The original VW Kombi camper is known worldwide, and is instantly recognisable by just about anyone. Known as the T series, the original and iconic curvy VW T1 was first produced in 1950. A new generation T series van has been produced about every thirteen years since, with the T6 being released in 2016. And of course VW had to make a camper version, which is what we have on test here. I had already seen VW New Zealand’s demo T6 at several shows, with its stand-out red and white paint job and retro wheels, so when it was offered to Drive Life to test I swiftly volunteered.
In New Zealand there’s just the one model available – the California Ocean, retailing at $130,000 plus on-road costs. For this you get a modern van with all of the safety and comfort features you’d expect, plus a well-featured camper.
Standard kit includes a 2.0l BiTurbo diesel engine with 132kW/400Nm, 4Motion four wheel drive, 7 speed DSG transmission, ESP, ABS, ASR, EDL, hill hold, front and side airbags, remote locking, ISOfix child seat mounts, 8 speaker stereo, insulating glass, motorised pop-up top, motorised sliding side door, aircon with dual front zones plus rear zone, auxiliary heater, satnav, stainless steel sink with 30l water tank, fridge, lockable security safe, seating and sleeping room for four adults, lots of power sockets, it’s a long list!
As well as the red/white combo there are ten solid colours to choose from, all muted grown-up silvers, blues, browns and blacks. I think it looks best in the bright two-tone paint, but it depends what you’re after. We happened to pass one in silver, and it still looked good, but just blended in with all of the other traffic.
My first impression was the same as the one we got from quite a few people over our weekend away – “Nice camper!” In these retro colours with the white and chrome wheels it really does draw attention. It’s definitely a smart looking van. The LED daytime running lights and tail lights help to show it’s a thoroughly modern vehicle. The inside gets a similar reaction, it’s neatly designed and looks great.
Inside, there are two sides to the California. The first is pretty standard VW fare – a solid, dark and well-designed dash, with quality buttons and controls. The second is the camper side, similarly well-designed and solid but all kitted out in lighter hues.
The seats are a lot higher than in a car or MPV, and combined with the flatter-angled steering wheel gives you the van feeling when you’re driving. It’s great to be able to look down on SUV drivers from that high seat though. The front seats are both heated, have lumbar support, and have flip-down armrests at both sides. They’re covered in fabric with a textured finish which looks like it will be pretty hard wearing. They’re also comfortable and feel like they’d be great on long trips – a good feature in a camper.
There’s a 6.3” screen set into the dash for the media system and reversing camera. The California has front and rear sensors which come on when reversing or can be activated with a button on the dash. Good for squeezing it through tight gaps. Talking of which, the California has an impressive turning circle – 11.9m to be exact. It makes it really easy to move around – or do U-turns when you get lost. Climate control is three zone – two in the front and one for the rear compartment. It’s all nice and simple to operate, and includes some seriously powerful defrost modes which are excellent for clearing steamy windows when you’re setting off after camping overnight.
The leather-wrapped wheel has thumb controls for the stereo and phone on the left and for the trip computer on the right. The trip computer is the standard VW information screen in the centre of the large analogue rev counter and speedo. It can show all manner of information including digital speedo, fuel usage, compass, music track, satnav directions, and more.
There are lots of cubbies and storage bins in the front – two in each door, with rubber mats in the bottom, two glove boxes (with fuzzy lining), a pop-up storage bin in the top (also fuzzy), a little cubby where you can put your phone out of sight, a pull-out shelf with two cup holders, and a pull down cubby which can hold a large bottle or flask. There’s also a sunglasses holder near the rear-view mirror.
A single bench makes up the two rear seats, and again they’re very comfortable, although the seat itself is very deep, so people with shorter legs might not like it as much. The rear of the bench can be adjusted to different angles. And of course head and legroom in the back is huge. Even with the rear bench slid fully forward you’ve got a decent amount of space. The only issue for rear passengers is that the sliding side door is on the driver’s side, so it opens onto the road if you’re parallel parked. Obviously the conversion to right-hand drive can only go so far. Because of the flat floor and large gap between front seats it’s possible to walk through and use the passenger side door which is much safer for kids.
