Volkswagen California review

Category: Camper van

There are undoubtedly cheaper camping options out there, but the VW California is pleasant enough to drive and full of useful features

Volkswagen California 2021 front right cornering
  • Volkswagen California 2021 front right cornering
  • Volkswagen California 2021 rear cornering
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior dashboard
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior rear seats
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior infotainment
  • Volkswagen California 2021 right tracking
  • Volkswagen California 2021 left static rear door open
  • Volkswagen California 2021 badge detail
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior front seats
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior living space
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior bed
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior pop-up roof
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior under-seat storage
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior kitchen
  • Volkswagen California 2021 rear door open
  • Volkswagen California 2021 front right cornering
  • Volkswagen California 2021 rear cornering
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior dashboard
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior rear seats
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior infotainment
  • Volkswagen California 2021 right tracking
  • Volkswagen California 2021 left static rear door open
  • Volkswagen California 2021 badge detail
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior front seats
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior living space
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior bed
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior pop-up roof
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior under-seat storage
  • Volkswagen California 2021 interior kitchen
  • Volkswagen California 2021 rear door open
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Introduction

What Car? says...

The Volkswagen California is probably the first model you think of whenever camper vans are mentioned – which is no surprise, as it can trace its ancestry back to conversions of the original 1950 Type 2 Transporter.

Things have changed a bit since then, of course, and the modern T6 California has moved up in the world. It's now fitted with an automatic gearbox only and there's the option of four-wheel drive for buyers who want to be ready for the traditional Glastonbury mud bath.

As with most campers, it comes with a diesel engine under its stubby bonnet, with a choice of power outputs. In terms of on-board equipment, there are a several versions available so you should be able to find one to suit your outdoor adventure needs.

The Beach Tour is essentially an MPV (it's based on the VW Transporter) with a couple of fold-out beds. Volkswagen has given the Beach Camper a bit more functionality, and the full-on Coast and Ocean versions come with pretty much everything you need for a week or so away.

So, what else in the varied MPV class offers similar 'home from home' practicality? Well, the main contenders are the Ford Transit Nugget and the Mercedes V-Class Marco Polo but there also are camper versions of the Vauxhall Vivaro Life and Toyota Proace. In other words, there’s more choice than you might think.

This VW California review will tell you all you need to know about how it 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 – not something What Car? usually gets to do.

Don’t forget, whether it's camper van, a car or any other make and model of vehicle you're looking to buy, we can help you find the best prices through the free What Car? New Car Buying service. It has lots of big savings, including some very attractive VW California deals.

Read more: How we test vans

Overview

You can tell plenty of thought and experience has gone into the VW California’s practical interior, even if folding out the beds takes a bit of muscle. It handles well by camper standards and has reasonable performance, but the Mercedes Marco Polo is better to drive, plusher inside and has easier to convert beds.

  • Strong diesel engines
  • Well thought out interior
  • Slow depreciation
  • Expensive
  • Not particularly refined
  • Gearbox jerky when manoeuvring
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Performance & drive

What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is

You get two engine options in the VW California – both of which are 2.0-litre diesels. Kicking off the range is a 148bhp version with either a six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that’s available in every model.

As long as you’re not in a hurry, it’ll slog up to motorway speeds without too much fuss, even with all the seats occupied. It managed 0-60mph in a respectable 12.1sec in our tests, ahead of the most powerful Ford Transit Nugget and the Mercedes V-Class Marco Polo V220d.

Volkswagen California image
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If you want more power, you’ll have to upgrade from the entry-level Beach to the more luxurious Ocean. That gets you the option of a 201bhp version of the 2.0 TDI diesel engine, knocking more than two seconds off the claimed 0-62mph time. If you find yourself in muddy fields regularly, you can also add 4Motion four-wheel drive and even a locking rear differential to this punchiest version.

The 201bhp version feels pretty punchy for 2.5 tonnes of camper. When you accelerate from a standstill, you can get the front tyres slipping with surprising ease if you’re in a hurry unless you’ve got a 4Motion version. Once rolling, it’ll get you up to motorway speeds with ease, and overtaking lesser campers won’t be too fraught either. 

