Volkswagen California Review

Andrew Brady

Written by

Andrew Brady

Volkswagen California
Volkswagen California

1/10

1 / 10

00/10
heycar rating
"Space efficient and posh campervan"
  • Launched: 2020
  • Campervan
  • Diesel

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Quick overview

Pros

  • Still the definitive small campervan
  • Excellent driver and passenger comfort
  • Refined and easy to drive

Cons

  • Expensive to buy, even second-hand 
  • Limited range of engines and only one gearbox offered
  • Top sleeping area isn’t for everyone

Overall verdict

On the inside

Driving

Cost to run

Prices and Specs

Overall verdict

"Volkswagen has a proud history of campervans, and the California ensures that the brand’s association with overnight adventuring is very much in the present too."

Volkswagen California front

The Volkswagen California - the T6.1 being the latest iteration - is based on the Transporter panel van and shares many elements with the commercial vehicle but with much more tech and touches to make it more relaxing to drive. It’s quieter on the motorway, gets a more car-like dashboard, upgraded infotainment screens and a seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox as standard.


There are various versions of the California available, the Beach Tour, Beach Camper, Coast and the Ocean, plus two versions of the 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine that appears in multiple Volkswagen models, including the Volkswagen Transporter.


The newer cheapest version - the  Beach Tour - has five seats as standard, with the option to increase to six or seven while the Beach Camper gets four seats as standard with an option to increase to five, as well as a pull-out mini kitchen with a single gas hob, and pull-out awning.


All models come with space for four, both in terms of seats and sleeping areas. The lower bed is created by folding down the rear bench seat while the upper sleeping area is created by opening up a roof awning. The 2019 facelift brought updates to both of these, with the upper bed getting an enhanced, sprung mattress and the lower bed getting a lounge function, which enables you to raise the headrest in several steps so you can sit up and read in bed.


The engines are two of the more powerful versions of the 2.0-litre range, with a 150PS and 199PS model on offer. Both of them offer more than enough power to carry the California around without ever really feeling too stressed. Previous versions of the camper have come with lower-powered engines, which struggled with the combination of the van’s weight and hills. You can only get the lower-powered version on the Coast, while the Ocean comes with the choice of both.


The official economy figures for the two engines are practically identical – both average around 33mpg and there is less than 0.5mpg between the two. Both are only available with a seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox as standard, and the only other option is the 4Motion four-wheel drive system. If you are still struggling to decide between the two then the lesser-powered version takes 14.3 seconds to get from 0-62mph while the 199PS model takes just under 12 seconds.


There is little difference in weight between models, so the handling is much the same, which is to say that it is a vehicle that is relatively easy to drive but still needs a little care and consideration. This is particularly the case in the corners, where the amount of weight high up on the California means it is more likely to lean over a little than the van on which it is based. That said, the comfortable suspension and responsive steering make it a relaxing vehicle on the move.


Buying a California looks like an expensive undertaking when you look at purchase price alone, but there is more to it than that. You get great value for money when you consider the amount it costs to create your own camper to a similar spec, and the fact that the California holds its value remarkably well.


There’s also the reassurance that this is a camper that is built in-house by a manufacturer that has been turning out similar vehicles for years. It’s a great buy if you can stretch to the cost.

Is the Volkswagen California right for you?

The California makes a case for itself on an emotive front as much as a logical one. Its compact dimensions mean that it allows a family to head off for a break without the need for a huge campervan or caravan that would be more intimidating to drive.


Volkswagen’s campervan heritage will attract a few too, with the modern California sharing many of the attributes with the old 1960s camper that still has many fans today. It brings more creature comforts than those old buses, though, with technology meaning that the California offers everything that you would expect from a modern hotel room, apart from the bathroom that is.


But where the Volkswagen is special is that there are so few like it. There might be a couple of other manufacturers that do something similar, but very few and none with the history and experience that Volkswagen has.

What’s the best Volkswagen California model/engine to choose?

Value for money doesn’t really come into it when you are choosing a California, as it is a pretty pricy endeavour regardless of which one you go for. On that basis, there is a strong argument to throw caution to the wind and just go for the one that you want the most and that comes with more kit.


That said, there isn’t really a strong reason to head for the most powerful engine as the 150PS version will take on everything that you choose to throw at it in terms of carrying the California’s bulk and the extra luggage you load it up with. If you plan on winter camping, or heading onto more inaccessible camping spots then the 4WD version might be worth a look, but otherwise keep it basic on that front.

What other cars are similar to the Volkswagen California?

