California Love: We Drive the VW California Camper Van

Looks like Volkswagen knows how to party because the California knows how to party. It’s the sixth-generation of the venerable Volkswagen camper van, which shot to popularity back when owners first started to use them to smoke their stuff and drink all their wine back in the 1960s,  and it combines use of space that’s nearly unheard of in North American RVs with a diesel engine that delivers performance that meets that same criterion. And both of those are exactly why we don’t get it here, and why we maybe never will.

For the launch of the mid-cycle refresh of the 6th-gen Transporter Van’s camper edition, called the California 6.1, Volkswagen brought about two dozen examples to Canada’s East-Coast province of Nova Scotia. Because actual California was too far? No, because Nova Scotia is a surprisingly popular destination for tourists from Europe, especially Germany, who like to bring their campers with them. Usually overlanding monsters based on truck chassis from Volvo, MAN, and Iveco, but sometimes more traditional models too. Like the California. So when I saw a shiny new one parked at the airport, I reached out to Volkswagen Canada, who put me in touch with the team running the event, and that’s how we’re getting you a look at one of the coolest Volkswagens that isn’t sold in North America.

From the outside, the California looks like just a normal minivan, unless you really dig the two-tone styles they wear that are available on all the trims (for a fairly significant extra cost). But open the sliding rear door and things change. Fast.

Inside the entry-level Beach model, things don’t look all that different from any other van. You can get it with a pair of seats for the middle and a bench for third-row passengers. See that silver rail on the driver’s side door? That’s your first hint there’s something special. It looks like a cargo system rail, but pull it forward and a gas stove pops out of the gap between the interior panel and the exterior wall. The mini kitchen is new to the Beach trim with this model. On the inside of the sliding door is a fold-up table you can take outside. There are black-out blinds for every single window, and the front seats can pivot to face toward the rear once you’re set up at camp.

You can fold the seats down into a bed, but the California’s real forte is the pop-up. The signature of this one, going back decades, is that pop-up roof. It’s what makes the California van so unforgettable. There’s a whole other bed up there, just waiting for you (and maybe a second person). With solid walls that can zip down with a mesh screen to keep bugs out. Or you can drop the front entirely for all the nature you can handle. You can sleep two up top and two down below, and it’s comfortable enough that while you can check in any time you want, you may never leave.

The Ocean, though, is the top-spec one, and this is where all the clever stuff really comes to play. It’s a four-seater (five available) with a bigger kitchen.

There’s a two-burner stove, a sink, and a fridge. The water tank is in the wall so it says unfrozen in the winter, and the fridge holds up to 1.5 cubic feet, so about the size of a decent minifridge.

Look down to the bottom of the front seat mounts and there are two rechargeable integrated flashlights. The blind for the driver’s side window to the left of the kitchen has storage pockets. There’s a closet that can be opened from the middle or from the rear to let you store larger items.

Under the closet is the shower. It’s not heated, but you can use it for a quick hose-off or to get the mud off your shoes. The gas bottle for the stove hides inside the water tank, protecting it in case of collision. If you need chairs for your outside folding table, all trims have two folding chairs built into a compartment in the tailgate for storage.

Basically, If there’s a spot to put something, VW has put something there or made it a storage area. I mentioned the excellent use of space and the reply was that it’s because they have to be clever. American RVs just get bigger, but in Europe, they don’t have that luxury.

Up front, this is all Volkswagen. It’s a treat how the company can put pretty much the same dashboard into every vehicle, just scaled slightly for the application. Of course there are other small changes like the dash-mounted shifter, cup-holders up top, a storage pocket for the passenger, and a steering wheel that’s more bus-like than in any sedan ever made.

It gets VW’s digital cockpit display that lets you pick between all the screens you could possibly want. Plus the 6.33-inch infotainment system screen that also allows for gesture controls. Like you can swipe your hand in front of the display to switch to a different screen. I didn’t have time to figure out all the possible controls, but it was pretty handy. You can use wireless app connect to connect multiple devices and play your audio from anywhere in the van.

Controlling all of the camper features is a smaller screen mounted in the roof that uses an interface that looks just like the Discover Media system. Only here it shows you battery life and water tank status, plus lets you control the interior lights individually, engage the sunrise mode that raises the lights slowly with the integrated alarm clock, and, of course, opens and closes the roof.

There’s an AC controller in the back, but it runs on, in RV terms, the chassis AC. So if the engine’s off, you don’t get cool air. Which makes sense for me in cool, breezy Nova Scotia as well as normally temperate Europe. Probably not for anyone headed to Texas or Florida. Volkswagen has included an auxiliary heater that runs on the same diesel tank the engine uses. The Volkswagen rep who showed me around said that the inboard water tank and auxiliary heater mean that they’ve camped in one at temperatures down to about 0°F.

