THE ROAD | THOUGHTS ON THE VOLKSWAGEN CALIFORNIA
As a fully stacked campervan, the California has a whole host of features within to make van life as close to home life as practical. There’s a full auxiliary power system, with an integrated control panel from which you can independently control the brightness of every interior light, raise and lower the pop-top roof, power on the fridge and control how cold it is, run the internal heater, as well as monitor the charge levels of the system that’s charged by the van when driving. This system proved to be simple and effective to use and sets the California apart from the typical self-converted campervans. We weren’t using the powered items much other than the fridge so had no issues with power consumption, maintaining over 18h of capacity left according to the control panel. There’s a little kitchen setup with a double gas burner, the aforementioned fridge and a sink for washing up when you’re done, with plenty of headroom to stand and cook comfortably when the roof is raised, though the worktop space is limited if you need access to the fridge or sink while cooking. Below this kitchen are some cupboards for storing the cooking utensils and plates as well as supplies that don’t require refrigeration. Below the rock n roll bed in the back is some open space for storage of the larger items, and there’s a few storage areas for organizing smaller bits and secreting the gas canister and a shower hose. If you were travelling as a group of 4 adults, storage space may begin to feel tight especially if you have mountain bikes and kit with you, but there’s an impressive amount of storage for its relatively compact footprint. The shower hose runs from a powered tap in the back, offering a slightly pressurized stream of cold water that is taken from the freshwater tank that’ll give a cold shower or low-pressure bike wash. On the back is the obvious integrated bike rack with 4 tire tracks, and independently lockable arms, though you’d be hard pressed to fit adult bikes to all 4 racks due to their close proximity and the way the main jaws attach to the rack. The sleeping capacity of the California will fit 4 adults, with the bed on the roof and rock n roll bed in the back of the van each providing a near-double sized bed. The front chairs spin around to face the rock n roll bench seat, giving a comfortable setup to sit and relax with 4 or 5 people in the van. There’s an easy-to-use wind-out awning that can be deployed in 30 seconds or so to give some outside shade or protection from rain. This adds some effective usable covered space to the California, perfect for a relaxed meal or drink or even wrenching on your bike on a rainy day.
HOW’D IT DRIVE?
Through the corners the California ended up feeling much more car-like than you would expect a camper with two people and load of kit and bikes to feel – not to the extent that we were driving it like a race car by any means, but we certainly didn’t have the excessive body roll of a typical camper. The tight and twisty roads weren’t too much of an issue, save for the times when it got really narrow and the bikes sticking out the back felt uncomfortably close to lorries coming the other way, leading us to hold our breath a few times in the narrow back roads. The ride is fairly comfortable, though the suspension is relatively stiff for the times the van is loaded even more, and it’s well insulated to reduce road noise as well as having limited rattles and squeaks in the back. The engine had enough grunt to make a couple of necessary overtakes without any issues, especially when the sport mode was selected to keep engine revs higher. Fuel efficiency ended up being a little disappointing given that we weren’t pushing the van too hard. Whether that just be a fact of the automatic gearbox on the very rollercoaster-esque Scottish B roads, or the effect of the sound deadening and stability of the California disguising your speed to the point that you often end up going faster than you expect, I’m not sure. But it’s certainly not an ultra-efficient machine. The 4motion automatic 4wd system wasn’t called upon often, but when it was, we were very thankful for it, helping us claw our way up a slick slope that we’d ventured down for a photo opportunity. It’s likely you’ll get yourself into a spot of bother once or twice on a camper trip, so having that 4wd capability is likely to come in handy. Though it’s important to remember the California is not designed to be an overland machine by any means!
Although we didn’t plan our camping spots particularly well, we still managed to find some absolutely stunning locations to spend the night. That’s a beauty of the wild camp set up that you get with the California – you’re not confined to a prearranged route where you can be left to the mercy of the different factors that can make certain activities less pleasant such as the weather. Instead, the fantastic ability to park up in essentially any spot means that you can tailor your trip to the weather or to how you’re feeling on the day. This led us to swap around the entire order of our trip to find the spots where the Sun is shining, letting us avoid the places that would have been a complete washout if we had done the trip in the opposite order.
Arriving at your chosen spot for the night and getting set up to sleep requires a few steps but is quick and easy once you figure out those steps and work together to complete them. Firstly, you use the in-built sensors to maneuver the van to be as flat as possible on the ground below, then pop the roof which takes all of 30 seconds thanks to the inbuilt motors that do the work for you. In the main van compartment, you’ve got a pull-out blind on every window apart from the side windows in the cockpit, which have magnetic blinds to pop easily in place. The rock n roll bed requires a lever to be pulled and the bed to be slid out, then you’re good to go. Between the two of us this took a maximum of 5 minutes and left us with two very comfortable near double-sized beds to sleep like kings. For how low-profile the upper mattress is, it’s impressively comfortable and avoided any of the typical thin-mattress pressure spots. In terms of sleeping space, having four people in the van would be no issue, but you have to feel that the relatively small internal volume may make it quite cozy to get set up and move around prior to sleeping.
Up in the roof tent things were a bit cooler and noisier than below in the van, but not nearly as bad as I’d expected, with a distinct lack of the noise of rattling tent poles or wind rushing through. The great part of getting the roof bed was being able to unzip the flaps of the tent in the morning and enjoy the view and fresh air while still wrapped up cozily in the duvet, making the beautiful camp spots all the more worthwhile.
THE WOLF’S LAST WORD
All in all, it’s safe to say the California makes for an ideal vehicle for two or three riders looking to go on a road trip and maintain all the creature comforts desired. You have to do without a hot shower, but otherwise you can live in total comfort, get a good night’s sleep parked up wherever you like and drive about effortlessly in comfort. From £620 to £925 per week, depending on the time of year, you can have your own taste of that Cali lifestyle and see more of your own country. Head to Leighton Vans to book yours now.