- Super-sized California XXL camper based on the Crafter van tested for the first time
- Fully equipped for life on the road, including built-in bathroom with toilet and shower
- Great to drive, great to live in – it’s an outstanding upgrade over smaller campervans
Read our full and detailed review of the new VW Grand California campervan - we've driven and tested this new motorhome ahead of it going on sale in the UK in October 2019.
There is a lot of information here, so click the headings below to jump straight to the section that most interests, or keep reading for our full Volkswagen Grand California review:
The Grand California is a campervan based on the Volkswagen Crafter large van, and it joins the VW range above the existing non-grand California model that’s based on the Volkswagen Transporter medium van.
A camper based on a large van is not a new idea – there are any number of third party conversions available, including several constructed on the very same VW Crafter platform. But the Grand California is the first to be factory-built by a fully-fledged van maker, in much the same way that for decades the smaller California was the only factory-built camper of any kind.
It comes in two sizes, labelled 600 and 680. The first is big, the second is bigger – though only the 600 gets the raised ‘camper’ roof, with the 680 more proportionally similar to a van.
We're testing the 600 version here. Full dimensions can be found on our dedicated Grand California Dimensions page.
Volkswagen takes enormous pride in its California products, so this new flagship was never going to be anything but exceptionally well thought-through. And for the most part VW has succeeded in creating a hugely appealing mobile home.
Like the regular California, the Grand version offers beautifully integrated solutions for living life on the road, including a kitchen area with twin-hob cooker, sink and fridge-freezer, a dining area, and sleeping space for up to four – plus all the storage space you’re likely to need to surround yourself with the comforts of home.
The major benefit of being based on a larger van, however, is that the Grand California has room for a fully-fitted bathroom, complete with toilet, sink and shower.
It’s amazing what a difference this makes to your immediate sense of liberty, even compared with its little brother. As long as you set out with your preparations correct – meaning gas bottles and water tank full – you can take this campervan anywhere, and still have all the facilities you need.
The living area inside the Grand California is a thoroughly clean and modern design, dominated by smooth white fixtures and fittings that have a cool and sophisticated air – more like a minimalist Japanese hotel room than a chintzy gin-palace on wheels.
Everything is softly and subtly backlit rather than dazzlingly bright – there’s even ambient lighting in a choice of four colours round the rear bed – and all of the corners are rounded to stop you injuring yourself at night. Though if you’re tall and don’t occasionally bang your head where the ceiling changes height you’re a better person than I am.
Additional lighting is available from touch-sensitive and dimmable strips in every area where extra illumination might be required, including over the kitchen work surfaces, the dining table and throughout the sleeping areas.
The floor is wood-effect vinyl, intended to evoke the deck of a ship – an idea VW might possibly have nabbed from the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo.
Storage mostly comes in the form of aircraft-style lockers, which cling to the walls wherever they’re least likely to be in the way, but there are soft-close drawers with pop-out handles, multiple cupboards with the same, and unobtrusive alcoves throughout the vehicle as well.
Everything feels high quality and robust, and you’ll spend weeks inside before you’re confident you’ve tracked down all the thoughtful touches.
Speaking of which, the camping functions and facilities are controlled and monitored by an easy to use touchscreen panel mounted adjacent to the bathroom door.
(Don't worry, you can set it to English, the German-language version is just the only avaialble professional photo.)
The cab and dashboard are identical to those of the Crafter van, but this is no bad thing as far as we’re concerned. Quality is top notch, the infotainment works well, and there are lots of useful storage areas, including triple-decker door bins and a shelf that runs nearly the whole width of the dash.
Covers for the dash-top cubbies wouldn’t go amiss, though, as if you put anything light coloured into them it will reflect annoyingly in the windscreen. This includes USB cables for the sockets up there.
At just 820mm by 820mm wide and 1,850mm tall, it sounds very compact. But again, clever packaging means there’s room inside for a toilet, a sink and a shower – plus a surprisingly generous amount of additional storage.
The sink folds up when not needed, and the showerhead retracts to function as the tap; the holder for the showerhead even has two height settings, though the difference between them is minimal.
In addition to the obvious open shelves on the wall above the toilet, there are more hidden behind the mirror, while the upper cupboard beneath the sink has a toilet roll holder on the back of its door – a design feature intended to keep the toilet paper dry. A nice idea, but only partially successful in our experience.
A 110-litre water tank and a water heater with 40-degree and 60-degree settings should comfortably see you through a few days away – though do be aware that the cassette-style toilet only has a 10-litre waste capacity (the cassette is accessed via a flap in the outside of the van that locks with the central locking).
The main waste water tank is 90 litres; you can monitor your fresh and ‘grey’ water levels via the touchscreen panel, which is also where the heating controls are situated.
