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Volkswagen California engines, drive and performance

2015 onwards (change model)
Performance rating: 3.3 out of 53.3

Written by CJ Hubbard Published: 28 February 2023 Updated: 28 February 2023

  • Powered by 2.0-litre engines, now with 150hp or 199hp
  • Performance is more than adequate for a campervan
  • Surprising good to drive in other respects, too

If you’ve only got the minimum to spend on a T6-generation VW California prepare to be patient: 0-62mph in the original entry-level Beach variant takes 19.4 seconds. Powered by a 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine with just 102 horsepower and weighing in excess of 2.3-tonnes that is perhaps hardly a surprise.

This doesn’t stop 150hp models shrugging off 0-62mph in around 14.2 seconds, however, (14.5 seconds with DSG), while the 204hp engine that used to sit at the top of the range goes 0-62mph in 10.8 seconds (10.9 seconds with DSG), which is quick enough to give plenty of regular car drivers a surprise, if you don’t mind risking your crockery.

2019-on T6.1 facelift engine details

Performance figures for the 2019-onwards facelift, which come with 150hp or 199hp and DSG as standard, are very close to the previous versions. The 0-62mph time rises by 0.1 seconds to 14.3 for the lower-powered model and that drops to 11.3 seconds if you plump for the 199hp version.

Upgraded to the latest emissions standards, there is little difference between the way these are early engines perform on the road, though we were impressed with the 199hp model’s refinement during testing.

Regardless of age, all of the diesel engines are turbocharged of course, with the most powerful 204hp and 199hp versions featuring twin-turbo technology to achieve their increased performance.

Top speed is largely irrelevant for this kind of machine, but for the record the 150hp California has a maximum of 111mph / 109mph (manual / DSG), and the 204hp engine manages 121mph / 119mph.

VW California review - 2019 T6.1 model, side view, driving, two-tone paint
VW California review - 2019 T6.1 model, side view, driving, two-tone paint

Hold on a minute…

The California Ocean weighs 200kg more than the California Beach due to all its added equipment, yet VW quotes the same acceleration times for both 150hp variants. This is largely excused by the engine’s sizable 340Nm of torque, which helps shrug off the extra pounds from a standing start.

On the move, you are still likely to find the Beach a more responsive driving experience – but we imagine most California buyers will happily trade this added performance for the extra convenience and equipment of the Ocean or the 2019-onwards Coast model.

Maximum torque for the 102hp engine is 250Nm, while the 204hp and 199hp motors make  a monstrous 450Nm, and feel faster than their 0-62mph times suggest.

What about four-wheel drive?

VW’s 4Motion four-wheel drive system is available as an upgrade to the standard front-wheel drive on the 150hp and 204hp diesels on pre-facelift Ocean specification; after the facelift it’s only optional on the 199hp Ocean.

This too puts a dent in raw performance figures (and a bigger one in the fuel economy), but if you plan to use your California all year round, you may well find the extra traction it offers worth the expense. It’s not a heavy duty system, but it will certainly make light work of a slippery camping ground.

Avoid being too heavy-footed, however, as even with 4Motion a twin-turbo California will still spin its front wheels if you stamp on the accelerator.

And the petrol engines?

Added in July 2017 and discontinued around nine months later, these are badged TSI, and also offer 150hp and 204hp from turbocharged 2.0-litre engines. Beach models were again limited to 150hp only, while the 204hp version comes with the DSG auto as standard.

There is no four-wheel drive option for petrol-powered Californias. Which is probably for the best, as they drink quite enough fuel when only driving the front wheels…

As such, if you do long distances, diesel remains the best choice.

But the TSI petrol engines are sweet revving and rather fun, quieter and sweeter sounding than their TDI equivalents and came with lower list prices. So if you don’t mind the extra running costs and stopping at fuel stations more regularly they are still worth a look.

VW California review - 2019 T6.1 model, rear view, driving, two-tone paint
VW California review - 2019 T6.1 model, rear view, driving, two-tone paint

What’s the VW California like in the corners?

It’s pretty obvious that this is a tall, upright vehicle that places a priority on practicality rather than agility, so we don’t imagine many buyers approach a VW California expecting it to go round corners like a regular family car.

But even compared with the Volkswagen Caravelle – which is based on the same Transporter van – you need to be relatively circumspect, as though they look similar the camper is carrying a lot more weight at roof level.

The pop-up canopy, the mattress and the associated reinforcement all serve to pull the centre of gravity higher in the California, which means it’s more eager to lean over in the corners.

Since the steering is well-judged in both original hydraulic and facelift-onwards electrically power assisted form, you’re unlikely to find yourself getting so carried away that its top-heavy nature becomes a significant issue.

In fact, this is a reassuringly easy vehicle to drive, given its size, and you should arrive at your destination feeling relaxed. Opt for a more powerful engine and the California’s competence is such that you’re unlikely to be concerned about holding up too many other motorists on the way, either.

Certainly it’s easier to handle (and faster) than a car with a caravan.