The California is a very welcoming vehicle – press the unlock button and lots of lights come on – headlights (which are LED, and are excellent), tail lights, and when a door is opened ceiling lights and a light in each door step which also has the word “California” illuminated in blue.
There’s a handle on each A-pillar for front occupants to pull themselves up, and one behind the sliding door too. The side door is electrically operated from the remote, or by pulling the handle, or from a button on the dash. At night when you’re camping it seems pretty loud from inside the vehicle but from outside it’s not so bad. Even the warning beep as it closes is much more muted from outside.
The 2.0l twin-turbo diesel engine fires up with a roar but quickly settles down to a muted rumble. It’s a very smooth-sounding engine for a diesel. It’s a similar story when driving – you can tell it’s a diesel but it’s well insulated and very quiet when cruising. In fact the whole vehicle is much quieter and more refined than I expected. VW have done an excellent job with insulating you from engine, road and wind noise. There’s a bit of a knack to setting off smoothly without a lurch when the first turbo kicks in, but once you’re moving it’s very smooth. Gear shifts with the 7-speed DSG are barely perceptible most of the time and the power delivery is smooth and linear. It’s nippy too, 12.9 seconds to 100 is hardly impressive in a car, but in a 2.5 ton van it feels pretty quick. The listed top speed is 185kph, but I wouldn’t want to try it in such a high-sided van.
The ride is comfortable and feels soft, but the heavy-duty rollbars and modern suspension ensure that body roll is kept to a minimum. The 4Motion four-wheel-drive system also helps here. It’s not the sort of vehicle you’d be throwing around twisting roads of course, unless you want to smash your crockery and annoy your passengers. So again, a great vehicle for a long trip. Cruise control is included, operated by buttons on the indicator stalk similar to older VWs, which can be fiddly to operate at first. It’s just basic cruise control, no radar, but it does show the set speed on the display so it’s easy to get it at just the speed you want.
Visibility is excellent all-round with the tall windows and large front screen. There are large wing mirrors, which are electrically adjustable and foldable as well as heated. There are heated washer jets too for those frosty Alpine mornings. Out of the rear it’s okay but there are some cupboards blocking part of your view, so the blind spot warning lights in the mirrors are a really good feature to have when changing lanes.
We at Drive Life like to test a vehicle as thoroughly as possible, so I decided to take my wife and 6 year-old daughter camping for the weekend. We booked a powered camp site, but I think we would have been fine using the battery alone as the California has two additional batteries to power its various systems and internal LED lighting.
We switched on the 42-litre fridge, loaded it with essentials (beer, bacon etc) and packed up some other provisions for the weekend. There’s a stainless steel two burner gas hob and a sink built into the left-hand side of the camper with a lift-up glass cover. There’s a 30l water tank, and even a shower attachment at the rear if you’re feeling adventurous enough for an outdoor shower. The under-sink cupboards proved to be surprisingly spacious and easily swallowed up our plates, mugs and provisions. For the short time we were away there was more storage than we needed, but for a longer trip you’d need to get organised. There’s a big cupboard behind the fridge, with a small padded lock box in the bottom for your valuables. And there’s a small mirror set into the door. At the back there’s another large cupboard with three shelves, and a pull-down storage bin in the roof at the back of the cabin. This also houses the rear speakers.
Add all this to the large area underneath the rear half of the bed and you have ample space for provisions for a longer trip.
Once we were at the campsite I reversed up to a power pole, then went to open the tailgate before realising my mistake. The boot opens upwards to the rear and it’s a big door, so you need to leave a decent amount of space. It opens on very sturdy gas struts, and takes a fair bit of effort to push back down. You don’t have to slam it though – as soon as it is pushed into place a motor grabs it for a quiet soft close. Great for other campers’ peace and quiet. When the tailgate is open you can reach up to unzip a built-in bag containing two folding deck chairs, which go with the table hidden inside the sliding door to make a sturdy picnic set. There are bright LED lights set into the tailgate which are great for lighting up the whole area under the tailgate when you’re unpacking in the dark.
