Mention a Volkswagen campervan and most will think of the iconic buses made over the three decades to 1979, but while it may be considerably more modern the VW California keeps the spirit alive.
The VW California remains true to the campervan concept of being able to cart a family of four around and provide a place for them to eat and sleep. VW promotes it as an alternative to the family car that’s ready for an adventure any time.
But what’s that like in real life? To put the VW California to the test, Simon Lambert and his family headed off on a 2,100 mile road trip, zig-zagging down through France and back.
Hotel California: VW’s campervan can double up as a family car and a vehicle for adventure
There’s a lot of love for the Volkswagen campervan.
On occasion, I’ve felt some of that over the past 15 years, when I’ve been lucky enough to borrow my father-in-law’s 1974 bay window VW Type 2 camper – a classic car that more than passes the test of ‘do strangers come up and talk to you about it?’
Yet, while I love that van, I probably wouldn’t drive to the South of France in it.
The VW California is the modern-day version of Volkswagen’s iconic campervan and while it doesn’t attract the same level of interest, it’s more reliable than a classic and has considerably more power and extra mod cons.
So, in theory, it’s a much a more trustworthy grand tour companion.
What the California shares with its predecessors over almost seven decades of VW campervans, is the tricks up its sleeve that enable a van with a footprint no bigger than a large saloon car or SUV to double up as a home on wheels.
It was on our ferry to Calais that the first distinct advantage of driving your holiday accommodation kicked in.
We had left London early to catch the 10.15am boat to France, with a plan to drive an hour or so to Etaples, and enjoy a family afternoon at the beach in nearby Le Touquet, before camping out that night.
But for one of the few days in this year’s glorious summer, the weather was not playing ball. It was grey, drizzly and forecast to deteriorate – not the best beach afternoon.
Yet, further into France the forecast was for a hot sunny day and clear blue skies.
So, we made the kind of decision you can make with a campervan but not a hotel booking. A quick Google turned up a campsite with a swimming pool, just north of Reims, so we changed our plans and drove further into France and the sunshine.
Just over two hours later, we had pitched up on a grassy sun-drenched campsite, where it was time for the novelty of setting up the van for the first time.
On the beach: The California is promoted by VW as always ready for adventure, whether by the sea, or out in the countryside
The tricks up the California’s sleeve
The VW California is available in two versions, the Beach and the Ocean. We were in the latter, which comes with a kitchen for added self-sufficiency.
Both Beach and Ocean have one double bed downstairs and another upstairs in the pop-up roof, which rises to create a thick canvas tented area.
The roof is hinged at the back and a touch of a button raises it in about 30 seconds to create a spacious triangular top tent. It’s high enough at the front that it doesn’t feel claustrophobic, with windows in the thick canvas sides – and you climb in through a hatch above the front seats.
It took all of about 15 seconds, before our two girls, aged 7 and 5, were up in the roof like a shot. It was clear who would be sleeping where in this van
It took all of about 15 seconds, before our two girls, aged 7 and 5, were up in the roof like a shot.
It was clear who would be sleeping where in this van.
Downstairs in the Ocean, you lose a third of the width of the rear bench to accommodate a sideboard with lifting glass tops, under which are a deep fridge, double gas burner cooker and a sink with taps fed from the van’s water tank. Below those are sliding door cupboards and at the rear are tall wardrobe cupboards.
The bench folds down to create the bed – narrower than the Beach’s, but still with plenty of room for two adults if they’re happy to be a bit cosy.
Sliding the rear bench back, gives a big expanse of floor area and a table slides out from the side of the cupboard. If you so desire, the front seats twist round, so that four people can sit round this.
But we’d taken the trouble to drive into glorious weather, so lunch outside was the order of the day. That meant taking out the picnic table smartly stashed in the California’s sliding door and unzipping the tailgate’s canvas base to release the two fold-out chairs even more cleverly hidden there.
Fancy some shade? An awning also winds out from the van’s roof, which stretches about two metres out by two-thirds of the van’s length.
California dreaming: Pitch up and the VW California can switch from driving to home mode. The pop-up roof tent houses a second double bed, while a picnic table and chairs are stashed in the sliding door and tailgate.
