Andrew McPhee

See other motorhome reviews written by Andrew McPhee

If you're hankering after a VW campervan, read the Practical Motorhome Volkswagen California review to find out if this is the 'van for you

Design

Earlier this year the VW Transporter underwent a mini-makeover. The revised T5 came with new engines that meet Euro 5 emissions standards, the largest two of which, the 140PS and 180PS, are used in the California. Ours was powered by the latter.

Externally, the new-look T5 got a ‘Golf’ style nose, new rear light clusters, chrome trim, and more aerodynamic wing mirrors. In Olympian metallic blue, with body coloured bumpers and exterior mirrors (a £545 cost option), our test model looked fabulous. It was also fitted with very modern-looking darkened rear privacy glass (£260).

Inside, it doesn’t feel like a commercial vehicle at all, with a smart three-spoke steering wheel, new-look white backlit instruments, and a smart fascia with CD/DVD player.

The sliding passenger entry door remains on the UK driver side for RHD production versions, which loses it some fans immediately, who complained that rear passengers potentially exiting the vehicle into traffic is dangerous. Others were fine with it. Some were disappointed the double-glazed glass in the living quarters hadn’t been replaced with plastic for better insulation.

One thing our testers unanimously agreed on: the electro-hydraulic elevating roof, which raises or lowers at the push of a button (with the engine running) is brilliant.

Layout wise, it’s a classic VW camper interior – that is, a nearside kitchenette with rock-and-roll style rear seat bench that converts into a double bed. Not all VW campers offer a roof bed, though, and few as good as that in the California.

Inside the conversion, it’s a feat of space-saving ingenuity. A freestanding table clips into the sliding door, a kitchenette table retreats alongside the sofa bench, the camping chairs zip into a tailgate pocket, and the head restraints on the rear seats fold out of the way when it’s made into a bed. The gas ‘locker’ is located in a circular space moulded in the centre of the freshwater tank – a much cleverer use of space than the traditional round-bottles-in square-lockers solution.

The release tap for the fresh and waste tanks are on the inside of the vehicle, so no more dirty hands.

On the road

Our test model was powered by the 180PS (177bhp) version, allied to a superb seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (VW’s own direct-shift gearbox – DSG). In automatic mode, gear changes go almost undetected. VW claims a combined mpg figure of 34.9mpg. We managed 31.5mpg.
It’s best in class for ergonomics and on-road performance is stellar: entirely rattle-free, with excellent refinement and noise isolation, exemplary ride quality (except over very big bumps at low speed), new Euro 5 engines that are powerful and smooth and highly user-friendly handling.
At an £850 premium, our test model was fitted with lane change assist. We really liked the warning lights on the wing mirrors that alert you when there’s an obstacle in your blind spot; it makes motorway driving feel that much safer.
The two-seater passenger bench is hugely comfortable. The angle of the seat back can be adjusted for comfort, the bench itself slides on runners so rear passengers can be near or far from the cab seat occupants, and crucially there’s an independent set of heating controls for the rear passengers. And all the testers were bowled over by the quality of the conversion’s materials – the tambour doors, latches are all durable and rattle-free on the road.

Lounging & dining

In full lounging and camping mode, the California split opinion. The pale wood and grey upholstery (or Anthracite Crete in marketing speak) are rather automotive and stark. We like the hard-wearing and practical nature of the materials – dark grey is never going to show up many stains – but at the same time the California isn’t a particularly welcoming place to lounge in.
That said, trim options enable you to specify a more homely feel, and those who’re interested in a California are more likely to be touring to see the great outdoors than spending extended spells inside their ’van.
On site, swivelling the cab seats involves a little to-ing and fro-ing, particularly the driver’s seat which you need to slide forward and back while fiddling with the rake to clear the steering wheel and pillar. Once done though, the cab seats, both with twin armrests, are hugely comfy.
With the freestanding table, and the chairs that stow in a compartment on the inside of the tailgate, we’d recommend the optional awning (£360) for an al fresco lounging and dining area.

Kitchen

The kitchen unit on the nearside comprises a sink and cooker with a single piece cover, and there’s a drawer for cutlery and storage underneath, with sliding doors. The Waeco 42-litre compressor fridge is operated from the digital control panel. Workspace is obviously at a premium, so the sliding table doubles as chef’s food preparation space.
The kitchens offered in other, identically sized campers are sometimes better, though. The two rings on the hob are spaced too far apart and eat up too much room. There’s not much kitchen cupboard space, and you can’t open the cutlery drawer if the left-hand kitchen cupboard is slid open. Worst of all is the top-opening fridge: to get at something inside you need to move everything off, even if you’re only after a drop of milk for tea.”

Sleeping

The standard issue loose-fit cab screens were criticised by all our testers. They comprised two fabric push-on frame inserts for the cab door windows and, for the windscreen, a single piece of fabric that requires tent poles to hold it rigid and in place.
One fluorescent and five LED spotlights do a reasonable job of illuminating the interior of an evening, and bed make-up is quick and easy: the seat bench’s back rest lies flat to form a 200 x 114cm double bed downstairs, while the roof bed is slightly larger at 120 x 200cm.
We weren’t impressed with the way that the seat base has to be pulled forward to make up the bed either: it means you have to move everything on the floor into the cab.

Washroom

There is no washroom in the California, as in many campers of this type and size. However, you can specify a locker toilet when you order new from Volkswagen.

Storage

Although storage is clever throughout, such as the hinged locker in the ceiling, and the drawer in the seat-bench base, there’s nowhere to stash a portable toilet.
The wardrobe and rear cupboard are well conceived, too – the twin doors allow you easy access from nearly any angle. Also, the rear loading area is superb: you can remove the bed base, or raise it to a higher slot, or fold it and prop it up with a strut, creating a very versatile space.

Technical specs

Sleeps4
Travel seats4
MTPLM3000kg
Payload372kg
Length4.89m16′1″
Width2.24m7′4″
Height1.99m6′6″
Waste water30L

Verdict

The California’s countless merits outweigh its few shortcomings. It’s brilliant to drive, and with a bit of flexibility great to live in, if not as homely as some rivals. It’s expensive, but you’re buying the guarantee of quality that the VW brand brings. Little has gone wrong with it, too: occasionally sticking electric wing mirrors, an occasional engine solenoid warning light on the dash, but that’s it: no trim came away, and everything worked brilliantly.

Conclusion

Pros

  • The roof bed is spacious, comfy and has superb headroom
  • Passengers in the rear can adjust the living-quarters’ climate themselves on the road
  • The electro-hydraulic elevating roof is simply superb

Cons

  • The push-on fabric frames are quick to deform and a pain to make work
  • Go for the option of fixed concertina blinds.
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