The latest version of the VW California goes on sale in the UK this month. With 50,000 Californias sold over the last decade alone it’s proved a real winner for outdoor enthusiasts. But if you’re looking to buy a new camper van should you buy a new T6 Cali ? Here’s my personal ‘take’ on the introduction of the new T6.
Introducing the T6 California
The new T6 California should really be seen as an evolution of previous models rather than a brand new design. VW are keen to highlight its heritage as the latest in the long line of VW campers dating back 60 years to the first Splitscreen T1 models of the 1950s. It’s a modern, factory-build camper van that sleeps four adults in comfort and has all the mod cons you’d expect in an upmarket car. The new T6 is a slightly squarer shape, with redesigned bumpers, grilles and rear lights but essentially looks very similar to the T5 California.
In the UK two versions are on sale, the Beach and the Ocean, the latter replacing the former SE model. (A third version, the Coast, is available in Continental Europe but not in the UK, and fits in between the Beach and Ocean in terms of specification). The Beach is at the cheaper end of the range and features five seats as standard; an additional two can be added but must be removed in order to make up the lower bed. The Beach has a manual pop-top roof which includes the upper bed, but lacks a kitchen unit downstairs. Just like the SE, the Ocean is a four-seater/sleeper (with an optional fifth seat), has an electronic elevating roof and a kitchen unit.
Inside, it’s difficult to tell the T6 from the previous model. The Ocean’s kitchen unit still features a two-burner gas hob, sink, 42-litre top-loading fridge but now sports an additional “multifunctional holder’ including a cup holder, ashtray and towel rail. The seat coverings also sport slightly lighter-coloured fabric but otherwise, things look much the same.
The biggest changes take place behind the scenes. All TDI diesel engines are now Euro-6 compliant and VW claim they’re up to 15% more efficient. Three versions are available (102, 148 and 201 bhp), the first two available on the Beach and the 148bhp and 201bhp versions on the Ocean. A 7-speed DSG automatic gearbox is available on all engine sizes and the 4Motion can be specified for the two most powerful engines.
VW claim 6,000 differences compared with the T5 but most of these innovations seems to be related to the engines, suspension and technology. Some features only available as options on the T5 now come as standard including Bluetooth, DAB digital radio, climate control (three-zone in the Ocean), alloy wheels, LED tail lights, a wind-out awning and an auxiliary internal heater.
All versions boast the neat design features we’ve been used to in the T5 Cali including front swivel seats, a foldout table and chairs stored in the side door and tailgate respectively, and ample storage throughout. A variety of options will be available including two different trim levels.
You’ll also see pictures of the new Cali in two-tone paintwork but indications are that this special edition ‘Generation 6’ will not be available in the UK. Personally I think that’s a good thing since the paintwork, quite frankly, looks fairly hideous and the squarer T6 certainly doesn’t pull off the two-tone look quite like the Splittie.
While the Transporter has been available for order in the UK for some time the T6 California goes on sale this month for deliveries in late 2015.
How much does it cost ?
The California isn’t cheap by any means but provides arguably the best way to enjoy the ‘camper van living’ experience on a daily basis compared with other camper vans and motorhomes. The on-the-road price of the Beach is between £37,657 – £41,515 and the Ocean ranges between £47,840 – £54,975.
Prices appeared to have increased slightly compared with the outgoing model although some options are now offered as standard in the T6. However, for most people it’s still a lot of money so buying a Cali needs to be very carefully weighed up (see ‘Verdict’ below).
How does it compare with previous models ?
Following the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach, VW have been very faithful to the look and feel of the T5, particularly the post-2010 ‘facelift’ model. In fact, you’d be hard pushed to see significant differences in the overall owner experience excepting the cosmetic changes and different engines. There’s no difference to the seating or sleeping arrangements and the ‘camping equipment’ (kitchen etc) is essentially the same.
The T6 is a big step up from the earlier T4 model of course and so anyone considering trading in an older VW, a T5 conversion or a motorhome will certainly be interested to see what’s currently offered in a modern, factory-built camper.
What do others say about the T6 California?
