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UK Drive: The Volkswagen California Ocean could be the ultimate weekend getaway vehicle

Reviews | Published:

The Volkswagen California is the go-to choice for compact campers. Jack Evans finds out what it’s like

The California's on-road manners are very good

What is it?

Holidays within the UK have been growing in popularity during recent years, with people opting for a ‘staycation’ rather than travelling abroad more than ever before. An easy way to do this is with a camper van and the Volkswagen California – which we’re testing here – is one of the most sought-after. Though many people opt for a larger motorhome, the compact size and car-like driving experience has pushed people towards the California in their droves, despite a relatively high list price.

(Volkswagen/PA)

We’re testing it here in the UK in range-topping Ocean specification.

What’s new?

A camper van is designed to be a home-away-from-home, which is why there’s so much equipment packed into the California. Yes, it may cost from £57,605 (and our test van tipped the scales at a hefty £63,155), but that’s because it’s brimmed full of handy features. Though we’ll look at these in greater detail later on, they mean that you can easily set up camp wherever you decide – the California is very much a self-contained holiday home.

Life is comfortable with the California
(Volkswagen/PA)

And because it’s based on the regular Transporter, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about its overall size. Yes, if you’re not used to a traditional van it may take some getting used to, but compared to a coachbuilt motorhome it’s leagues easier to drive.

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What’s under the bonnet?

The California uses Volkswagen’s tried-and-tested 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel, which here pushes out 148bhp and 340Nm of torque to the front wheels via a seven-speed DSG gearbox. Its 0-60mph Acceleration is hardly what you’d call brisk at a claimed 14.2 seconds, and neither is its 110mph top speed. However out on the road it rarely feels underpowered or unable to deal with the job in hand, which is impressive considering the amount of weight it has to pull around.

The California is based on the same platform as the Transporter and Caravelle
(Volkswagen/PA)

Economy-wise, Volkswagen claims 40.9mpg combined, while emissions stand at 179g/km CO2. Neither of these are bad for the segment, and when coupled with a 70-litre fuel tank mean that the California has a decent touring range of over 600 miles – depending on how you drive it, of course.

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What’s it like to drive?

Uneventful, predictable and safe – not necessarily driving traits which will get the blood pumping, but all ones you want to associate with a camper van. The California steers and handles well given its size and weight, and there’s a little less roll in the corner than you’d expect. The steering is relatively light, but it’s reasonably accurate and allows you to get the van through bends with little fuss.

Though that engine may not be all that punchy, it gets up to a lick pretty quickly, and it feels far quicker than the numbers suggest, in fact. The DSG gearbox is the star of the show here, mind; it’s smooth, efficient and responsive. The only issue here is an occasional loss of front-end traction when pulling hard away from a junction. It’s something we’ll admit that not many people will suffer with, but hard starts from a dead stop do get the front wheels spinning in an almost impressive fashion.

How does it look?

The California is a classy and unassuming product, both inside and out. It’s hard to distinguish one from a regular Caravelle or Transporter from the outside, save for subtle Ocean badges dotted in various areas, and the obvious side awning.

The California feels at home next to the beach
(Volkswagen/PA)

Our car also came with optional LED headlights and daytime running lights (£1,584) and metallic paint (£696). These both combine to make the California look just a little classier.

What’s it like inside?

The forward section of the California features two wide, comfortable and supportive captain’s chairs, which feature sizeable armrests likely to help make longer journeys that little bit more comfortable. These can be rotated round to face the rear seats to create an open seating area.

A spacious cabin features flexible storage solutions
(Volkswagen/PA)

There’s plenty of storage dotted throughout the cabin, and then you have the cooker and sink positioned under a glass top to the side of the car. There’s even a fridge. Up top, you can pop the roof (electrically) to extend the headroom of the California, and this also features a roof bed and stowage component. You can even program the heating when parked via a remote control.

Everything feels sturdy and built-to-last – which is just what you want from a vehicle which is going to be going here, there and everywhere.

What’s the spec like?

There’s a wealth of standard equipment accompanying the California, but then you’d hope there to be given its price. You get three-zone climate control included as part of the car’s cost, along with 17-inch alloy wheels, the aforementioned pop-up roof and all of the major creature comforts you’d expect from a camper.

A pop-top roof gives better headroom and additional sleeping areas
(Volkswagen/PA)

It’s a shame that given the van’s price that you don’t get Volkswagen’s excellent Discover Media navigation system as standard. It houses functions such as satellite navigation and media controls, and just as in other Volkswagen products, it’s brilliantly simple to use with clear graphics and a logically laid-out design. But at £1,578, it’s a costly addition – and one you’d expect to be included as standard in the top-spec Ocean model.

Verdict

The California is geared towards adventures and, if that’s your thing, then you won’t for a second be disappointed by picking this well-finished Volkswagen. It’s easy to drive – one of its biggest merits – yet it looks premium enough to be parked up in even the smartest of campsites. Expensive it may be, but many will see the California as an investment, in the same vein as a classic sports car, to be enjoyed over many years and in all manner of places. If you look at it that way, it makes a lot of sense indeed.

  • Model: Volkswagen California Ocean
  • Price (as tested): £63,155
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel
  • Power: 148bhp
  • Torque: 340Nm
  • Max speed: 110mph
  • 0-60mph: 14.2 seconds
  • MPG (combined): 40.9
  • Emissions (CO2): 179g/km

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