Both engines sound rather gritty and you’ll notice a fair few whooshes from the turbocharger too. You’ll also notice plenty of road roar from the tyres and a fair bit of wind noise, something made even more noticeable by the awning (standard on Coast and Ocean models, optional on Beach) that protrudes from the side of the roof. The California is a more refined companion than the Transit Nugget, although those who appreciate the quiet life are better served by the Marco Polo.

If you’re cruising along, the automatic gearbox is smooth if a bit hesitant to kick down at times, although it's fairly obedient in manual mode. There is, though, some jerkiness at low speeds and a noticeable pause between pressing the accelerator and the California actually moving. That makes those final positioning adjustments, when you’ve found your perfect camping spot, a little tricky. More impressive, though, is the way it can stick itself in neutral when you come off the accelerator. This ‘coasting’ function is surprisingly good for fuel economy.

The California has the firmest ride of any camper van we’ve tested, even on relatively small 18in wheels. It thumps and thuds when you hit potholes and sharp bumps, and you’ll notice a bit of fidget on smoother stretches of road. A particularly turbulent stretch taken at speed can have it rolling and lurching as the suspension struggles to deal with the vehicle's weight, but you’ll feel even more at sea in the Transit Nugget. If comfort is high on your list of priorities, we’d point you towards the Marco Polo.

The California’s steering is precise and well-weighted so placing it on the road is a breeze, but its height makes it feel top-heavy and it leans considerably when cornering at even a moderate speed. If you try to carve through an S bend at pace, it feels downright ponderous – at least compared with a regular car or MPV. By camper standards it’s actually pretty good, staying more upright and feeling more agile than a Marco Polo and running rings round the Nugget.

Volkswagen California 2021 rear cornering

Interior

The interior layout, fit and finish

Although it's based on a van, the VW California feels pretty plush inside. As well as a selection of chrome detailing and solid-feeling switches, you’ll find nicely textured satin finish plastic.

It's more appealing than the shiny stuff you’ll find in a Ford Transit Nugget but the Mercedes V-Class Marco Polo feels more luxurious, with plenty of soft-touch plastics and standard leather trim.

You sit bolt upright, but the seats are comfortable and have plenty of adjustment (as does the steering wheel). That includes lumbar but not height, so you’ll be eye-level with other van drivers and those in full-sized Range Rovers. The driver and passenger each get two adjustable armrests.

Unfortunately, there’s not a huge amount of space for the driver's left foot to sit, which could cause discomfort. Beach and Coast models get clear analogue dials with a small digital display that’s easy enough to read while the Ocean has digital dials that show a vast array of information clearly.

The California's huge windows mean forward and side visibility is very good, although the cupboards fitted to the rear of Coast and Ocean models do get in the way when you’re looking rearwards. The vehicle's flat sides make threading it down narrow streets surprisingly easy, but it can be hard to judge where the nose is.

Parking sensors are fitted as standard on Coast and Ocean models, with the Ocean also getting a rear camera and LED headlights. You’ll find those items on the options list if you want them on a lesser model.

The California Beach and Coast come with a 6.5in ‘Composition’ touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth, a DAB radio, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring and a pair of USB C sockets. The screen is surrounded by useful shortcut icons and the menus are logically laid out, but the display is rather small and of low resolution.

The 8.0in Discover system that’s optional on Beach and Coast and standard on Ocean is better. It has sat-nav as standard, and the larger screen has sharper graphics and is easier to see, although the physical shortcut buttons are replaced by touch-sensitive shortcut icons that aren’t as easy to find on the move. It’s so good in fact, that we wouldn’t bother with the top-spec 9.2in Discover Pro system.

Volkswagen California 2021 interior dashboard

Passenger & boot space

How it copes with people and clutter

Up front in the VW California, you get big door pockets with a built-in bottle holder, two gloveboxes, a couple of pop-out cupholders and a covered shelf that hides the USB port and 12V socket. In other words, there’s ample storage.

The seats have handy drawers underneath for even more storage and rotate 180 degrees to face the rear bench. It is a little tricky to rotate them, and annoyingly you can’t swivel the driver’s seat with the handbrake engaged. The front chairs in the Ford Transit Nugget and Mercedes V-Class Marco Polo are tricky to turn too, but at least they don’t have handbrakes that get in the way.