We found showering in the bathroom – which is really more of a wet room – surprisingly roomy, but there is also an outdoor shower attachment at the back of the Grand California as standard. Don’t think this is just for washing off your shoes, either – it too has a temperature control.
Heating for both the water and the van when parked in camping mode is provided by a pair of gas bottles stored in the rear load area beneath the bed platform. These also provide the gas for cooking. An optional upgrade is offered to use diesel for heating, too.
While all versions can carry four passengers, as standard the Grand California has sleeping space for only two people – and that is all you can have in the longer 680 variant.
The 600 model we’ve been testing made full use of its raised camper roof by demonstrating its optional second sleeping area over the cab – boosting the total number of sleepers to four.
The main sleeping area for both the 600 and the 680 versions is located at the back of the Grand California, on a platform above rear storage compartment.
In the 680, which has a bigger bed, you sleep in-line with the main length of the van. In the 600 you sleep across it, and the maximum width available is 1.93m – anyone close to six-foot tall is going to start thinking it’s a bit tight. If you are that tall, you’ll also have to get used to having a cupboard right over your head (they surround the bed).
The 600 also features a small hanging rail on one side, and a couple of slim alcoves in either rear corner – useful for stowing reading glasses and other bedroom essentials at night. One of these has a pair of USB sockets for powering phones and tablets.
The optional sleeping area over the cab is aimed at children, but the side opposite the sliding door extends to 1.9m, so a reasonable large percentage of adults will be able to make do up there as well.
Be warned, there is not much headroom. Still, at least there’s a sturdy ladder for access (unlike in the smaller Transporter-fornia, where you have to jump up via the front seats), plus another couple of USB sockets for powering phones and tablets in an adjacent alcove.
There’s also a net to stop you falling on your head during the night, while the lighting up there can be switched off remotely via the touch panel – for occasions where the kids just won’t take the hint that it’s time to say goodnight.
We’ve spent a couple of nights camping in the Grand California 600 so far, and had no problem with the comfort of the main bed at all.
The mattress is 80mm thick, and sits on a complex-looking steel spring arrangement – and despite the fact both are actually in separate sections so that the bed can be folded up to the walls to increase rear storage room if required, we awoke refreshed and free from any unusual aches or pains.
While you can’t help but notice the surrounding cupboards, at no point did we feel worried about banging bonce on these, either.
So though we can’t speak for the secondary area – there just wasn’t enough head room or leg room for us to seriously consider checking it out – sleeping in the main bed proved to be a resounding success.
With no exaggeration, we’re close to describing the Grand California 600 as simply brilliant from a driving perspective.
We already know that the Crafter is a fine van – it’s won the Parkers Van of the Year Award twice in a row in 2018 and 2019 – so perhaps it should be no surprise that turning it into a mobile home with a kerbweight of over 3.0 tonnes doesn't trouble it. But surely no vehicle so big and so heavy has any right to be as easy to drive as this.
And it’s not just easy – it’s actually a pleasure to drive in all circumstances except those where you need to turn it round in a particularly small area. Even then it’s not difficult to handle, with front, rear and side mounted sensors plus a rear camera available to make life more straightforward.
Three things really hit home, though.
Firstly, for something so big and tall, the 600 always feels unexpectedly nimble. Electric power-steering assistance makes turning the wheel effortless, but you always remain in touch with the road. The turning circle is surprisingly tight, and although it does – inevitably – lean in the corners, it doesn’t lean very much, and the way it moves is very controlled. Honestly, it’s fun.
Secondly, the Grand California is comfortable – over bad surfaces and long distances. The seats are great and the suspension is compliant. The vehicle’s weight and length help with this, no doubt, ironing the worst imperfections out of the road surface.
Thirdly, the engine and gearbox combination also work very well.
Like the Crafter, the Grand California is powered by a modern 2.0-litre TDI turbodiesel engine. Some cynics may immediately worry that 2.0-litre isn’t big enough for a vehicle of this weight and type, but that perhaps is a failure to appreciate modern turbocharging technology.
Not only does the engine in the Grand California produce 177hp, it also makes 410Nm of torque – and this all-important maximum muscle is available from 1,500-2,000rpm.
While VW doesn’t quote a 0-62mph acceleration time for the big camper, it pulls away from a standstill with plenty of vigour, and has no trouble passing other traffic on the motorway, or when climbing uphill.
And although the Grand California is front-wheel drive as standard – 4Motion four-wheel drive is optional, and we’re yet to test this – the closest we got to experiencing traction issues was a touch of torque-steer when we were a little heavy-footed coming out of slower turns. This is a very well sorted thing to drive.
Faced with some fairly extreme mountain roads on the international launch in Gran Canaria, we did need to work the engine fairly hard on occasion. But the Grand California also comes as standard with the Crafter’s excellent eight-speed automatic gearbox, which is smooth and responsive, and swiftly makes up for any breathlessness by sorting out another gear.
