Volkswagen California Ocean: long-term test review

Final report: VW California has been a fantastic addition to the fleet that everybody has raved about

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.5 out of 5

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Even those not previously taken with the idea of camping have loved spending time in the clever Volkswagen California. We’ll miss its versatility; so long, old friend!

Mileage: 10,041Economy: 32.1mpg

When the keys landed on my desk back in April, I never dreamt that our Volkswagen California – which is now a pre-facelift model, since an updated version launched recently – would prove so popular with my colleagues. Here, we’ve pulled together some of the experiences that the Auto Express team (and their families, of course) have had during the past six months and 10,000 miles.

The Cali has been everywhere, from the south coast to Norfolk, Wales and France. It’s also doubled as my daily driver, ferrying me to work in central London, as well as to the airport and my parents’ home in Devon. It’s carried lots of rubbish to the tip during our house renovation, and even doubled as a mobile office on road test shoots.

• New Volkswagen Grand California review

The response from my workmates has been overwhelmingly positive. Whether it was being used as a place of solace on a damp Devon campsite, or somewhere to cook up some eggs on a sunny Saturday, the versatile van proved perfect for any occasion. 

It was especially good at swaying those not previously taken by the idea of camping. A couple of my colleagues actively disliked the idea of pitching up in a flooded field only to be battered by the best our wet and windy weather could throw at them. And who could blame them? Yet all who tried the Cali returned (at least partially) converted. 

It was interesting how many people commented on the Cali’s countless clever features; everyone loved the chairs hidden in the bootlid, the fold-out table in the sliding door and the hanging rail in the cupboard. The bulky bike rack was used a handful of times – although I’d think twice before speccing it, as it severely restricts rearward visibility and makes the tailgate very heavy.

The Cali’s compact footprint makes it easy to drive on UK roads, although the jerky gearbox raised a few eyebrows. It was investigated, but after an extensive road test, VW insisted there was nothing untoward.

Perhaps my biggest complaint lay with the light-coloured seats. A car (or van) in which you’re able to eat and sleep should offer a more durable fabric; the slightest spillage left marks on the rear seats. Thankfully, a bottle of Autoglym’s interior shampoo quickly had the chairs looking good as new.

But for all its quirks, the Cali will leave a gaping hole in the Auto Express car park. The most popular test car on our fleet in recent times will be sorely missed.

Stuart Milne

Visited: Southwold, Suffolk

This was the second time I’d used a California. The best part of 10 years separates the two, but little has changed. The layout felt familiar, and we came away as impressed by the Cali’s ingenuity this summer as we did all those years ago: aplace for everything, and everything in its place. It sparks conversations like few other cars, too; ‘Veedubbers’ are a very friendly bunch.

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Two things resonated with us, though. As obvious as it sounds, turning up to a campsite then setting off on adventures each day doesn’t play to a camper van’s strengths. Our family break to Suffolk required too much stowing, unloading and setting up; a few days of touring would have been better. Plus, there’s nowhere to store child seats and associated kit when you’re sleeping.

Steve Walker

Visited: Paddock Wood, Kent

For me, the appeal of the California rested in the promise of hassle-free camping without the need to go 10 rounds with a heavyweight tent. 

There’s nothing like rolling up to a campsite to seamlessly assemble your accommodation in seconds, without puncturing your air bed with a tent pole, or smacking yourself in the toe with a mallet. 

And the reality proved to be pretty close. We visited a campsite in Kent; two adults with two kids in tow. If you’re only staying for one or two nights, or are comically inept at erecting tents, the plug-and-play nature of a camper van is a godsend. I had some trouble getting the awning poles to lock, which at least allowed the neighbours a smirk – but otherwise it was plain sailing. 

The kids (six and three) found the pop-up roof irresistible, while us adults loved the high-quality fixtures and fittings. There’s a predictable question mark over the Cali’s body control in corners, but no sane camper is going to drive it with much vigour and risk their baked bean tins crushing their Quavers.