Buying a VW California
VW has been factory building Californias now for 30 years, and it stays true to the ethos of the originally coachbuilt campervans, much-loved since the 1950s.
Both then and now, the concept is that a relatively compact van can pack in a place to sleep, eat and live – opening up a world of adventure.
That doesn’t come cheap though.
The Beach version starts at £43,295 on the road, for a 2.0 litre 150PS manual petrol, while the same engine and manual gearbox in an Ocean version, is £53,267.
A balance of more power and fuel economy can be had with a 2.0 litre turbodiesel with 204PS and 7-speed automatic gearbox at £59,345. Our van was a limited run Ocean Edition, which with its few options added would set a buyer back £65,879.
Those are luxury motoring numbers, but balanced against that the California packs in a lot of versatility and holds its value very well – losing less than 15 per cent of its value over three years, according to Cap HPI.
Inside the VW California and out on the road
The California makes a good impression.
It might be based on a workman’s VW Transporter van, but I would argue this T6 version is the most handsome version since the classic T2s ceased production at the end of the 1970s.
Climb in and it feels distinctly unvanlike. The interior is nicely fitted out with big comfortable captain’s seats in the front and a well laid out dash, which in our van had a black piano finish that wouldn’t look out of place in a VW car.
Ride captain ride: The driver and passenger sit high up in the VW California in comfortable chairs that give a commanding view of the road
As a driver, you ride high and comfortable, but spoiled by modern day cars I found the steering wheel didn’t quite adjust enough.
The rear bench is fairly flat and utilitarian, but this is necessary for when it doubles as a bed with the fold out mattress on top.
It is comfortable enough though and slides to give the choice between more boot and acres of floor space.
With the van all packed up on the second morning – a reversal of the learning curve involved in setting it all out – it was time to push on to our next destination, the renowned wine town of Chablis.
A motorway run was followed by the opportunity to put the California through its paces on some better routes, barrelling along the sweeping country roads as you enter Northern Burgundy.
With the sun out, music on and good roads, the California was a surprisingly enjoyable companion.
It won’t win any drag races – reaching 60mph from standstill in 11 seconds – but it has a top speed of 121mph and plenty of mid-range power for accelerating onto the motorway and overtaking
Yes, the California wallows a bit in the bends – remember it is a van – but get into the swing of things and it’s fun to drive, with the torquey diesel engine powering its near 3 tonne weight out of the corners.
Nonetheless, we were glad to reach Chablis and its pretty riverbank campsite before too much of the day was lost to driving.
The VW California Ocean comes with a fridge, double gas burner cooker, and sink, with lifting sideboard lids above and cupboards below, but that means the rear bench only seats two
Sweet dreams: The rear bench in the VW California folds down to create a double bed, which is narrower in the Ocean due to the cupboards and kitchen down the side
Setting up the van that second afternoon was quicker. And we got marginally better at it with every day that passed of the trip, getting into the swing of what you need to do for a less painful arrival and departure.
The key to keeping life on the road as stress-free as possible in the California was to pack stuff into plenty of smaller bags.
This makes it easier to find a place for everything, to dig it out when you need it without uprooting all your luggage, and reshuffle the van to go from driving mode to living mode and then sleeping mode.
Fortunately, the California is a bit of a Tardis. I’d been mildly worried about whether we’d fit everything in before the trip – eyeing up VW Transporters on the street and thinking that ‘they don’t actually look that big’.
Yet, it turned out that the cupboards and side wardrobe space in the van hold much more than you’d think – and there is a decent-sized space under the bedframe behind the rear bench.
Slide the rear bench forwards and you can expand the boot space, while there’s extra room if you pile things on top of the mattress behind the back seats. But you must remember that come night time you’ll need to turn all this into a bedroom and fit your stuff somewhere while you sleep.
In the end, we easily fitted four small suitcases of clothes, bedding, cooking stuff, food, kids books and toys, and even my inflatable canoe, pump and paddles into the van.
Wild thing: VW promotes the California with enticing shots of vans parked by the beach and out in the open, so a night’s wild camping was called for to test this out.
