The Caravelle-based Volkswagen California camper offers a clever and cost-effective combination of family transport and accommodation. And it needn’t be motorhome-beige

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The next time you’re having 'that' conversation, the one about what you'd buy when your six lucky numbers come up, and one of your mates suggests that a California would be in his lottery winner’s million-pound garage, ask him which one he means. Because for anyone who’s serious about owning proper track machinery, who knows about the real-world practicalities of getting circuit cars to and from paddocks all over the UK, the Volkswagen pictured above could be a much better choice than the Ferrari

The namesakes could hardly be less alike - the subject of this appraisal being a full-sized monocab camper van with seats for up to seven occupants and sleeping space for up to four, and rated to tow up to 2.5 tonnes. Based on the Transporter, the California mixes the space and robust capabilities of a proper commercial vehicle with very respectable ride and handling attributes, and quality fixtures and fittings that do the VW brand no harm at all.

The perfect accompaniment to a race weekend

With a towbar, a trailer and your circuit weapon of choice all coupled up, it could be exactly the sort of machine to bring your racing pipedreams to life: you drive it to the Nurburgring 24hr, sleep in the paddock in it, and drive home again regardless what happens during the race.

Volkswagen UK broadened the California range in 2012 with the addition of a more affordable model called the Beach. Thanks to that, prices start at under £35,000 for a 113bhp Bluemotion Technology model, emitting a very reasonable 184g/km of CO2. At the top of the line-up you’ll find an SE model with a 178bhp twin-turbodiesel engine, four-wheel drive and a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox — yours for a whisker under £50,000. All are powered by a 2.0-litre TDi engine, with the Bluemotion Technology model returning close to 40mpg at a 70mph cruise. 

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The Beach model can be had with either four or five seats as standard, and two extra swivel chairs at extra cost. Whichever way you configure it, the rear bench folds flat to create a large, fully padded double bed for those sleeping on the ground floor. Meanwhile, there’s also a fold-out roof bed accessible via a hatch above the front seats, where you’ll find room for a couple of growing kids or one large adult to stretch out in.

Barring some neat storage solutions, though, that’s all the camping equipment you get at entry level. You can have a parking heater, a wardrobe, a fitted fridge, a gas cooker, a sink and an awning if you want ‘em, but you’ll have to spend more.

The California’s dynamics aren’t car-like, but they’re quite impressive viewed in the right context. This isn’t a drive to savour, it’s a functional vehicle, but it rides smoothly and quietly, it’s decently mechanically refined, directionally easy to manage and performs well enough. 

The 113bhp Beach model is quite slow. As a towcar it’d be slower still, and probably quite an effort to keep rolling at a consistent motorway pace — although the standard cruise control would certainly help. Performance for the 138bhp Beach model is more respectable, which takes a smidge over 14sec to get to 62mph. The BiTDi front-driver will hit the same mark in a more authoritative 12.4sec. 

The fewer fixtures and fittings you have, the better the California’s rolling refinement will be. Cars fitted out with lots of internal closures can rattle a bit over ruts and bumps, and the rear-mounted pushbike rack can also clang and vibrate when stowed. But over smooth roads — gently undulating ones, even— the ride is pleasingly supple and compliant, while lateral grip and body control is good enough to make you feel confident and secure at the wheel.

To camp in, the California is surprisingly flexible and generally easy to use, with one or two exceptions. The swiveling ‘captain’s chair’ front seats are a good idea, but want a better execution. As it is, it’s too easy to foul them on the cabin’s internal pillar plastics and handbrake mid-swivel - and you’ll leave ugly trim scuffs when you do. There’s also no easy way to access the roof bed without standing on those front seats; a stowable ladder or step would be a welcome addition.

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On top of that, VW really ought to offer its electric cabin heater as standard equipment. Without it, heating the cabin necessitates a lot of fiddling with the handbrake, seat, clutch and gearbox in order to swivel the driver’s seat and start the engine without letting the camper roll away. 

Even in light of those bugbears there is a great deal to like about the VW California, particularly for those who might otherwise be sleeping under canvas. While its size still limits it as an alternative to a proper motorhome, for short family trips away or motorsport-filled weekends when it’s simply somewhere to lay your head, it’s ideal. And the fact that it’s a proper VW rather than a third-party conversion — that it’s decent to drive, and available in proper colours rather than so many shades of cream and beige — makes the California all the more appealing to those outside of the camping and caravanning set.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes.