Volkswagen California review
"The Volkswagen California is the perfect travelling vehicle in which to rest after holiday fun"
- Spacious accommodation
- Easy to drive
- Sensible running costs
- Expensive to buy
- Van-like handling
- One diesel engine
Volkswagen is one of the few car manufacturers that sells a factory-built camper. Based on the Volkswagen Transporter Panel van, which is also available in people carrier form as the Volkswagen Caravelle and Shuttle models, the latest Volkswagen California campervan is another evolutionary step of a theme that's been running since the 1950s.
Even those with no specific interest in cars will be familiar with the Volkswagen camper van. It's become an icon of surf culture, associated with sun-drenched coastlines, crashing waves and a Beach Boys soundtrack. However, despite its name and cultural connection, the Volkswagen California camper hasn't actually been offered in the US for decades.
Its name might be a deliberate ploy to cash in on much loved heritage, but the Volkswagen California is anything but a cynical marketing exercise. In fact, the Transporter and Caravelle are very impressive in their own right, and every aspect of the California camper conversion seems to be just as well considered. That includes a folding rear bench that provides sleeping space for two, and front seats that can rotate to create a lounge area.
A wealth of tweaks and improvements were introduced for the facelifted model, known as the T6.1, in early 2020. New LED headlights and rear lights, alloy wheels and a slim grille sharpen its looks, while interior technology gets a boost and a new seven-speed automatic gearbox is fitted as standard. There's also a new digital 'inclinometer' display that shows if the California is parked on level ground before you set up camp.
California specification varies dramatically between the entry-level Beach to the range-topping California Ocean, and neither should be confused with a full-on motorhome; there's no running water or washing facilities, for example. Volkswagen's use of the phrase 'home from home' in its brochure isn't meant to be literal, and the California is meant more for overnight trips than extended habitation.
The range-topping Ocean model has a sink, electrically pumped fresh water and a waste water compartment, but you'll need to use the two-burner gas stove if you want your water hot. There are 230V sockets supplied from the California's 12V circuit via an inverter, but don't expect to boil a kettle without plugging the camper into external power via the standard electrical hook-up point.
All versions have a pop-up roof which increases headroom and provides a high-mounted bunk bed, with the one in the Ocean operated electrically.
The California isn’t cheap regardless of spec; prices start at around £50,000 and the long list of optional extras quickly force that figure upwards. Despite the price, Volkswagen's overnighter still has the market pretty much sewn up. There are rivals based on the Ford Transit, Renault Trafic, Peugeot Boxer and other medium vans but none that you can buy 'off-the-shelf" from your local dealer.
For campervan buyers wanting more space, VW also offers the larger Grand California camper, which starts at over £70,000 and includes an onboard toilet and shower room, as well as a separate living space. A smaller entry-level VW camper will also be offered later this year, with the Caddy California offering enough space for two, an optional mini kitchen and detachable tent extension.
MPG, running costs & CO2
Volkswagen claims that the 148bhp diesel California can achieve up to 33.2mpg, and even the most powerful 196bhp version manages 33.4mpg. CO2 emissions for both are up to 223g/km. The 4MATIC four-wheel drive version drops that figure to 31.2mpg with emissions rising to 237g/km.
Fuel costs aside, the California ought to be relatively inexpensive to run. It's based on a commercial vehicle and vans need to turn their employers a profit, so running costs can't be too high. However, while routine servicing costs are similar between van and camper, the California's larger tyres will be more expensive to replace when worn.
When it comes to insurance, we suggest obtaining a quote before deciding to buy a California. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) places the 148bhp diesel Ocean in insurance group 29, but costs are likely to vary considerably between buyers.
Engines, drive & performance
If you allow for the fact that the California is based on a commercial van, this camper gives a reasonable account of itself on a twisty road. The steering may feel rather vague and imprecise compared to that of a family car, but you quickly get used to the VW's extra bulk and won't find it intimidating to drive. It's been tweaked slightly for the 6.1 version but feels very similar on the move, and the fear of upsetting the plates and pots in the cupboards is likely to ensure a more relaxed pace.
UK examples come with a choice of two 2.0-litre diesel engines and a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox. The Coast trim is only available with the less powerful 148bhp engine and front-wheel drive, taking 14.3 seconds from 0-62mph.
Pick the plusher California Ocean model, and you get a choice of both the 148bhp entry-level engine and a 196bhp version that can be specced with Volkswagen’s 4MOTION four-wheel drive.