Further back, the set-up  is quite different depending on whether you’re in a Beach, a Coast or an Ocean. Beach models are more spartan, and the Beach Tour comes with a bed created by folding the rear seat, and the option of a third row of seating.

You get a second bed by raising the roof (manually as standard, electrically as an option) and it's accessed through a hatch above the front seats. You can use the seats as a step to clamber up there, but you still have to haul yourself up. If you’re very short or have limited mobility, you’ll want to stay on the ground floor.

For al-fresco eating, you'll need at least a Beach Camper, which gains a fold-out kitchen with a single gas hob. You can’t have a third row of seats or a sliding door on the passenger side, though.

If you step up to a Coast or Ocean, you get for the full camper experience. The Coast is a slightly less luxurious version with a manually raised roof and a few fewer toys. Both get a full kitchen with twin gas hobs, a sink with fresh and waste water tanks, a fridge and additional leisure batteries for extended stays away.

The Ocean’s electric roof is operated using a control panel above the rear-view mirror that also controls the standard fridge and auxiliary heater, and allows you to check on battery and water levels. It’s easy to operate and far clearer than the control panels in the Nugget and Marco Polo.

In the back, a two-person bench with storage is standard – there’s no three-person option. Whichever model you pick, folding the seats into a bed takes a fair amount of muscle power. It’s not quite as strenuous as the Nugget’s, but the Marco Polo’s electrically folding seats make life so much easier.

Beach Camper, Coast and Ocean models get an external 230v electric socket for hooking up to the mains as standard, and you’ll find a 230v socket along with some 12v ones, too. The tailgate hides a couple of folding camping chairs with the sliding door stowing a folding table on all models.

You also get a fold-out awning on Coast and Ocean models as standard (it’s optional with Beach). The boot has plenty of room, but it’s quite a tall, shallow area. It’s also worth pointing out that the lower bed stretches into the boot area when in use, limiting space significantly if you're storing stuff overnight.

Still, the Beach Camper gets a couple of cupboards at the very back, with the Coast and Ocean adding more under the kitchen unit. Those models certainly have more storage than the Nugget and Marco Polo.

Volkswagen California 2021 interior rear seats

Buying & owning

Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is

The VW California undercuts the Ford Transit Nugget and the Mercedes V-Class Marco Polo, but only in the lower trim levels. If you’re looking at full-on campers, the California Ocean is pricier than both rivals before discounts, although the California is expected to hold on to the most value after three years.

All but the four-wheel drive version are capable of more than 30mpg in official economy tests, with the TDI 150 clocking up 33.5mpg during our tests. Carbon emissions are high, though, with all models sitting in the top 37% bracket for Benefit-in-Kind (BIK) company car tax, just like its key rivals.

All Californias get air-conditioning (three-zone climate control on the Ocean), electric front windows, a leather steering wheel, electric front windows and alloy wheels. Although the Beach is much cheaper, it isn’t anywhere near as self-sufficient as the Ocean. If you just want somewhere to sleep, the Beach will be fine, but for more than that, the Ocean seems the logical choice.

Euro NCAP hasn’t tested a California for safety, but the VW Transporter van it’s based on was given only four stars in crash tests, while the V-Class and Transit both got five. Standard safety kit includes automatic emergency braking (AEB), along with the usual selection of airbags and electronic assistants.

We don’t have any reliability data on the California itself, but Volkswagen came 20th out of 31 manufacturers in our 2020 What Car? Reliability Survey. That’s above 26th place Mercedes but below 18th place Ford.

Volkswagen California 2021 interior infotainment
At a glance
New car deals
Target Price from £62,479
Swipe to see used car deals
Nearly new deals
From £58,990
RRP price range £62,479 - £82,513
Number of trims (see all)4
Number of engines (see all)2
Available fuel types (which is best for you?)diesel
MPG range across all versions 32.8 - 36.2
Available doors options 4
Warranty 3 years / 100000 miles
Company car tax at 20% (min/max) £4,497 / £5,980
Company car tax at 40% (min/max) £8,995 / £11,960
Available colours