VW California Owners Review

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.

VW California

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.

VW California

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.

Summing up

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 !

Postscript:

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).

62 Comments on “The VW California – An Owner’s Review

  1. Pingback: I want a modern, reliable camper van « Wild about Scotland

  2. Excellent article, my sentiments entirely. I purchased my Cali last September and lived in it until early January.had an issue with the roof collapsing on me but that’s been sorted by dealer now. Looking forward to a trip round the Highlands and Islands this spring/summer.
    Jim , Inverness

  3. Hi Jim,

    Glad you liked the article and maybe I’ll see you out and about in the Highlands sometime. (Maybe at another Scottish Cali owners meet ?). As you can tell, I love my Cali ! However, there seem to be a few common faults emerging now – not that they get them all of course, but it’s useful to know what to look out for.

  4. Thanks for a very informative article. We have had our van since Monday and look forward to many adventures with the kids. Look forward to seeing future articles.

    Gilly.

  5. Glad you liked it, Gilly. You must be very excited with your new van ! Roll on the Spring and Summer weather. I don’t know if you’ve seen the article I just posted up on Cali options and accessories ?

  6. Great Post.

    Like you we have had our VW Cali for nearly two years and love it. However, due to another driver deciding they wanted to be in our lane and trying to join us in our van we have been without our own van for just over 2 months. However we got a hire cali and this has meant we can still go camping each weekend.

    I would thoroughly recommend that someone looking to buy a camper van should hire one for a couple of weeks and travel around in it just to see if it’s right for them.

    We were ‘tent’ campers prior to owning a camper and thought we’d always love the tenting experience but now we wouldn’t go back.

    Four adults in one van certainly means being organised and constant tidying can be a bit of a pain but it’s worth it so you know where everything is when you need it.

    Great thing for me that my hubby loves to cook in the van and bbq’ing so I just relax and enjoy a nice glass of Cider 🙂

  7. Thanks Heidi, these are some great pieces of advice. Like you, the Cali has replaced our tent for family camping – however we’ve still held on to it and it’s going to get used again this summer when relatives are going to come away for a long weekend with us. Small tents still go where a camper van can’t, of course, so I still enjoy my tenting experience when I’m away walking in the mountains.

    I hope you get your van back soon – as good as new !

  8. Pingback: 60 Years of the VW Camper Van: Part 3 – Into the 21st Century | Wild about Scotland

  9. It sounds wonderful, we are looking at buying a California, we have had a caravan for years, and wondered if we would be able to tow a caravan with the California, we have asked the dealers and nobody seems to be sure – we wondered if you would know?

    Paul and Debbie

    • Paul/Debbie,

      This is a good question ! I’m not well qualified to answer unfortunately but remembered a discussion on the VW California Club forum about this some time ago – http://www.vwcaliforniaclub.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=893&p=6321&hilit=towing+caravans#p6321. You might also want to add to this discussion thread to see if there are any more recent views.

      I don’t think the discussion provides a definitive answer in my opinion and so I suggest having another discussion with some (knowledgeable) VW dealers about this. I guess it depends on what weight your caravan is, whether it’s a manual or auto Cali you’re interested in, and whether you really need the caravan in future ? (While I’m personally not a fan, you can buy porta pottis, portable showers, toilet tents, driveaway awnings and other paraphernalia that might widen the set of options open to you).

  10. Great blog!

    My wife and I are still waiting for our Cali to be delivered. We knew that it would take up to 4 months so its a matter of being patient and sitting it out. Our Cali is a re-import. The Cali was built in Hannover and goes to Italy for one day and then gets re-imported back into Germany (oops yes we are from Germany :-)) This makes the Cali about 4000 Euro cheaper than buying it in Germany… and its quite legal.
    We have one important question! What is the maximum weight that the upper sleeping accomodation will take? I can already see my sleeping on my own down below 🙂

    We are planning our first weekend away and talking about Luxemburg… Next sommer we plan on driving through Austria, Hungary and then into Romania… a trip I always wanted to do.

    Best wishes from Augsburg, Bavaria

    Adrian

    • Hi Adrian,

      Thanks for the feedback on the blog. I’m intrigued about the re-import process – I hadn’t heard about this. So how does that work to give such a saving ?

