"Is this the new Volkswagen van?" a woman in the passenger seat of a Dodge Charger asked while we were both stopped at a stoplight. "That looks nice."
It was the first of many times that I was going to disappoint onlookers this week. No, the California isn't the new van from VW. In fact, Volkswagen is simply celebrating the original California camper's thirtieth anniversary this year, which is why Volkswagen shipped a fleet of them to Los Angeles. The fact that they're in California has more to do with the name than a particular connection to the U.S. – no Californias have ever been sold here.
"Why don't they sell them here? I'd buy one," she replied, after I told her the sad truth. The light ahead of us turned green and we parted ways.
That question followed me around as I drove from LAX to Venice Beach, then up the coast through Santa Barbara, Ventura, Ojai, and Los Padres National Forest. After three days, I didn't have a good answer. Neither did anyone from Volkswagen, or at least, not one they were willing to divulge to me.
I am no stranger to camper vans. I spent a week last fall driving two converted Renault Trafics around Iceland, and the California is superior in every way. Discounting the fact that the first van in Iceland broke down the second day we had it, never to start again, the California, powered by a turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine, felt like a sports car compared to the bulky Renault.
Normally, I'm all about manual gearboxes. They're more fun to drive in my opinion, and offer more control than their automatic counterparts. This VW California is one of the exceptions. If you get a California Beach, you can only get the diesel in automatic. The diesel gets 42.2 miles per gallon combined versus the manual's 29.7. That's 10.5 MPG better. That's huge. With the California Ocean you get a few more options, but the automatic still comes out on top with 41.5 MPG in the diesel version versus 39.2 in the manual version. There's a time and place for manuals, and for me, this vehicle isn't one that I'd waste the fuel economy on.
The California is in its sixth-generation, and with over 150,000 units sold, it is one of the best selling camper vans ever made, and it is easy to see why. Over the past thirty years, Volkswagen has perfected the California to include everything you could possibly need while living on the road, sans a bathroom. (For that you'll have to upgrade to a California XXL.)
There are two trim levels of the California, Beach and Ocean, and the list of equipment is lengthy. The infotainment features Bluetooth and a five-inch touchscreen with USB capability standard, and ours had Apple CarPlay. Both the driver and passenger seat had armrests, which is nice when driving for extended periods of time. Once parked, each of the front seats could swivel 180 degrees, meaning four could sit comfortably at the fold out table in the cab. If the weather is nice, you can grab a fold out table from the sliding door and the two fold-out chairs from the rear of the van and move the party outside. Our trip was plagued by desert rain, so, not wanting to spend the entire time indoors, we used the awning to keep our campsite dry. The legs on the awning are adjustable as well, so we were able to tilt the awning enough to allow the rain to drain off, instead of pooling on the awning itself.
There are a host of floor plan configurations and options; ours was the standard two-seat configuration, with a rear bench, a full kitchen and plenty of storage. The kitchen sported a water storage tank that can hold almost 8 gallons, as well as a waste water tank. The two-burner stove could be hooked up to a standard 6 lbs. gas cylinder, and both it and the sink feature glass covers, allowing you to use the entire kitchen area as counter space. The rear bench reclines, turning into a 6.5 foot long, 3.75 foot wide bed that can very comfortably accommodate two sleepers. The upper bed, once the roof was raised, is a bit larger, though not by much. It shares the same 6.5 foot length as the lower bed, but features 2.5 more inches of width.
The galvanized steel exterior comes in two standard colors, candy white and cherry red, though spend a bit more and your options jump from two to eighteen, including six different two-tone options. My favorite is the two-tone candy white and cherry red option, which harkens back to the VWs of old. The standard wheels on the California Ocean are 17 inches, and there is full-size spare in case you find yourself on the side of the road, hundreds of miles from a repair shop.
Operating the roof is a breeze. With the car on (but not necessarily running), you use a knob to select the roof through an electronic control system in front of the rear-view mirror. A door or window must be open to allow the flow of air in the vehicle, and the sliding screen between the roof and the rest of the cabin must also be open. From there you just press and hold the button as the roof raises. Closing the roof is bit more complicated, but not much. Once again the car has to be on, the screen has to be open, and most importantly, at least one window or door has to be open. On a windy day, that window needs to be downwind, so that the air can escape the vehicle as the roof closes. Otherwise, the sides of the tent can get caught, in the roof, resulting in an extremely costly repair.
The same electronic system that controls the roof operation also controls the interior heater and the refrigerator. All of these run on a secondary 12 volt battery. Both work incredibly well, as the heater, on a setting of 3 out of 10, was enough to keep me warm in the middle of the desert, which dropped down to nearly 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and the fridge kept our beverages cold as we drove throughout the day.
When talking about price, things get iffy. In Germany, the California starts at roughly $50,500 at the time I am writing this. Obviously with taxes and fees, the pricing would be different here in the United States, but it's a good baseline. By comparison, a Mercedes Sprinter Crew Van (with a high roof) starts at $44,505 in the U.S. and would need quite a few add-ons to turn it into a comfortable camper van. So the price isn't outrageous. The powered roof also means that the California could very easily be a daily driver, one that I would gladly ride around town in with the roof down during the week and take into the mountains on the weekends.
It's not a beast on the track or a monster off-road, but the Volkswagen California certainly has the potential to be the most memorable vehicle in your stable. This home away from home has certainly been the most comfortable we've tested, and it can easily be daily-driven, which is something that cannot be said about its competitors. So please, comment, email, Tweet, and Instagram VW. If they hear from enough of us, the next thirty years might feature a California that's available stateside.