“While expensive, the Volkswagen California is the only camper van built in house by a car manufacturer. After a week with the van, I can say it is superb.”
A few weeks ago I took the new Volkswagen California 6.1 Ocean to Scotland on a long road trip, consisting of around 1,500 miles which included picking up the van from Volkswagen Bristol. This, unlike other reviews seen here on the site was not a press loan from the company – instead this was a holiday and rental paid for by myself. If you didn’t know, Volkswagen Financial Services allow anyone (age permitting) to rent cars and vans, including their highly coveted range of camper vans, from the smaller Caddy California, California and the big Grand California.
Full disclosure: This review was not paid for nor sponsored by Volkswagen, Volkswagen Bristol or Volkswagen Financial Services.
The specific one I rented was in a two-tone colour, bronze and white with quite a few options loaded up. Over the years, the California has seen a handful of design changes, with the latest being the 6.1, based on the Transporter 6.1. This latest iteration modernises what came before, with a focus soon the tech inside. Outside, the California badge is on the side next to the headlights and the whole front end looks a lot sleeker than before.
Like other California models, the pop up roof is electrically powered, although this is limited to the Ocean trim level. All other models have a manual roof. Overall, the design is a stylish nod to the past, with the two-tone design and yet is a modern recreation of a camper van. On this example, we have 17-inch alloys which compliment the rest of the vehicle well, not too big and not too small. Volkswagen do offer larger black alloys which don’t quite work as well in my opinion.
Driving and interior
The driving experience is that of an easy one. Up front we have two captains chairs, which can be swivelled round facing inside the rest of the space, perfect for meal times. All California models come with a 7-speed DSG gearbox, with a diesel engine. In the months gone by, Volkswagen has been slowly removing some options from the California as the new T7 California is around the corner. For example, up until recently there was the option of four wheel drive (4MOTION) but currently it is no longer the case. Two engine choices are available, 150bhp and 200bhp. We had the entry level engine and considering the California weighs around 3 tonnes, the performance was more than adequate.
The DSG gearbox changes down fairly quickly when provoked and the van speeds up just as fast. 0-60mph time isn’t really worth mentioning but thats not what this vehicle is about, is it? The steering wheel comes from a Mk8 Golf, as does the drivers display and it all works just as you’d expect. On this 6.1 California, the steering is now electrically assisted which makes carpark manoeuvring a piece of cake.
If you are thinking of taking the California into a multi-storey car park, I wouldn’t worry too much. The St James Quarter Car Park in Edinburgh handled the California absolutely fine, which was rated at 2.1m and the California is just under 2 metres tall.
In the corners, the van wallows around which is to be expected. Some corners you’d be hard pressed to go over 45mph around. A few times I had to pull over to let people go past. Not to say you can’t pick up the pace, it just wobbles around – likely due to the weight. Other than that the California is a joy to drive, the miles flew by, as most days were anywhere from 3-4 hours of driving.
Thankfully with the California, Volkswagen has restrained from using touch based climate control as it retained a healthy amount of dials and buttons.
The infotainment is decent, the California has wireless Apple CarPlay and two USB-C ports upfront. The speaker system sounds great too, but there are two rear ones in the cupboard which had the tendency to rattle on some songs with only a smidgen of bass. Thankfully, those speakers were easily disabled from the screen.
Sleeping and living with it
Now, this isn’t like any car we have reviewed here. Few cars can become a home from home for a week, with kitchen, fridge and beds. The downstairs bench folds down to become a double bed, at a push. Be warned it can be a tad tight and I would recommend sleeping in the top bed if there are two of you. That said, all the blinds and window shades do a good job of blocking out the light in the morning. Apart from the drivers and passenger windows, they all have integrated blinds built into the window frame and are practically black out. For the windscreen, a blind from each side meets in the middle with two clips above the rear view mirror. On the side windows, two magnetically attaching fabric blinds attach to the body of the van. These blinds do a good job of blocking light, but not excellent.
Electrics can be a confusing part of the California. Every car has a standard 12v battery for running the lights and radio and this charges from the alternator. However, the California has a second leisure battery which can be used when not at a campsite. This runs the fridge, lighting, water pump for the sink, pop up roof and also for the two USB-A ports behind the passenger seat. In the same place, there is also a UK 3-pin socket. This socket is only live when the van is hooked up to the mains, using a blue connector at campsites. Once hooked up an orange symbol in the overhead control display will light up with a plug icon to show that it is connected to the mains. That 3-pin socket can run anything like a hairdryer, laptop charger or in our case a Starlink dish for internet access.
Water is next, the California has two large 30l tanks for fresh and waste water. The fresh water comes from the included tap, but no hot water. If you want hot water, you’ll need to boil the kettle or get the larger Grand California which actually has a boiler. Fresh water is filled up on the left hand side using a hose and then the waste water comes out in front of the rear tyre on the left, emptying it can be done by pulling a leaver inside the cabinet.
There are a few neat extras dotted around the California, too many to mention in fact. For example, the table and chairs live inside the doors, the table fitting ever so flush inside the sliding door and the two chairs inside the tailgate.
On the example we rented, the canvas roof did leak, but we were advised this is an issue on the newer version of the roof and will be fixed soon.
After around a week with the California, it is pretty much perfect. It doesn’t return very good fuel economy but what 3 tonne slab of metal would? As mentioned, the California is a joy to live with and drives well.
- Timeless design, will look good in ten years
- Modern driving tech
- Lots of storage
- Fridge gets super cold
- Poor fuel economy
- Can be tight to move around inside for two people
- Lower bed can be tight for two people
- Canvas roof leaked