Nigel Donnelly

See other motorhome reviews written by Nigel Donnelly

Read Practical Motorhome's review of the VW California

Overview

Introduced earlier this year, the Volkswagen California has just touched down in showrooms and is now available at your nearest Volkswagen dealer, as well as motorhome specialists.

This gives it a key advantage over the competition, as the VW has the largest dealer network of any motorhome on sale in the UK. The California is not strictly speaking a new model. It’s new in terms of the fact that VW has not previously brought the model to the UK, although left-hand drive personal imports have been available through Deepcar Motorhomes in Sheffield. Deepcar is now importing the right-hand drive versions, too, and that’s what we are reviewing here.

The California has another huge advantage: the camper conversion is carried out by Volkswagen itself, so all of the materials and fittings should live up to the German firm’s deservedly high reputation for excellence. We’ll come to that in a minute, but let’s take a quick look at the base vehicle. The Volkswagen Caravelle is one of the most spacious MPV people carriers on sale, offering up to seven seats, so it’s the ideal vehicle on which to build a camper, especially with VW’s heritage stretching back to the Type 2 campers.

Design

Based on the Caravelle, it’s already an elegant, chunky, well-crafted-looking motorhome, and the slimness of the elevating roof makes it hard for the uninitiated to spot that it’s a camper at all.

In fact, it’s that hydraulically operated elevating roof that is the California’s real party piece. Worked from a small control panel mounted just above the front cab’s rear-view mirror, it’s simple to raise or lower the roof by pressing a button. In about 30 seconds, the roof has completed its manouevre and you can use the upper space’s double bed.

On the road

There are three engine options with the California. The first is a 1.9-litre turbo-diesel, but that’s not offered in right-hand drive model. The 2.5-litre TD is standard, producing 128bhp and a healthy 251lb ft of shove driving through a six-speed manual gearbox.

The second is the model we try here, the five-cylinder 2.5-litre turbo-diesel with a meaty 295lb ft of low-rev shunt and 172bhp that comes with either a six-speed manual gearbox or VW’s Tiptronic auto ’box with manual override function.
There’s also the option of VW’s 4Motion four-wheel drive with the larger engine – our test vehicle was fitted with this. The driver can press a button on the dash to lock the rear differential to gain extra traction but this is only for use in extreme circumstances. Under normal driving conditions, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between front- and four-wheel drive Californias, but on frosty roads or in mud, the permanent four-wheel drive is a welcome addition.

However, ticking the option box for the 4Motion drive will add £2300 to the basic front-drive 174PS TDi PD model’s price of £35,600, while the Tiptronic gearbox is a £1500 option but not available in conjunction with the 4Motion four-wheel drive transmission. The 128bhp California starts slightly lower down the price scale at £34,000.

Our test vehicle was kitted out with a number of extras, over and above the four-wheel drive already mentioned, which would bump up the cost of a California. Tot up: alloy wheels £440, awning £329, parking sensors £193, satellite navigation £1703, towbar £417, metallic paint £511, electric sliding side door £317, air conditioning £575 and Alcantara and leather seats £687; you’re looking at spending more than £5000 on these extras. This makes the California an expensive machine in anyone’s book.

The VW makes it up, though, in the way it drives. Motorhome drivers used to ‘vans based on the Fiat Ducato will find the California a revelation, as it drives much like a car-based MPV. The way the VW deals with bumpy roads and soaks up potholes makes long journeys comfortable and easy, while the compact shape creates far less wind noise than with most other motorhomes.

There’s still the excellent raised driving position of other models of motorhome but the California goes around corners with much less body lean and generally feels more nimble on the open road or in town. The punchy 2.5-litre engine helps enormously and is worth much of the extra cost of the VW alone for the ease of driving it brings, compared even to a Ducato’s 2.8 -litre turbo-diesel. Again, the VW’s refinement is superior to its rival’s engines and there’s more than enough power at any speed for the California to feel relaxed. The dash-mounted lever for the six-speed gearbox is close to hand and has a far better defined and easier action than a Ducato’s.

Fuel economy with the high-output 2.5-litre engine and four-wheel drive is respectable at 30.1mpg overall, while if you do without the 4Motion system you can expect to get 34mpg. The 130bhp engine manages 33.2mpg.

Lounging & dining

The sliding side door is on the right-hand side of the ’van – a legacy from the California’s original designed as a left-hand drive camper – and this opens onto a spacious, combined, living and dining area. There’s plenty of space to stretch out here and the sliding rear bench seat has a pair of three-point belts.

With the rear seat in its normal position, it provides comfortable seating around the fold-up table. The cab’s two captain’s chairs both swivel around to create a cosy four-seater lounge, though getting the front seats to turn takes a fair bit of twiddling with backrest angles and sliding them fore and aft.

The sliding rear bench is worked by lifting a lever down on the lower right of its front and pushing or pulling it to the desired position. It’s a simple arrangement but we found it awkward to get both sides to line up accurately as there was free play in the runners. We also found the handle to lower the seat back very stiff to work, although this could be due to the model we tried being brand new. Even so, it made folding the seat to create a double bed more effort than it should have been.

Kitchen

Water is supplied from a 30-litre container with exterior filling point. There’s also a Waeco cooler that can chill its contents down to -18 degrees Celsius with a 42-litre capacity, and a couple of 12V power points in the living area.

Sleeping

With the rear seat folded flat, the double bed is a generous size, thanks to the shelf in the boot area that makes up a third of the bed. Simple pull-up blinds shut out the light from the surrounding windows.

We were less impressed with the curtains for the windscreen and front-door windows. The windscreen’s curtain uses a tent pole arrangement that we found fiddly and time consuming, while the door curtains have gaps around their edges which let in light.

Climbing into the elevated roof bed is achieved by using the front seats as a step. Once up there it’s spacious and comfortable, with a thickly padded base. There’s a reading lamp at the front edge and the steep slope of the roof means it’s best to sleep with your feet facing the rear of the ’van.

A couple of zip-down flaps let in plenty of light through the mesh openings but the fabric construction of the elevated roof means it’s only really suitable for use in warmer weather.

Washroom

Like many campers, there is no dedicated washroom. However, you could slide a Porta-Potti into one of the lockers beneath the kitchen or store it behind the rear seat.

Storage

There are generous storage cupboards underneath the kitchen unit and also a large drawer that pulls out from under the rear bench seat. More storage is provided by a roof locker at the rear of the living area. A pair of small lockers with sliding fronts at the back of the living area are best accessed through the tailgate. There are also two camping chairs stowed in the tailgate – a neat storage solution.

Technical specs

Sleeps4
Travel seats4
MTPLM3000kg
Payload438kg
Length4.58m15′
Width1.69m5′7″
Height2.15m7′1″
Waste water30L
Kitchen Equipment
Waeco Compressor Fridge, 2-burner gas hob

Verdict

Few buyers of the VW California are likely to use it for all-weather camping, though it does make a fine all-year vehicle, especially with its four-wheel drive for the winter months.

It is expensive, but the quality of construction and materials are easily up to what you would find in Volkswagen’s passenger car ranges. Then there’s the peace of mind of a three-year, 100,000-mile warranty as standard and the fact that every VW dealer throughout Europe can look after the California. That makes this motorhome a tempting choice.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Quality of workmanship
  • VW dealer network support
  • Interior ambience

Cons

  • The price
  • Fiddly swivelling seats and cab screens
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