DSC_0553_editedCamper vans and caravanettes have hardly been the most desired vehicles in the life of Iain Robertson but, having experienced the potential luxury of a gypsy’s life on the road, at the wheel of a very special van, a ‘volte-face’ might be in order. 

The very concept of travelling at a snail’s pace, for fear of incurring severe injury from flailing curtains and flying crockery, is hateful anathema to me. I have never been able to comprehend the mentality of the typical member of The Caravan Club, who will pack up most domestic possessions, once, or twice a year, to travel the highways and byways, holding up following traffic and creating mobile chicanes that are impossible to negotiate, especially on long, steep hills…most especially in the company of a dozen, or so, other packsack-wearing automotive clowns.

On top of that, the sheer shock to a human’s system of being forced to wear the same sweaty clothing for several days at a time, while residing in the same claustrophobic space as people (usually family members) with whom falling out is a high probability, where there is no space to move, or even to get changed, is so singularly irksome to me that I now avoid all people with beards, matching woolly jumpers and cagoules, including the blokes. Phew!

Provide me with an hotel, preferably five-star, or a designer B&B, or a boutique residence, complete with spa, and I shall be in a heaven that caravanners and their ilk will wonder about endlessly, when confronted by the bottom-line value of their motorised slugs. I shall be fresh and clean. They will be grubby and smelly. I shall eat healthily and heartily. They will die of botulism and affiliated digestive ailments. I shall reach my destination at least 50% faster and not live in fear of careening dangerously off-road at the helm of an uncontrollable and dynamically infeasible ‘thing’ referred to as transport.

Well, that was the way I felt. However, those awfully pleasant people at Volkswagen urged me to sample their Transporter California around eight years ago. I did. I found it to be eminently pleasant to drive around the block and rather well constructed. Yet, it has taken me all of those intervening years to actually put an example to the test. Perhaps it is the impending pipe and slippers stage of my existence that is making caravannery seem almost possible, allied to improvements made to vehicle chassis that makes a top-hefty van somewhat less topply. Who knows? Camper van coming up…

Firstly, allow me to state that the VW Transporter California is actually a far neater and more appealing van-derived mobile-home than any other that I have either spotted on-road, or whenever I venture close to a major caravan centre on one of the main routes out of town. It helps that a vast number of people seem to be snaffling up every imaginable version of the VW Transporter, in any of its guises of the past few years, to turn them into customised personal transport. It is abundantly clear that a cult following exists.

Apart from the side-mounted awning and the rear-mounted bicycle rack of the test version, there is little to distinguish it from the people-carrying Caravelle version of the Transporter, which almost everyone knows is one of the most costly (premium priced) vans-with-windows presently on sale. Not wishing to disappoint, the price tag of the California SE version is a whopping £49,214 and that is before you factor in various bells and whistles that make it so lovable.

The options list, which amounts to an extra cost of £9,959, includes: hide and Alcantara upholstery, all manner of hi-fi and communications upgrades (inc. a WiFi router), lane-change assist, electric side-sliding door, Xenon headlamps, all-season tyres, reversing camera and even a safe built into the base of the wardrobe, among a dazzling array of other luxury items. Of course, it prices this rather special machine precariously close to £60k, which virtually bears out my original argument in favour of hotel living. While residual values on this vehicle are strong, even living with it for ten years would not amortise the costs associated with two annual vacations on clean sheets, with staff serving food in restaurants, for a family of four, not least because this California SE is really only suitable for two, perhaps three people at a push.

Yet, maintaining some sort of balance, which I shall grant you is difficult, the test vehicle is the top-of-the-shop version, as prices do start at around £35,830, although, if you want the kitchen sink and fridge and wardrobe, you will be looking at the next model up, which starts at £45,288. Powering this supervan is the outstanding 2.0-litre bi-turbo-diesel engine from VW’s illustrious line-up. Developing a respectable 177bhp, its 0-60mph time (not normally the remit of caravanettes) is 12.1 seconds, driving through a seven-speed DSG (automated-manual) gearbox, the van topping out at an astonishing 118mph.

Unfortunately, a 199g/km CO2 rating equates to an annual VED of £475, which could be steep for a vehicle that might only be used twice a year. Mind you, as the California is so drivable and could be viable transport on a daily basis, living with the fuel economy might be the next hurdle. Although quoted as 37.2mpg Official Combined, attaining much more than 30mpg demands a feather touch on the throttle. The engine does help though, as it can operate in ‘coasting’ mode and also features ‘stop-start’ technology, which I do feel offers more of a psychological benefit than any physical gain.

The most appealing aspects of the California lie in its bulletproof build quality and the sheer ingenuity of its various fittings. Take the pair of deck chairs for instance, which emerge cassette-like from the rear hatchback door, once you unzip the storage slot into which they clip. This and other clever uses of space within the cabin are simply amazing. The storage box that slides out from beneath the rear bench seat accommodates all the tools needed to enjoy the many features of the van, while even the dinky twin-burner stove and the deep trunk-style refrigerator, both covered by wipe-clean, frosted glass work surfaces, look truly purposeful and splendid.

The front seats swivel to create a lounge area and high-quality carpeting covers the floor and provides copious sound-deadening. There are neatly concealed side curtains for greater privacy and the hydraulic operation of the tilting roof panel that also enables an extra bed to be made available, is not just incredibly smart but exceedingly functional.

Driving the California is actually a most satisfying experience. Its vice-free handling is certainly among the best of all its commercial-class rivals, with good, responsive steering, positive brakes and the added benefit of the jolt-free DSG transmission that makes motoring such a relaxing affair. There is scarcely a slot anywhere in the van that is not put to good use as a storage bin and all of them are rubber-lined to ensure that contents remain in place and do not rattle on the move.

Were I to buy a camper-van, rest assured that it would be based on the Transporter platform. While the factory-built California might be a tad pricey, certainly for my not-very-deep pockets, I am certain that the waiting list is being whittled away assuredly. To those people who do not bat an eyelid at squandering £100,000 on an up-market 4×4, or even more money on a two-door exotic sports car, the California is a drop in the ocean. Despite my misgivings, the VW Transporter California is the automotive equivalent of an iPhone, or iPad, is equally user-friendly, beguilingly attractive and intelligent.

Conclusion:  Punting around in a California is a most pleasant experience, regardless of its steep price tag. Beautiful build quality, high luxury and an array of smart features enhance its overall desirability.

 

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).