You get two engine options in the 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.
Should you want more power, you’ll have to upgrade from the entry-level Beach to the more luxurious Ocean. This trim level can have the 148bhp diesel, but there’s also a more powerful 196bhp model that comes with the auto ‘box as standard. 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.
We’ve not sampled the 148bhp diesel in the California, but we have tried it in the Caravelle people-mover, upon which the California is based. As long as you’re not in a hurry, it’ll slog up to motorway speeds without too much fuss, even with every seat full. However, it’s worth bearing in mind the Ocean model weighs about 200kg more than the Beach or Caravelle.
Even with that extra bulk, the 196bhp version feels pretty punchy for 2.5 tonnes of camper. Try to accelerate from a standstill and you can get the front tyres slipping with surprising ease if you’re in a hurry, but once rolling, it’ll get you up to motorway speeds with ease, while overtaking lesser campers won’t be too fraught either.
Both engines are reasonably hushed unless you’re nudging the redline but, while the engine is relatively quiet, you’ll notice plenty of road roar from the tyres and a fair bit of wind noise. That’s made even more noticeable by the optional awning that protrudes from the side of the roof.
If you’re cruising along, the automatic gearbox is smooth and is also fairly obedient in manual mode. There is, however, some jerkiness at low speeds and a noticeable pause between accelerating in reverse 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. Unfortunately, we’re yet to try the manual.
While the Caravelle feels quite firm, the Ocean’s extra bulk does help its ride. Although you do feel potholes and sharp bumps thud through it – as well as hearing a bit of a rattle from the cupboards behind you – the California is generally pretty comfortable. However, a particularly turbulent stretch of road taken at speed can have it rolling and lurching as the suspension struggles to deal with the car’s weight.
Unsurprisingly, handling isn’t a California strongpoint, either. Its significant height makes it feel top-heavy and it leans considerably when cornering at even a moderate speed. Try to carve through an S bend at pace and it feels downright ponderous. At least placing it on the road is easy thanks to precise steering. Crucially, there’s enough grip and composure to keep pace with regular traffic, whatever the road.