What is the VW California?
The Volkswagen Type 2, the basis for the “classic” VW camper van, may have finally ceased production after a mammoth 63-year run – but the experience lives on with the California. And while it has less cutesy looks (it’s based on the Caravelle MPV, which in turn is derived from the Transporter panel van) the California is in fact superior to the classic camper in almost every way.
The California is offered in two versions: Beach or SE. Both sleep four people in two beds, one of which is created by folding the sliding rear bench flat, while the other is available “upstairs” by popping up the roof. The differences between the two versions comes in the facilities they offer. The SE contains a two-hob gas stove, a fridge and a sink. The Beach has none of these, which means less convenience for extended camping but increased interior space, or the opportunity to add up to two swivel seats for maximum people carrying.
The California Beach is available with a choice of two, 2-litre diesel engines, tuned to 112bhp and 138bhp, while the California SE comes with the same 138bhp unit or a more powerful 177bhp unit. The SE is also available with either two- or four-wheel drive.
Let’s be honest, the California drives like a van. It’s heavy with the entry-level Beach coming in at 2,288kg while, at the top end of the scale, a specced-up SE weighs 2,634kg ‒ and those are kerb weights. Add engine fluids, a 30-litre tank full of fresh water, a gas bottle, all your camping paraphernalia and your family and it’s clear we’re not exactly talking “sporty” here.
But Porsche-like handling is hardly the point and in fact the California’s 138bhp diesel unit has more than enough punch to keep up with the flow of traffic. Driving the vehicle isn’t anywhere near as dull as it would be behind the wheel of a full-size motorhome, and you’ll not find queues of traffic behind waiting for an opportunity to get past. Indeed, with 251lb ft of torque available, safe overtaking of slower vehicles is more than possible. In contrast to a big motorhome, the California is easy to manoeuvre around towns and finding a parking space isn’t any more difficult than it would be in a large car. Optional front and rear parking sensors with a reversing camera cost £975 but are a useful addition.
Motorway cruising is the California’s forte. With a high driving position, good all-round visibility and comfortable arm chair-style heated front seats as standard, long journeys are a doddle. Thanks to sturdy build quality there’s little noticeable wind and road noise, and so it’s a surprisingly refined experience behind the wheel.
Driving tested a version with the DSG transmission, which didn’t skip a beat and managed to select the correct gear at all times, even managing to change down on steep downhill roads to ensure easier speed control. A coasting function that automatically disengages the engine and clutch, along with stop/start technology, contributed to an average fuel consumption of 31mpg on a mix of roads, so a little less than the advertised 37.2mpg.
Also worth a mention is the bundle of driver aids as standard: antilock brakes, electronic brakeforce distribution, traction control, electronic stability programme including active rollover protection, front and side curtain airbags, and cruise control.
Volkswagen California owners will never cease to be amazed by the vehicle’s clever use of interior space, particularly in SE guise. Spin the driver and passenger seats round to face the rear cabin, slide out the dining table and switch on the gas, and you can be brewing a cup of tea or preparing dinner within minutes. The SE also has a mains electric hook-up, so electric pitches at campsites offer the possibility of plugging in your laptop or portable TV without fear of running down the vehicle’s 12-volt battery.
The pop-up aluminium roof is electrically operated via a panel above the windscreen and takes roughly 20 seconds to extend fully, after which the roof bed, which is pivoted at the vehicle’s rear end, can be raised to provide easily enough headroom for tall people to stand inside. In terms of storage space there are four cupboards and at least two other storage units, plus deep cubby holes in the driver and passenger doors. Open the tailgate and there’s further space for three or four large suitcases in the lower section of the rear compartment, with room above for additional rucksacks and bags.
The sliding panel door neatly houses a second, folding dining table and in the rear tailgate are two folding chairs enabling al fresco dining, should you desire. Our model had the optional side awning which provides protection from rain or from shade in bright sunshine, but it’s not a must-have accessory.
At night, pots, pans, plates, food and so on can be stored in the various cupboards and the dining table stowed away before sliding the rear bench forward on its runners and folding the seat back flat to form the second bed. Each of the windows can be covered with blinds, allowing for complete privacy while getting changed and sleeping.
And sleeping is a whole lot more pleasant than climbing in to a sleeping bag and freezing to death in a tent – take along sheets, pillows and a duvet and it’s a relatively comfortable experience for a week away. Driving found the lower bed more comfortable but the elevated sleeping position of the upper, slatted bed, without the is preferable.
Standard on the California SE (and a £1,670 option on the California Beach) is a built-in, diesel-burning “parking heater”. This maintains a set temperature through the night, ensuring at no point will occupants get cold. Importantly, this works independently from the vehicle’s air conditioning system so again, there are no worries of running down the battery and not being able to start the engine the following morning.
What the SE lacks is a shower and a portable lavatory, so you’ll want to camp close to a shower block.
The one to buy
Volkswagen California SE 2.0 TDI BlueMotion
- £44,615 (correct at first publication)
- 1968cc, 4-cylinder diesel
- 138bhp @ 3500rpm
- 251 lb ft @ 1750-2500rpm
- 6-speed manual
- 0-62mph in 15.7sec
- Top speed:
- 39.2mpg combined
- Road tax band:
- L 4892mm, W 1904mm, H 1995mm
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