What are you driving?
Believe it or not, you're looking at the smaller of the two Volkswagen Grand California models that are available in Ireland. The is a factory-made campervan that is based on the Crafter. It uses a similar layout and design inside to the smaller Volkswagen California. There is an extended version, called the 680, and this is further differentiated by not having the somewhat bulbous roof extension at the front that houses the bunk bed and adds 130mm to the overall height. In case you were wondering, yes that's an optional solar panel on the front of it, and yes it does look slightly like a land-based version of the Airbus Beluga cargo plane. None of which are bad things we hasten to add.
Name its best bits
The Grand California can seem daunting at first if you're new to the campervan scene and haven't driven anything as large before. It's on smaller and narrower sections of road that you need to pay particular attention; otherwise, it's quite an easy vehicle to drive. Helping matters is a smooth eight-speed automatic transmission and several driver assistance systems. The 177hp diesel engine provides adequate performance and power and, when up to speed and cruising on a motorway, it provides a comfortable driving experience.
Having spent time staying in a regular California before, by far the biggest advantage that the Grand California has isn't the bathroom and shower facilities, but the height. Being able to stand up straight and walk around inside the Grand California makes everything so much easier, especially if there's inclement weather outside. The extra space also naturally means there is more storage inside, and some of the packaging of these areas is quite neat. At the rear, you get a set of double doors that open to reveal access to storage areas on either side. One is where you fit your gas bottles for cooking, and there is ample space for larger bags or small travel cases. A fold-down bed normally covers this space, but it's possible to leave it tied upright, and this allows you to walk through the entire van. Cabin dividers can also be slotted into place to separate the lower section of this space to prevent suitcases from sliding around when driving.
The addition of a bathroom and proper shower make the Grand California a more complete camper. The shower isn't huge, but it's spacious enough for one adult as you can tilt up the sink to make more room. There is some shelving and a mirror than can magnetically attach to either side of the wall. If you're staying at a dedicated campsite, chances are you're going to use the shower facilities there. Still, for those looking to stray further away from civilisation, it's a welcome addition.
There's no lack of places to plug in devices to charge them and the option to add a Wi-Fi hotspot could be essential if you've got kids. Along with plugs, Volkswagen has installed a good spread of ambient lights inside. The rest of the internal controls can be adjusted through the easy-to-use control panel. Everything from heater timing to checking the state of the battery charge is there. If you aren't plugged into the mains power supply at a camp, the Grand California does have 92Ah camper batteries fitted that will provide sufficient power for a couple of days depending on your usage. The van also ensures that enough energy is conserved to be able to start the engine, so there's little chance of you being stranded. These batteries then recharge while driving.
Anything that bugs you?
You are aware of the Grand California's size at all times, although it isn't any wider than an average SUV. While being able to stand up and walk around inside the Grand California when parked is great, the additional height does start to go against it on the move. It's the weight and top-heavy nature of it that you notice the most. This is especially evident when driving on less smooth roads, and we feel that the suspension could be a little more compliant. That height also means that it can't enter any car parks that have a height restriction and its length requires taking up the best part of two parking spaces, further limiting where you can stop if you're in a smaller town or village, for example.
One other thing to be aware of is that, due to its size, the Grand California sails close to the 3,500kg limit for a regular car licence. Due to this, if you're considering the longer 680, Volkswagen doesn't fit the additional two seatbelts to the rear seat to ensure it falls under the weight limit. However, if you have the correct licence it is possible to get the 680 with these fitted, and your local dealer will be able to advise you on this.
And why have you given it this rating?
We don't dispute that the Volkswagen Grand California is a lot of money, but you must also consider that you're getting a factory-built camper van that has been designed in-house and can be easily serviced by a pan-European dealer network. The added space and height are a real plus, and it wouldn't take much more to get the Grand California set up exactly how you'd want it. For those keen on longer haul journeys and straying further from civilisation, we can't think of many vehicles better suited to the job than the Volkswagen Grand California.