What cars are similar and what competes even if it’s not in the same class (i.e if value is your priority also consider, same for other areas, e.g warranty, space, performance, etc)


There are very few direct rivals to the Volkswagen California – a well-specced in-house campervan isn’t something you find on most manufacturers’ lists.


The two main rivals are the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo and the more recent Ford Transit Custom Nugget and both are created in partnership with Westfalia, rather than in-house like the California.


The other alternatives are campers made by aftermarket converters. This gives you more control on how you lay the van out, but doesn’t come with the years of experience that the Volkswagen offers.

On the inside

"The front part of the California has been given as much attention as the sleeping quarters when it comes to comfort and the seats for the front passengers are among the best of any car or van when it comes to comfort and support. They provide plenty of padding for your lower back and upper legs, which means that you should be able to cover long distances with ease."

Volkswagen California steering wheel

The dashboard design was upgraded at the most recent facelift and the California gets the same digital cockpit as several of Volkswagen’s passenger cars, which lifts the look of the interior above the commercial vehicle on which the camper is based. 


Some of the basic van-like elements remain, though, which is a good thing when it comes to maximising space. The gear lever sits high up on the dash, which means it is not only easy to reach but it also frees up more space between the two front seats. As all Californias are automatic, you won’t be reaching for it too often anyway.


The rest of the cabin is just as comfortable, which you would hope for given those seats have to double as sofas when you park up. The front seats swivel around to face backwards and then the rear pair of seats are set on a pair of runners. They are just as supportive and comfortable as the front two, if slightly firmer.


The beds are the other areas where comfort is key, and they have been upgraded as part of the most recent facelift. The rear one is created by laying the bench seat flat and then popping a mattress on top of it. You can now set the headrest at various angles to give you the ability to read while propped up in bed.


The top bunk, which is accessed through a small hatch and sits under an extendable pop-up roof, has a revised mattress as of 2019. Where it was on wooden slats before it now sits on plastic springs. This boosts comfort levels slightly, although the access point means that you have to be relatively energetic to get up into the top bed in the first place.

Quality and finish

The finish in the California is excellent, which you would hope for given the cost. Despite the front part of the cabin having the same fundamental layout as the Transporter van, there is a little more in the way of gloss and polish in the form of different coloured materials, some chrome edging and a flat top to the dash rather than a series of open-top storage boxes. The steering wheel is covered with leather, too.


The living area gets a selection of wood-effect veneers on the Coast, which also comes with a velour non-woven floor covering, a stainless-steel sink with an adjustable tap, and chrome and black details throughout the cabin. 


The Ocean gets a slate-effect finish to the kitchen area, an upgraded upholstery on the seats, velour floor mats and extra LED lighting throughout the living area, including in the tailgate, cupboards and in the pop-up roof. The front seats are heated, too.


Other touches include aluminium door handles for the cupboards, push-to-open latches and upgraded materials. 


The cheaper Beach Camper version gets a stowable, fold-out mini-kitchen with single gas hob while the pop-up canvas roof is manually operated on the Beach Camper, Beach Tour and Coast.

Infotainment

There are several screens in the California, with the 2019 facelift bringing upgrades all around. What you get depends on which model you go for though.


Both Beach models and the Coast version come with a simple 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system with a row of shortcut buttons either side. It gets USB and Bluetooth connectivity, but it is worth bearing in mind that the USB slots are USB-C, which is a more modern connection than most smartphones come with. Until the world of tech catches up, Volkswagen is supplying adaptors so you can use your existing phone.


The Ocean gets all the latest gear, though, with the central screen upgraded to an eight-inch system with shortcuts that still appear down the side, but as buttons that lie flush with the screen. It’s a smart system with excellent graphics that is easy to use. 


Both versions get App Connect, which is Volkswagen’s name for Apple Carplay and Android Auto, but the Coast gets the latest version which allows you to connect wirelessly. From mid 2020 you can use this without worrying about the impact on your battery as the California will offer wireless charging for those phones that can support such a feature.


The other impressive feature on the Ocean is the digital cockpit, which turns the instrument panel in front of the driver into a much more customisable and attractive display. If the slightly bold layouts aren’t for you then you can go for a more conventional style. 


The final screen is another new one and is a touchscreen linked to the living area. It shows the battery charge level and capacity, the external temperature and the van’s fresh and waste water levels. It also controls the parking heater, interior lights and cool box temperature. It even acts as an alarm clock should you wish.


Space and practicality

The California is based on the short wheelbase Transporter, so Volkswagen has had to work hard to make the most of the space rather than cheat and use a bigger vehicle.


