A while ago I read that the VW California is not available in California … or any other US State for that matter. It’s not altogether clear what the reasons are so I thought I’d dig a little deeper. There certainly seems to be anecdotal demand for such a camper among prospective US buyers from the comments I’ve seen. So why isn’t it for sale in the US ?
VW’s approach in the US seems be focused on filling niche markets as described in this post on Todd Bianco’s blog . While earlier vans of the ’60s and ’70s, the T3 Vanagon and the T4 Eurovan were all successful to varying degrees it appears that the growing trend for SUVs and people carriers in the 1990s significantly changed the nature of consumer demand. In spite of VW positioning the Eurovan in the States as a family-oriented people carrier with much more space than ‘similar’ American SUVs, SUVs won the battle and VW increasingly found itself unable to carve out a niche of sufficient volume.
In 2003 the Eurovan was withdrawn and replaced with the Tourag SUV. But it wasn’t a big success. Some years later, VW also partnered with Chrysler to turn to rebadge the Town & Country minivan into the Routan which, in spite of significant discounting and marketing, only sold less than 15, 000. So no VW camper has been available for sale in the US since 2003.
Another possible reason for VW’s lack of success in gaining a foothold in the US is price. At current exchange rates, the VW California would probably have a price tag of around $65,000 and possibly more. I have read that an additional 25% tariff is imposed on light vans imported from Germany and France – the so-called “chicken tax”, since it was introduced in response to restrictions on the importation of US chicken during the cold war of the 1960s. While a little bizarre this is plausible … but doesn’t exactly explain why VW buses were so successful in the States in the ’60s and ’70s, when the tax also applied.
So it seems that American consumer tastes, the presumed lack of scale in the niche camper market and relatively high prices all combine to make it not worth VW’s while to sell the California in the US. In the meantime, VW fans have to make do with keeping older vans on the road, buying through specialist sellers such as Poptopheaven.com or attempting to import T5s from Europe.
However, given strong VW brand loyalty – as witnessed by the interest in The Bus Movie and VW’s current efforts to capitalise on VW owners’ emotional bonds with VW cars and buses – I do wonder if VW have mis-judged the commercial potential of the California in the States.
Given the range of different potential explanations for VW USA’s position, and prompted by the various responses to my blog post below, I contacted VW USA to ask them directly why they don’t offer the VW California for sale in the US. They responded:
“There are currently no plans to bring a VW conversion van to the U.S. One of the downsides of being an importer for the U.S. market is that it is not always feasible to sell every model available in other countries. Circumstances are not favorable to bring a conversion van* into the U.S. and still have it be priced competitively in its market“.
(* I did point out that the California isn’t a conversion van …).