Peter BaberSee other motorhome reviews written by Peter Baber
Innovative, stylish and solidly built, the latest offering from VW has a great deal going for it. But does it justify the price tag?
Two years after making its debut as a concept 'van - known as the California XXL - at the Caravan Salon in Düsseldorf, the new OEM vehicle from Volkswagen, based on the second-generation VW Crafter, is finally here in right-hand drive form.
It is quite a change from the concept vehicle, which features considerably more roof glass and one or two extra techie features that presumably didn't make the final cut.
The 'van is available in two versions: the 600, with a transverse bed and a bulbous, hard GRP roof housing an optional bed, and the longer 680, with fixed single beds in the rear.
In the week that VW started taking orders for the new models, ready for delivery in spring - and before their appearance at the NEC this autumn - we took the 680 out for a spin.
With no bulbous roof, the 680 is sleeker and more attractive that the 600, but that Crafter nose still sticks out a bit. Exterior decals are on the dinstinctly utilitarian side, too, although you do get alloy wheels and there is an option of having one of four different two-tone colour schemes.
The 'van makes for a very smooth ride, particularly with the eight-speed gearbox in our test model. The 680 has an MTPLM of 3880kg, so it can't be driven by anyone without a C1 licence, but it doesn't feel quite as boxy as the Ducato, which usually can be.
On the road
When the T6 was launched, easily the most significant development from the T5 was the huge range of safety options. These are also included on the new Crafter.
So you get Front Assist with City Emergency Braking, Cross Wind Assist and Hill Start Assist, as well as front and rear parking sensors all fitted as standard. Other options include Adaptive Cruise Control and a rear-view camera.
The dashboard is fairly pared back, but you do get two plastic cups with holders, and two other drinks holders. You need never get thirsty in this 'van!
There is a USB socket with an audio input on one side, and a 12V socket on the other, and cubbyholes above the glove box, next to the gear lever and above the sunshades.
Even with right-hand drive, the sliding door is still behind the driver on the Continental side, so you need to be careful getting out by the side of the road. Apparently, VW has no current plans to change this design.
Although this is a two-berth, there are still two travel seats with belts in the front dinette, with Isofix fittings for a child seat.
Lounging & dining
There are two cubbyholes on the lower part of the wall - one with a set of USB sockets - that are much more accessible when you remove the table.
But VW has clearly had one eye to eating outside. Included as standard in all Grand Californias are two outdoor chairs and a table, which fit into snug pockets in the rear barn doors. The chairs are for sitting, rather than lounging, but they are useful all the same especially if you opt for the roll-out awning (£954). The clever design of the 'van even includes a special slot for the awning winder.
This area is well lit with a striplight, and there are two mains sockets. Two small drawers above two larger drawers make up the storage under the work surface, with overhead lockers above.
The 70-litre drawer fridge is also positioned at the end of the peninsula, so it is easily reached if you are sitting just outside.
A shelf opens onto the outside edge of the kitchen unit, revealing a TV connection, two USB sockets and another mains socket. So you can take your entertainment outside, too.
There are individually switched and dimmable striplights on both sides for reading, and cubbyholes for glasses and your book; although only one of these is additionally furnished with a USB socket for charging your phone.
The six windows and rooflight back here mean the area is well ventilated. Should you be likely to tour in warmer climes, you can also have a lightweight (32kg) air conditioner installed in the roof here, which runs off the mains. So many windows makes shutting up for the night marginally more laborious, of course, and it is worth pointing out at this stage that the 680 does not come with cab blinds.
The separate blinds that VW supplies - which rely on magnets and a pole system for their attachment - are better than the sucker variety, but still a bit fiddly to put in place.
One innovation you immediately notice is the motion-sensitive light that comes on as you step in. As with much else in this motorhome, the room looks rather like what you might find in an aeroplane - white moulded surfaces and a fold-up basin.
The tap doubles as a shower, and there is a toilet roll holder inside the cupboard underneath.
We liked the way the cupboard door above the basin has a mirror on both sides. So if one side steams up while you are shaving, there is always the other: both are well lit by a striplight.
VW has wisely seen fit to include two drainage holes in the shower tray - ideal for when the 'van isn't totally level - and although there is no central light, there is a roof vent. The toilet is circular and on our test model, came with an optional (£216) SOG unit.
Thanks to its extra length, the 680 has four cupboards in the rear here, while the 600 only has two. Two are in front of the partition, so are easily accessible when the bed is down.
Unusually, none of them is fitted with a hanging rail: VW has perhaps decided that the kind of people who want a Grand California either wear clothes that don't need hanging up, or aren't too fussed about them getting creased.
We were less sure about the overhead lockers. They look fantastic, with two doors on each locker, one opening up and the other opening down. But that's a huge amount of engineering for what is a relatively small locker.
Perhaps this works because there are 11 of them - six down the offside, four on the nearside, and one across the back with a safety net.
This is almost undoubtedly a help, but if you are not used to it, it could be a bit of a shock, particularly if you are squeezing up to the edge of the 'van in a car park. The inner step is also slanted and not that big.
We were impressed with the door flyscreen, however, which comes together in two parts, lessening its chances of jamming or warping.
Immediately inside, you will find all the controls you need for the lighting in this 'van, including a switch for the awning light and dimmable rocker switches for the ambient lighting.
There are no spotlights in the cab, however. That seems an odd omission in a motorhome that has so clearly been designed from the bottom up.
Just look, for example, at the way the overhead lockers - behind which the ambient light sits - snake around the rear of the vehicle and seamlessly up towards the cab. This is not a 'van where the cab and the rest look remarkably different.
There is a striplight by the window, which comes with its own blind. But there is no central light. We found that for reading in the evening, we had to turn the ambient light up to maximum to get good enough illumination.
That touchscreen - located on the corner of the washroom wall - should also control a sophisticated Bluetooth-enabled sound system in here that is independent of what's in the cab and can be linked to optional speakers.
If you need to adjust the Truma controls independently of the main touchscreen, you will find them neatly installed on a little locker door that pops out from under the travel seats.
You also get a solar panel on the roof with a power output of 174W. Cost options include a satellite dish, bike rack and diesel heating system.
|Layout||Van conversion, rear lounge|
|Fresh/waste water||110L / 90L|
|Leisure battery||92 Ah|
In many ways, the Grand California 680 is an absolute dream of a motorhome. It has enough innovations to keep you intrigued, and is well built and comfortable.
But in one way it is not - and that is the price. You would really have to be committed to splash out more than £70,000 on a 'van that doesn't include some features you can expect to find in coachbuilt motorhomes at a similar price.
Californias are well known for holding their value, though, so it's likely that the Grand version will perform similarly.
- Lots of storage space
- Comfortable bed
- High price tag
- No hanging rail
- Habitation door on the offside