The standard vehicle comes with seating for four. You can get an optional fifth seat should you wish, although there is no way of boosting the sleeping capacity so you would have to take a tent for them to stay outside if you did.


If you stick with four seats then the rear two sit on a set of runners so you can slide them forward or backwards as you wish. Send them all the way back and the rear passengers get a vast amount of legroom, to the extent they could stretch their legs all the way out. Even though this isn’t the high-roof Transporter you still get a great amount of headroom for all four occupants, too. 


Both those rear seats get Isofix fittings for child seats, too. Because there is only the one side door you will have to climb in to put any children into their seats, but there is enough room that it is still easier than stooping down to, say, a low hatchback.


There isn’t a big boot in the classic sense, but there is a vast amount of storage throughout the California. You can move those sliding seats forward and put things behind them, stash things under the bench seat, pop clothes into the wardrobe, lock valuables in the safe or put smaller items in the compartment on the roof at the back of the van. There is also a space in the tailgate into which you can slide two camping chairs and a slot for the table in the side door and a 42-litre cool box that acts as a fridge. Add in the various kitchen cupboards and drawers and most of what you need for camping will be able to just live in the van.


The other camping luxuries include a roll-out awning that tucks neatly into its own storage on the side, a heater that warms the van in moments and cables that allow you to hook up to a local electricity supply to save the battery. There’s a 30-litre fresh-water tank and another 30-litre waste tank and space for a 2.8kg natural gas canister to power the hob.

Handling and ride quality

"With all the camping and cooking gear on board, the California is not the briskest of vehicles, but it’s highly unlikely that that will be top of the list of priorities for anyone in the market for one. It is, however, a relaxed long-distance cruiser with suspension that is set up for comfort rather than dynamism."

Volkswagen California driving

You have to be relatively careful going around corners as a result, which is down to the large amount of weight that the California carries up top as much as anything else. The pop-up roof, top bunk and extra camping kit means that the California is a little top heavy compared to a standard Transporter or Caravelle. However, you’d probably want to take it a little easy due to the crockery and cutlery stashed in the kitchen anyway. Take it easy and this shouldn’t be an issue, though.


The steering is geared towards this sensible nature, too, being well balanced and not over sharp or too vague. The steering system changed at the 2019 facelift, moving from a hydraulic system to a more modern electro-mechanical version, but this is the case for both and they feel much the same in normal driving situations. 


The compact nature of the California is a real boost when it comes to its manoeuvrability, as it measures in at just under two metres tall. This means it should be able to make it under the average urban height restrictor, while its short wheelbase means it has as turning circle of 11.9m, which is the same as the Transporter and should aid with town trips too.


There are three wheel sizes on offer, but due to that comfortable suspension there isn’t a payoff in terms of ride quality if you go for the biggest, 18-inch, alloys. The Coast comes with 16-inch rims while the Ocean steps up to 17s with the 18-inch versions all optional.

Engines and gearboxes

The California comes with a 2.0-litre diesel engine and, as of the most recent update, there are just the two power outputs on offer. These are 150PS and 199PS, and both were brought in at the time of the 2019 facelift. Prior to the facelift these two engines were 150PS and 204PS and there was also a 102PS model.


This 102PS model is underpowered for hauling around the California and all the stuff you need for a break, with only 250Nm of torque – the other engines currently boast 340Nm and 450Nm. This means it runs out of puff rather rapidly.


Both of the other two engines are up to the task, though, and there is no major reason to upgrade to the more powerful of the two if you are torn between them. The 150PS model will be able to take on long trips and short town journeys alike. It’s not the quickest, with 0-62mph taking 14.3 seconds, but the California doesn’t feel like the sort of vehicle you want to pull off fast acceleration moves anyway.


If you want a bit more pace then the 199PS model manages 0-62mph in 11.9 seconds, or 11.3 if you go for the 4WD version.


Pre-facelift versions of the engines came with either manual or automatic gearboxes, with the 102PS paired with a five-speed ‘box and the rest of the range offered with a six-speed manual or a seven-speed DSG. Post the 2019 update, though, Volkswagen ditched the manual option and went auto only. 


There was a brief period when the California was offered with a petrol engine, again with 150PS and 204PS, and both were free-revving and sounded good but they were ditched after less than a year so there won’t be many on the used market.

Refinement and noise levels

It wouldn’t do for the California to sound like a van, so thankfully Volkswagen has added in extra sound deadening materials to help keep out as much of the noise as possible. This has been the case since the model’s launch in 2015, after Volkswagen took on comments about the T5 and its refinement.


