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.

Volkswagen Vanagon photographed in College Par...

Photo credit – Wikipedia Commons

In 2003 the Eurovan was withdrawn and replaced with the Tourag SUV.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.

2009 Volkswagen Routan photographed in Washing...

Photo credit – Commons.Wikipedia.org

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.

 

Postscript

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 …).

72 Comments on “Why is the VW California not available in the USA ?

  1. I think you’re on to something here. For the price of these new VW’s, one can get a much larger camper or camper trailer. For the past few decades, bigger seemed much better over here. With the economic downturn, small started to become popular but I doubt it will last as I’ve watch acquaintances buy bigger camper trailers in recent years. Shame really, it is the quaint coziness of the bus that I like so much. Nothing like having a kids foot in your face as the get out of bed in the morning 🙂

    • IS VW EXPORTING VW CAMPERS TO CANADA OR MEXICO? AND IF SO, WHAT IF ANY PROBLEMS WOULD THERE BE IN PURCHASING A LATE MODEL VW CAMPER IN EITHER COUNTRY AND BRINGING IT BACK TO THE STATES?

    • I’ve seen several new VW camper vans here in south Florida all had Canadian tags. I’d buy one immediately if they were available. It’s the perfect camper for 2 people and as a second car.

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  3. Hi, stumbled upon your page yesterday, browsing the net for a VW California sleeping roof hood and good advices for California newbies. Now I found some time to read a little “deeper”. Nice to read an quite helpful so far, Thank you!

    But now back to topic:
    I don’t think VW misjudges the commercial potential of the California Van. Volkswagen is one of the few manufacturers knowing their business quite well. In my opinion you just need to turn the point of view: All the California Vans are handmade in Hannover, Germany. The “Californiafertigung” (California Van Manufacturing Hall) is situated only a few corners from the T5 production hall, also in Hannover. So you have very short an direct ways from production to refinement. If you keep this in mind and remember that VW is selling the California only in greater Europe. You still have to wait up to 16 weeks for the delivery of your ordered van. Think about a well questioned California on an other continent p. ex. in California. The waiting times would increase to an intolerable level. If you think this a little further, another factory somewhere in the world could be needed. With all consequences. So maybe they’re not afraid of having no commercial success but of having it. 😉

    PS: sorry for mutilating your language, that is all that is left from school times

  4. Hi Joerg,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. And no need to apologise – I understand perfectly.

    This is a puzzling issue. However if you’re right – and there is enough demand for VW Californias in North America – do you not think VW would want to exploit this market ? As you say, while VW keep their production close to the European market in Hanover, they could presumably either export to North America or expand production in Chattanooga or Mexico. I’m sure they do know their business but I just wonder if demand really is that high to justify production in North America ? With 325,000 VWs (of all kinds) sold in the US in 2011 out of 14.5 million vehicles (2012) – albeit growing strongly – this small share is dwarfed by the likes of GM (2.5 million sales) and Japanese manufacturers.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen_Group_of_America
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20907431

    Maybe someone else can help answer these questions ?

  5. Hi Mike,

    Thanks very much for pointing me towards this website – what a great site ! The photos, information and videos are a fanstastic resource if you’re into the VW California (and older camper vans). I really love the ‘future camper’ video which I hadn’t seen before.

  6. I love my ’01 Eurovan Weekender and I’ve owned it since ’02. I bought it as an adventure-mobile in my late 20s. Now it’s my kid hauler and adventure-mobile. I’d love to get my hands on a California. I can’t believe what it’s worth now — much more than I paid for it in ’02 (~22k). I can’t sell it because there’s nothing else out there like it. A sportsmobile is just too much vehicle for me, although I have friends who went that route and love them. Since they won’t bring the T5 California, I’ll just have to make due with my T4 actually in California!

    Thanks for the article!

  7. Good to hear from you, Jesse. Your T4 Eurovan sounds like a prized vehicle that’s been well used and multi-functional over the years. I like the terms “adventure-mobile” and “kid hauler” – very descriptive ! – I’ll have to start using those names …

  8. The Mercedes Sprinter vans seem to be filling the niche market formerly occupied by the VW “adventure” vans. You also have the bigger is better attitude to overcome with a smaller camper.

    The Mercedes Sprinter actually is a trend in the smaller is better change that is occurring as ownership costs in general and fuel cost specifically became prohibitive for many people with the Class C and larger motorhomes.

