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The VW California Camper Takes Cornwall

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By The Sybarite Team on 10th July 2024

It's summer, so I have been told, but the weather isn't playing ball, writes Jeremy Webb.

I am rethinking my holiday plans to stay two weeks in a tent in Cornwall. Instead, I am trying vanping and camping in a van, the Volkswagen California Camper. The perfect accommodation for a British summer with all the temperature and precipitation changes it can over the course of one day, let alone fourteen of them. 

You will recognise the VW California. It is the camper van chosen by surfers, dog walkers, sea swimmers, beachcombers and campers. At most seafronts throughout the year, you will generally spot a Volkswagen California as they are a home on wheels, catering to all their owners' necessities. People customise, name, and adore them because they give so much practicality and versatility over living under canvas. 

Through the decades, Volkswagen has modernised the California but not drastically altered it, realising that it is part of the attraction of owning one. When people started adapting the VW Type 2 Transporter so they could cook, wash, and sleep in one, Volkswagen took notice and kept on constructing them, with the T6 being the latest version. I took to Cornwall for a wild, wet week where I was definitely California Dreaming. 

The latest California has an automatic gearbox, and buyers have the option for four-wheel drive, which I think is excellent considering some of the places the vehicles are taken. The transmission is linked to a diesel engine, and the California has two options, both being 2-litre units.  

The entry-level Beach has a six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that gives you 148bhp and can cruise at National Speed Limits, even fully occupied and with the usual kayaks and bicycles stacked outside. You must purchase the Ocean model with an option of 201bhp from the 2.0 TDI engine to gain more power. To tackle the flooded supermarket car park or muddy weekend football field, buy 4Motion four-wheel drive for the Ocean version.  

I was in the standard front-wheel drive Ocean and managed to spin up the wheels as I pulled away from traffic lights and out of junctions. The 201bhp is pokey despite the weight being 2.5 tonnes, and on A roads and motorways, you can get a shift on up to 70mph, passing other brands of campers with ease. The automatic gearbox is smooth when cruising, but there is some stuttering at low speeds and a gap between putting your foot down and the vehicle moving. It hampers precise positioning when parking up for the night. 

The Beach Tour is based on the VW Transporter and is little more than an MPV with a couple of fold-out beds. VW provides greater usability and practicality with its Coast and Ocean models, which provide everything you require for an extended trip away.  

Rivals to the VW California are the Toyota Proace, Mercedes V-Class Marco Polo, Ford Transit Nugget and the Vauxhall Vivaro Life, a competitive sector. Volkswagen can not sit back on its laurels, and the California Camper must keep delivering in a growing market.  

Out of those mentioned, the California has the firmest ride, and you feel and hear the road with thumping and thudding as you travel on the Lunar-like surface of the UK road system, with its bumps, potholes and loose manhole coverings. It can also make you feel like you are in a boat on some choppy water when it starts to roll and pitch, trying to cope with the body weight, but it is better than the Nugget.  

You will find the steering is sharp and well-balanced and easy to place on the tarmac, but it can feel slightly top-heavy from it being so high. You will feel it lean when taking bends, which can be at pretty moderate speeds, but amongst campers, it is one of the better ones, feeling agile and keeping upright, more so than the Nugget and Marco Polo.  

Inside the California, it is decorated and fitted well, using good quality, textured satin finish plastic and chrome detailing. As the driver, you sit upright and have a clear view of the road ahead and around the vehicle. The seat has plenty of adjustments and is comfortable even after many hours of sitting in traffic on the A303. Both front seats have adjustable armrests on both sides to assist in these traffic jams.  

The cockpits in the Beach and Coast models have clear analogue dials with a small digital display that makes it simple to read all relevant information; inside the Ocean, digital dials clearly show a vast array of information. 

California Beach and Coast models have a 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth, a DAB radio, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring and a pair of USB C sockets. Shortcut icons surround the screen, proving helpful, and the menus are logically laid out, but the display is relatively small with low resolution. 

The Ocean has an 8.0in Discover system, optionally available on the other two versions. It is clearer and sharper with an inbuilt sat-nav, but the shortcut icons are now on the touchscreen and harder to find.  

Good storage is available throughout California with big door pockets, a built-in bottle holder, a couple of pop-out cupholders, a covered shelf that hides the USB port, and a 12V socket for two glove boxes. 

The seats have handy drawers underneath for even more storage and rotate 180 degrees to face the rear bench. Rotating them is tricky, and you can't swivel the driver's seat with the handbrake engaged.  

Set-ups differ depending on whether you're in a Beach, a Coast or an Ocean. Beach models are minimal, and the Beach Tour comes with a bed created by folding the rear seat and offering a third row of seating. A second bed is obtained by raising the roof, and you can access it through a hatch above the front seats.  

On the Beach Camper and above, a fold-out kitchen with a single gas hob enables you to truly live outside in relative luxury, although it prevents a third row of seats or a sliding door on the passenger side. Buy a Coast or Ocean version, and the luxury increases with a raised roof and full kitchens with double gas hobs, fresh and waste water sinks, additional leisure batteries for all those appliances we need to take and the all-important fridge.  

The Ocean's electric roof is controlled by a panel above the rear-view mirror that also operates the standard fridge and auxiliary heater, allowing you to check battery and water levels. An external 230v electric socket is provided for attaching to the mains, and you'll find a 230v socket along with some 12v ones, too. On all models, the tailgate hides two folding camping chairs, with the sliding door stowing a folding table  

A standard fold-out awning on Coast and Ocean models is optional on the Beach version. The boot has plenty of space and is a tall, shallow area. However, the lower bed stretches into this area when in use, limiting space significantly if you store your kit overnight. 

The Beach Camper gets a couple of cupboards at the far rear, with the Coast and Ocean adding more under the kitchen unit. Those models certainly have more storage than the Nugget and Marco Polo. 

All models except the four-wheel drive deliver better than 30mpg, with the TDI 150 clocking up 33.5mpg during our tests.  

Staycations are becoming increasingly popular, so accommodation, including camping and glamping sites, is becoming more expensive. Buying a Volkswagen California looks like a good option as you get a vehicle you can use daily, with its many benefits. Carrying capacity and mobile living are two examples. I have been thinking of converting a van into a camper, but the attraction of having one as good as the VW California makes me think I will buy one.  

Fact box

RRP price range - £62,479 - £82,513 

Number of trims - Four 

Number of engines - Two 

Fuel types - Diesel 

MPG range across all versions - 32.8 - 36.2 

Warranty years - 100000  

https://www.volkswagen-vans.co.uk/en/new-vehicles/california.html

Jeremy Webb has a website, www.roadtestsandreviews.co.uk  where you can read articles on motorcycles, cars, travel and product reviews.  

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