If organising all your gear is the mundane stuff of life with a California, the excitement lies in taking it on adventures.
In reality for most owners, the California will be a camper mostly slept in on a campsite, but that’s not the way VW sells it in the adverts, with artful shots of vans out in the wild.
Relax: Simon Lambert sits down to dinner in the French countryside on an evening out with the California
We decided that at least one night of wild camping was in order and chose southern Burgundy as our destination – the plan being to find a secluded spot for the evening.
There was just one small problem, where we came off the autoroute at Beaune was serious wine country.
The land around villages such as Pommard, Volnay and Meursalt is not accessible grassy fields or woodland you can tuck your campervan away in for the night, this is a landscape of meticulously maintained vineyards that produce bottles that start at €40 a pop.
The sun was dropping lower, the children were getting hungrier and mum and dad’s conversation more fractious, as we scanned for any likely looking spot to make our home for the night.
Doubt had set in and in my wife’s mind the prospective excitement of free camping had turned to the disappointment of a restless night sleeping in a layby.
Eventually, we picked our way up a steep road, through a hillside village called Orches, and found a more promising looking location. There was farmland on one side and some fields and open parcels of grassland on the other.
We pulled into a bigger patch of open land and I jumped out of the van to check it out. I ducked through some bushes and was presented with a magnificent sight.
We were on a plateau above a curve of cliffs, with a panoramic view over wine country at sunset.
Furthermore, the grassy area stretched further to a patch of land hidden from the road by some bushes.
Our luck was in, we’d found the perfect spot for wild camping.
Slide away: The grassy area used for parking for the walking paths at the cliffs offered a handy spot to tuck the campervan into
Into the great wide open: The Falaises de Saint Romain offered a spectacular view out over Burgundy’s wine country and a perfect spot for wild camping
Country house: The French are fairly relaxed when it comes to campervans parking up for the night, as long they do so in a way that will not trouble people. But you must stick to the golden rules of wild camping: arrive late, leave early and leave no trace
Suffice it to say, that evening was one of the highlights of our time with the California.
Never has homemade spaghetti carbonara and a few glasses of red wine tasted so good – and a walk at dusk along the cliffs was followed by sitting out under the stars, including a few shooting ones.
It was definitely better than a night in a layby.
We slept soundly and the view when the sun rose the next morning was even more spectacular.
Driving the legendary Route Napoleon… in a van
Later that week, after a three night break from sleeping in the van in an Airbnb near Lake Annecy, we hit the road once more – headed for France’s mini version of the Grand Canyon, the Gorge du Verdon, in the mountains of Provence.
This gave a chance to drive one of Europe’s most famous roads, the Route Napoleon, albeit not in the type of car that you’d dream of doing it.
So-called because it follows the route taken by Napoleon in 1815 on his return from Elba, this winds its way through hills and mountains, from Cannes to the Southern Alps city of Grenoble.
Heading south, the most spectacular section runs from Digne to Castellane, our destination that day, and from there on to the Provence hill town of Grasse.
The narrow Route Napoleon clings to the mountainside, twisting and turning through stunning scenery, and as you come over the pass above Castellane you drive straight through a dramatic rock arch.
I tip my hat to the California, because while it might be a 4.9 metre long, 2.2 metre wide, three ton van, it was seriously good fun on a great road.
Running down a dream: It’s a long way from a sportscar but the VW California proved to a surprisingly good fun to drive on the famous Route Napoleon
After the joy of an almost empty summer’s evening on the Route Napoleon, we arrived at our campsite on the Verdon river, near Castellane. Here we’d spend the next three days and car would become house again.
Arriving at dusk on a day when it had rained heavily until mid-afternoon, the advantage of a campervan over a tent was highlighted once more.
There would be no crouching and clambering about in the fading light, trying to get a tent up with a distinct damp chill in the air.
Nor would we need to be digging a trench around our accommodation, as our neighbours under canvas had.
Arriving at dusk on a day when it had rained heavily until mid-afternoon, the advantage of a camper van over a tent was highlighted once more
We simply, pulled onto our pitch, got the van level, popped the roof up, plugged ourselves into the electricity point, switched on the lights, pulled out the awning, got the chairs and table out, and started cooking dinner – an altogether easier experience.
