Andrew McPhee

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Find out what Practical Motorhome thinks of the VW California in this review – is it still an iconic, class leading camper?


The California is structurally solid and looks stunning from the outside, thanks to glinting metallic paint – although this is a cost option.

The elevating roof is electrically-operated, which is great for anyone who is not able to lift a traditional style pop-top: one flick of a switch and it shoots up, making a loud whirring noise as it does so. The metal support arms appear strong; but while this one worked well on test, it remains unclear how well electric roofs will fare over time. There is less to go wrong with gas-strut systems.

There are two zippered windows in the folding roof, whose sides are made from grey fabric. Perhaps it would have been better to have used a darker material to cut out unwanted morning light.

The sliding door is on the offside – the ‘wrong’ side for the UK market – but it closes effortlessly and securely with a reassuring mechanical bite, thanks to an electronic locking system.

The California has extremely practical fabrics, flooring and cabinetwork. The blue and grey Scala upholstery may look a little cold but it feels every bit as hard-wearing as the fitted cupboards. They are built from light woods and have silver trim on the curved edges. UK buyers might not appreciate such Continental styling but they will like the fitted cupboards and automotive level of finish.

The living area has removable cab carpets and a rubber floor. At firs, this feels quite clinical, but it is easy to sweep out and has anti-slip raised ‘dots’. The rails on which the rear bench slides even have rubber infills, which stop them filling up with crumbs – a neat touch.

On the road

Volkswagen's 2.5-litre turbo-diesel engine will effortlessly take you up to motorway speeds, and the California’s lively, energetic on-road performance is more impressive than that of some others fitted with the same unit – as is the figure of 174bhp. The six-speed manual transmission glides through the gears with supreme ease.

This is a nice cab in which to spend any length of time. It is well equipped, including heated seats, and this is a safety-featured cab with twin front and side airbags as standard. You also get a fancier range of cost options such as a six-CD changer and built-in satellite navigation.

Lounging & dining

The offside galley kitchen arrangement is still popular in elevating campers but often means the driver’s seat will not swivel. In this case, however, both seats in the cab swivel to allow lounge seating for five people.

There are two tables in this ’van. One is an innovative unit that clips to the kitchen worksurface and swings out to be supported by two legs. It doubles as a worksurface or a dining table seating up to five people, because the bench seat can be slid forward to meet it. There’s also a four-person, free-standing table that stows ingeniously in the back of the main sliding door. It has angled legs for better stability and can be used outside.


As ’vans like this have to fit quite a bit of kit into a fairly limited space, there are some fairly standard features in their kitchens, including two-burner hobs and stainless steel sinks with tough, transparent lids. Some also manage to squeeze in a fridge, but the California makes do with a cool box.

The actual worksurface is limited to just one small section, although the flip-up table provides cooks with a good alternative. There's also a slide-out cutlery drawer.


The California’s roof bed is better than most because its mattress sits on wooden slats. There is also a luggage/safety net so you can happily store kit or kids up there when stationary.

The mattress for the other bed is very comfortable, partly due to the flatness of its seat cushions.




Considering the overall size of this short-wheelbase camper, the amount of storage space is impressive.

The California has lots of space in the boot, increased by elevating the rear part of the assembled bed, and is one of the only ’vans in its class to use space-saving tambour doors. There are lockers throughout, too, including a deep one under the sofa, but cooks will have a real struggle to stow their gear. There are just two cupboards below the kitchen unit and no overhead lockers. Nevertheless, clever storage solutions, such as the folding chairs in the boot door and the table in the sliding door, are real plusses.

Technical specs

Travel seats5
Waste water30L
Kitchen Equipment
Waeco Compressor Fridge, 2-burner gas hob
No toilet


With its high level of specification, good finish and unrivalled drive, you’ll be hard pushed to find a better camper for your cash.



  • Superior build quality; great base vehicle; high level of specification; space-saving features.


  • Interior feels ‘chilly’; no fridge in kitchen.