The VW California remains the ‘gold standard’ camper van with a reputation for flexibility, a 60 year pedigree of design innovation and support from a worldwide dealer network. I’ve driven my own T5 Cali on a daily basis for five years and so was keen to see how the new T6 Cali compares. Here’s my first look at the new T6 VW California …
The launch of the new VW California was eagerly awaited last year. VW had teased us with various concept vehicles, notably the rugged-looking Tristar and the hybrid e-Co-Motion, but what finally emerged was an incremental evolution of the successful California camper format. As the saying goes: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
Californias have been rolling off the Hanover production line for eleven years now and are becoming an increasingly common sight on UK roads and campsites. While not necessarily cheap, they hold their value well. So with many more now available to suit different sized wallets a common question among prospective buyers is: “do I buy new or second-hand?” This review aims to inform potential owners about the expanded range of options and follows my earlier post comparing the Cali to the competition.
There are two variants of the California currently available in the UK, the Beach and the Ocean (formerly the SE). The Beach is a multi-purpose van with 3-seat sliding bench that converts into a full-width bed, together with a manual pop-top roof. The Ocean is a fully-fledged camper complete with kitchen, wardrobe, double-glazed passenger windows and automatically-elevating roof. VW, for some reason, has chosen not to introduce the mid-specification Coast into the UK.
I’m very grateful to Aston Leisure, based near Edinburgh, for letting me road test their new California. This was a high-spec 7-speed 204PS Ocean with a direct shift automatic (DSG) gearbox, in Mojave Beige. Among its various options were adaptive cruise control, a multifunction steering wheel, reversing camera and Devonport alloy wheels.
The driving experience
At first glance, there’s not a great deal to differentiate the T6 California from the previous version except for slightly more angular lines, lights and front grille. With its combination of sliding door, side windows and awning it’s still unmistakably a Cali. So on the exterior at least it looks like a modern upgrade rather than a wholly new model.
The biggest differences become clear when you get behind the wheel. VW claim that there are 6,000 different parts compared with the previous version and these seem to be largely in the engine, suspension and dashboard.
The aspect that struck me most was the suspension: the T6 has a very smooth and assured ride. It feels really solid, confidently soaking up the bumps. The top-of-the-range 204PS engine had lots of power when overtaking and climbing steeper hills. Other than a higher, ‘hedge height’ driving position, those used to driving premium cars will find the Cali familiar to drive. It’s (almost) easy to forget you’re driving a 3,000kg van. So while the Cali shares a heritage with the classic campers of the last few decades its driving style is in a completely different league.
I found the automatic gearbox fairly easy to get used to (for a confirmed manual driver!). It offered smooth, quiet changes as well as a ‘Sport’ mode in which the engine delays changing up a gear to allow for faster overtaking. The Tiptronic gearbox also enables manual gear changes, letting you flick up or down a gear.
A new gizmo is the option of adaptive cruise control. This senses the vehicle in front, slowing down automatically if the vehicle in front is travelling more slowly then tracking its speed up to your cruising speed. It was a little unnerving at first to find the Cali braking and accelerating without my control but I can see this offers a useful safety feature, particularly for longer journeys.
The deluxe dashboard in the Ocean has a more modern look and feel. While the shiny black and brushed metal finishing certainly looks the part, I do wonder how well they’ll resist scratches in a well-used camper van. The other main difference to the dash is the number and layout of the various cubby holes. There are now no fewer than six storage compartments. The best improvements are saved for the replacements for the cup-holder and 12v charger drawer. These are now separate drawers and much more convenient (no more cables hanging out and coins rattling about). Finally, while the swivel seats have not changed, the headrests (for the driver and passenger only) are slightly larger and softer.
The camping experience
While VW have focused on updating the California’s driving experience to the standard of other premium vehicles, what you see to the rear of the door pillars remains largely unchanged. This doesn’t mean VW have been complacent. It still sets the benchmark for camper van design and provides a light, airy and modern feel. (While various converters have upped their game, in my view none can so far match the quality of the materials, design and finishing of the California).
The Ocean therefore offers a fully-equipped camper van with seating and beds for up to four adults, two in the elevating roof and two on the fold-down sliding bench seat. In the kitchen there’s a two-ring cooker, top-loading fridge and small sink, while cupboards, a wardrobe and a large bench drawer provide much-needed storage. A 30 litre water tank and gas bottle are located underneath the wardrobe unit.
