Post updated July 2015
Having owned a VW California SE for 4.5 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 4.9m 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.
The California has been available in the UK since 2005 and there have been gradual improvements over the last decade. The T5 (‘pre-facelift’) model was available until 2010 until the ‘facelift’ was produced, including a different range of engines, different front lights and changes in the colour of the interior trim. Mine is a facelift which we bought from new in December 2010. The latest T6 California will go on sale in August 2015 for deliveries by Christmas. Again, there are subtle changes, mainly in the engines, suspension and other behind-the-scenes technologies. This article gives a flavour of what to expect.
My experiences of the Cali
First, the statistics:
- 43,000 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)
- the front tyres were replaced at 26,000 miles although the rears are still doing fine
- in normal driving conditions (ie excluding very short journeys) typically getting fuel economy between 34 – 38 mpg.
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 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 and 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, the ‘for sale’ ads will demonstrate 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 the continual improvements made by VW over the last decade have addressed some, but not all of the little niggles, faults and design flaws. 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. Fortunately, an after market innovation – the Bellows Bungee – provides a low-tech and effective solution, all for the princely sum of £12.99;
- 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 and most significantly, many Californias produced since 2005 have developed paint bubbling on the aluminium roof faring where it meets the elevating roof as well as underneath the outer rubber seal all around the edges of the main elevating roof section. This seems to be caused by bi-metallic corrosion between adjacent aluminium and steel panels and VW have changed the design of new models in 2014 to correct this fault. While not accepting liability, VW have offered “as a gesture of goodwill” to fix existing Calis with this problem at no charge to owners (see below);
- 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.
If your Cali shows evidence of paint bubbling (look carefully at the channel between the front section and the elevating roof, and all around the roof underneath the black rubber seal) then you should register the issue with your local VW dealership. VW have a process in place to completely replace the front panel, re-spray the roof and attach a new plastic tape around the perimeter. VW’s “goodwill” involves extending the warranty relating to the roof sections from three to six years (in response to coordinated pressure by the UK California Club). If affected, I advise you actively take this up with your local dealership and ask them to obtain authorisation from VW Customer Services so that your van is ‘in the system’.
VW have appointed and trained up four body shops in the UK to gradually do this work, which takes two weeks and costs £4,000 per vehicle. This process will no doubt take 2 or 3 years for VW to work through. While their vans are being repaired owners are being loaned a Cali, with their own vans being collected and returned via a low loader from their home. Once authorisation has been received by the dealer they should then contact your local body shop (which in my case is 150 miles away) who should then contact you to schedule the repair. I’m happy to say that my Cali was repaired in May 2015 and the bodyshop (Benfields in Newcastle) appear to have done a great job.
My advice to anyone joining or already in the queue for the roof repair is to keep on top on your local dealership. In my case, the local dealer took months to process my claim. In my impatience at their failure to return e-mails and calls I finally bypassed them and complained directly to UK VW Customer Services. That did the trick and my van was booked in within a fortnight.
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 ?
Here’s a list of all of the repairs made to my van over 4.5 years. While there’s a number of issues most haven’t been major, and have all been satisfactorily addressed by my two local VW Van Centres under warranty. The only significant issues relate to paintwork (bubbling on the roof panel, ‘spotting’/deterioration on the rear tailgate handle) and a failed EGR valve. While the roof repair has now taken place I am concerned that my rear tailgate handle paintwork now needs to be replaced a second time, suggesting ongoing ‘issues’ that VW has yet to resolve:
- the edging from the fold-away internal table came away – the entire table was replaced under warranty;
- the sink tap then came loose – replaced under warranty;
- the paintwork on the handle of the rear tailgate (made of aluminium) deteriorated, developing spots. This was repainted but exactly the same issue has reoccurred. I have asked them to ask VW UK about a permanent ‘fix’ yet they tell me there isn’t one. I know I am not the only Cali owner to have had this issue although it only appears to affect a small number of vans;
- in June 2013 my driver’s side rear suspension coil snapped – not a common fault – but replaced under warranty;
- the cam belt and water pump were replace in April 2015 (it’s standard for a cam belt to need replacing after 3 years). However, the garage also noticed that the offside rear suspension coil had also snapped and this was replace;
- the plastic trim under the driver’s seat came loose – replaced under warranty;
- the auxiliary fan started making a noise as it it was rubbing against the plastic casing – the entire unit was replaced;
- the runners of the sliding roof blind gradually become loose over 18 months and new runners were put in to hold the blind shut firmly (this is a very common fault and this is the recognised VW ‘fix’ now);
- the plastic clips holding the awning handle in place in the bench drawer were never totally secure from the beginning; these have been replaced;
- I had the air conditioning unit recharged after 3.5 years (normal wear and tear);
- the front brake discs and pads were replaced in October 2014 (normal wear and tear);
- the EGR valve registered a warning light and needed replacing in April 2015. This unfortunately is a common – and expensive – fault. In my case, VW offered the parts for free (£650) and I paid only for labour (£240); and
- 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 – so this hasn’t been looked at.
Common questions asked by prospective owners
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 time 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.
You might be concerned at the fairly long list of issues that have had to be repaired (largely under warranty) but it should be remembered that the Cali is a more complex vehicle than your typical car, and many of the issues I’ve had (in common with other owners) are to do with the camping equipment. The roof corrosion issue is probably of greatest concern but now seems to be being seriously addressed by VW. Taking all of this into account, would I buy a Cali tomorrow ? Unequivocably: yes !
So if you would like your life to take a more adventurous turn then I recommend the Cali as an essential travelling companion !
Thinking about buying a VW California ? Or another camper van ? Don’t just take my word for it but read about how a great many other owners use their vans in Happy Campers.
(And if anyone would like to feature their own van please contact me using the form on the rhs of the page).