      I don’t think I have ever read or heard about a specific weight limit for the upper bed. It’s seems pretty sturdy and I have never been aware of any weight issues. We normally sleep one adult and one child up there but I would think you could quite easily have two adults sleeping there with no problems. Being diplomatic, I would say that if you’re not too heavy to climb up then you’d be fine to sleep there !!

      I bet you can’t wait to get your new Cali – it’s an exciting time !

      • Thanks for the quick answer! I can now tell my wife that I dont need to go on a diet 🙂
        The re-import deal has been around for a couple of years now and is completly legal. VW has a very small part of the market in Italy (less than 5%). In order to boost the market positioning the Cali is much cheaper to buy in Italy than it is in Germany. VW knows very well that the Cali is going to be re-imported into Germany but it doesn´t seem to worry them at all. On paper the market in Italy will slightly grow. There are also some benifits concerning the VAT but I dont understand it at all 🙂 Whats important is that the Cali, although re-imported has the same legal rights compared to a Cali that is sold in Germany. That means there are no problems at all with garantie issues etc etc. The owners manual will be in German. After the Cali has been re-imported there is no way that would show that the it was in Italy for a day.

        I would be very interested to hear what a Cali in GB costs!

      • Hi Adrian,

        Thanks for the explanation – I’m not quite sure I fully understand why VW would want to artificially inflate sales in Italy in this way (at the expense of Germany VW dealerships) but it shows the EU Single Market is working !

        A Cali SE starts at £44,360 (approx. 52,000 EUR) in the UK and a Beach at £35,360 (approx. 42,000 EUR). These are of course base prices and once you add in various options you’d add on a thousand or two (or more). I know that the UK is one of the most expensive places in the EU to buy a vehicle … so by how much are we ‘over paying’ if you don’t mind me asking ?!

      • Hi :-

        I think the expression you are looking for is being taken to the cleaners but perhaps I quoted it wrong. Our Beach cost €35600, but this was not the basic version. It includes every extra that we ordered.. which in fact was every extra that was offered. I dont know if grey imports are available in GB but you certainly could order at the same place that i did. That would involve two trips to Germany but even if you went first class you would end up by saving a couple of thousand. In two weeks time we will be able to pick up our Cali and I will ask the guy if he can accept foreign orders. It interests me as well. Theoretically we could sell our Cali in two years time and we would be able to order a new one without making any loss at all. There are several people that do this.

        We would love to travel through Scotland on our Cali 🙂 We already have a list of places that we want to visit! My fave for the first trip is Luxemburg, my wife wants to go to Rome. I guess we have a small advantage compared to you, we border on so many different countries that we could make weekend visits throughout Europe with no real extra costs.

        Best wishes,

        Adrian

      • Hi Adrian,

        Yes, sadly I’m only too aware of the higher prices we have to put up with. Few people in the UK would be interested in grey imports from anywhere other than Ireland (if they’re available) given that we drive on the left hand side of the road. Left hand drive vans certainly don’t hold as much value here.

        I’m envious of you living in the centre of the European continent – you’re only a few hours drive from loads of interesting places to visit. Scotland’s a wee bit further … but also definitely worth the drive !

    • really interested in how you found this out , is it possible to reply to this with the details of where you got your cali from or any contacts details you might still have

      many thanks andy regan

      • We bought our Cali in a small town called Geiselwind. The man who owns the company is called Herr Selig. This shows you some of his offers http://home.mobile.de/ALLGAEUAUTOMOBILEUGHAFTUNGSBESCHRAENKT#ses If there is serious interest then I have no problems at all of calling him on the phone. I am assuming the questions would be: 1) Can he re-import to England 2) Model Cali for the traffic in GB

        If you have anymore questions then drop me a line to my emaul: ihatespam@gmx.tm I will answer straight away..

        On another note…. my wife and I were in Austria last weekend and slept in the our cali with outside temperatuer of minus 5. We had lots of blankets and we did´nt need the heating at all. Who has the coldest record??? :-))

        Regards from Augsburg / Bavaria

        Adrian

  11. Hi
    I bought my 180 4motion 2 years ago in the UK although I mainly live in France. UK was cheaper than Continent as standard spec is higher, alloys etc all extras here.