At the time of writing we’re yet to see a new Cali ‘in the flesh’ in the UK. Motoring journalists have been treated to test drives in mainland Europe but these are so far simply ‘descriptive’ reviews and no one yet has had the benefit of driving one for any length of time.
Currently, the best UK-based reviews I’ve seen are by Auto Express (here and here) and the Telegraph. There are a couple of YouTube videos showing different versions of the Transporter but not the California (note: you may want to mute the sound on both of these …).
What other options should I consider?
The camper van market in the UK has certainly developed in recent years and prospective purchasers will want to look carefully at the competition. I’ve listed below the various options that most people will consider, together with the various pros and cons:
- Pros: Have more features (eg internal toilet and shower, grill/oven/microwave, TV); often have permanent beds.
- Cons: Too big to be a daily driver; lack the flexibility and convenience of a camper van; expensive new and high depreciation; ugly.
VW T6 conversion:
- Pros: Slightly cheaper (perhaps) than a new VW T6 (but often not to the same level of specification); conversion companies offer a greater variety of internal seating/sleeping configurations; ability to custom-design your own van
- Cons: Higher depreciation than a Cali; design and materials often don’t match VW’s standards.
Second hand VW T5 Cali:
- Pros: Most of the advantages of the T6 but at a significant cost-saving; the ‘cache’, practicality and cool design styling of a modern VW camper
- Cons: Comes with the mileage and use of a second hand vehicle; you may need to address the (well-known) faults with the T5, particularly the roof corrosion, EGR and control panel issues (see this article or visit the VW California Club website).
Classic VW camper van (eg Splitscreen, Bay window):
- Pros: Fantastic design styling; instant membership of the worldwide VW community; complete strangers will wave at you on every journey;
- Cons: Poor reliability and the need for constant maintenance; cost (eg a vgc Splittie will cost £15k+); only practical as a 2nd or 3rd vehicle; space is much more limited than in a T5 or T6.
Campers from other manufacturers (eg Mercedes Marco Polo, Wellhouse Terrier, Westfalia Club Joker):
- Pros: Alternative configurations if you don’t like VW’s offerings; lack the ‘cache’ of a VW camper van
- Cons: Lack VW’s design ingenuity (eg folding tables/chairs stored in the door and tailgate); cost is similar to the new VW T6; the Mercedes isn’t available until 2016.
The T6 California is a multi-purpose, high specification camper van that remains the benchmark standard. Its proven design, evolved over six generations, means that it has the practicality and sophistication that other competitors will find hard to beat. Only the Mercedes Marco Polo is a potentially serious contender but without VW’s design ingenuity and heritage.
However, all of this comes at a fairly significant cost which will force new buyers to think very carefully. What you’re getting is luxury camper van living combined with the driving experience of an upmarket car (and you can’t sleep four adults in a typical £35k car!). Not only is the Cali a daily driver but it also provides the flexibility for outdoor pursuits or weekends/holidays away, providing opportunities for a family to much more easily enjoy the great outdoors. Buying a camper van like this is a lifestyle decision, not simply a vehicle purchase.
Depreciation on VW camper vans is very low and combined with a worldwide dealer network, means that this gives them a significant edge compared with the many variations of camper van conversions now available.
The T6 will no doubt be very tempting to those new to camper van ownership or those trading in a motorhome or conversion for higher quality and convenience. However, given that you could buy the same benefits for a significant cost-saving, the strongest competition will come from the T5 California.
Existing owners (like me) are unlikely to want to trade up for marginal benefit (eg we could upgrade our kitchens with a multi-purpose shelf for £57…). Most importantly, second hand buyers are likely to want to make a significant saving; expect to pay around £30k for a 2005-10 California and £35-40k for a 2010 – 14 model. While residuals remain high, there are now many more second hand Californias around and so sourcing a used model is not nearly as difficult as it was a few years ago. So unless I was desperate to have my own van from the forecourt, my advice is to look out for a good second hand California and put the ‘savings’ towards some great trips away.
My owner’s review of my T5 California after nearly 5 years of ownership
Happy Campers – Owners’ reviews of camper vans