  9. An idea might be for VW to do an advanced purchase limited run for say 3,000 units. The price would be able to be dropped a bit, because they would not need to go dealer wide, they could even come european delivery.

    • Hi Chuck,

      Seems a sensible idea … test the market … I’m sure 3,000 would sell like hot cakes and probably stimulate more demand.

    • We would love to buy a VW Camper Van. We are baby boomers and this would be a perfect vehicle to tour the country in when we retire. We looked upon the old VW Popup Bus with great fondness but by the time we were old enough to buy one, they were no longer being sold in the U.S. I think Volkswagen is not considering the vast number of U.S. baby boomers who have fond memories of the bus and who want to travel and camp in retirement (not stay in hotels all the time due to the expense and not camp in tents as they are getting a bit old to do that comfortably). VW should consider that this camper van would definitely appeal to the baby boomer generation.

      • I agree. Given the numbers of baby boomers who have great affinity with older VW buses and who now remain active long into retirement (and with cash to spend), you would think that there would be a market for a modern but retro-styled camper van.

      • The Mercedes Sprinter vans are a really good option for those of us without access to the VW camper vans. Having looked at domestic (USA) camper van conversions I can get the Sprinter conversion for similar money. If you don’t load them up with tons of features, they have more space and a more agreeable price point (~$70k).

  10. Thanks for the info on the VW California. I bought a new VW camper in 1997, put 50k on it and then sold it for a couple k off the original price. The issue was demand vs. long lead times to deliver-the lack of availability has helped to keep used prices high. I was in Vienna a couple weeks ago and saw that Europcar car rental had the California for rent. It got me thinking about buying one in Europe, driving it around for a month or so, and then bringing it back to the US. I’m not sure if this is possible to do, but I know BMW had a program like that not too long ago. I was told by the rental agent that the European VW California engine can be had in the TDI clean diesel-the great solution for the traveller. My ideal unit is the VW Weekender, which provides a small refridge under the back seat, the table, seats, fold down back seat into a queen sized bed,and pop up roof and loft-but no stove, fridge, or furnace.. I hope VW is monitoring this site, because they need to know that we’re interested in this product.

    • Hi Jerry,

      Thanks – really interesting comments. Similarly, I don’t know how difficult it is to import a VW California into the US (do engine emissions comply with US standards, what kind of certification is needed etc ?).

      I think what you’re describing as the VW Weekender is known as the California Beach here in the UK. It certainly sounds similar: https://www.volkswagen-vans.co.uk/range/camper-vans/california-beach/. The latest 2014 version is coming out with an electric hook-up and diesel heater (ie accessories only previously available on the full Cali). It hasn’t been a huge seller so far here (without an internal kitchen I personally think you need to live in a warmer climate), but sales seem to be slowly picking up.

  11. Hi,
    In my opinion it is more a US protectionism with standards that european brands don’t want to follow for a market not that important. If you want to bring your car in US you have around 25% of taxes… I know I tried when we moved from France to California… so I decided that my car will stay there.
    We are on the market for an Eurovan Camper or an old one… I grew up with an old green one and I loved it 😉
    Yes the new California VW sounds amazing and I would be very happy to see it in CA 😉

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  13. I too would love to own a VW California, but I know that it’s never going to happen. On top of the import issues they also have to pass all the DOT tests, and meet other safety standards which cost a lot of money. It’s a shame because it would be a perfect family vehicle IMHO.

  14. FYI, I saw a California here in Santa Cruz, California, today. That’s what brought me to your page in the first place as I was excited to think that perhaps VW had finally seen its way to release it here. Alas, dreams crushed.

    • Hi John,

      Really sorry your hopes were dashed … I think I would have been similarly gutted ! I guess someone’s imported one, or perhaps just doing a roadtrip in the States.

  15. I think it’s about time to bring the T5 to North America!
    Lots of people in Canada love their VW CamperVan. It’s kind of part of Island living!

    And with the following Campervan Conversion ‘The Doubleback’ Danbury Motorcaravans brings the T5 to a whole new level. Check this out:

    http://www.doubleback.co.uk/
    A revolutionalry VW T5 Campervan Conversion from Danbury Motorcaravans

    For impressions of the T5 Doubleback!

    And no, I don’t have any shares in this company. Just love the ingenuity.