    • Hi Simon,

      That’s useful to know. I guess it pays to do your research, know about differing specs as well as the German tax-free import scheme Adrian mentioned in his comment earlier. There are lots of considerations when buying a new or used van in Europe …

      • Last week we finally got our long waited for Cali beach. The guy that sold me the car said that the only way you could tell that the car is a grey import is by looking at the engine number. I took the Cali to the local VW service/dealer and asked him to look at it. He searched it from top to bottom and found nothing that suggested that the car was made to export…. which is basically what the seller told me. Our final savings were 9780 euro. Who knows, perhaps in the future something might turn up that would´nt have happened to a car that was bought directly in Germany… but I doubt it.

        A friend of mine has just ordered a volvo re-import. Savings were over 12000€ and a six month waiting time for the car.

        The pictures of Scotland are stunning! We will be driving to cornwall this year so I guess we wont be able to manage scotland.. unfortunately.

        best wishes from a 39 centigrade Bavaria,

        Adrian

      • That’s a huge saving, Adrian. No doubt you’ll be thrilled with your new Beach – and with a big discount !

        I hope you have a great time in Cornwall. It’s a nice area and you’ll see loads of VW vans there. We would go back … if it wasn’t a 12 hour drive from home.

  12. I used to holiday in pop-top VWs constantly as a child,
    adored it inside my parents Volkswagen camper.
    Since then I have always loved the robustness of a Volkswagen,
    they manage to keep going forever

    • Thanks – I think many people have memories such as this and caught the camper van bug early on. My wife’s family grew up with a couple if VW vans – you can read about some of their adventures here.

  13. Really thorough and clear article – thanks. I note your comments about thinking hard if you were
    a family of five, though. We are! (2 adults, 3 young children). I was just wondering how you think we might fare with a Cali…?

    • Hi Tim,

      My advice would definitely be to try before you buy ! It can be done but it’ll be a squeeze in an already compact van. You would want to be sure that it’s going to work for you and how you would use the Cali.

      You can order an optional fifth seat for the Cali (which fits on to a third rail on the floor, which can’t be retrofitted so the van has to be specced like this from new) but this does make things somewhat cosier inside. The seat is actually quite substantial/heavy and you would need to remove this in order to cook and put the downstairs bed down – ie to do pretty well most things other than actually driving. We don’t have a fifth seat but those who do keep it in an awning tent overnight (which of course means you need to carry an awning too, even for one night stays).

      Young kids could probably sleep three in a bed (upstairs or down) – sleeping bags or duvets. But you can also buy a hammock that lies across the two front seats for toddlers.

      For young kids and babies I think this would be do-able but would be like a military operation to get dressed, eat etc when you were all inside (think of a wet morning !). I suspect it would be just a little too challenging to have three school-age kids and above in a Cali … you might want to hire something bigger for holidays and then look forward to a VW camper once the kids leave home.

  14. Looking to buy a camper – so this is interesting. I compared the VW GB, DE and IT web page prices for a Cal Beach – all ex VAT – GB = £35,370 (€41,928), DE = €32,645, IT = €32,090
    Not clear about the DE vs IT prices – but the UK to others is no contest.

    I had two T2 campers in the 70’s (Canada, where I live and UK – was a Danbury) – neither had pop-tops nor a lot of furniture. What I found we needed for long trip use (4-6 months at a time) is lots of free-form storage – not drawers and hanging closets.

    • Hi Jeff,

      Wow – that’s quite a difference in price on the Beach ! The UK is clearly not the place to buy a vehicle (if you have the option).

      That’s an interesting observation on the storage practicalities of the T2. I actually think the Cali is very well designed although some of the materials are made to be lightweight (and there’s sometimes a trade-off with robustness). One example is the clips that hold the shelves in place – they often move out of place when you’re rummaging about. The reading light, tap and blinds are other fittings that all need careful handling.

      The Cali’s wardrobe is often a bone of contention. While some people do hang clothes from hangers, we just stuff bags, coats and a spare duvet in there – it’s a place to ‘shut away’ things and we use it as free-form storage.

