Livin’ it up at the Hotel California

Written by Stuart Craig on 22nd August 2019

Whether it’s art, fashion, classic cars, vacuum cleaners or even fizzy drinks, genuine articles carry considerable kudos. So too in campervans it seems.

During my few days stay in a new VW California Ocean, I was constantly asked by passers-by: “Is that a real one?

Now there are dozens of excellent UK conversions on the VW van – many of them having great quality and finishing touches. There has also been a strong challenge in recent years from Ford-based campers with their car-like driving cabin. However the VW still occupies that special place in people’s hearts and none more so than the factory-built VW California – the real thing.

So how do you tell a genuine Cali? Well the name has been around since 1988, and they are built by VW CV in Hanover. They are quite easy to spot compared to other VW conversions, so look for the living compartment door on the ‘wrong’ side for UK and the windows are a giveaway being the centre-latched, pinch-to-open type, rather than any other design. Of course the ‘California’ badging and highlights are also strong clues.

The Cali has undergone many design changes in line with the evolution of its Transporter base vehicle and the latest – the 6.1 – will debut in a couple of week’s time at the 2019 Caravan Salon in Dusseldorf (more about that later).

My vehicle came with the 200bhp 2.0-litre diesel paired to a 7-speed DSG gearbox and this is undoubtedly the most desirable combination offering fantastic torque and drivability in all road conditions and is probably the best option if you intend to replace your private car with a campervan. 4Motion four-wheel drive is also available.

This top-level Ocean version comes in at a whopping £68,770 on the road and apart from being comprehensively specified to start with, it came with a mountain of optional extras, the best ones being the awning and rail (£654), parking sensors all round (£498) and the snazzy blue and white two-tone paint job – although at £2604, I might think more than twice!

You may recall that I last reviewed a California several years ago. Four years on and without wishing to go over old ground about equipment and bed make up etc, I thought I would compare and contrast the Cali to other VW campers I’ve looked at and try to give an idea of what sets this vehicle apart from conversions that are readily available.

Let’s start with the VW badge. Supplied by a VW dealer with a 3-year 100,000-mile warranty that’s also extendable and a vast array of finance options, this may give the buyer considerable added security when many of the VW ‘converters’ you will find give little more than a 3-month warranty. The support from VW is attractive but certainly comes at a price.

The California makes maximising space an art form. Ok all campervan converters are pretty good at fitting a quart into a pint pot, but it’s not until you have lost yourself in the multitude of storage compartments, hidden mirrors, and versatile nooks and crannies that even includes a rubbish bin, that you appreciate that the Cali just does it a little better and everything seems much better integrated into the design. There are two great camping chairs integrated into the tailgate and the outdoor table is fixed to the inside of the sliding door. Gas bottles, water tanks and even the fridge are cleverly concealed and never on show – yet remain easily accessible at all times. Is it just me or does anyone else hate looking at a fridge door?

The seating is worthy of special mention. For starters, both front captain’s chairs are equipped with armrests and swivel through 180 degrees to face rearwards. Many other converters of VW vans opt for a bench front seat that is reversible but the driver’s seat remains static. In my opinion the California arrangement is more versatile allowing two adults to sit in the more comfortable seats in a more spacious configuration. The rear bench seat is brilliant. Rails in the floor enable it to be positioned in a multitude of configuration. Up close to the front seats for family driving, mid position for daytime camping, back a bit further for double bed making, or all the way to the rear – lifting or removing the rear panel – for maximum interior space. Many other campers have this seat fixed at the back and it is extended for bed making only, thus losing the MPV-style benefits of the Cali.

Let’s talk about the roof. Electro-hydraulic on this Ocean version making it a cinch to raise and lower from the overhead camper console. Cynics may say that it’s more to go wrong but it sure beats manually pushing the roof up and the long reach to get it back down again. It also neatly folds into position with no drama as long as you remember to leave an air gap by opening the sliding screen by 10cm or so. In the roof section you’ll find a big 2m x 1.2m bed, zip-up vents for airflow and a reading light.

Blind and screens can be the bane of a camper’s life. Wrestling with yards of space suit fabric and suckers to block out light and provide privacy, hardly fits with the ‘turn up and camp’ image of a campervan. The Cali has this sorted. Every window has a blind. Even the little rectangle above the fridge can be covered and the side cab windows have excellent blinds. The windscreen itself is a little fiddly to get both blinds pulled across to the centre and located correctly. The trick is to move the rearview mirror out of the way first! The Cali also has a pair of clever flyscreens that slide into the gap created by the windows opening so you can leave the living area windows open and keep insects at bay. These took a lot of figuring out, but VW’s massive handbook came to the rescue.

So is the California the perfect camper? There are still things I would like to see improved. The tailgate is ridiculously heavy, the price tag is monstrous, no hot water and surely some provision for a loo should be made? Also the cab area has probably fallen a little behind the Ford recently and the driving experience is not quite as car-like either. However VW are set to launch the 6.1 California at Dusseldorf (next week as I write this), so I will be waiting on the changes with bated breath.

With its cast iron residuals, brilliant design and iconic status, the California remains the benchmark for VW campervans and the standard against which you should judge all others before parting with your hard-earned cash. With the current boom in campervan sales it makes a lot of sense, but please be aware that from an insurance perspective if it is the only vehicle you have access to and you are covering high mileage (12,000+), this may be reflected in higher than average premiums for a camper.

VW California Ocean reviewed by Stuart Craig.

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