Obviously, the reverse is somewhat true when it comes to going out for the day – you must pack up your home before you can drive off. However, if the weather is relatively kind you can leave some stuff out behind.
The rest of that week was van life at its best. Days spent exploring around the Gorge du Verdon, including a canoeing trip up the canyon down by the huge Lac de Sainte Croix.
Evenings spent sat out eating dinner and enjoying good wine under the incredible stars and bright moon light of the crystal clear sky, soundtracked by the river rapids 20 metres away.
A lesson was learned too. It can get chilly in the van overnight, even in Provence in mid-August. We were still about 650 metres above sea level and the temperature dropped at night. Downstairs in the van is relatively warm, but upstairs the girls got cold in the tented roof and needed bundling up in extra clothes and bedding.
The California does have a nifty parking heater that can be run separate to the engine and main electrics. Unfortunately, we were late to the party in learning to use this and had we got a better hang of it we could have staved off the late night and early morning chill better.
A brief history of VW campervans
Park life: The VW camper was made popular by the classic conversions from the 1950s through to the end of the 1970s, such as the T2 pictured here
The Volkswagen van was launched in 1950 and given the factory name Type 2, following on from VW’s first car, the Beetle, or Type 1.
The German car maker’s first van was the split-screen model made until 1967 and dubbed the T1. Just a year after it went on sale camper conversions were launched by Westfalia, which VW developed an official relationship with.
The T1 was followed by the uprated second generation bay window vans, known as the T2, made until 1979 (although continued in Brazil until 2013).
The onset of the eighties ushered in the angular lines of the T3 van (also known as T25) made between 1979 and 1990.
Family affair: The California name for the VW campers is now 30 years old, stretching back to the T3 vans of the late 1980s
The California name began to be used for Westfalia campervan conversions in 1988, and in 1990 VW’s more modern T4 was launched and made until 2003.
In 2001, Westfalia was bought out by VW rival DaimlerChrysler, so Volkswagen decided to make campervans in-house. The T5 van was launched in 2003 and today’s T6 vans arrived in 2015.
An all-electric concept van design called the I.D Buzz was revealed by VW last year, showing what could be the base for the campervans of the future.
Electric avenue: A concept design for the VW van of the future, the I.D Buzz
A week as a family runabout and the final run home
After three nights in the Gorge du Verdon, our main camping stretch of the holiday was done.
On the final morning, we packed up and then drove another chunk of the Route Napoleon, through the hills of Provence towards Grasse, before heading off to the coast near Le Lavandou, between Marseille and St Tropez. Here we would stay in a villa with my wife’s sister and her family for a week.
For those seven days, the California reverted to a family runabout, doing trips to the beach, the shops and into town. It manages that more than capably.
Yes, you are driving something larger than most, but it’s not so big as to have trouble getting around or parking, and the ability to sling lots of stuff in the back (including the kids through that big sliding door) is definitely handy.
A nice extra touch of using a campervan as your car is having a fridge in the back to keep the shopping and drinks chilled.
All night long: The final evening in the VW California called for another spot of wild camping, as bad traffic turned an eight hour drive into a 12 hour journey. As we weren’t going to reach our campsite destination, we left the autoroute and found a quiet spot off a country road
At the end of that week, it was time for a blast back from the Med to the Channel and onto London in a day-and-a-half, with one final night’s camping. This was a far less interesting drive than our route down, but still allowed for a last bit of adventure.
Dreadful traffic on the Autoroute du Soleil out of the South of France meant that an eight hour journey took more than twelve hours and our plan of getting to a campsite by dinner time was scuppered.
Instead, we tapped into the van’s potential for changing plans once more and stopped for dinner en route, before driving another three hours and pulling off the motorway to find a place to park up and sleep for the night.
This time it was a field farm track just off a rural road. Less spectacular than our other night’s wild camping, but pleasant nonetheless when we woke to early morning sunshine in the central French countryside and not a soul around.