    One word: Inspirational

    • Hi Peter,

      Yes, I’ve seen pictures and videos of the Doubleback before … never seen one in the flesh though. Are these being imported to North America I wonder ?

  16. Well written! I am in Canada and would love to buy one. I think the overflow of SUV’s is getting out of hand. Not to mention how ugly 90% of the new models are. Being 42 with a small family I want something different from the typical offerings in Canada for new cars/suv’s/mini vans.

    • Thanks ! I agree that the California certainly offers something a little different to the standard SUV. And there does seem to be demand – at least judging from the 30-40 hits this blog post receives each and every day.

    • Yes, I guess that could be a possibility. Trade negotiations often tend to be quite protracted affairs though …

  17. & having no used vans in Canada/U.S.A. since 2003 = no used market. Vanagons are now going up in value with subaru /ford & T.D.I. conversions leading the way.

  18. I don’t really care if they bring the T-5 to the US. This is the wrong approach. What should happen is VW needs to get these vehicles approved by the DOT, and EPA for import just like Volvo has done and then provide a similar program whereby you go to Germany buy it from the factory, drive it around for a vacation then let them ship it to the sates for you. You pick it up at a registered dealer and it’s done deal. This program works great for Volvo. The other issue is “The chicken Tax’ That outdated regulation needs to be repealed and until that gets done these vehicles and ones like these- Mercedes “Marco Polo” will never arrive here. The other outdated regulation that needs to go away is the restriction of used vehicles needing to be 30 years or older. That one is killing the ability to import a used TDI T-5. We need a VW van lover in Congress to take this on, That would help.

  19. The trend here in the US these days is for people to have two cars, one fuel efficient hybrid for going to/from work in stupid crazy traffic, and one gas guzzler for people/cargo hauling on weekends. Man, I’m in California and I want this. I’d park it by the california beach and never leave it!!! VW shouldn’t be able to name this the California Beach van, if it won’t be sold here. LAME.

  20. Going to Germany in the fall of 2015 and hope that things might move in one direction or another…totally would love to bring a T5 back for my 50th birthday.
    The problem with the sprinter vans, aside from being pricey and bulky, is that most of them do not sleep four…they are rarely available with a pop up roof.

  21. I live in California and used 2002 Eurovan Campers with 100,000 miles are selling for $40,000. If you buy a B or C camper for around $50,000, it isn’t affordable with fuel prices. Throw in most neighborhoods do not allow you to park them in front of your homes. There are hundreds of storage lots housing thousands of campers to solve this dilemma. That is why Mercedes Sprinter Van Conversions own the market and base models start at $100,000. It is more cost effective to buy a home where you want to vacation, fly or stay in motels rather than haul your huge camper and fight over a spot to park. To say there would not be a market for the California here in the states is to be ignorant of current and future buying trends. I believe someone if not Volkswagen will fill in the void for an affordable ($60,000) camper conversion soon. I want one and in the market for one.

    • Conversion vans are available at various price points. I have seen many Chevy and Ford 3/4 ton vans lightly converted in the $65K range new. They rarely turn up on the used market. I have also known a few people to convert their own van. Volume is so low, each is essentially a custom one of. A pickup with a ‘Lance’ camper on it or a small travel trailer are other viable options. With bigger being ‘better’, most people will buy a huge gas hog Class C oversized motorhome which can be purchased new for $70k~80k.

  22. Does anyone know if a California VW can be purchased in Germany and brought to the U.S.

    • Vehicles 25 years old are pretty easy. Newer models have to meet and be tested for emissions and other issues which is very expensive and difficult.

  23. VW got around the so called chicken tax by moving manufacturing of the bus to North America in the early 70’s.

    The advantage of the T6 California is that you can drive and park it everywhere. Urban tourist assaults will be easy. The familiarity and economy will make it a great rental for European Tourists on Holiday in the US. It is only a matter of time after the repeal of the chicken tax or bringing production to Chattanooga when the T6 California will be available in the US.

  24. I am sure that the oil companies have something to do with the VW CA T6 not coming to the USA. The mileage figures on the CA T6 is approximately 50 MPH per litre of diesel. The oil companies prefers the big, bulking gas guzzlers for the citizens of the USA and I am sure their lobby buys them the ability to keep these vehicles that make sense for those who love to travel affordably out of the USA. Does anyone know if these can be purchased and brought into the Country either through Canada or directly from GB?

