Camper van comparison test
The Volkswagen California, Mercedes V-Class Marco Polo and Ford Transit Nugget really do let you take everything with you, including the kitchen sink. But which is best?...
Volkswagen California Ocean 2.0 TDI 150
List price £66,419
Target Price £66,419
No camper test would be complete without a Volkswagen. The Ocean is the plushest version of the regular-length California, and we’re testing the less powerful of the two diesel options with front-wheel drive rather than 4WD
Ford Transit Custom Nugget L1 2.0 Ecoblue 185
List price £62,736
Target Price £62,736
Based on Britain’s most popular van, the Nugget is Ford’s first official camper model. We’ve got the shorter of the two versions with the punchiest engine on offer
Mercedes V-Class Marco Polo V220d Sport
List price £63,425
Target Price £60,988
Does a posh badge mean a luxury holiday experience? Based on the ambience of the Marco Polo’s leather-lined, wooden- floored interior, you’d certainly think so
There's a good chance that the events of the past year and a half will have made you rethink your holiday plans. Where once there seemed little to fear about cramming into a metal tube with a few hundred strangers and jetting off to a supposedly clean room abroad, you might well be looking for an alternative approach in future.
So, what if you could just load all of your holiday clobber straight into nice, clean accommodation and drive it and your family anywhere you like? That’s right: we’re talking camper vans. And when we say the word ‘camper’, the first brand that springs to mind is probably Volkswagen. With a family tree that stretches back to the 1950s, the California Ocean certainly has experience on its side.
Now, with our benchmark in place, let’s meet the rivals. First up is the Ford Transit Custom Nugget, a name that is no doubt intended to conjure up images of gold but instead makes us rather peckish. It’s based on Britain’s most popular van, with an interior layout that diverges from the camper van norm, as we’ll explain.
Performance, ride, handling, refinement
All of our protagonists are fitted with 2.0-litre diesel engines and automatic gearboxes. The California is the least potent, with 148bhp, while the Marco Polo is a bit punchier (161bhp) and the Nugget tops the table with 182bhp. Even so, it’s the California that’s quickest off the line, with a crockery-threatening 0-60mph time of 12.1sec, just 0.1sec ahead of the Nugget, with the Marco Polo (13.0sec) bringing up the rear.
More to the point, the Nugget and California are similarly adept at building speed when you’re on the move, giving you a decent amount of confidence to get past that annoying tractor should the opportunity arise. Accelerating up to motorway speeds on a short slip road is a slightly more fraught experience in the Marco Polo.
But how do they behave if you’re running really late for your ferry? Well, with relatively stiff springs and precise steering, the California feels happiest in corners, not leaning over too much and having confidence-inspiring manners. The Marco Polo has a bit more grip, although slower steering and a higher degree of body lean mean it’s not as reassuring to drive as the California. But both are better than the Nugget, which has the least grip and loses composure the soonest.
Of far greater importance is how comfortable they are on a long journey. Here, the Marco Polo claws back some ground. With a more sophisticated rear suspension layout than its rivals and relatively soft springs, it has the most cosseting ride. True, it gets a little floaty along undulating country roads, but you’ll be more than happy to cruise on up to Scotland from the south of England in it.
The Nugget is softer still, but that doesn’t translate into a plusher ride. With loose body control, it bounces so dramatically over bumps that it can make even front seat passengers feel queasy. At the same time, it fidgets over smaller surface imperfections, while pothole impacts reverberate through the structure.
As for the California, that's the firmest of the three and proves the most prone to thumping over humps and holes around town. However, it also controls its body movements the best, feeling the least like a ship in a storm. Because it’s more settled than the others, passengers who get carsick easily are likely to prefer the California.
The engines in the Nugget and California sound rather gritty, leaving you in no doubt about their commercial vehicle origins. The California’s also suffers from plenty of whooshing from the turbocharger. Although it’s obvious that the Marco Polo, too, runs on diesel, its engine is easily the smoothest. Similarly, its gearbox is less hesitant than the sometimes slow-witted California’s and feels less old-school than the slurring Nugget’s.
By some margin, the Marco Polo generates the least wind noise at speed, while the level of road noise is perfectly tolerable. The Nugget generates a bit more wind noise, but the rowdiest is the California, with the most wind noise and a lot of suspension thump.
None of these campers feels scary when performing an emergency stop from 70mph, although the Nugget suffers from the most nose dive and requires the longest stretch of road in which to stop. The California is the least inclined to dive under braking and feels comparatively stable, but the Marco Polo is able to stop in a shorter distance.
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