What Car? says...
Campervans like the Volkswagen Caddy California have a magical appeal. Even when they're parked on your drive, they offer a little bit of escapism at the prospect of getting away from it all.
The Caddy California is extra special because it swerves two big barriers to the campervan life – the sheer cost of buying many of the larger models, and the prospect of steering what is effectively a full-sized van along narrow country roads.
It's based on the fifth-generation VW Caddy Cargo van and is the smallest camper the German manufacturer makes, sitting below the larger VW California and VW Grand California. How small? Well, it's roughly the same size as a VW Golf.
Amazingly, inside you'll find five seats, a double bed and a mini-kitchen. As we’ll explain later on in this review, Volkswagen has developed some ingenious packaging solutions to make all that possible.
There are two versions – a standard-sized short wheelbase (SWB) model and the Maxi, which is 353mm longer. The Maxi gives you just that little bit more storage space in the boot area, which is very welcome in a camper van this compact.
There's also an optional annex tent that attaches around the Caddy's tailgate for additional protection from the elements (very handy for UK staycations at the mercy of the British weather).
In terms of rivals, it is technically possible to get the Citroën Berlingo van, the Ford Tourneo Connect, the Peugeot Rifter and other MPVs converted into campers by specialist builders. The Caddy California is pretty much the only vehicle of its kind produced in-house by its manufacturer though.
Over the next few pages, we'll tell you all you need to know about how the VW Caddy California behaves on the road, what it’s like inside and what it’ll cost you to run. We’ll even let you know what it’s like to sleep in – a What Car? review rarity.
Don’t forget, whether it's a campervan, a car, an SUV or any other make and model of vehicle you're looking to buy, we can help you find the best prices quickly and easily through our free What Car? New Car Deals pages.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
There are three engine options for the Volkswagen Caddy California: a 1.5-litre TSI turbocharged petrol with 112bhp, and a 2.0-litre TDI turbocharged diesel with a choice of two outputs, 101bhp and 120bhp.
The petrol can be had with either a six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed DSG automatic. The 112bhp diesel is limited to the six-speed manual, while the 122bhp diesel gets the seven-speed auto.
We’ve tested the latter, and by campervan standards, it’s pleasingly punchy. With maximum grunt available from just 1600rpm, it pulls strongly whichever gear you’re in, and even at motorway speeds it will happily cruise along with faster-moving traffic in the right-hand lane. This is a camper van you can make real progress in.
The Caddy California's compact size also gives you confidence driving on country roads. It has sharp steering so you can place it exactly where you want it within the lane, and there's also a surprising amount of grip from its relatively skinny tyres.
If you start to drive a little more aggressively, you’ll notice that there is quite a lot of body lean. Then again, do you really want to spill your passengers’ morning bowl of cereal by attempting to take the racing line through corners?
The ride is surprisingly good. We say surprisingly because the larger VW California has the firmest ride of any camper we’ve tested.
The smaller Caddy has soft suspension that does an impressive job of soaking up undulating roads and smoothing out abrasive surfaces. Large potholes and expansion joints can cause the suspension to thump a bit, but we didn't experience any rattles or shakes from the bed and cupboards.
In terms of refinement, the 2.0-litre TDI turbocharged diesel is impressively quiet by camper van standards. There’s a small grumble when it starts up, but on the move, it fades into the background.
The Caddy California has lots more sound-deadening than the regular VW Caddy Cargo van so there is very little road or wind noise.
The interior layout, fit and finish
Inside the Volkswagen Caddy California, you’re met with a smart-looking interior, but one that is constructed from the same hard-wearing materials you’ll find in the regular VW Caddy Cargo van.
That might come as a bit of a disappointment to customers expecting Golf-like interior quality, but we suspect lots of buyers will take comfort from the fact that the interior should be able to weather years of scuffs and scrapes.
There’s plenty of reach and rake adjustment for the steering wheel and a reasonable range of movement for the seat, so finding a comfortable driving position is relatively easy. All Caddy Californias have manually adjustable lumbar support in the front seats, and if you pay extra for the California Plus Pack, you get a centre armrest.
The tall windows mean visibility to the front and side is very good, and because there are no wall-mounted cupboards (as you get in the full-sized VW California in Coast or Ocean trim) you have an unimpeded view out of the rear window. Nervous parkers might want to consider the optional park assist system that comes with front and rear parking sensors, or select the optional rear-view camera.
We mentioned earlier that the Caddy California’s interior looks rather smart, and one of the main reasons for that is the central touchscreen. Standard Caddy Californias benefit from an 8.25in version with Bluetooth and DAB radio, but the vehicle we tested had the optional 10.0in version – an eye-catching carry-over from the VW Golf.
