The VW California – An Owner’s Review
Having owned a VW California for 2 years I’m now able to provide a pretty comprehensive review of the camper van. You’ll see reviews by motoring journalists who happen to take one away for a weekend but they haven’t had a chance to ‘live with it’ in that time. Here, I’ll try to provide a balanced review so you get a sense of the highs and lows that come with living with the California all year around.
What is the VW California ?
The ‘Cali’ is VW’s own camper van: it’s not an after-market conversion but manufactured directly by VW in Germany. In an earlier post I described the key features of the Cali. Essentially, it’s a smaller-sized camper van at 2.4m long, much smaller than a motorhome and sufficiently manoeverable to be a daily vehicle. It’s a dedicated camper van with a kitchen (two-burner hob, fridge, sink), electronically operated pop-top roof, fold-down rear seat and sleeping four adults in total. Both front seats swivel around so that four can be seated around the internal table to eat a meal. An external table and two chairs are neatly stowed in the rear and side doors. There’s ample storage in the kitchen units, the wardrobe (at the rear), under the rear bench, in a cupboard above the rear seat and of course in the boot.
In contrast to other camper vans, including after-market conversions, the ingenuity of the design, lightweight materials and the build quality genuinely puts the Cali into a different league. There’s no ugly square units or carpet on the walls in a Cali ! Take a look around the Cali at VW UK’s website.
Under the bonnet the 2.0 litre engine comes in either a 140 or 180 BHP version, with a 6 or 7-speed (DSG) gearbox, either manual or automatic. A 4Motion (4 wheel drive) model is available with the larger engine size.
My experiences of the Cali
First, the statistics:
- 21,500 miles driven so far
- my daily vehicle (taking kids to school, commuting to work, day trips out, heading off on weekend and overseas camping trips, transporting large items to the dump)
- still the original set of tyres (though the front tyres are down to 3mm and will need replaced shortly)
- in normal driving conditions (ie excluding very short journeys) typically getting fuel economy between 34 – 38 mpg (I have had over 40mpg on a journey of 120 miles) .
You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this will be a positive review: it’s just such a great vehicle to own. As someone else commented elsewhere, every trip feels like an adventure and puts a smile on your face. The van is already stocked up with everything you need for a trip away (OK, not quite but you’re only missing some clothes, a toothbrush and some bedding) and so you feel you could be taking off at a moment’s notice. (This is one thing we really wanted with a camper van; the amount of ‘stuff’ we found ourselves having to pack to go camping with the tent eventually wore us down so much that we couldn’t face taking the family away for anything less than 3 nights).
every trip feels like an adventure and puts a smile on your face
The Cali pretty much drives like a car. It’s smooth, reliable and parking sensors (an essential optional extra) mean that you can squeeze into tight spaces if you need to. However, when driving it you’re conscious it’s certainly not a car; the driving position is higher for a start and you need to be aware of the weight you’re carrying. At 3000 kg the van is weighed down with what VW people call the “habitation equipment” (that’s the bed and kitchen to you and I). While not sluggish, don’t expect the Cali to be a speed machine (!) – it demands respect when you’re driving and lends itself to a smooth and fuel-efficient driving style.
What’s great about the Cali ?
I’ve said it before but I absolutely love the clever design. The way the seats are stowed in the rear tailgate is genius. You can take the internal fold-out table and put this side-by-side with the external table inside so four people can play board games (both tables are the same height). The internal table can be ‘suspended’ above the rear bench with the aid of a strap to give an L-shaped set of kitchen units/worktops.
The electric roof extends the internal headroom (the ‘ceiling’ is manually lifted on its hydraulic supports) and with the 3 upstairs windows unzipped the feeling of light and spaciousness increases significantly.
At night, the diesel-powered heater whirrs into action and soon pumps out hot air. It’s so efficient I’ve never had it above level ’3′, even in winter. The heater can also be operated on a timer or remotely from the comfort of your bed (or from inside your house if you’re really lazy and want an easy way to defrost the windows).
The wind-out awning on the side of the vehicle is an optional extra and is a very quick way to ‘set up camp’. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that this is really what differentiates the Cali from a Transporter, a Caravelle or most conversions. In spite of the fact that over the years a side awning has always been an optional extra (eg in the old splitcreen vans of the ’50s and ’60s), I think this is what really says “camper van” to the outside world. Without this, the Cali looks pretty much exactly the same as a Caravelle from the outside – and is certainly much harder to spot on the motorway ! I regard the awning to be an essential option.
Finally, while I have absolutely no intention of selling anytime soon, I’ve read that the Cali holds its value better than almost any vehicle. The high demand for such a well-designed and well-built van means that second-hand vans only lose a small percentage of their value after 3 years. I don’t think the same can be said for most conversions. You may pay marginally more for a Cali than a conversion (although you would be surprised at how little difference there is in practice) but there will be a big difference in the residual value after a few years.
OK, so what could be improved ?
Clearly, no vehicle is perfect and after 7 years on the market (2 years for the ‘facelift’ version) a range of niggles, faults and design flaws have come to light. You can read much more about these on the UK California Club forum.