From there it was four hours to Calais, a ferry back to Dover, and the trudge back to London. It’s a mark of a good car that you’ll miss it; and we were sad to have slept our last night in the California, to have done our last stint of roaming about in it, and to have to give it back.
You can see why 30 years into the California’s life and almost 70 years into the VW campervan’s history, the love for them is still going strong.
The Cars & motoring verdict on the VW California
Misty mountain hop: If you use the California for regular adventure, then you’d probably be more than happy to put up with the inconvenience over a standard family car
If you haven’t worked out that I rated the VW California yet, then you skipped the review above. A fortnight-and-half spent on an adventure in one is a lot of fun.
But what if you had to live with it rather than just have a holiday romance, would the VW California be a good buy and could it cut it as a family car?
The first part of that question depends on the owner. Buying a California would mean making a commitment to splashing out and making sure that you made the most of it.
To justify running a hefty van over a family car, you would need to ensure that you were heading out camping on regular occasion and that you want to get into van life sufficiently to justify not simply buying a perfectly good tent.
If you do that, then you’ll probably love the California.
For a couple, it would be perfect, as you can divide living and sleeping space. For a family of four it’s great, but once children get bigger squeezing you all in will get trickier – and when they hit secondary school age youngsters may not want to be sharing a campervan bed.
To justify running a hefty van over a family car, you would need to ensure that you were heading out camping on regular occasion
That said, buy a tent to go with it and your problem is solved.
The California could cut it in normal family life with a few sacrifices.
It will be harder to park, a bit more cumbersome to get around, a little less smooth than a normal car and with the Ocean you don’t have three seats in the back.
There is one issue that bothers British owners though, the California is a straight left to right-hand drive swap, so the rear sliding door is on the driver’s side in the UK.
That means kids are likely to have to be let out road rather than kerbside.
You’ll also spend more on fuel and running costs than with an estate, SUV or saloon.
We averaged 28.8mpg over 2,100 miles but that involved swift autoroute driving and some mountain roads. In everyday life you’d be doing better than that but you’d have to be the judge of whether you’d get the claimed 38.7mpg on the combined cycle.
However, if you use the California for regular adventure, then you’d probably be more than happy to put up with lower fuel economy and some mild practical inconvenience over a standard car.
VW California Ocean
VW California Ocean Edition, 2.0 TDI
Price: £64,385 on the road
Engine: 2.0 litre turbodiesel
Power: 204PS at 4,000 rpm
Gearbox: 7-speed DSG automatic
Front wheel drive
Top speed: 121mph
0 to 62mph: 11.0 seconds
Gross vehicle weight: 3,080kg
Length: 4,904mm | Width: 2,297mm
Fuel consumption (mpg): 32.5 urban | 44.1 extra-urban | 38.7 combined
Which brings us to the small matter of the price.
The VW California is expensive. Prices start at £43,000 for the Beach, but if you want the Ocean’s cooker, fridge, sink etc, you need to pay at least £53,000.
Add an automatic gearbox and bigger diesel engine and the price tag rises.
There are two things to note, however.
The VW California holds its value spectacularly well. Figures from the experts at Cap HPI suggest that over its first year on the road an automatic 2.0 TDI Beach version would lose just 3 per cent of its value and over three years it would be worth 83 per cent of the original cost.
Other versions are likely to perform similarly price wise and a well-looked after California will always be in hot demand second hand.
Secondly, you do get a lot for your money. It’s fairly easy to get the price of premium family cars up to the £50,000 mark nowadays. Buy a Jaguar F-Pace, Volvo XC60, or Audi A6 Avant, go up the engine range and choose a few options and you’ll hit the cost of a California easily.
Arguably, a campervan that sleeps four and quite literally throws in a kitchen sink (along with a cooker, fridge, cupboards and more) represents comparable value even if it is a little less luxurious.
It’s a testament to the worth people see in their versatility and the VW campervan’s enduring appeal that you still see so many vans well into their third or fourth decade of life on the road.
Will the 2018 VW California attract the same love in four decades’ time that my father-in-law’s classic T2 invites today? Maybe it will.
And will VW still be making some version of the campervan in the 2050s? It’ll probably be electric, but I hope so.