Review: Volkswagen T6 California (2015)
Refined and easy to drive, excellent driver and passenger comfort, still the coolest way to camp.
High list price, sluggish DSG automatic gearbox, limited number of petrol models.
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Volkswagen T6 California (2015): At A Glance
The Volkswagen California is very much a textbook evolutionary approach to the camper van, with the its boxy van-like exterior hiding a comfortable and modern interior that provides upmarket, all-weather accommodation for up to four adults.
Compared to its T5 predecessor, it looks very similar. In fact, parked side-by-side, you’d only notice that the design of the headlights of the T6 California are a little sharper. There's little else different though. And inside, while the dashboard is slightly glossier and classier (in some versions), the rear living section is almost identical.
That’s because this California is a thorough overhaul of the Transporter-based T5 model, rather than a clean sheet redesign. It’s the last variant of the latest generation Transporter-based T6 vehicles to be launched, following the panel van, kombi and Caravelle. In fairness to Volkswagen, there was little wrong with the T5 Transporter in the first place, so all the development work has gone into refining from a good base, which seems wise.
Spend some time in this California and you’ll quickly realise that this is a much-improved camper van. It’s quieter on the motorway, more efficient, better to drive and benefits from some of the most cutting edge media and safety technology that Volkswagen offers in its passenger cars – including automatic low-speed collision prevention braking. The infotainment system also gets full Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.
Two versions are available, called Beach and Ocean, with the former seating five and sleeping four while the latter has one less chair but includes a fully-fitted kitchen. It too sleeps four in the same way. That makes the Ocean model the camper van proper, while the Beach feels more like an MPV with added sleeping facilities.
The problem is, to literally get the kitchen sink with your California, the list price reaches £50,000 and beyond. That’s an awful lot of money, especially given a used T5 California will sate your camping requirements just as effectively for a significantly lower sum. It’s upon this realisation that the evolutionary approach feels slightly flawed. However, if you want the ultimate camper experience, few vans can match the everyday usability of the T6 California.
Driven: Volkswagen California Ocean
Comfortable, modern and easy to use, the Volkswagen California Ocean is proof that camping needn't be about cold tents, messy guide ropes and air beds that mysteriously deflate during the night.
What does a Volkswagen T6 California (2015) cost?
Buy a used Volkswagen California from £49,300
Volkswagen T6 California (2015): What's It Like Inside?
The vast majority of the changes from T5 California to T6 California are unseen, but those you can see are largely at the front of the cabin. The front seats, for example, are among the best you'll find in any car or van when it comes to comfort, with lots of firm padding for upper leg and lower back support. As a result, you can cover huge distances in comfort.
Behind the front seats it’s business as usual, so both the Beach and Ocean models sleep four with a setup that comprises a rear double bed and a pop-up roof that unveils a further double mattress ensconced within canvas sidewalls.
Whether a five-seat Ocean or four-seat Beach model, the double bed is massive, comfortable and easy as pie to operate – a couple of lever pulls and the rear chairs are flat and ready to sleep on. In Beach models the pop-up roof is manually operated, whereas in the Ocean it’s electric.
Anyone with any experience in a T5 California will be very familiar with the T6 Ocean’s kitchen – the architecture is identical, save for an additional rail, cup holder and a couple of shelves. Volkswagen’s view is that redesigning the kitchen would be pointless – like rearranging a utility room. It worked perfectly well before and it still does.
It remains a quality environment - wood veneered, easy to use, hefty and surprisingly adept at swallowing oddments. There’s a 30-litre fresh water tank and another of identical volume for waste, while the fridge stays at 42 litres – big enough for a good couple of days’ worth of food.
As before, the front seats swivel with ease, allowing the occupants to face each other, and the cabin area feels surprisingly spacious in both the Beach and Ocean models.
A roll-out awning provides shelter from the rain, a removable table is mounted in the sliding door and pair of deckchairs in the tailgate give you somewhere to sit outside. And if it gets too cold, the auxiliary heater warms the cabin in seconds. All told, the usually dreary reality of pitching up on a field somewhere wet and cold – classic camping in the UK – is very well catered for with a California. You can also hook it up to the local electricity supply, via an all-weather cable, which allows you to use the lights, fridge and power sockets without fear of draining the battery.
The Ocean model comes with what Volkswagen calls the 'premium dashboard', while the cheaper Beach model doesn’t. The design is the same for both – lifted from the Transporter – but the Premium dash adds high-gloss covers for the oddment spaces and some glossy trim.
It does actually make a big difference and goes some way to making the Ocean’s £50,000-odd price tag feel less harsh – though similarly, Beach drivers might feel they too deserve that dashboard in their £40,000 camper.
What's the Volkswagen T6 California (2015) like to drive?
Much of the development of the California T6 went into refining the driving experience and improving efficiency, rather than strengthening its ability as mobile overnight accommodation. So from the driver’s seat, at least, the T6 model really does feel like a far better van.
Three engines were initially available at launch, all 2.0-litre TDI diesel units but with varying output: 102PS, 150PS and 204PS. The first of those is only available with Beach specification – without the kitchen – while the other two power Ocean models. Ocean versions can be specified with 4Motion four-wheel drive too.
The two higher-powered engines are available either with a six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed DSG (the 102PS unit comes with a five-speed manual only), but regardless, the overarching feeling is that everything has been refined. Given their additional weight, Ocean models benefit from the automatic transmission, but the DSG is prone to the odd bout of hesitation. Even more so with the higher powered version of the 2.0 TDI.
Given its van base, things are relatively quiet unless the engine is pushed hard – showing that Volkswagen has listened to criticism of the T5 model - its coarse engines being a major one - and moved to correct them.
With the 102PS unit equipped, pushing hard is what you’ll be doing most of the time. It has a significant 250Nm of torque from just 1500rpm, but it runs out of puff very quickly, leaving the feeling that it’s really struggling to drag the California’s weight along.
The 150PS and 204PS units have no such trouble. As usual it’s the mid-range engine that offers the best balance of performance and running costs. With 340Nm, also peaking at 1500rpm, it’s a very punchy performer and makes light(ish) work of even kitchen-equipped Ocean models.
In that context, the 204PS unit doesn’t feel as quick as its stats suggest: 450Nm at 1400rpm. It’s the difference between getting to 62mph in just over 14 seconds or just under 11 – which is no difference at all, really.
In 2017 Volkswagen added the 2.0 TSI petrol to the range with 150PS or 204PS, with the latter limited to the seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox. Advertised economy for the petrols ranges from 29-30mpg.
The petrol engines were withdrawn from the range in mid-2018, along with the 102PS diesel. The 204PS version was also reworked to 199PS.
Regardless of engine, the California does a great job of shutting out wind and road noise, and the ride quality is excellent, which at motorway speeds makes this a very refined van for long distance travel. Clearly, it’s never going to be the sharpest thing on the road, but the steering is accurate and visibility is all encompassing, owing to the large windscreen and huge door mirrors.
The California still can’t hide its van DNA entirely though, largely because of a compromised driving position that puts the seat too close to the wheel and pedals, making for slightly awkward arm and leg positions on the controls. But with safety equipment including a driver alert system, low speed automatic braking to help avoid collisions, hill hold control, ESP and lane change assistant, it’s safer and easier to drive than ever before.