  15. Adrian Newrick :- Is it possible to buy a right hand drive (as in Scotland) from the VW factory ( or dealer) in Germany ? Can you give the price of a standard California with no extras ?

    • In Germany you can order nay kind of Cali that you want. I cant remember what the standard was but we paid 36000 € for a Cali with loads of extras. I think the saving was at least € 8000. If you want to write to me directly then use Ihatespam@gmx.tm :-)))

  16. great blog, trying to pluck up the courage to buy a Cali, just never spent 39k plus on a motor before and its hard to part with the money 🙂 . Can it really be used as every day transport ? wondering if i should keep my Tiguan or sell it ! … How comfortable are the beds ? wondering if the beach has a bigger bed ?

    • Hi Wally,

      Thanks for the feedback. Yes, it is a lot of cash … but you save on accommodation when you’re away on holiday and the VW Cali retains its value better than almost any other vehicle on the road 🙂

      And yes, it can be used as a daily vehicle – this is what I’ve done for almost 3 years now. A motorhome is way too big as a daily drive and while you’re conscious you’re driving what’s essentially a van, it’s easy to drive and park. Parking sensors are a must, though ! And be careful where you park in supermarket car parks (and avoid barriers of 2 metres or less) !.

      Unless you do a lot of miles (which would be better on a lower-value vehicle), or feel that a van would be too much for lots of short about-town trips, I would sell your Tiguan.

      I can’t tell you about the size of the Beach bed I’m afraid. But my advice would be to get a memory foam topper/mattress for the Cali beds. Seems daft I know for an expensive camper to need an extra mattress but it just makes for a more comfortable night’s sleep.

      Happy to answer any more queries …

      • thanks for all the info, wondering what the road tax and insurance could be ? found a nice 2012 with 7 k for 37k which seems ok

      • Hi Wally,

        Road tax is £220 a year. Expect to pay a similar(ish) amount for insurance (depending on where you live). That seems a pretty good price …

  17. I’d like to offer a warning against hiring one of these… We’ve just been charged £800 for alleged damage to the pop-up roof of a T5 Campervan from [name withheld]. Apparently one inch or so frayed, but unrepairable. This article mentions just how easily the roof can be damaged. We were following all instructions and being extremely careful! You can get quite a few nights in a lovely hotel for that kind of money, so I’d say it’s not worth the risk.

    • Hi,

      I’m sorry to hear you’ve had an issue with the canvas getting caught in the roof bellows. I know it does happen, even when people follow instructions. It’s essential you have windows and/or doors open to let the air escape when the roof comes down, but a sudden gust of wind can sometimes blow the canvas at this vital point. Unfortunately, the Cali is an expensive – but sometimes fragile – vehicle that needs careful looking after.

      I’ve heard that some people tie a bungy between the window zips upstairs which effectively pulls the canvas in when you’re lowering the roof … which should make it much less likely to happen. I meticulously check right around the van, inside and out, at half-way and three-quarters of the way down.

      Thanks for making this point – it’s useful for others to know about.

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  20. Good reading,I’ve converted my own t5 van with pop top roof,made a toilet box with seat top,Im happy with it.Mine has twin sliding side doors which come in handy.It has a bank of units down one side with access to your gas bottles and water.The roof was put on by a local conversion firm.He was very open and honest and did a very good job.But he did say we covert vehicles and if you won’t perfection go to Vw and give them your money . We have had no problems touch wood with it.I have a double seat at front that I’ve put on a swivel kit,so it seats five people.If I had deeper pockets I would buy a Cali because of there build quality until then I’m still van man. Simon

    • Hi Simon,

      … and there’s nothing at all wrong with being a “van man” ! Thanks for getting in touch and letting me know about your converted T5. In fact, I’m keen to do a new series of posts featuring other VW camper owners and wondered if you might be interested in being part of this ? Look out for my next post and let me know. Beyond Cali owners (and even among them) there’s a great variety of vans out there and I’d like to widen the net to feature people just like you.