All told, this campervan delivers an enormously impressive driving performance. Better overall, we would say, than the established California.
Though the smaller model is available with a more powerful engine, and will ultimately be faster, the Grand California is a more satisfying steer in its entirety, and should ensure you arrive at your destination relaxed and ready to enjoy your holiday.
We’ve spent three days in its company so far, and enjoyed every minute of it.
You’ll have to be neat and tidy to be sure not to clutter up the interior – the space available is still ultimately limited, after all – but everything from the way it drives to the ease of living inside it fully meets up to the high standards and expectations set by the existing California model.
Using the bathroom is simple and convenient, and might just revolutionise the way you go camping – or convince someone who wouldn’t usually be interested to give it a try.
Setting the van up for the night is relatively straightforward, since there are blinds and mosquito nets built into the frames of all the skylights and windows, except the windows around the cab.
Darkening the cab is probably the biggest faff of the whole exercise, but even this isn’t a major deal; magnetic blinds similar to those used by the regular California seal the side windows, while the windscreen uses a fabric blind held in place by the sunvisors and a pair of collapsible fibreglass poles. Takes maybe five minutes in total to complete.
The sliding door opening also has built in mosquito nets to keep the pests out, so you can leave this open for ventilation. All of the rear windows pop out to aid cooling as well, though unless you go for the optional camping air-conditioner, the van will likely be rather warm inside in the summer.
The fridge / freezer is positioned to make it easy to access from the outside as well as the inside of the Grand California, and there are power sockets on the back of the kitchen counter that can be used from the outside, too.
Up to four 230v plug sockets are available in total, but be aware that these only work if the camper is plugged into an external power supply (as many professional campsites offer); there are up to six USB sockets for the living and sleeping areas, and these work all the time.
Both sets of plugs are in addition to those in the cab, which features a 230v socket in the driver’s seat base that’s powered by the ignition, and the option of numerous USB connections in addition to old-school 12v sockets.
It’s also worth noting that the kitchen work surfaces in the Grand California 600 can be extended at either end to increase the work area. The dining table slides on a rail, and can be removed altogether (as you’re supposed to do when driving). The table will easily accommodate a family of four, with the driver and front passenger seats swivelling round to face the rear seats fixed to the bathroom wall.
It really is a proper home away from home.
We’ve already mentioning the optional parking aids and roof-mounted air-conditioning unit, and you’ll have spotted the two-tone paint in the pictures, but this is just scratching the surface.
Want an awning? Done. Want a table and chairs to go under the awning? No problem – and they store out of the way on the inside of the rear doors. Want a way to get around when your Grand California is all set up at the campsite already? Then take look at the bike rack (though if you don’t fancy that, a bike will fit in the rear storage area if you fold the bed up to the wall).
Upping the tech factor, VW also offers solar panels to keep the leisure battery topped up, a satellite dish for TV reception, a 4G Wi-Fi router, and a Bluetooth sound system that allows passengers in the back to listen to something different to those in the front when you’re on the move, or combines the power of every on-board speaker to dominate the soundscape at the camp.
Don’t be surprised when the neighbouring tent complains.
You get a decent amount of active safety kit as standard, with all UK Grand Californias upgraded to include autonomous emergency braking (AEB) in addition to crosswind assist. But you can add to this with blindspot monitors, active lane-keeping assist and VW’s slightly mad trailer assist system that allows you to reverse with a trailer using the electric mirror knob as a joystick.
The lane-keeping assist works impressively well, though can be a bit aggressive in combination with the blindspot monitors, as the duo will actively resist you if it thinks you’re cutting in too close in front of another car.
This is only properly annoying when the other vehicle being detected is actually two lanes away, and the combo is definitely worth considering on a camper of this size.
At the time of writing (May 2019), there is still no official UK pricing for the Grand California, but the latest official estimate is that it will start from £69,000 in basic 600 specification. This £4k more than the last time we were given a hint, but even so, VW is clearly keen to keep it under 70 grand.
The Grand California is set to go on sale in the UK in October 2019.
If you’re wincing at the price you perhaps haven’t looked at how much third-party Crafter camping conversions already cost – the Grand California is likely to be more expensive (just like the standard California is pricier than other Transporter-based campers), but it’s not looking like it will be a huge amount more.
And for the quality this factory-built effort gives you we aren't expecting to have any issue with its value.
This is, quite simply, an excellent piece of kit. Well thought-out, well put together, enjoyable to drive and great to spend time in. As far as we’re concerned, the Grand California is exactly the kind of vehicle that brilliant memories are made from, and we’re certain it’s going to make a lot of buyers very, very happy.
Congratulations, Volkswagen: job done.
For full details of the VW Grand California’s interior and exterior dimensions, including a comparison between the 600 and 680 variants, click here to see our dedicated page.