Pete Baiden

Visited: Hastings, East Sussex

I’ll admit that, like Ben (left), I don’t much like camping. I hate the thought of pitching a tent and the prospect of going without the creature comforts of a hotel when I go away. So, when our friends Greg and Magda tried to tempt us into a camping trip near Hastings, I was hesitant – until I realised I could take the VW California.

One of the biggest reservations I had about camping involved my young son; the thought of having him in a tent with us, wriggling around and making a racket wasn’t exactly appealing. But in the Cali there was enough space to put his travel cot downstairs while we slept up top. It worked perfectly, and we woke up feeling refreshed the next morning.

The California also proved extremely popular with Greg and Magda’s kids. They seemed to spend more time inside it than outside in the sunshine, fiddling with all the clever and crafty features, many of which we hadn’t discovered ourselves. That’s the beauty of the California – most of the best bits are hidden away out of sight, and only come to the fore when you really need them.

I’m not about to go and buy a tent, yet just like Ben, the California has definitely improved my perception of camping. But at more than £60,000, I’m not surprised.

James Batchelor

Visited: Croyde Bay, Devon

Nothing can prepare you for the contempt dished out by other campers as you rock up in a £60k red and white VW van. We chose Croyde Bay in North Devon for our holiday, and as we crept into the campsite on a gorgeous sunny evening, we felt a little uncomfortable as others rolled up their sleeves and constructed their fabric homes. 

The contempt turned into ridicule as we wound out the awning and lounged in the Cali’s chairs, sipping Riesling and watching the sun set. The next four days, however, were a washout. One morning we woke to the sound of ‘Oh god, no!’ as our neighbours chased their tent in gale force winds. By the end of the week we were glad to not be wet, cold – the auxiliary heater is fabulous – and hated by our fellow campers. One night we even invited a sopping wet woman round for a drink!

Ben Hodges

Visited: Isle of Sheppey, Kent

Taking the California to the Isle of Sheppey for the weekend was possibly more exciting for my family than for me, with my two boys bouncing with excitement at the prospect.

Despite being far from seasoned campers, we found the Cali easy to set up, with the helpful reversing camera making it simple to pitch. From here on, the boys took up residence in the pop-up roof, only being bribed out with the offer of food and drink. 

When it came to making dinner, though, interior space became tight, with the very noticeable slope I’d parked on making cooking a bit difficult. Being a typical English summer, we were forced to eat inside – although the excellent on-board heater kept us nice and warm.

We used the campsite as our home for the weekend, and while we did venture out to the beach in the afternoon, heading back to the van was never a chore. After a long day walking on the beach and exploring in the great outdoors, returning to the Cali as the weather closed in confirmed its greatest strengths. It’s infinitely better than a tent at night – with two comfortable beds, and blinds on every window to block out the early-morning sun. Did it convert me to camping? Not quite, but now I dislike it a tiny bit less.

John McIlroy

Visited: Hampshire/Wales Rally GB

My family enjoyed a couple of trips in the Auto Express California. The first was an extended stay at Wellington Country Park, Hampshire, which allowed my six-year-old to show off glamping to his school mates as they enjoyed sleepovers on a rota basis, while the second included a run to the depths of Wales (in early October) to watch the world’s top rally drivers on Rally GB.

The Cali is a cracking day base. As we sat in a sodden Welsh forest, eating lunch and drying out ahead of the afternoon’s action, I heard more than one rally fan comment, “That’s what you need for a day like this.”

General cleverness aside, I noticed that the upstairs bed is more comfortable than the slightly lumpy downstairs mattress, and the gearbox seems to like building up a lot of revs before pulling away from rest. 

The light-grey seat fabric marks a bit too easily for a vehicle that has a kitchen and a washable floor, too. All-in-all, though, I’m going to miss having it around.

Darren Wilson 

Visited: Suffolk & Norfolk coastal road trip

I was instantly won over by the space-saving ingenuity of our VW California. I spent over an hour playing with all the switches, levers and on-board tech before even heading off on holiday. Only once I’d finished fiddling were we able to start along the Suffolk and Norfolk coastline, stopping at various pre-booked sites and beaches en route. 