There’s a large storage drawer in the bottom of the rear seats where we found the various accessories – 10m power cable, magnetic blinds for the front door windows, shower attachment, fly screens for the side windows, various additional clip-on cup holders, and the winder for the awning. The awning’s pretty cool – slot the winder in place it quickly winds out to about 2m deep and about 3.5m long. Then drop down two legs from the end to stabilise it. There are holes in the feet so you can peg down the legs if needed.
The California sleeps four – two in the main bed which is converted by sliding the rear bench forward, which can take a bit off effort, then folding the back down flat. This meets up with a metal rear section where you can unfold a mattress to cover the whole thing. It’s simple to do and has plenty of space for two. The mattress is quite firm but also comfortable.
The second two beds are in the pop-up top. This will only open or close with the engine running and is activated from the control panel behind the rear-view mirror. It takes a minute or so to fully open or close, then you can slide back the roof blind and climb up there, using the front seats as a ladder. There are sprung slats across the roof with a mattress on top and it’s pretty comfortable, with a sleeping space of 1.2x2m. In the sides and front are windows which can be unzipped to give light and ventilation through the built-in fly screens. It feels more spacious than expected up there and is quite pleasant, though it’s more susceptible to extremes of temperature than the main van area.
If you get cold at night there’s a gas powered auxiliary heater which blows warm air through a vent in the A pillar at the driver’s side. It speeds up and slows down according to a thermostat and we left it on the lowest setting all night to keep the sleeping space comfortable. Again it’s activated through the camper panel behind the mirror.
Every window on the California has some form of blind so you can make it private at night. There are pull-out blinds in the A pillars which lock in the middle, magnetic fabric blinds for the front windows and hidden pull-down blinds on all other windows. With them all shut it’s pretty cosy and they do a great job of keeping the van warm.
For meals there’s a fold-out table which fits snugly between the rear seat and the fridge. It slides out and up then a leg pulls down from underneath. The front seats can then be rotated around to make four seats at the table. There’s a bit of a knack to rotating the seats – they have to be folded all the way forward, then slid to just the right spot, and the door has to be open, then they spin easily. Get it wrong and they hit something. Like most things you quickly get the hang of doing it smoothly.
As we were staying at a campsite with lots of facilities we decided not to do any cooking in the California, though we did eat our meals there. It’s spacious enough that it doesn’t feel cramped, at least with with two adults and a child. Four adults might be a different story.
We explored various places, and everywhere we went, people came over to talk to us about the California. In these colours it draws a lot of attention, so be prepared to make some new friends if you buy one in red and white! Everyone was really positive about it, but there were a few gasps when I told them the price. $130k sounds like a lot, but when you think about what went into designing this van, the limited numbers they’ll sell, the amount of equipment you get, and the quality, I think it’s decent value.
It’s not really possible to compare directly as campervans vary so much in size and feature levels. There are New Zealand manufactured campers based on a nearly new LDV chassis for between $95,000 and $200,000 for a 4 berth, or FIAT based vans but no prices are listed online.
|Brand / Model||Engine||Power||Fuel L/100km||0-100km/h||Price Highest to Lowest|
|VW California Ocean||2.0l 4 cylinder turbodiesel||132kW/400Nm||8.8||12.9s||$130,000|
The pros and cons
What we think
The California Ocean is a modern, well equipped and great looking camper, especially in the two-tone paint. It has everything you need for that family road trip, and I’d love to be in a position to own one.
Rating – Chevron rating 4.5 out of 5
|Vehicle Type||4 berth campervan|
|Starting Price||$130,000 + on-road costs|
|Tested Price||$130,000 + on-road costs|
|Engine||2.0l inline-four cylinder biturbo diesel|
|Transmission||7 speed DSG|
|0 – 100 kph||12.9 seconds|
|Unladen Weight (with driver)||2573kg|
|Length x Width x Height||4892 x 2283 x 1990mm|
|Cargo Capacity||Living Space interior volume 4.0 cubic metres|
|Fuel Tank||70 litres|
|Fuel Efficiency||Advertised Spec – Combined – 8.8L / 100km|
Real World Test – Combined – 9.7L / 100km
|ANCAP Safety Ratings||Not yet rated|
|Warranty||3 year/100,000 km mechanical warranty, 12 year anti-corrosion warranty|
3 year Volkswagen Roadside Assistance
Up to 30,000 km (or every two years) oil service intervals