VW California Campervan Long Term Review

After 7 years of ownership, here is our long term VW California review

When writing a review about the VW Camper van it is hard not to include cliches about surfing, hippies and endless summers. Our VW California campervan has provided us with so much, that could easily fall into these areas, but it has also given us so much more. Awwww shucks … we really have fallen in love with our California camper.

"Nemo" - Our VW California Ocean campervan

Why buy a VW Campervan?

Camping? Well yes, that kind of goes with out saying. As a family we’ve camped with our children since they were in nappies. This has been in tents, our old T2 VW camper and for this last 7 years, our T6 California. It is also our family car, van for transporting stuff (it after all a VW Transporter at heart), school sports fixture base, mobile office and even a spare room at home (or when we visit friends and family).

"Orinoco" - our old VW campervan

Old versus new campervans

Whoooaa – hang on!!?? Some people reading may ask why did we move from a super cool, cute, ‘sexy’ classic T2 camper, to a modern diesel van? It was a hard decision. We’d had many happy trips in our old camper whilst the kids were small and when we didn’t venture to far afield. Pootling around the country lanes of the Yorkshire Dales where we lived and trips over to the Yorkshire coast to camp at Runswick Bay were wonderful. It didn’t matter that anything above 50 mph was not advised. That changed when we took a family trip down to Cornwall in what became ‘our old campervan’ …

  • The steering failed.
  • It was back breaking to drive for hours.
  • It was soooooo hot without A/C or even blowers in the back for the kids.
  • It took for ages to get anywhere driving sub 50 mph.
  • And then we very nearly had a serious accident…

Driving along the A390 on our way to Portscatho we suddenly hit a storm. The wind hit the side of the camper so hard it rocked it and we nearly hit the central reservation. The long & the short of it was it scared us senseless and then after a google of “what happens to T2 campervans when they crash” in the evening, we thought crikey, we need something safer now that we’re travelling further afield with our children and dogs.

How did we spec our VW California campervan?

At the time it was just before the T6 VW California was to be launched. Friends had owned a T5 California for several years, so we were very familiar with the basic layout and excellent electric raising roof. We had decided that we would not only sell Orinoco, but we would also part-ex the family car as it was going to be an expensive purchase.

In order to ‘future proof’ our purchase we made a list of all the places that we wanted to visit in our campervan and all of the activities we would use it for…

  • Camping
  • Road trips
  • Skiing
  • Scuba & wild swimming
  • Dog walks
  • The school run
  • Commuting
  • Mobile office
  • Base for sports fixtures
  • Moving large items

We also had to have a conversation about “are we having any more kids”… because the VW California camper only has four! As we live rurally we decided that we wanted 4Motion which is VW’s four wheel drive. We also wanted an automatic (DSG) and cruise control for the long journeys we would be hoping to make. Here’s a copy of our order confirmation form with the full details of what specification we chose…


Did we choose the correct specification of our VW California?

On the whole yes. We have used it exactly as planned and pretty much everything has come in useful. 

I haven’t used the additional differential lock (the 4×4 and tyres have got me out of tricky places), what the £15 ‘fresh air system’ was … 7 years later I still don’t have a clue and the confusing glass options seem to have been correct as we’ve used the van at -18’C through to 40’c+ and didn’t freeze or overheat!!

What do we love about our VW California campervan?

Now this could be a very long list so I’ll try and summarise. Frankly it is a simply brilliant piece of kit. It has been described as ‘the Swiss Army knife’ vehicle and that is a pretty good description!!!