Personal highlights included the super-quick pop-up roof, making arrival and departure simple. We also loved the built-in fridge, which we packed with cider for the evenings, and bacon and eggs for breakfast. Every bit of internal space was used, from pull-out blinds in the A-pillars to a mini dustbin in the driver’s door. I was converted. My wife sensibly reminded me that we could afford a fair few Airbnb weekends for the £62k price tag, however.

Hugo Griffiths

Visited: Hastings, East Sussex

I took my family to Hastings, East Sussex, in the heat of June, and my two sons couldn’t have been more excited by the prospect. The California had no difficulty in swallowing child seats, duvets, and the associated kit required for a night’s camping (or glamping, let’s be honest), while all occupants were impressed with its hushed refinement on the road.

Those positive impressions continued upon pitching up at our campsite. The motor-driven pop-up-roof proved a popular hangout for my boys, and the table and chairs hidden in the sliding doors were the perfect accessories for mum and dad to relax with a glass of wine and some nibbles. 

We did come across a couple of issues, however; turning the driver’s seat around 180 degrees to face the rear bench was tricky due to it catching on the handbrake and steering wheel, while the light-coloured seats were prone to staining, with the slightest spillage leaving water marks. 

Joe Holding

Visited: Wales

My then-fiancée-now-wife and I enjoyed a week exploring Wales in the Cali. Living out of the camper made the trip feel like an adventure, and we’ll be buying one the moment we win the lottery. Perhaps a dealer would take our tent as a part-ex?

My colleagues had raved about the Cali’s versatility, but we were grateful for something more fundamental: the brakes. They brought the three-tonne camper to a sharp stop on the Great Orme, helping to avoid a head-on collision with a motorcyclist who’d overcooked a blind bend. Both van and biker were unharmed.

Volkswagen California: Fourth report

Two-thousand-mile road trip gives VW California camper van a chance to shine over a fortnight in France

Mileage: 8,717Economy: 31.7mpg

When I heard I’d be running a Volkswagen California as my next  Auto Express test car, my wife, Anna, and I immediately began exploring where we might take it for a two-week holiday.

What started as a few days in Scotland quickly morphed into a mega European trip – extending as far as northern Italy, Slovenia and the stunning Lake Bled. Yet we soon realised that a route like this wouldn’t leave a lot of time for rest or relaxation, and as much as I love a good road trip, we didn’t want to spend the whole time driving.

So we slimmed things down and chose to focus on France. However, it still covers an area of just over 547,000 sq km and has almost one million kilometres of paved roads, so we weren’t likely to run out of things to do.

The Caravan and Motorhome Club helped us organise our ferry crossings and offered advice on camping in France. We decided to avoid booking too much in advance, because we wanted our itinerary to remain flexible. Camping is big business in France, so we assumed this wouldn’t be troublesome.

We penned a rough route, from Calais through Giverny, Chablis, Avignon and Annecy, covering around 2,900km (1,800 miles). There were plenty of other things we wanted to do en route – such as wine tasting in Champagne and hiking in Fontainebleau – but we’d leave most of it to chance. 

Packing for our excursion was easy. It was just the two of us, so we had no trouble fitting everything we needed in the VW’s various cupboards and cubbyholes. As sometime campers, we had most of the kit already, including cups, cutlery and crockery, plus a set of ping-pong bats and three bottles of mosquito repellent. We cooked up some veggie meals to see us through the first few nights, and stocked the cupboards with snacks.

When we arrived at Dover, throngs of holiday goers flooded into the terminal café to buy their expensive Costa coffee and soggy croissants. But because we had the van, we simply hopped in the back, boiled the kettle for a cuppa and ate bowls of cereal while we were waiting to board.

The real beauty of the California is that it’s no larger than the VW Transporter on which it is based, and only a few millimetres longer than a BMW X5. That makes it easy to manoeuvre and simple to park, and its size prevented us from being forced in alongside the bigger vans and trucks for the 90-minute trip across the Channel. 

We made it to France without any issues, and arrived at our first stop feeling as fresh as when we left; the VW’s two armchair-like front seats proving comfortable even on journeys of 250 miles or more.