The 196bhp engine uses twin turbochargers, which endow it with an impressive turn of speed. A time of 11.3 seconds to get from 0-62mph for the four-wheel drive California doesn't look particularly impressive on paper but it makes the car very easy to drive on motorways. If you opt for the front-wheel drive version, 0-62mph takes 11.9 seconds.
It's quiet too, with more noise from the wind as it passes over its bulky body than from the engine itself. We found the automatic transmission in the updated California felt slightly smoother than before too, adding to its refinement.
Interior & comfort
Van drivers are expected to spend several hours behind the wheel every day, and the VW Transporter – the basis of the California – was designed with that in mind. The dashboard is actually very car-like in terms of layout, and its commercial vehicle nature is only given away by the steep angle of the steering wheel. You'll even find Volkswagen's sophisticated Active Information dashboard digital display in the Ocean trim.
While both the Coast and Ocean models have all the expected family car must-have features, such as alloy wheels, air conditioning, central locking and DAB radio, it's the camping equipment that really defines what the California is all about. And it's easy to see where the extra cost of Volkswagen’s camper goes compared to the Transporter van or Caravelle People Carrier.
As standard, Coast and Ocean get swivelling front seats, a rear bench that converts into a two-person bed, and a pop-up roof that forms a kind of rooftop tent with a high-mounted bed that'll take two at a squeeze. There's also an exterior mains power hook-up, a second battery for interior lighting and entertainment, and blackout blinds for all the windows. You also get a folding table that attaches to the sliding side door, and a pair of additional folding chairs.
The Ocean is closer to being a full 'camper' by offering a fixed kitchen area with cupboards, sink, cool/warm box and gas bottle storage – the latter feeding a two-burner stove so you can make a cup of tea using fresh water stored in the on-board tank. There's a waste-water tank, too, but no genuine washing or toilet facilities, so you'll want to stay at a campsite where such amenities are nearby.
The Ocean's pop-up roof is electric rather than manually operated, and you also get a sophisticated monitoring system to keep an eye on battery and water levels, as well as three-zone climate control. Oceans also have an auxiliary heating system to warm your camper up while you're away. It really does offer a lavish overnight sleeping solution, but seasoned campers used to roughing it under canvas will wonder if all these extra touches are really worthwhile.
Practicality & boot space
Combine the steeply angled steering wheel with a high-set driver's seat that feels more like an armchair, and the California is very comfortable. The view forwards and sideways is extremely good, but you'll need to get used to having barely any view backwards or over your shoulder. Fortunately, the mirrors are big and do a good job of eliminating blind spots.
Passengers will have barely any reason to complain. The passenger bench is mounted towards the back of the cabin, and can slide fore and aft along floor-mounted rails. Legroom is seemingly limitless no matter where the bench is positioned, but the traditional boot area will vary in size accordingly. Fortunately, there's masses of storage space distributed throughout, from the pair of big glove boxes, huge door bins and bottle compartments, to the drawers under the rear bench.
In camping mode, you'll find the 'downstairs' bed can be converted from the rear bench to be more generous in width than the one you can assemble beneath the pop-up roof – both are two metres long but the lower bed is 1,140mm wide compared to 1,200 for the upper one. The roof is fairly easy to raise on both models but the Ocean's electric operation takes all the effort out of it. Folding the lower bed is a little counterintuitive at first but becomes much easier with practice.
Reliability & safety
The California comes with the same three year/100,000-mile warranty as the Volkswagen Caravelle people carrier. It covers everything that comes as part of the California package, but camping-specific features are bound to be the subject of reasonable wear and tear expectations. Neither the California or the Caravelle were featured in our 2020 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey but Volkswagen finished in 19th place out of 30 brands, with 20.2% of owners reporting a fault in the first year of ownership.
The Caravelle attracted a four-star rating after independent Euro NCAP crash testing, and the California ought to protect its front seat occupants in a similar way, with six airbags offering extra reassurance. However, the addition of camping equipment and other extras make it hard to predict how those travelling in the back will fare in a crash.
Additionally, the California gets an array of safety technology as standard including traffic sign recognition and crosswind assist, with the latter capable of automatically applying the brakes during strong winds.
Also featured is rear parking assist, which monitors for nearby cars when reversing. Front assist and automatic city braking are also fitted along with adaptive cruise control.