The 'Discover' system has sharp graphics and a relatively responsive screen. However, that's where the positives begin and end because the built-in software is not particularly intuitive and there are no physical shortcut buttons to take you quickly from one feature to the next. You even have to change the volume of the radio and adjust the air-conditioning with touch-sensitive buttons, and they're not backlit, which is a pain at night.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
Up front in the Volkswagen Caddy California, there's plenty of head, leg and elbow room, so adults of any size should be able to get comfortable. There’s also a decent amount of storage – you get a pair of big door pockets with built-in bottle holders, a well-sized glove compartment and drawers under both front seats.
The second row of seats is positioned in such a way that you have to sit quite upright, but there is so much head and leg room that it's hard to imagine anyone struggling with space. Plus, the rear bench is wide enough to accommodate three adults with ease, which is impressive in such a compact camper.
You might be wondering where VW has hidden a full-sized bed in this limited space. Well, when the rear seats are in use, the entire bed sits behind them, folded in half like a giant piece of origami. To unfold it, you simply drop the second row of seats, pull the bottom half of the bed over the folded seat backs, then slot two support bars into cut-outs in the door frame (if you’ve ever unfolded an Ikea sofa-bed, you know the drill).
That last bit is important because it means the bed doesn’t use the seats for structural support. That's allowed VW to make the whole bench removable, giving couples more room for their wellies and camping gear.
In terms of dimensions, the bed itself is 1,980mm x 1,070mm, and is therefore long enough for a pair of six-footers to sleep on it side by side. It also gets cup springs and a high-quality mattress, so it’s pretty comfortable and has plenty of back support.
VW’s commitment to using every inch of the Caddy's interior continues with its ‘mini-kitchen’. Installed in the boot, it includes everything from a single-burner cooker with an integrated gas bottle to a storage area for utensils and food. There’s even a custom-made bag designed to hold two foldable chairs and a table for dining outside.
When you're cooking, you'll be at least partially protected from any adverse weather by the open tailgate, and there's the optional annex tent that attaches around the tailgate for additional protection. Another useful item on the options list is a modular sleeping compartment, which doubles sleeping capacity to four people.
Other neat features include integrated fly screens for the driver and passenger front windows, dimmable LED spotlights over the bed, and storage bags that hang over the rear windows. Those sleeping in the van will be able to gaze at the stars if they specify the optional 1.4 square metre panoramic glass roof. There's a magnetic curtain to cover it if you want some extra privacy, but this is a little fiddly to use.
There's also an optional California Plus Pack for those wanting extra home comforts while camping. It includes a front centre armrest with holders for two drinks, a 230V inverter and three-pin UK domestic plug socket, dark tinted rear glass, power latching on all doors to avoid waking your camping neighbours at night, and LED rear lights.
There's not much traditional boot space in the standard Caddy California because the bed and kitchen sit right up against the tailgate. If you opt for the Maxi (and we suspect most buyers will) you get enough space to store a large cool box or even a fold-up bicycle.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
The Caddy California is the smallest California model in the VW line-up and is therefore the most affordable.
For example, even if you opt for the Caddy California in Maxi configuration, with the most powerful diesel engine available under the bonnet, it will still cost you far less than the entry-level version of its bigger sibling. That should make the Caddy California very appealing to young buyers on a budget and couples who simply want a camper for the odd weekend away.
Residual values should be pretty strong, too, with the Caddy California predicted to hold on to more than 50% of its value over three years. That’s in line with larger rivals such as the Ford Transit Nugget and Mercedes V-Class Marco Polo, if not quite as strong as the full-sized VW California.
We’ve yet to put a Caddy California through our scientific True MPG testing procedure, but VW claims that the 1.5-litre petrol should be capable of returning more than 40mpg and the diesel models more than 50mpg. The diesel models are relatively clean because of VW’s ‘twin-dosing’ AdBlue system that helps to reduce NOx emissions.
All Caddy Californias get manual air conditioning, electric front windows, magnetic window blinds, cruise control, a multi-function steering wheel, alloy wheels and the infotainment system. We’d recommend paying the extra for the California Plus Pack as it nets you some genuinely useful accessories (see the Passenger and Boot Space section) as well as the panoramic roof, which makes the Caddy feel significantly more spacious and airy inside.
You get automatic emergency braking (AEB) with cyclist and pedestrian detection, along with lane-keeping assistance as standard. Adaptive cruise control and road-sign detection are all optional. It’s little wonder then that the Caddy got a full five-star Euro NCAP safety rating.
As a brand, Volkswagen ranked a rather unexceptional 20th out of 30 in the 2021 What Car? Reliability Survey – higher than Ford, but way behind Dacia. Every Caddy comes with a good three-year or 100,000-mile warranty.
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|RRP price range||£34,606 - £39,562|
|Number of trims (see all)||1|
|Number of engines (see all)||3|
|Available fuel types (which is best for you?)||diesel, petrol|
|MPG range across all versions||41.5 - 56.5|
|Available doors options||5|
|Warranty||3 years / 100000 miles|
|Company car tax at 20% (min/max)||£2,157 / £2,477|
|Company car tax at 40% (min/max)||£4,315 / £4,955|