  • The electric raising roof is brilliant. After a long drive you simple push a button and ‘voila’ your upstairs DOUBLE bed is ready!!
  • There is plenty of storage space is cupboards, draws, wardrobe and even alockable safe.
  • The two hob gas cooker, fridge & sink set up when combined with the sliding table creates a very useful kitchen area if the weather isn’t suitable for prepping and cooking outside.
  • The chairs and camping table that fit into the doors are brilliant and have never let us down. We do need extra chairs though for the children and usually take  folding picnic table & bench.
  • The camping / surf shower isn’t what you would call powerful, but it is adequate if you’re wild camping, at a music festival or if you want a quick rinse after swimming, surfing, diving etc. It is also VERY handy if you have dogs that like to get dirty like ours do!!
  • The integrated blinds are good and you can block out pretty much all of the light around the sides. The front blinds do leave a bit of a gap (but then we tend to take a windscreen cover too as this helps keep the van cool / warm).
  • The fridge is cavernous and we’ve lasted several days on supplies. It can get a bit wet at the bottom with condensation and you have to be careful not to have it set too high as it will freeze!!
  • The camping heater is very useful when camping in colder areas. It can be a little noisy when it first kicks in and it will ‘click’ a little throughout the night. We’re wary of using it next to tents as we don’t want to annoy people and it does run off diesel so there are fumes outside. 
  • We opted for a two-ball and in our opinion it is much better that the rear door mounted bike rack for transporting bikes. With the bikes on the door, you cant get into the boot which can be a problem.
  • We like to listen to music and have been very pleased with the Dynaudio stereo upgrade. It’s a great sounding system (though have bass will vibrate everything in the campervan and that can be annoying).
  • Apple CarPlay works well and means that we can use Spotify for music and Waze as a Sat Nav. The proprietary VW satnav is ok (but VW Car Net is a complete waste of money if you have a smartphone and internet access).
  •  The DSG automatic gearbox was an expensive upgrade, but is very smooth and makes it easy when driving in heavy traffic (the start/stop engine function can be annoying and sometimes kicks in too early).
  • Heated front screen has been very useful in sub zero temps and allows you to clear the windscreen very quickly.
  • The wind out awning has been great as a sun shade and if you angle it correctly, it keeps the rain off too. Just be careful not to use it in high winds. There are cool panels that you can add to the awning using the sliding kador rail and velcro tabs, which creates a very useful awning for bad weather.
  • As you’d expect with a campervan (especially when fully loaded) rear visibility can be a challenge. Parking sensors and the parking camera have saved many a scrape.

Follow these gallery links to view photos of our many trips in our VW California Campervan…

What about any after market add ons?

The only after market add on to the vehicle itself has been a solar panel on the roof with an inverter in the cupboard. This has enabled us to avoid electric hook up and we lived off grid for a week at Glastonbury Festival.

After 7 years the original alloys are now looking tired so we’re in the process of choosing some new ones (probably black as they’ll work with the trim).

Did we uses the VW California campervan as intended?

Yes, yes & then yes again and again!! We’ve taken the camper abroad several times and have visited countries including France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Andorra, Switzerland, Italy and Holland. This years trip will be to Hungary in Budapest for Sziget music festival.

It has been used throughout the year in all seasons including skiing trips in the alps and kayaking trips to the Ardeche in France. We’ve travelled throughout the UK using it as a camper, family car and a spare room too.

It is getting a little cramped for sleeping now that the girls are teenagers. We take a pop up tent with us now for a  little extra space. There’s no plans to move the California on though as I’m sure we’ll still be using it when the kids have left home and it’s just us and the dogs.


What about VW California running & maintenance costs?

We average early to mid 30’s with our MPG. This increases when cruising on motorways.

Our California campervan has only been serviced at VW Commercial dealerships, which can be more expensive. Servicing isn’t cheap and there are a few expensive intervals on our van (as it’s a 4Motion) such as changing the Haldex.

Ours isn’t a light vehicle, especially when fully loaded, so we do seem to get through brake pads (but then we also do a lot of mountain driving too).

Warranty lasted for 3 years so we’re well out of it now. We hope that by keeping it maintained by VW we’ll benefit from the regular health checks and catch any issues before they arise.

Any other tips for if you are considering buying a VW California campervan?

If you’re not an experienced camper I would always suggest that you rent a campervan for a trip or too to see if you enjoy it. It isn’t for everybody and some people just don’t find it relaxing.

Join online forums to access information and also to have a wealth of knowledge a few clicks away. Even before I ordered our VW California campervan, I joined the VW California Club forum at www.vwcaliforniaclub.com/forums

There is so much information available on this forum and there are so many VW California campervan owners that if you have a problem, someone can usually help. I remember being in our campervan for the first time in really hot weather on the Venetian coast, Italy. We needed fans to keep cool at night and the electrics just stopped working on the sockets. I new it would be a fuse somewhere in the van but I didn’t know where or which one?  Within an hour of posting on the forum I’d had a reply with a rely useful fuse diagram. Problem solved.

Finally, if you get a California, use it. It’s not an ornament. It’s a fantastic piece of travel equipment that will enable you to go to many new places, experience many new things and meet lots of really great people.

Happy Camping!!

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