Guide to the VW California SE Camper

12th August 2015

I wish they all could be California….

VW’s official camper – the California SE – is the UK’s top-selling campervan hitting sales of over 500 a year. Stuart Craig finds out why.

Unless you are very new to the world of motorhomes and campers, you’ll know that the California is Volkswagen’s original full factory-designed campervan and the only one made by VW themselves.

But what makes it such a desirable machine? Could it be VW’s unrivalled heritage of campervans? Could it be the car-like standards of build quality and refinement? Or could it be the ingenious use of every inch (or should that be mm) of available space? Or is it something else altogether? I decided to live with one for a week to find out.

In my 30+ years of writing about motoring in the UK, I have driven a vast array of vehicles from the mundane to the sublime. However nothing could prepare me for the reaction of my neighbours to the arrival of an Olympia Blue California SE on my driveway complete with catchy personalized plates VW51 EEP (VW Sleep). Within minutes I had people knocking at my door to ask for a guided tour and this reaction endured for the entire time I spent with the Cali. Now ok it’s been a while since I have driven one and I was unprepared for the sheer volume of nooks and crannies that VW have cleverly optimised or the array of gadgets that are fitted to the vehicle. It even has its own Wi-Fi! Now how does that work? Clearly the idea of a VW Camper triggers something inside all of us that is a mix of envy, desire and the idea of freedom to do what you want when you want to.


State-of-the-art spec

My California came with a 140PS 2.0-litre BlueMotion turbo diesel and a manual gearbox. It hits the wallet for a shade over £45k in ‘proper camper’ SE trim and adding gadget heaven in the form of a Travel Pack, iPod adapter, Wi-Fi, awning, parking sensors, reversing camera and that lovely paintwork will set you back another £6k – taking this example to over £50k’s worth of state-of-the-art, high residual camper. Knock yourself out by adding VW’s super DSG seven-speed auto box, 4Motion four-wheel-drive and an engine upgrade to 180PS and you can add another £6.5k to this. The combinations of equipment, wheels and gadgetry are virtually endless.

VW California Exterior

Running through a motorhome insurance quote from Shield Total Insurance for me – pushing 50 of Peterborough – returned a price of just under £600. Pretty competitive for a new vehicle of this value.

On the road performance

On the road the California is devoid of the rattles and hums that all too often detract from the comfort of driving a motorhome. It is agile, has a willing engine, good soundproofing – as it’s based on VW’s Caravelle MPV rather than a panel van – and it returned a pretty impressive 40mpg during a week of mixed driving. I certainly would opt for the DSG gearbox, as the manual seems to require more than its fair share of shifting and after all you are there to relax.

A great choice as an everyday vehicle and only the irritation of a sat nav system that wanted to actively re-route me every 90secs got in the way of a thoroughly enjoyable drive. So I just switched it off and explored instead. Note too that it comes with just four seat belts.

Home from home comforts….

As a camper this van includes everything and of course the kitchen sink! Electrically-operated rising roof, two-burner hob, Waeco 43-litre fridge, fresh and waste water tanks and a programmable auxiliary heater complete with remote control. It made my wife very jealous when I emerged from the house to a warm, defrosted vehicle and she’s standing there next to her car with an ice scraper and a bemused expression!

Both front seats swivel, the bench seat is multi-adjustable for position, there’s a clever hinged table design and you even get an outside table stored in the entry door and a pair of folding chairs stowed under the tailgate. Neat.

VW California Interior Beds

At night all the side and rear windows are covered by blinds and the rear seat folds into a good bed, but in our experience the ‘upstairs’ bed is more comfortable and the heater coped admirably with a November weekend’s camping.

The ingenuity of storage is way too clever for me to mention it all here, suffice to say you’ll have no problem carrying everything two people need for all but the most extended of stays.

Is it a perfect camper? Probably no such thing, but it’s close. I can live with the sliding door being on the ‘wrong’ side for the UK, but I would want a better method of covering the cab area windows than the stick-on curtains provided.

Strike a deal with the dealer….

Have I said enough to convince you of why this is such a top seller? No? Well consider this: the California is part of an elite group of campers sold through car manufacturers’ main dealer networks. Only Ford (Wellhouse Terrier) and Hyundai (Wellhouse i800) also sell campers in this manner, although Mercedes may soon enter this market too.

For you as a buyer this means that you can take advantage of the wide range of finance options available through these sources. On a recent visit to the Motorhome Show in Dusseldorf, I was surprised to see virtually every motorhome on sale priced for contract hire purchase. Of course it makes perfect sense. This is how most of us finance our cars.

Why shell out £50k when you can put down a £2k deposit and pay around £670pm for 3 years on a 10,000 miles pa contract and then chop it in for a new one? The UK camper/motorhome industry needs to wake up fast to this method of purchase. A few smart people have cottoned on and they don’t come smarter than the guys at VW.

Vehicle versatility….

Apart from its great design and high quality, the California is compact and convenient enough to be used as an everyday vehicle, yet easily turns into a stylish camper for days out, weekend escapes or longer adventures. Yes it comes with a price tag, but I’ve just shown you how to make it more affordable to own the finest camper on our roads.

If you’re thinking of adding the California SE to your wishlist, or are in the market for a new motorhome, take a look at Shield’s Guide to Buying a New Motorhome as well.

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