The lower powered pre-facelift engine was the noisiest when you pressed on and accelerated hard, but the more relaxed nature of the higher-powered engines means that you won’t need to do that anywhere near as much so things are a lot more relaxed and quieter. The quietest engines of all are the petrols, especially at low revs when they are very refined indeed.


Wind noise and road noise are both kept out well, too, thanks again to that insulation. It’s much more likely that you will be interrupted by the noise of the crockery and cutlery rattling around in the drawers and cupboards. Pack well and this shouldn’t be an issue, but the nature of the California means it is more likely than in a family hatchback.

Safety equipment

The big benefit of the new electric power steering system is the extra safety kit it allows the California to come with. The high price of the van means that it offers several desirable features as standard, too, which is not the case on the commercial vehicle equivalent.


Crosswind assist, adaptive cruise control, city emergency braking and front and rear parking sensors are some of the main, most recent additions to the standard kit list. The Ocean model adds park assist, rear-view camera, side assist, auto high-beam headlights and cornering headlights.


Of those, the crosswind assist is the one that will help less practiced van drivers feel comfortable behind the wheel of a vehicle that is bigger than a car and can get rocked by a big gust.


The steering also allows active lane assist to be offered, but it is only available as an option. Other options include a trailer assist system that helps steer the vehicle when you are reversing, traffic sign recognition and hill descent control on the 4Motion 4WD model.


All models get driver and passenger airbags with side and curtain bags on both sides. 


There has been no Euro NCAP test of the Volkswagen California, and the most recent assessment for the Transporter van was on the previous generation T5 back in 2013 when it scored four stars. The tests have got stricter since then, but the California offers much more in standard safety kit than its commercial vehicle cousin so it’s not a result to read into too closely. 

How much does it cost to run?

"The latest round of engines are all much the same as one another when it comes to fuel economy, thanks in part to the fact that all of them come with the same seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox."

Volkswagen California interior sink hob

The Coast model claims an average economy of up to 33.6mpg for the 150PS 2.0-litre diesel while the Ocean claims up to 33.2mpg for both the 150PS and 199PS models. This will be because it is slightly heavier and has slightly larger alloy wheels. The 4Motion 4WD version is marginally less economical with an official economy of 31.4mpg.


It will be of little surprise that the petrol models were not the most efficient versions – they only claimed 29-30mpg on the older, more lenient NEDC test. Expect mid 20s at best, which might mean that you always have half a mind on finding a filling station on your touring holidays.


Insurance groups and costs

The added kit makes the California more desirable, so bumps up the insurance group slightly – the groups range from 29 to 36.


However, insuring a campervan is slightly different to insuring a car or a van and there are specialist insurers that can help lessen the potential bills. Rather than heading straight to your standard car insurance company, talk to company that deals with campers first.


VED car tax

Because of its relatively high CO2 emissions, the California sits in a high VED band, which means that the first-year charge will add four figures to the purchase price regardless of which model you go for. The 4Motion is the most expensive of all, sitting in band L, which means you’ll pay more than £2,000 in first year tax.

 

The annual VED bill will be higher for the first five years, too, due to every model having a purchase price in excess of £40,000.

How much should you be paying for a used Volkswagen California?

"The normal rules don’t really apply when it comes to depreciation and used-car bargains in the case of the California. The desirable nature of the camper means that it holds it value remarkably well, which is good news if you are buying and plan on selling it on after a few years, but not such great news if you are after a second-hand bargain."

Volkswagen California profile side

Nearly new models will only have around £2000-£3000 off the list price, which isn’t much given it is a vehicle that starts at around £55,000. Even three-year-old high-spec models are likely to start at or around £50,000. It’s also likely that these vehicles will have covered a fair few miles, with 10,000 miles or more a year a possibility.

Trim levels and standard equipment

All of current trims on the California offer a good level of luxury, with it being more a case of choosing whether you want even more toys on the Ocean over the Coast and Beach. The smarter cockpit, extra lighting, upgraded kitchen surfaces and park assist all mean that the extra investment is worthwhile.


That said, there is enough kit on the Coast and Beach models, and the 150PS diesel is perfectly strong enough, that opting for the entry-level model won’t mean you have any less fun on your holidays away in a California. If you are buying a used one then the ones to avoid are the more basic Beach model with the 102PS diesel engine as the more austere finish and underpowered engine don’t do the camper justice. The petrol engines are not the best fit either, due to their inefficient nature.

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