Volkswagen California review
We take the Volkswagen California away for a camping weekend to see what it's like to live in a van.
Paul Healy
Paul Healy

Published on October 16, 2014

Good: four-berth camper with footprint of a modest van, so many innovative packaging solutions, did we mention it has a sink?

Not so good: could really do with a better way to get 'upstairs', certainly not cheap.

Dom Joly has it all wrong. Taking your car with you on holidays is not a 'car-cation'; going on holidays in a Volkswagen California is a car-cation. Ok, as the California is based on the Transporter commercial vehicle then a van-cation is likely a better description, but that is just splitting hairs and we are not going to split hairs on a vehicle that has recently jumped to the top of the lottery car list.

Before the Ferrari is delivered or the Bentley ordered the California is the car that most of us would have on our driveway should our numbers ever come up. How many other vehicles do you know that can comfortably sleep four, has built in central heating, a fridge/freezer (and yes it will freeze food if you set the temperature too low), two gas hobs and even the proverbial kitchen sink? Certainly none that come direct from the factory, as Volkswagen is the only manufacturer that builds its own campervan - the rest are all aftermarket refits. This means that the Cali features the same kind of build quality as one would expect from any other Volkswagen and a host of innovative features such as the table and chairs set hidden in the sliding door and rear tailgate for alfresco dining.

The other advantage the Cali has over various Fiat Ducato or Peugeot Partner based campers is its size. It doesn't take up any more road than a Passat, which means that finding a parking space is a doddle and it can even go into most multi-storey/underground car parks. And its van dimensions mean it can travel through the narrow streets you are likely to find on the villages you visit on your car-cation. Try that in a 'regular' campervan and you are likely to be met with angry motorists forced to reverse out of your way as you take up the entire road.

You are also unlikely to trundle along with a queue of traffic in your wake. Ok, so the Cali's 140hp 2.0-litre TDI engine is not going to set the world alight, but the healthy 340Nm of torque does mean it never struggles with the nearly three-ton weight of the van, all your camping equipment and the 30-litre water tank hidden in the back that feeds the sink. Motorway cruising is its forte. With a high driving position, good all-round visibility and comfortable arm chair-style front seats as standard, long journeys are a doddle. Thanks to the sturdy build quality there's little noticeable wind and road noise, so it's a surprisingly refined experience behind the wheel.

It is when parked up that the California truly comes into its own though. Swivel the two front seats around, pull up the hidden table and get the kettle on. Actually probably better to get the kettle on before you go seat swivelling, as turning the driver's seat around is a bit of a faff. This is the only time we will advocate for an electronic handbrake, as the positioning of the Cali's does make life a tad difficult and you can but foul against the B-pillar as you spin the seat through 180 degrees.

The seats are more than up to a bit of abuse though, which is a good thing, as you have to clamber all over them to access the 'upstairs' bedroom. Yes, upstairs in a campervan - depress a button on the overhead console and the roof opens up to reveal a double-sized bed with proper wood-slat base. When the bed is not in use this base can be lifted on hydraulic rams to allow you to walk around 'downstairs' without the need to do an impression of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The rear seat also reclines, joining up with the parcel shelf to make a second double bed, while all the windows have blinds so even a mid-afternoon nap is not out of the question. 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. There is no integrated way to secure your crockery as you might find in some campers so it is a case of carefully packing to ensure that you are not left with a pile of broken plates at the end of the day. However, the California comes with an electric hook up point meaning you can bring modern conveniences such as laptop, toaster or the CompleteCar favourite - the coffee machine - so this small omission can be overlooked.

And the main reason the California features on our lottery car list? The price. At €57,140 for a boggo one or €61,789 for the version tested here it is an extravagance. That kind of money would buy you many years' worth of foreign holidays, but when all is said and done you will have little to look back on other than some holiday snaps, dodgy t-shirts and maybe even an ill-advised tattoo. With the California it is going to be sitting there waiting to head off on its next adventure for many years to come. Just look at how long the T2 'Hippie' van has kept going.


Fiat Ducato camper: the stereotypical campervan; big, ungainly and beige

Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo: the closest thing to the California. Built by Karmann, not likely to be offered in right-hand drive.

Toyota Proace camper: unlike the Marco Polo it can be had in right-hand drive, just not in Ireland.


Tech Specs

Model testedVolkswagen California
Pricing€61,789 as tested (California range starts at €57,140)
Engine2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel
Transmissionfront-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body stylecampervan
RivalsFiat Ducato camper, Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo, Toyota Proace camper
CO2 emissions203g/km (camper tax €102)
Combined economy34mpg (8.3 litres/100km)
Top speed172km/h
0-100km/h14.7 seconds
Power140hp at 3,500rpm
Torque340Nm at 1,750rpm