  25. Only vehicles 25 years old or older can be brought in relatively easy and cheaply. Newer vehicles have to be updated for USA emissions and safety requirements AND then undergo an extensive and lengthy US Government inspection.

    A US based Mercedes Sprinter conversion is going to be cheaper to buy and own with very little lead time between purchase and delivery.

  26. If you read between the line of the VW representative, it’s not really the market size….
    http://michiganradio.org/post/why-vw-will-not-bring-back-van-us-least-right-now.

    Considering it only 50 000 copy of the VW T5 California produced not the stated minimal 200 000. That small market like New Zealand have them. And the statement that a “new model needs to be developed”…. In my opinion: It’s really about the modifications and local testing that would have to be made to a fine German vehicle to satisfy the California state regulations. We cannot import in Canada either unless vehicle correspond to the state of California regulations… This is mind boggling.

    • Thanks, this is a great find. It’s really interesting to hear someone from VW set out their case.

      I heard two main arguments. First, VW don’t think there’s a market for smaller-size camper vans when Americans are used to large RVs. I wonder why they think this – have they sized the potential markets via consumer testing ?

      The main argument he makes though relates to profitability. Put simply, he’s saying VW needs to see at least 200k units to deliver a profit in the volume business. What’s been missing from the discussion so far is that in Europe, the California is actually a derivative of the Transporter – a commercial van. So while 50,000 Californias have been sold over the last decade, probably 5 million+ Transporters have been sold. By sharing the same chassis/platform, engines, technologies, parts, dealer network and so on, this is how VW are profitable in Europe. Transporters are everywhere, from tradesmen’s vans to delivery vans to taxis. So perhaps the real issue is that with only 2% of the van market in the US, VW don’t have the penetration in the commercial van market to begin with to start to make the numbers stack up with the California. We can only speculate why VW don’t start competing in the US. Do they not have the scale of investment that would be needed? Are US commercial vans bigger than the Transporter and would therefore find it difficult to compete?

    • Interesting “article / interview” from the VW press representative.

      With the new Ford Transit vans & Mercedes Sprinters, there is a market for a ‘vanagon’ style vehicle but, as he noted they are specialty low volume products. His point about access issues in Europe versus North America is valid. There are very few places you can’t take a twenty something foot motorhome in the USA but, where do you park it in suburbia and who wants to navigate it in the crush of people and vehicles in big cities and national parks?

      • My husband and I wonder whether we could travel to Germany, buy a California, drive it around, and then ship it back to the US. last we checked, we were told we were not allowed to import that car, or would be hit with some ridiculous import tax. Does anyone know if that still applies?

  27. BMW and MB have programs to take EU delivery and ship home. I don’t think VW has the same.

  28. I thought our informal forum here might find this interesting. This month Mercedes has introduced the Metris to the US market, which is their mid sized van (think of it as the little brother to the Sprinter.) They work around the “chicken tax” by shipping the chassis, engine and transmission separately and reassemble them in the US. It is intended as a fleet van. They do have a passenger van available intended for use as a shuttle or taxi for a base price of $32,500. I can’t be the only one hoping that the Westfalia conversion makes its way to our shores:

    http://www.autoblog.com/2014/07/09/mercedes-v-class-marco-polo-westfalia-camper-van-official/

    (I can dream, right?)

    Anyone else looking at this van for their personal fleet? The dimensions are close to the Eurovan. The cargo space looks great for those with big families, but also don’t need a full size van to haul 11 people. Of course without the pop-top, this is no Westy, but it still has a lot of the charm of the Eurovan. The seats look built for a trip to and from the airport — not for a 1000 mile road trip to Yellowstone. My kids would probably kill me if I made them take an extended trip in them.

  29. Considering that 2003 and older European conversions are selling TODAY for more money than they sold for NEW, I think there is indeed a large enough market for Volkswagen to sell their AMAZINGLY well-thought out California Ocean here. I would buy one (yes, even at $65,000) tomorrow. I don’t want a Sprinter (too tall, and too expensive). I don’t want to haul a trailer. I want exactly what Volkswagen sells…a California Ocean. Despite the bad press, I would love to have a 5-speed diesel as well. Currently have a Jetta TDI Wagon and love it (runs on biodiesel). In the PNW, we LOVE camping, and I am personally getting to old to tent camp any more. PLEASE Volkswagen, get around the “chicken tax” and import your amazing vehicle!

