If you’re about to make a major purchase and buy a VW California you want to be sure that it’s going to be a reliable vehicle. You may have been eyeing up camper vans for a long time, or you might be returning to a modern version having owned a T2 or T3 in the past. Either way, you want to make sure that it’s going to pass the test of time: a camper van is a vehicle to grow old with.
However, you may have heard about issues with blistering paintwork, faulty roof control panels and fragile lights … should you be concerned ? Is the California going to give you many happy years of ownership, or be dogged with frequent visits to the nearest dealership ?
The reliability of VW Californias is a frequent question asked by many new and prospective owners. We’ve now had ours for almost three years and I’d like to share with you our experiences and views, many of which are included in my California owners’ review earlier this year. In particular, I want to reassure you by encouraging you to bear three points in mind when weighing up the pros and cons of investing your hard-earned cash in a Cali.
1. Appreciate the fact that satisfied customers are far less likely to voice their views than disgruntled ones:
It stands to reason: you’re going to complain if something goes wrong but remain silent if there’s nothing to complain about. For all the owners who have the misfortune of reporting problems, there are countless more who are perfectly satisfied and enjoying using their Cali. I’m happy to say that we’re in the latter category. That’s not to say that we haven’t experienced issues (see below) but on balance, these are minor in the scheme of things.
2. Beware of over-generalisations:
Just because some people report particular issues this doesn’t mean to say that everyone has these issues. It’s understandable that when you’re researching the purchase of a new vehicle you’re going to quickly spot the negative aspects; it’s human nature. But just don’t assume that these are issues that affect every California. For example, we have had no problems with a faulty knob on the central control panel (that controls the roof and fridge/heater settings), nor the roof hinges (that can tear the roof canvas), nor the ‘bendy’ light in the roof – three of the most common issues reported by California owners.
However, there are exceptions to this that do seem to be experienced by a large number of owners: namely the blistering paintwork (caused by corrosion between the aluminium and steel panels on the roof) and the ‘steering clonk’ (felt when turning at low speeds) – see below for further details. It’s not uncommon for manufacturing faults to be identified on vehicles. Both of these problems are now recognised by VW in the UK and permanent solutions are being found for affected vehicles (eg the California’s roof design changed for all new vans produced after March 2013).
3. Look after your California and it will serve you well:
For new owners, this starts in the garage forecourt. You need to be absolutely confident that you’re going to get a detailed handover from the salesperson and that they are sufficiently knowledgeable about the Cali’s features and equipment. You might think that this is quite a safe assumption but unfortunately, the Cali is a leisure vehicle sold through commerical van centres; sales staff used to selling Transporters and Crafters to plumbers and electricians are not always clued up about the right way to advise on the operation of a Cali’s fridge or how its front seats swivel. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard of the basics not being explained to new owners or even of sales staff closing the roof incorrectly and tearing the roof canvas in the showroom ! (This is a real bugbear of mine: why can’t VW sell the Cali through its car dealerships ? I’ve heard recently that VW are thinking about establishing ‘Lifestyle Dealerships’. Long overdue I say …).
The wider point is that the Cali is a complex vehicle – and much more complex that your typical car. It’s designed to be reconfigured often and flexibly (ie elevating roof, swivelling seats, four beds, night time blinds, tables and chairs etc). It’s only to be expected that some parts – I’m thinking here about the ‘bendy’ upstairs light, the table in the sliding door and the tap in particular – require some care and attention when using them. They’re lightweight but not bombproof. They can break or start rattling if you don’t look after them properly. Of course, even a 1% manufacturing defect is too high but equally, you need to be aware that some parts have a certain tolerance.
For the record, there are currently two general problems recognised by VW and two not yet recognised but which appear to be fairly common [note: I’m deliberately not describing the latter two as ‘general’ problems since they don’t appear to be common across most vans]. You can find much more information about owing a VW California at the VW California Owners’ Forum.
- Blistering or bubbling paintwork is fairly common, caused by corrosion between the aluminium panel on the roof (just behind the windscreen) and the front (steel) edge of the roof elevating roof itself. Of the 89 Calis attending the 2013 Calis on the Farm meet in the UK, 55 had this problem. To cut a very long story short (here’s the long version), VW in the UK have now acknowledged that this is a recognised fault. If your van is affected you need to contact VW Commerical Customer Services vans and they will log your details and contact you to book your van in for the proper repair. The specific details of this are not yet available – it’s not just a re-spray ! – but from Jan/Feb 2014 a number of designated VW bodyshops will be undertaking repairs. The good news for prospective and new owners is that following acknowledgement of this issues by VW in Germany, all VW Californias manufactured from March 2013 have a plastic barrier between the two metallic surfaces which should prevent the corrosion issue occurring.
- Some Californias have a reported ‘steering clonk’. This is a faint knock felt on the steering wheel when turning at low speeds. Up until now, VW garages have been greasing the steering column as a temporary measure while seeking a permanent solution (which as of November 2013 has not yet been identified)
Problems not yet recognised by VW:
- Some owners have reported the scissor-like roof hinges tearing the roof canvas. This happens when the roof canvas is folding outwards rather than inwards and gets caught in the metal mechanism. The California’s manual clearly states that windows and/or doors need to be open to allow air to escape when the roof is closing but even when these are open, a sudden gust of wind can sometimes blow the canvas outwards. There’s no doubt that this is a fragile aspect of the Cali’s design – many would argue it’s a design fault, although VW have not as yet acknowledged it as such. Any torn roof canvasses are therefore normally judged to be caused by ‘user error’.
- Again, some owners report a defective knob on the central control panel (above the driver’s head) that controls the roof, fridge and auxiliary heater. If the knob stops working it’s impossible to raise or lower the roof electronically (although, with difficulty, this can be done manually).
Issues we’ve encountered:
After three years of ownership I’m pleased to say that relatively little has gone wrong with our California and those issues that we have experienced have been satisfactorily covered under warranty.
- the edging from the fold-away internal table came away and my local garage replaced the entire table;
- the sink tap came loose and was also replaced;
- the paintwork on the handle of the rear (aluminium) tailgate deteriorated and this was repaired;
- I noticed a very intermittent steering ‘knock’ when taking a sharp right hand turn which only happened a couple of times. However, it didn’t happen at either of the two van centres which I asked to look at it for me and I haven’t noticed it since (strange ?!), so no work has been done on this;
- the driver’s side rear suspension coil snapped but VW sent a breakdown vehicle to collect my van and it was repaired under warranty in two days.
My van is booked in for some final (minor) issues to be addressed under warranty:
- the sliding roof hatch keeps coming open by 2-3 inches on every journey (many owners report this);
- one of the clips holding the plastic trim around the base of the driver’s seat has snapped off and the trim hangs down slightly;
- the plastic trim beside the blind in the sliding door has come loose and needs re-attaching;
- the fan for the auxiliary heater has recently developed a noise (the fan is clearly come loose or has debris touching the plastic housing).
… and my van has developed the dreaded blistering paintwork, and is awaiting repair under VW’s 12-year corrosion warranty early in 2014.
You may think that this is a rather long list of issues but I have to say that it doesn’t feel like that. With the exception of the blistering paintwork and the annoying roof hatch, the others are minor and I’m happy with the way in which VW has dealt with them. As I mentioned earlier, you wouldn’t expect as many issues with a typical car but then again, a camper van is a more complex vehicle. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t let any of this put me off buying a Cali if I was going to place an order tomorrow.
Touch wood, my issues will continue to be minor once my warranty expires but so far at least, I’m a very satisfied customer !