As the trip progressed we learned ever more about VW’s top-spec California Ocean, not least the fact that you can rely on the built-in fridge. It’s powered by a battery that tops itself up on the move, and meant we were often able to avoid paying extra for a powered campsite pitch – giving us more freedom as to the sites we chose. A secluded pitch by the river in the Gorges du Tarn was a particularly sweet spot and somewhere we ended up staying for a couple of nights.

Day after day (and night after night) the California continued to impress. We tended to sleep in the roof, so as not to disturb the cabin too much. It worked well, and despite consisting of little more than a small covering of foam, the mattress was comfortable. We struggled with cold temperatures at times; the auxiliary heater unfortunately doesn’t double as an air-conditioning unit. 

Best family cars to buy 2019

While we spent a lot of time driving, we ticked off a few must-see places, including the incredible Millau Viaduct, which spans a valley almost 2.5km wide and 270m deep. Being something of an engineering geek, it’s somewhere I’d wanted to visit for years, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. 

We eventually had to begin the trek home, albeit via Strasbourg and Champagne; and we stocked up on wine in Calais, before boarding the boat for the return crossing. The total distance at the end of the trip stood at 2,043 miles, but at almost 32mpg the Cali had proved remarkably efficient – even when fully laden with people and possessions.

Volkswagen California: update

How does our Volkswagen California compare to a similarly priced Mercedes GLE

Mileage: 5,755Economy: 34.5mpg

At more than £68,000 (as tested), our Volkswagen California is an expensive bit of kit. You get loads of space and a long list of equipment, but that kind of cash gives you access to a wide range of high-end SUVs.

So if you have nearly £70k to spend, where should your money go? We had a Mercedes GLE 400 d in the Auto Express car park recently, which isn’t far off our VW’s price, so I thought I’d compare and contrast them.

An initial glance at the kit lists may push you towards the Mercedes. It comes with LED lights, Nappa leather, keyless go and a high-resolution 12.3-inch infotainment display. These features are either optional on the VW, or not available at all. Look at the extras fitted to this GLE, and the gulf grows: 22-inch wheels (five inches larger than the Cali’s), a 360-degree camera, wireless phone charging and Burmester stereo.

However, our California comes with plenty of kit that cannot be found on the GLE – not least the kitchen cupboards and two-ring gas hob. Then there’s the sink, fridge, wardrobe, detachable shower and two double beds. 

As if that’s not enough reason to trade your off-roader for a four-berth camper, then just take a look at the costs. Far stronger residual values mean that, on identical terms (three-year PCP, 10,000 miles per year and a £6,200 deposit), the California costs considerably less than a top-spec GLE. VW asks a sizeable £793 per month, yet that pales in comparison to the £960 you’ll need for the Mercedes. 

Granted, the Cali doesn’t have the same level of interior quality, but it doesn’t feel cheap. Our camper is designed to withstand family life, and after nearly 6,000 miles it feels as solid as ever. The light-coloured fabric seats aren’t the most practical option, but the grey carpets are proving resilient.

Volkswagen California: second report

Our Volkswagen California Ocean proves to be a big hit on last minute break to Devon

Mileage: 2,795Economy: 32.9mpg

Our Volkswagen California is in high demand as summer sets in, with every weekend until late August already allocated to various members of the Auto Express team.

But before the rush began, my wife, Anna, and I packed our bags and filled the van for an impulsive weekend away in Devon. The great thing about the California (as opposed to travelling by plane or train) is that you can just throw anything and everything in the back.

So, with our wellies washed and the fridge full, we set off for the south coast. The scenic route took us down the A303 right past Stonehenge, and beyond. We spent two nights camping near Dartmoor, and due to the hot weather, we barely touched the two-ring gas hob inside the van. While it proved useful for our morning tea and coffee, most of our cooking was done over coals.

It was just the two of us, so we raised the roof and slept on the double bed up top. This allowed us to use the lower area as intended; by swivelling the two front seats we could both eat and play card games around the table, without having to tidy it all away before going to sleep.