Which brings me to the powertrain choices. Of course, this one’s available as a diesel. Only as a diesel, as it turns out. Three 2.0L TDI four-cylinders that deliver 110, 150, or 199 hp and the top one delivering 332 lb-ft of torque. The lower-powered engines can be had with a five and six-speed manual, respectively, with a seven-speed DSG and 4Motion all-wheel drive on the top two engines.

Ok, that’s enough about what it is, what’s it like? Well, it’s a whole lot more like a Golf to drive than an Atlas or a Tiguan. Seriously, this one feels like a Golf behind the wheel. Well, make that three Golfs, probably, this is a big ‘un.

It’s a bit slow to pull away, but the massive torque of the diesel comes on strong once you’ve started to roll. It’s got more than enough shove down low to put your glassware in the back in danger. I don’t have an exact 0-60 time in front of me, but I’d be willing to bet money on this being the quickest camper to ever roll out of a factory.

That power’s there on the highway, too. While Nova Scotia is far from the Autobahn, the California 6.1 has plenty of grunt for merging and passing, even if you’re already at the 70 mph limit here.

It’s stable on the highway, even if you’ve been on the run, driving in the sun, looking out for number one, despite basically being a barn cutting through the air. It was a windy day when I drove the California but it wasn’t blown around the lane at all, which is not bad for a house.

And if you’re wondering what it’s like to drive with the roof popped, well I can’t tell you. But not because you can’t do it. It turns out, in a twist that would never get past the lawyers here, you CAN actually drive the California with the roof open. You’re not supposed to, of course, it’ll probably destroy the mechanism and the fabric enclosure, but there are two reasons why it won’t automatically put on the parking brake. One: In case you’re just moving to a slightly better spot in the campground at low speed. Two: In case you’re in danger. Be it an animal or human attack, the California will let you escape the guy with the hook at that remote lake campsite. Both situations will have all the warning bells dinging at you, but you can replace the camper and you can’t replace you.

Oh yeah, there’s a third reason why it won’t automatically engage the parking brake. Instead of an electronic mechanism, there’s a great big hand brake lever beside the driver’s seat, mounted on the floor. So you can throw everything you own on the floor with a sweet handbrake turn, no doubt. Props to VW for offering that one.

Volkswagen has given this one some pretty cool driver aids, too. It has the usual automatic braking and radar cruise, but it also has a feature that lets you reverse a trailer more intuitively using the side mirror adjustment. And it gets both self-parking Park Assist 3.0 and a 360-degree ultrasound-sensor side protection system to keep you from running into your campsite.

Like the Golf, and every other Euro VW, this one has no problem when things get twisty. The sharply angled steering wheel takes some getting used to, but the weighting is excellent and it’s startlingly sharp for something this big. The brakes, though, were where you could really feel the extra pounds of this camper. I’m sorry to the folks at the end of the turn-in I used for photos who got a real good look at the massive orange (actually called copper bronze) and white nose of this camper coming in hot. They don’t feel soft, they just have their work cut out for them.

No matter how well it drives, you’re not going to forget that this is a camper at any point, but that’s mostly because no matter what you do, when you load a kitchen into your car there are going to be a few rattles. Nothing offensive, just a fact of life.

So when can you expect to see one of these at your local dealer? Probably never.

That’s because while the California is a runner, rebel, and a stunner compared with the RVs we’re used to, it has quite a few strikes against it by our market’s standards. For a start, it’s diesel only, and we won’t go any further into that. Second, my loaded up tester would ring in at around US $88,000 with the conversion, and that’s a hard pill to swallow for North American buyers who will no-doubt see much larger RVs on the lot for that money and think that bigger is always better. Especially since bigger probably means a toilet and a warm shower. Bringing over the standard Transporter might help, but in case you hadn’t noticed the regular minivan segment is pretty much dead too. All of which means that you’re more likely to see one sitting in a park in Paris, France, than to see one in California, coming home. We’ll have to rely on midwest-built campers to make us really feel alright.

Not all hope is lost, though. VW Canada said that “although the current generation of the classic “Camper Van” remains unavailable for us here, we are taking a close look at opportunities for future product that might fill this niche.” Which we can only assume means some sort of Atlas-based camper. Or maybe a Grand Caravan? Ok, those two are just made up. But this Vee Dub has got us California dreaming, on such a (not quite) winter’s day.