The wood-effect veneer on the Ocean is a slightly darker shade to the SE, which I liked. The introduction of three dimmable LED lights in the elevating roof and another two (to use as reading lights) on the inside of the rear tailgate are a welcome improvement.
The awning can either be used on its own, extending 2.2m out beyond the sliding door, or to connect to a separate driveaway awning to provide extra storage and a seating area. Now copied by others, the innovative storage for the picnic chairs (in the rear tailgate) and outdoor table (in the sliding door) remains.
The elevating roof in the Ocean provides ample natural lighting via three zippable windows although curiously, there are only two windows in the Beach. The roof canvas material is now a slightly lighter shade of grey but I personally prefer the T5 material which is perhaps a little less opaque.
At night, the integrated window blinds conveniently provide privacy. The T6 now features similar roller blinds to cover the front window, hidden in the front window pillars. These work well but it’s easy to retract them too quickly and crease them, so beware ! The two side window blinds are still of the cloth variety, with magnetic fixings, albeit more fiddly to use than the older version with wire frames (similar to those used in pop-up tents).
It’s puzzling why VW have insisted on keeping a light grey seat fabric as well as light grey carpets. As a modern ‘design statement’ it does work … but in a camper van home to mucky boots, dogs and kids ? Every Cali owner I know immediately goes out and buys seat coverings and floor mats and so it’s strange that this hasn’t changed in the T6.
Comparing the T6 and T5 California
While the T6 is essentially unchanged as a camper van, it now offers a smoother and more assured ride which means that the driving experience feels quite different. There’s also more choice of engines now, including the new Euro 6 engines from April 2016, and so prospective buyers looking for the best driving experience may wish to opt for the T6.
As an owner of a 2010 Cali I noticed a number of other changes that were introduced in later T5 models as well as the T6. This includes an upgraded audio system and speakers (the T6 I reviewed also had a touchscreen and with voice control), a start/stop engine, an auto lights function and a DAB radio.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that the T5 Cali has had its fair share of issues (but which vehicle hasn’t ?). Most notable among these is the bi-metallic corrosion affecting the roof. VW have struggled – so far unsuccessfully – to repair this satisfactorily and it remains to be seen whether the T6 will also be affected.
Would I swap my T5 Cali for a T6 version ? While it’s always a pleasurable experience to drive a brand new vehicle, for me, the changes are not sufficient to justify the additional cost of switching. If you’re contemplating buying a Cali, my advice is to test drive each version and decide for yourself.
If you’re the adventurous, outdoors-y type and have a family of up to four people then the Ocean is an obvious choice. However, larger families and those anxious about the lack of a toilet will want to look at other options. While an additional (removable) seat is available as an option on the Ocean, the Beach (with its wider seat) may be more convenient for five-person families. A porta-potti is certainly possible for all Californias but if you want something more permanent then you’ll need to look at other vans and motorhomes.
Many motorhomes and camper van conversions (using a VW Transporter base) can seat five people and come with a toilet and shower. However, most conversions lack the sophistication and style of a California, and don’t come with the backing of a worldwide dealer network. There’s also little cost difference once a similar specification has been mapped out, and conversions don’t have the same strong residuals as factory-build Californias. Motorhomes, meanwhile, are too large to serve as daily vehicles, which makes them expensive to keep just for weekends and holidays. In my view they’re altogether a different proposition.
The main competition is likely to come from the Mercedes Marco Polo camper – if and when this is launched in the UK. This essentially has a similar configuration and quality to the California (and likely to have a similar price tag) but its launch has been delayed for some time.
The latest incarnation of the popular VW and class-leading camper that oozes style and quality. Smooth and confident driving experience similar to a premium car. Extremely well designed camper. Strong demand and residuals. Latest Euro 6 engines are more fuel efficient.
A new Ocean is a significant investment, starting at £47,840 OTR. Five seats are an optional extra in the Ocean but it sleeps four maximum. No permanent toilet. Light-coloured seat fabric and carpets are impractical without additional coverings.
Adventurous couples and families who want a well-designed, flexible and multi-purpose camper van capable of being used on a daily basis.
Is the new VW T6 California for me? (August 2015)
The new VW T6 is finally revealed (April 2015)
The new T6 and potential T7? (November 2014)