worry about when you’re driving what is, at the end of the day, a rather large vehicle through town.
The auto can be a little jerky at low speed – sometimes you have to press the accelerator a little harder than feels natural to creep forwards and backwards – but even with it fitted the California is surprisingly easy to park. The tight-turning front wheels give it excellent manoeuvrability and the corners of the body are easy to judge, making it simpler to back into tight parking spaces than you might think. That said, it’s still worth investing in front and rear parking sensors (£420) and a rear-view camera (£264).
Get clear of the city and the California proves itself to be a relaxing cruiser, although how relaxing depends on what engine you go for (more on that later). Once again, the California’s towering height helps – you look into the eyes of HGV drivers and as a result, you feel less exposed than you would in a car or even a big luxury SUV.
Suspension comfort isn’t as cushioned is you’d get in a luxury car but it feels still feels pretty comfortable and the interior is quiet. Although it looks like a Transporter van, the California is actually based on the Caravelle minibus, so it has extra sound deadening that keeps the worst of road and wind noise out.
Encounter a series of corners and it’s clear that the California’s comfortable driving experience can be directly attributed to soft suspension that serves up gentle lean if you drive into bends too quickly. That said, no one is going to buy the California expecting it to be a B-road blaster.
You probably wouldn’t expect it to be particularly well suited to off-roading either, but you’d be wrong. Volkswagen’s 4Motion four-wheel-drive system is available in combination with the 150 and 204hp diesel engines in Ocean models. It costs around £3,000 depending on the engine you go for and makes the California surprisingly adept in the rough stuff – combined with the relatively decent ground clearance, a 4Motion-equipped California is perfectly capable of dragging itself out of a waterlogged campsite.
Four-wheel-drive will also be helpful if you plan to tow, although all Californias have a towing capacity of 2,500kg with a braked trailer.
Volkswagen California engines
Buy a California and you can choose from three 2.0-litre diesel engines, with 102hp, 150hp or 204hp.
The 102hp engine is only available in Beach models and it really isn’t powerful enough in a vehicle the size of the California. Getting from 0-62mph takes a glacial 19.4 seconds which means it doesn’t just feel slow – it really is very slow. Overtakes have to be extremely well planned and the engine feels pretty stressed on the motorway thanks to a lethargic top speed of just 95mph. It has to be said, though – fuel economy of 44.8mpg isn’t too bad in something the California’s size.
A much better bet is the 150hp model that’s available in both Beach and Ocean trims. It’s quieter and smoother than the basic unit and – with 0-62mph taking 14.2 seconds – doesn’t have to be worked quite so hard to extract decent performance. An official fuel economy figure of 44.1mpg means it costs almost exactly the same as the basic model to run.
If you want to go all out, though, you’ll need the 204hp version which has two turbochargers (compared to the single turbo in other models) for a little extra oomph. Its 0-62mph time of 10.8 seconds might not sound that spectacular compared to, say, a normal family car but you’ll find it plenty quick enough in the California and it has a decent amount of power in reserve for overtaking at motorway speeds. If you’re holidaying in Germany it’ll crank up to a top speed of 123mph on the autobahn.
Which model to go for?
If you’ve got this far then there’s a good chance you genuinely want to buy a campervan in which case the California should be at the top of your list. If you’re going to do it, do it properly – get the £52,161 Ocean model with a 150hp 2.0-litre diesel engine and an automatic gearbox. In this spec, not only do you get a brilliant campervan, but you also get a van that won’t be a pain to drive every day.