  30. I am practically in tears after reading all these posts! I so miss my full VW camper van. I sold it when I moved from the suburbs to Boston, and have regretted it ever since. As someone else posted, I would buy a weekender, no matter what the price! I had been worried about vandalism with the propane knobs being exposed etc, and finding parking, and sold mine 10 years ago. Since then I have been tent camping a week at a time, but being retired, and 72, with my sidekick cocker spaniel, I would love to be going all over the states in a camper. I do think the weekender would be the ticket for VW to get back in the market in the US! VW please listen!!!

    • Sheila, the Mercedes Sprinter and Ford/Chevy van conversions are a good alternative for you. While not the same as the VW they both work very well in the USA and I know a few people that have them and really love them. I see a lot of seniors in National Parks these days in the various Van conversions and they all seem to be very happy in them. They are bigger, bulkier and, can be a bit of a fuel hog but the seniors I speak with absolutely love them.

      While a specialty market for the USA, I think VW is missing some much needed good publicity and marketing by not bringing this to the USA.

  31. How could it be brought over to US if it’s purchased in Europe or Canada and what are the costs of doing so ?

  32. Importing a vehicle less than 25 years old involves a lot of costs for emissions and safety compliance in the USA. Over 25 years old isn’t too bad but, you are looking at a few thousand dollars just for transportation.

  33. I’m in Europe right now driving a California. Falling in love with the thing! I’m so disappointed to learn you can’t buy one of these in the US! I had a couple of them when I was younger. Now looking for dome thing for retirement. Thus would be perfect, but alas!

  34. You are dead on with Why Doesn’t VW Sell the California in USA?? With the move to Tiny Houses and the going rate for a 1980-90 used Vanagon’s ranging from $7,000 to $30,000 with ancient mechanicals and the ability to go from 0-60 in 60 seconds and drink fuel at a rate equal to an 18 wheeler, one would think this is a no brainer to sell somewhere in the area of 10-20K of these per year in US and Canada or more…… I have an original 1982 Vanagon and love it, but would trade for the ease and convience of modern mechanicals in a heart beat!! Come on VW, share the love! Even at $50-60K per year you will sell out your first 5 years with no issues at all. We promise!!

    • The reason VW T6 in not imported to US is because of the chicken tax. In the 1960s when VW was selling everything they could get to the US. With good quality and great exchange rate along with German workers having good cash flow US exported chickens in the ships going back to get more beetles, German farmers were afraid about losing their chicken market. US trucks makers were afraid of losing their pick up truck market. So Gremany put import duty on chickens and US put import duty on trucks. There is still a 25% import duty on trucks. I think US RV builders don’t want the VW T6 California in the US.

  35. I’d sure like to buy one. I raised my family camping and now looking at retirement. I don’t want a large van. But I want nice features. . I have a decent income. I drive an Audi so I like the brand. I think VW doesn’t understand the US market if they’re comparing Ocean to the bus. Not the same market segment.

    • In the USA, you should consider one of the 1/2 or 3/4 ton Van conversions. Sure they are a little bit bigger than a VW option but, you have all the support you need to fix any issues on the road from almost any parts retailer or repair shop. For the cost of the VW options, you can get a really nice Van conversion too.

  36. The reason VW T6 in not imported to US is because of the chicken tax. In the 1960s when VW was selling everything they could get to the US. With good quality and great exchange rate along with German workers having good cash flow US exported chickens in the ships going back to get more beetles, German farmers were afraid about losing their chicken market. US trucks makers were afraid of losing their pick up truck market. So Gremany put import duty on chickens and US put import duty on trucks. There is still a 25% import duty on trucks. I think US RV builders don’t want the VW T6 California in the US.

    • Circumstances are not favorable to bring a conversion van* into the U.S. and still have it be priced competitively in its market“. Because of the 25% import tax on trucks to the US.

  37. Is it possible to buy it abroad and then ship it back to the US?

    • Anything is possible if you have enough money. Back 1980’s and 1990’s, grey market cars were a thing many people pursued. Just like importing an old Range Rover, it is possible if you want to pay for it. After 25 years, it gets easier but, it still isn’t cheap IMHO.

      Don’t forget to factor in Exchange rates too because right now the US dollar is weak and Euro is relatively strong.

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