Review: Volkswagen T5 California (2010 – 2015)


Great use of space, high quality fit and finish, relatively efficient diesel engines, sleeps four adults in genuine comfort, compact enough to use as a day-to-day vehicle.

Gruff engine, dashboard is more ‘van’ than Volkswagen car as is driving position, expensive and very much so with options, reports of catastrophic engine problems with 2.0BITD after 60k miles.

Recently Added To This Review

3 June 2018

Report of 2015 VW T5 using oil at 20k miles and "may need a new engine". Read more

30 May 2018

Unclear posting in Ask (attempting to clarify): "I have had a new, very expensive, replacement engine in my vw California (2.0 tdi) the new engine Huddersfield when coming to a halt (with the clutch... Read more

26 March 2018

Roof corrosion of 2010 California (4-1-2018) not successfully resolved. Volkswagen fitted a "Cheap plastic cover. It is truly awful and causes wind noise, reduced fuel economy as well as looking poor.... Read more

Volkswagen T5 California (2010 – 2015): At A Glance

The Volkswagen California may be based on the fairly humble Transporter, but its roots go far deeper than that. The California is, to all intents and purposes, today’s ‘camper van’. That gives it legendary lineage.

Being van-based means that the California isn’t the most exciting vehicle to look at – there’s very little to distinguish it from the Transporter on the outside, and it’s a far cry from the characterful split-screen Type 2 camper of old – but it does make for an extremely versatile cabin.  

Teaming with intelligent practicality flourishes, the California sails close to being a luxurious motorhome, despite relatively compact dimensions, and it can sleep four in the sort of comfort that tent-based campers can only dream of.

The current California is available in two distinct variants, entry-level Beach and range-topping SE, and with a choice of three engines, all of them 2.0-litre TDI common rail diesel units, with 114PS, 140PS or 180PS.

The entry-level California Beach is effectively a hotel on wheels, offering a rear bench that converts into a comfortable bed and an electronically operated pop-up canvas roof, capable of sleeping two more. The California SE, meanwhile, literally throws in the kitchen sink, adding cooking facilities to the interior including an on-board water supply, a gas hob, a fridge and storage units.

That flexibility doesn’t come cheap, however, with prices for top-of-the-range versions surpassing the £50,000 mark. However, the California does hold its value exceptionally well and will always be a desirable vehicle, blending camping versatility with everyday practicality.

What does a Volkswagen T5 California (2010 – 2015) cost?

Volkswagen T5 California (2010 – 2015): What's It Like Inside?

The beauty of the California is in the using of it rather than the driving, and although the kitchen-equipped SE is the one to have for serious campers, even the basic Beach model is a brilliantly flexible assistant to adventure.

While the cabin may feel a little too van-like from the driver’s seat, that’s not so in the rest of the cabin, where the fit and finish are excellent. The wood-effect veneer of the cabinets is a nice touch and the whole thing has a nice airy ambiance to it.

The transformation of California from four-seat MPV, effectively, to working caravan is a sight to behold. With ease, the two front captain’s chairs spin 180 degrees to face inwards, and with a couple of levers, the rear bench folds flat into a sizeable bed. An optional bed extender is welcome for the longer gentleman or lady, though it eats into boot space when in situ. Volkswagen also offers a five-seat layout as a no-cost option.

The electrically operated pop-up roof opens up a space large enough for two more adults and is comfortable thanks to the fitment of proper wooden bed slats. Getting into the top deck isn’t as gracious as you may want, mind, effectively making you clamber through a sunroof using the front seats as a step.  

There’s also a sizeable folding table, neatly integrated into the sliding door, while window blinds all round the sleeping area guard your privacy, and an auxiliary heater keeps things toasty.

Opt for a California SE and there’s a small mobile kitchen at your disposal, comprising twin gas hobs, fresh running water (twin 30-litre tanks are supplied, one for fresh and the other for waste), a 42-litre fridge, and two deck chairs ensconced in the tailgate. You’ll have to pay extra for an awning, however.

It all feels incredibly well thought out and an excellent use of the available space – just the right balance between supplying storage and living solutions, along with leaving actual space to breathe in the cabin.

What's the Volkswagen T5 California (2010 – 2015) like to drive?

The California is based on one of the most refined vans on the market in the form of the Transporter, but on the other, its price puts it firmly into luxury car territory, which exposes it as perhaps a little crude.

There’s no hiding it’s a van, partly because of the swathe of hard plastics comprising the dashboard – the likes of which you’d normally find in Volkswagen’s cheapest passenger cars – and also because of the ‘flat wheel, long arm, short leg’ driving position that any van driver will be familiar with.

Other van-related characteristics include the California’s tendency to bounce around at times on its quite softly sprung suspension, while the sound dampening could be better because the TDI diesel engine sounds positively gruff above 2,500rpm.

It’s also a van from a pure driving perspective, in the sense that there’s much slack in the steering and close to zero feel coming up from the front wheels – but then, of course, driving feel isn’t in any way what the California is about.

What does matter is efficiency, and all things considered, the California does a good job. Both the Beach and SE versions can come with the 140PS 2.0 litre TDI – a ubiquitous engine in the Volkswagen range  – while the lower 114PS unit is Beach only. The most powerful version is the strong 180PS BiTDI engine which comes in SE only.

Bluemotion Technology – Volkswagen terminology for fuel saving measures like start/stop and low rolling resistance tyres – is standard, and the result is official average economy ranging from 34mpg to 40.4mpg. That spread goes from a 114PS Beach at the most efficient end of the scale, to a BiTDI California SE with a DSG automatic transmission. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard.

Rearward visibility isn’t great because the rear screen is obscured by seats and, in the case of SE models, large vertical storage units. But in its favour, the California does feel compact on the move – it could easily be used as day-to-day transport and doesn’t feel too bulky for the average car park. That’s in contrast to the average camper van conversion.

Safety and driving aids more associated with a car, like ESP, hill hold control, brake fade support, rollover protection, lane change assist and cornering lights are standard (or at least available) in the California, helping its cause as useable everyday transport – as does an optional rear parking camera.