First Drive: Is the Volkswagen California 6.1 Camper the best in the business?

What is it?

Volkswagen California Camper
(VW)

In the world of camper vans, one brand reigns supreme: Volkswagen. There are few more iconic images than one of the firm’s classic campers pitched up, roof tent raised, its happy occupants munching on freshly cooked bacon sandwiches.

While the classic models are quite dainty in their proportions, the California is more like a mid-sized van. That means it’s spacious with plenty of room for everything you could need for a few days away. There’s no function over form here, either, because it looks fantastic, too.

What’s new?

Volkswagen California Camper
(VW)

This latest ‘6.1’ model took what was already one of the best campers in the business and has elevated its quality and practicality even further. That smart styling is new, with the front end looking sharper than before, but it’s inside where the useful upgrades have been made.

Firstly, an electronic control panel sits above the front occupants, with the touchscreen displaying lots of useful information and control functions such as the pop-up roof and auxiliary heater. Ocean versions, like what we’re testing today, also get a new digital instrument display, while all models get updated infotainment.

What’s under the bonnet?

Volkswagen California Camper
(VW)

There are two engine options available on the top-spec California Ocean, with a 2.0-litre diesel that makes either 148bhp or 201bhp. However, the other trims only get the lower-powered option.

Each has a 70-litre fuel tank that was reading in excess of 500 miles of range at full, while in our time with the Camper we were getting a very respectable 30mpg-plus figure. When you bear in mind the weight of all that equipment, that’s very impressive indeed.

Performance is decent too, again, bearing in mind the weight. The 148bhp engine can go from 0-60mph in 14.1 seconds and on to a top speed of 113mph, while the 201bhp unit is just over 11 seconds and over 120mph, with all-wheel-drive versions slightly quicker accelerating with a lower top speed.

What’s it like to drive?

Volkswagen California Camper
(VW)

The VW Camper is not a motorhome, so you don’t go into it expecting it to be a slow, wallowing titan on the road. However, this is still a heavy van with lots of equipment on-board, yet it feels surprisingly nimble and stress-free to drive.

The engine pulls with little fuss and once on the road it fades into the background. There’s a little more wind and road noise than you’d get on a regular van, but it’s not intrusive, while there are no creaks or rattles from the cupboards behind you.

How does it look?

We’ve already mentioned we’re fans of the way it looks, particularly with the optional two-tone paint, which gives the Camper real character, differentiating it from a regular van that it shares much of its shape with.

The roof box folds neatly away so you wouldn’t even know it’s there, but when you put it in place you get that iconic camper look – it’s sturdy, too. There’s plenty of glass on the California, with the large side windows helping to give the cabin a light and airy feel.

What’s it like inside?

Volkswagen California Camper
(VW)

Anyone who’s driven a van recently knows the cabin is almost up there with cars these days, and the California is no different. Up front there are excellent materials and a clear, useful infotainment display.

However, it’s the rear that’s really of interest in the Calfornia, and here it excels. There’s a bench seat where passengers can buckle up for a drive, or relax in the lounge once parked up. These also slide to increase cabin space and make the kitchen more accessible – the hob is positioned well and it’s easy to cook a decent meal, while the sink makes washing up after yourself a breeze.

When it’s time to sleep, the pop-up roof tent goes up without fuss – by hand in Coast trim or via the electronic control panel in Ocean. Once up there it’s impressively spacious, and at six feet tall I just about fit. The mattress was comfortable, too, and you can unzip the sides if you want to doze off while looking at your surroundings.

There are some incredibly clever packaging ideas, such as the table in the door and the chairs in the bootlid, which means you have everything you need without impacting space.

What’s the spec like?

Volkswagen California Camper
(VW)

There are four versions of the Camper, called Beach Camper, Beach Tour, Coast and Ocean, with prices starting at £56,039. Each has a mini kitchen and a pop-up tent that allows you to spend time in the wilderness.

However, we tested the top-spec Ocean model, which has “the best a camper van can offer”. For this model, prices start at £68,099 and this includes air conditioning with an auxiliary heater that runs off a separate battery that will run all night, infotainment with built-in navigation, an electronic pop-up roof, fully functional kitchen, LED headlights, front and rear parking sensors and much, much more.

Verdict

Volkswagen California Camper
(VW)

The California 6.1 Camper feels like the culmination of years of perfecting the campervan recipe. There are fantastic design touches and unrivalled practicality that mean you’re left wanting for nothing.

What’s more, the cabin looks fantastic and is incredibly comfortable, while the van itself is great to drive, meaning long road trips to the great outdoors are genuinely enjoyable.

Volkswagen already had a class-leader in this segment. The best is now better.

  • Model as tested: Volkswagen California 6.1 Camper Ocean

  • Price (as tested): £68,099

  • Engine: 2.0-litre diesel

  • Power: 201bhp

  • Torque: Nm

  • Max speed: 126mph

  • 0-60mph: 11.9 seconds

  • MPG: 32.8 - 34.9

  • Emissions: 225 - 213g/km CO2