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.
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.