Driven: Volkswagen California
Comfortable, modern and easy to use, the Volkswagen California is proof that camping needn't be about cold tents, messy guide ropes and air beds that mysteriously deflate during the night.
Volkswagen mastered the camper in the 1950s with its iconic Type 2, but in recent years it's been the California that's established the German firm as one of the UK's most popular van-based camper makers. This textbook evolution has culminated in the California T6, which gets significant improvements in comfort and refinement over the old T5.
Now, it could be argued that the California - with its kitchen, bedrooms and on-board heating - defeats the purpose of camping. Especially when you consider that it starts at just over £38,000 for the Beach version and increases to the best part of £50,000 for the range-topping Ocean. However, while the price is the equivalent of 20 years’ of holidays abroad, it’s important to understand that Volkswagen isn't pitching its glamping wagon at the Carry on Camping crowd.
Far from it, the California is aimed at affluent types who already own a camper van or need one for regular weekends trips away (such as activity holidays or motor sport). This is where the California, with its compact size, low running costs and car-like handling becomes extremely appealing. It will sleep four adults in complete comfort and can go anywhere. It also doesn’t suffer the same sort of movement restrictions your standard juggernaut-sized motor home provides.
Unlike the competition, the California isn't an aftermarket afterthought, converted by a third party in a shed on an industrial estate. Far from it. The California is designed and factory-built by Volkswagen, which means it gets one of the best interiors of any camper van. Forget scruffy trims and dodgy curtains, the California has a fit and finish that wouldn’t feel amiss from the best of Volkswagen’s car range.
All versions get two beds, an elevating roof and electric hook-up, with the latter allowing you to use the lights, radio and power sockets without fear of draining either of the van's two batteries. In Ocean trim, the California gets almost all of the home comforts you could ask for, with a dark wood-effect trim gas stove, kitchen sink, running water and a fridge.
Transforming the van from motorway muncher to holiday home takes just a few minutes. The roof easily pops up and a small lever activates the 30-litre fresh water tank, which can be replenished via an external filler cap. The electrics are simple to master too, with an all-weather cable connecting the van to the mains in a matter of seconds.
Once set-up, the van provides plenty of space and comfort. All of the windows feature pull-down blinds and both the driver and front passenger swivel round, which allows the interior to be transformed into a mobile living room. Raise the roof - which opens electronically on Ocean models - and you get a comfortable slatted bed, with a deep foam mattress. The seats below also fold flat to provide a second bed, although we found the upper berth to be the most comfortable. It also gets zip-opening windows, should you want to stare at the stars as you nod off.
An optional roll-out awning provides protection from the elements outside and all California models get a pair of fold out chairs – neatly stored in the tailgate - as standard, while a small table can be fitted into the sliding door.
Unlike large motor homes and caravans, the California is not hindered by its size when it comes to exploring local roads. With the roof down, it measures less than two metres in height and width. This means it will easily fit into a multi-storey car park while country B roads can be navigated without fear of getting stuck or scratching the bodywork against a hedge whenever an oncoming vehicle comes your way.
Like the Transporter panel van, the California is a refined motorway companion, with low wind and road noise. The engine range features three versions of the 2.0 TDI diesel, with 102PS, 150PS or 204PS. However, unless you plan on utilising the van's 2.5 tonne towing limit, the mid-range 150PS unit will be more than enough for your camper vanning needs. Claimed fuel economy is also decent, ranking in the mid-40s.
Given its quality, simplicity and impressive second hand value, it isn't difficult to understand why the Volkswagen California is one of Britain's most-popular camper vans. The T6 takes all of the neat features from its predecessor and sharpens them, with better levels of refinement and comfort. It's just a pity that, for most, the California’s high pricing means it will remain something of an aspirational purchase rather than an obtainable one.