  21. Hi!
    still a great blog! congratulations!
    we are going with our 4 year old son for 3 weeks to Norway this summer with our new Cali.
    i heard about problems with the roof, coming down by itself after standing for a long time…
    second thing i heard is that the electronics for handling the roof was not working, after some longer intens use…
    did you ever experience problems with those things yourself?
    thanks a lot for your information!
    jan (from belgium)

    • Hi Jan and apologies for not replying sooner – I’ve been away myself and haven’t had access to a computer.

      I personally haven’t had any problems with the electric roof but I know that a small number of people have occasionally experienced issues here in the UK. You can find more information on the UK California Club Forum eg http://www.vwcaliforniaclub.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=126&t=4462.

      Just make sure you have the engine running when you raise/lower the roof and that the batteries are fully charged. And make sure you know where you have put your tie-down straps which should have come with your Cali when it was new.

      Good luck with your trip to Norway (sounds great !) and fingers crossed you don’t have any problems with the roof.

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  23. I enjoyed reading this article and found the information about the roof interesting. I also had a smile when seeing the link to the bellows….. it made me smile, and think I am glad I have a Mazda Bongo, it might be smaller (there are only 2 of us), but at least the Japanese had the foresight to get the roof, right. Absolutely right. On my camper, press the electric button and the roof comes down 3/4 of the way. It stops, so that you are reminded to check the roof, make sure nothing is left in there, make sure that material is pulled in correctly. It works. Maybe VW could learn a thing or two from Mazda ) 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Hi, yes the California does that too – the motor stops about half way down and gives a warning message. However in spite of this, a gust of wind can sometimes blow the material out in between the bellows when the roof is just closing. I’m not familiar with the Bongo – does it have thicker a roof canvas perhaps ?

  24. Unfortunately the link above to ‘various options’ doesn’t work. I’m just about to start converting a new LWB mid roof in a fairly radical way and would be interested to see if something similar has been done before. I’d also be happy to show it to interested parties once it’s complete

    • Hi Colin,

      Thanks for letting me know about the broken link, which I’ve now updated. It’s a link to an earlier post where I summarised our own thought process from an old T2 through to T5 conversions and finally a California. I’ve provided links to some of the conversion companies in the UK, but there are many more – perhaps a good place to start is the T4/T5 Forum ?

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  26. Thank you for writing this blog article. I found this very useful as we have just taken the leap and bought a new Cali! May the adventures begin ..

    • Thanks, glad you found it useful Andy. It’s an exciting time for you – bet you can’t wait until you get a chance to go out exploring !

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  30. I love your reviews and am getting closer to persuading my husband that we need a Cali SE for camping trips with our two girls. Currently in France with a leaky tent and burst air bed!

    I am onto the money aspect at the moment…I have been using the argument that camper vans don’t depreciate like a normal car and I plan to use this as my main car. So in 5 years how much would you say a new Cali would depreciate? From a quick look at sales for second hand vehicles it seems they can lose £6k-£10k in 3-5 years – would you say that is fair? Any other costs that I would need to consider over and above that of owning a new car?

    Many thanks

    Andrea

    • Hi Andrea,

      Well, a leaky tent and a burst air bed will hopefully go a long way to persuading your husband that “there must be a better way” ?! Valuing second hand Cali’s is difficult since there are so few around for Parkers etc. to include them and get any accurate stats. And of course, they’re worth as much as someone’s willing to pay … and demand is always very strong. However, based on the asking prices for second hand Calis I’d say that depreciation is probably a little less than you say – maybe £4k – 8k over 3-5 years ?? So to the extent that any vehicle is an ‘investment’ it’s worth hanging on to a Cali. Over and above that, maintenance, fuel and road tax are probably a little higher than your average car. But weighed against that, a camper van saves on holiday accommodation costs (unless you replace your leaky tent or stay at home of course) and is a spare bedroom sitting on your driveway.

      But surely the decision’s as much about the heart as the head ? A camper van is your passport to adventure for years to come. And it’s not just a family vehicle, your husband could use it himself (nothing like a shiny new toy to get him out and about enjoying his own hobbies etc etc).

      Good luck – and let me know how you get on !

      PS You might be interested in my latest post on buying a new VW T6 California https://wildaboutscotland.com/2015/08/08/is-the-new-vw-t6-california-for-me/

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