I think there are three main design flaws:
- first, many owners (not me thankfully) have experienced the roof canvas getting trapped in between the metal, scissor-like roof bellows when the roof is lowered. Unsurprisingly, this tears the fabric. This happens when either the roof is lowered without the door or windows left open (for the displaced air to escape) or if there is a sudden gust of wind that blows the canvas back out at the wrong time. In spite of there being instructions in the manual and (most?) VW dealerships giving good handover briefings, too many owners have had this problem. Some would argue that it’s happened too frequently for this simply to be ‘user error’ or accidental;
- second, the driver’s seat can only swivel around if the handbrake is depressed (in the ‘down’ position). On flat ground this isn’t normally a problem but needs some careful thought (and use of levelling ramps or convenient stones behind the rear wheels) to prevent the van from rolling backwards;
- thirdly, it’s increasingly becoming apparent that many vehicles (even some less than a year old) are developing paint bubbling on the aluminium roof faring where it meets the elevating roof. This seems to be caused by the paint either not adhering properly to the aluminium or rubbing against the rubber seal. (May 2013 update: unfortunately this seems be becoming increasingly common but VW still haven’t done a product recall for this in spite of lots of complaints from owners);
- finally, in a normal seating position the rear bench reduces ease of access to the two left-hand kitchen cupboards, particularly the lower one. If you have a fully laden van away on holiday, and can’t move the rear bench backwards, then this cuts down the usability of the lower left cupboard especially.
As for niggles:
- little rattles in shelves, catches and the under-seat rear drawer can drive you wild ! There are so many items of ‘furniture’ that could potentially rattle that some owners become obsessive about tracking down these annoyances … but they are minor, believe me !
- the light grey seat coverings look great in the showroom and provide a ‘clean’ design to the inside of the van but they are in no way practical for a camper van … particularly if you have dogs or kids. We waited a few months before investing in a set of seat covers. My advice would be to fit these on day one.
- finally, the standard Cali is only legally able to seat four people. A 5th seat is available as an optional extra but is heavy and while we don’t have one, I can imagine this to be a bit of a pain having to remove it when arriving at a campsite before you can get access to start cooking. For us, a 4-seater is only a niggle (means we have a good excuse not to take the mother-in-law along …) but I would probably think more carefully about the Cali if I had 5 in my family.
the light grey seat coverings … are in no way practical for a camper van
I have one more niggly observation – the poor customer experience Cali and Beach owners have in the UK when dealing with VW Commercial dealerships (they are sold through the commercial division rather than the lifestyle (car) dealerships) – but I will save my thoughts for a later post.
And so what’s gone wrong with my van ?
Touch wood, I have to say relatively little – and it’s all been satisfactorally addressed by my local VW Van Centre under warranty without a quibble. Early on, the edging from the fold-away internal table came away; the entire table was replaced. The sink tap then came loose and was also replaced. Over the last few months the paintwork on the handle of the rear tailgate (made of aluminium I assume) has deteriorated – it has developed spots ! (May 2013 update: this has also been repaired under warranty). Finally, like some other VW Transporter and Cali owners, I noticed a very intermittent steering ‘knock’ when taking a sharp right hand turn. It only happened a couple of times and, sod’s law, it didn’t happen for either of the two Van Centres who I’ve had look into it.
Finally, I thought I’d finish off with a brief Q&A around issues frequently asked by prospective Cali owners:
Q. Is it big enough for four people ?
A. Yes is the short answer … but it can be a squeeze at times and you need to be organised. When driving there’s no issue of course but it’s a different matter when you arrive on site. There’s no problem with babies and toddlers but there is definitely a knack to making up the beds and sorting out all your gear with four people. Essentially, we’ve found that it’s easiest for one person to make up the beds and the others to be sent off to the wash block / to explore / to go to the play area etc. The majority of owners (us included) have a drive-away awning (ie a simple tent pitched beside the van) that can be used to store gear, bikes and so on, which also helps create some more space in the van. We only tend to use the drive-away awning for trips of more than 2 nights away.
Some may see the size issue as a drawback but remember we’re talking about 4 people sleeping and eating in a vehicle 1.6 x 2.4m … the laws of physics apply (until such times as Dr Who’s tardis is replicated).
Q. Is there a toilet ?
A. No. It’s a camper van designed to allow people to visit campsites (which all have toilets) or to wild camp (and if you’re camping wild then you will not be put off by the lack of a toilet). Some people buy a Porta Potti and keep these in one of the kitchen cupboards but quite honestly, this makes me cringe. I make no apologies for taking an uncompromising line on this; if you’re concerned about a toilet (or a shower), you’ll probably be better off buying a white motorhome or a LWB VW Transporter conversion.
Q. Is the door being on the ‘wrong’ side in the UK a problem ?
A. Calis sold in the UK all use exactly the same base vehicle as those sold in continental Europe. This means that the sliding door opens beside the road when parking on the left hand side. Conversely, driving on the right in Europe means that the sliding door opens directly on to the verge.
Personally, I don’t really find this a significant issue and neither do any other Cali owners in the UK. The easiest solution is simply to cross over to a layby or pavement on the right hand side of the road if you want to pull over. I often tell the kids to come out of the passenger door if we’re parked on a busy or narrow road. (Remember this is what you would sensibly do in any vehicle). However, if this does concern you, it’s worth noting that most conversions in the UK are designed to avoid this issue and have the sliding door on the passenger rather than the drivers’ side.
For us, buying a camper van wasn’t an impulse buy. We probably toyed with the idea for 10 years and seriously looked into the various options for 2 years, and therefore purchased one with our eyes open. The Cali has certainly lived up to my expectations (so far) and I was largely aware of its potential limitations/issues. It frequently makes me feel like I’m on holiday with the flexibility and freedom that a road trip entails. As a tent camper since childhood (I’m still a keen backpacker) I saw the Cali as “a bit of luxury” rather than a compromise.
If you would like your life to take a more adventurous turn then I recommend the Cali as an essential travelling companion !