One thing we noticed was that while the longer evenings meant we could spend more time outside, leaving the VW’s interior lights on and the doors open meant we returned to find a few unwelcome insect visitors.

The ability to simply throw everything in the back and not worry about what you might or might not need made this a holiday like few others. Just before returning home we picked up a gigantic six-foot wooden pigeonhole that we’d spotted online earlier in the week. It slid neatly in the back of the van with the seats folded flat, and will fit perfectly in our new kitchen. We’ll have more on that – and the benefits of driving a California while undergoing extensive house renovations – in a future report.

Volkswagen California Ocean: first report

Reviews and features editor Rich fulfils a childhood dream with his very own Hotel California

Mileage: 1,889Economy: 32.9mpg

I’ve always been a bit of a fair-weather camper. The prospect of setting up a tent in the pouring rain, or traipsing up a mountain in the biting wind, isn’t my idea of fun. Having somewhere warm and dry to retreat to is a top priority, so visiting pubs is a particularly pleasing pastime of mine.

The concept of a camper van had always seemed like an ideal solution. While I’d never been able to explore the idea of owning one, you can trace back the obsession to my childhood bedroom, where a sixties VW Type 2 money box nestled itself among a vast array of 1:18-scale diecast supercars.

I’ve still got the model, and while it isn’t as full of cold, hard cash as you’d hope after 20 years of saving, I can finally claim the dream has become reality – albeit with a little help from Volkswagen.

That’s right, I’ve just picked up the keys to my very own VW California. I’ll be running it for the next six months or so, to see if that boyhood fantasy is as rosy in real life, or whether I should stick to surfing the south coast with my sopping wet tent.

There are currently two models to choose from: the California Beach or the California Ocean. We’re testing the latter, which is the more expensive of the two, thanks to the addition of a sink, fridge and two-ring gas hob. It’s beautifully laid out, with cupboards and drawers running the length of the van.

Even after a few weeks and a long weekend away in Wales, my wife Anna and I are still discovering hidden treasures, such as the picnic seats in the tailgate, or the small mirror in the wardrobe. Every window has a built-in blind, and the front chairs swivel 180 degrees to accommodate four people around the table.

Not only will it seat two couples, the California Ocean will also sleep four people. The roof raises electronically in around 30 seconds to reveal a raised bed up top; the rear seats then fold flat to provide space for your friends. We’ve yet to discover quite how tight it is with four on board; Anna and I shamelessly forced my brother-in-law and his pregnant wife into an adjoining tent during our Bank Holiday trip to Fishguard.

Our van isn’t cheap, but for a smidge over £60k you get an equipment list to rival the latest luxury SUVs. Fit and finish isn’t quite on par, but this is a functional vehicle designed to withstand years of abuse from impatient children and mucky dogs. We’ve got a set of waterproof seat covers in the drawer under the back seats, but luckily we’ve not had to use them yet.

Every California Ocean gets 17-inch alloys, automatic lights, three-zone climate control, heated seats, Bluetooth and USB connectivity and a five-inch touchscreen. The kitchen and associated gubbins are included, of course.

We added a few options to our van, the most expensive of which is the eye-catching two-tone paint. We couldn’t resist speccing our camper in Auto Express red and white, despite the hefty £2,604 bill. Elsewhere, we went for the more accomplished Discover Media Nav system (£1,602), Adaptive Cruise Control (£414) and front and rear parking sensors with a camera (£714).

Our van has the VW Group’s 2.0-litre TDI diesel which, due to WLTP constraints, now produces 196bhp. It’s linked to the tried-and-tested seven-speed DSG gearbox, which works wonders on fuel economy, thanks to a clever coasting function. Given the van’s bluff shape and the power on offer, I’m not too disappointed by a 32.9mpg average over the first 1,900 miles. As the engine loosens, there’s a very real possibility that figure will improve.

*Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.

Deputy editor

Richard has been part of the our team for over a decade. During this time he has covered a huge amount of news and reviews for Auto Express, as well as being the face of Carbuyer and DrivingElectric on Youtube. In his current role as deputy editor, he is now responsible for keeping our content flowing and managing our team of talented writers.

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