Original factory-built camper van is pricey but brilliant
- Stunning piece of product design
- Sleeps four people in style
- Petrol and diesel engine range
- Comfortable and easy to drive
- Lots of clever packaging and storage
- Not cheap – but still good value
- Entry-level engine rather slow
- Kitchen facilities limited to Ocean model
- Feels top-heavy when cornering
- Sat-nav and parking sensors optional
Volkswagen has been building camper vans for more than 60 years, and the VW California in particular for over a quarter of a century. At a crude level, this latest 'T6' version – like those before it – is simply a very clever conversion of the equivalent Volkswagen Transporter van. But the California remains the only camper on sale to be factory-built by a proper carmaker and, like the matching Caravelle MPV, the fit and finish is superb. It is an exceedingly smart piece of design, and you don’t have to spend long with one to understand how it’s come to command such a cult following.
If you’re planning to buy one of these, prepare to get used to compliments – as even hardened camping enthusiasts find it difficult not to express their admiration for VW’s holistic approach to the construction of these machines. Being the only factory-built camper, it has no direct rivals; though there are plenty of companies who offer alternative conversions on other vans such the Ford Transit Custom and Fiat Ducato (as well as non-factory Volkswagen efforts), nothing quite matches the California for quality unless you’re prepared to pay even more than VW charges.
And while Volkswagen’s price certainly isn’t cheap, the in-house engineering effort allows the German firm to pull off tricks such as hiding a pair of outdoor chairs in the tailgate, with the corresponding table disguised as an interior panel for the sliding door.
Two trims, three power outputs and four sleepers
This latest California, which went on sale in the UK in August 2015, is essentially an updated version of the preceding T5 model and comes in two trim levels: Beach and Ocean.
At launch there were three 2.0-litre TDI turbodiesel engines to choose from, offering 102hp, 150hp and 204hp; the 102hp engine has now been dropped, while as of July 2017 a pair of turbo petrol engines with 150hp and 204hp were added as well.
A seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox is an optional upgrade over the six-speed manual on the two more powerful engines, with the further option of 4Motion four-wheel drive reserved exclusively for the Ocean.
Up to seven passengers can ride in the California (if you select the right options), but unless you’re very friendly it only sleeps four – two “downstairs” with the rear bench seat converted to a full two-berth bed, and two “upstairs” on the roof beneath the pop-up canopy.
The upper pair even get sprung wooden bed slats under their mattress for added comfort; just be warned you need to be nimble to get up there.
From Beach to Ocean
There’s a substantial price jump between the California Beach and the California Ocean (£8,000 at the time of writing – enough for a decent city car), but the extra cash buys you power activation for that pop-up roof, a “premium” dashboard and a fully equipped kitchenette, complete with two-ring gas stove, 42-litre refrigerator and stainless steel sink.
You’ll still have to make your own arrangements for bathroom facilities, however.
The Parkers Verdict
Rounding-out the package, with up to 204hp and a lot of Volkswagen’s latest safety and infotainment kit available, the California is also a surprisingly pleasant vehicle to drive. You’ll never mistake it for anything other than what it is – a van – but it’s comfortable enough and refuses to go to pieces at first sight of a corner. So road trips hold no fear here, and of course you’ll be certain of a bed for the night when you get there.