As I write this I’m sitting in a campsite in Co Clare, surrounded by camper vans, caravans and tents, at the end of a three-day trek through Munster and Leinster. Travelling the highways and byways of Ireland, it’s amazing how much the country has to offer – the Ring of Kerry might be something of a tourist trap, but it’s an incredible trail that takes in some of the best vistas north and south.
There’s an undeniable freedom in this lifestyle, as I’ve found, but driving a rather large vehicle can be a little awkward, particularly if you’re used to a regular-sized car. Enter the Volkswagen California.
A tidy little camper based on the short wheelbase Transporter van, campers like these are an ideal solution for narrow Irish roads, nipping in and out of town centres, or availing of height-restricted car parks without any hassle. And, because it weighs under 3,500kg and seats a maximum of five people, you can drive one of these with an ordinary B category licence.
The test model that ferried me around in comfort for 1,200km was the California Coast, one step below the more premium (and expensive) Ocean trim level that adds a few features like an automatic gearbox and wood veneer facilities inside. It’s got a surprisingly refined 150bhp diesel engine under the bonnet (102 and 201bhp options also available), paired to a six-speed manual transmission. Top speed is 178km/h and you can go from 0-100km/h in just over 14 seconds, though camper van enthusiasts probably won’t be too concerned about those particular figures.
What is important is that it doesn’t feel underpowered on the road, though like any similar vehicle it can struggle on the steeper inclines before you drop into a lower gear. It is noticeably top heavy around the bends – the roof is home to an extendable bedroom complete with wooden slats and a mattress – so you need to be more careful than you would in an ordinary car, not least of all because your pots and pans will be flying about if you’re too vigorous. Otherwise it feels firm and solid, combined with sharp steering, good ride quality and even nippy acceleration in second, third and fourth.
It’s actually one of the most relaxing vehicles I’ve ever driven – it really is well engineered for long distance driving. It’s decently economical too, given the size and weight. I managed around 900km on a full tank, averaging 6.9L/100km or 40mpg. And it doesn’t feel like you’re in a large vehicle once you’re behind the wheel – its compact shape and size, as well as the high driving position and good visibility (huge windscreen and wing mirrors), means that tackling car parks or tight spaces isn’t a difficult task.
If you want something a bit tougher and with more grip, opt for 4MOTION all-wheel drive, helpful if you plan on tackling different types of terrain like the ice roads up in Finland. Realistically, though, you won’t really need it, and your fuel economy will suffer for it.
Though it drives surprisingly well for a van, the best part about the California will always be behind the driver’s seat rather than behind the steering wheel. Because it’s built for life as a camper from the factory, the build quality and overall feel is simply better than most aftermarket conversions.
If you’ve driven or owned the previous version of the California (also known as the T5) the interior fittings and dimensions will be quite familiar. Volkswagen wouldn’t completely agree, maintaining that there are in fact thousands of changes between the T5 and T6, but most of these are out of sight in the engine or suspension set-up.
If you haven’t been inside one of these before, one of the first things you’ll notice is the impressive way VW has made practical use of the available space, fitting virtually everything you’d need between the nose and rear without feeling too squashed. The front seats are comfortable armchairs, perfect for long journeys, and swivel around (albeit with some difficulty) to face the rear. A fold-out picnic table hangs in front of the fridge and can be pulled up and extended between the front and rear seats. Within easy reach is the kitchenette, standard on both the Coast and Ocean, housing the sink and a two-hob gas cooker, with the 42L fridge sitting next door, capable of storing enough food for a couple days.
Underneath the hob and sink you’ll find plenty of storage for food, pots and pans, as well as a small cutlery drawer, and the cover for both folds down to provide a handy worktop. Around the corner is a double socket, useful if you’ve brought a kettle or need to charge your phone, though it only works when you’re hooked up to the mains via the charging cable.
When you’re stopping in for the night, arranging the beds only takes a few minutes. Simply pull the rear bench forward using a little lever by the floor, lower the headrests and pull the cord between the two seatbelt slots to drop the back, and your bed is in place. A mattress overlay is an optional extra but well worth it – contoured to fit perfectly in the rear it covers the seatbelts and other bits that might make for a less than pleasant night’s sleep.
If there’s more than two people bedding in you can open the first story pop-up room, manually operated in the Coast and electronically if you spring for the Ocean. If you’re concerned about what the neighbours think, you might want to fix the magnetic window covers and blinds in place first – clambering upstairs is a rather ungainly affair. Featuring wooden slats and a decently thick mattress, it’s a comfortable if slightly cramped and colder sleeping space – the walls are made of canvas and aren’t fantastic at keeping the elements at bay. And don’t forget that the solid roof is quite close to your head, so if you sit up suddenly you’ll know all about it. If there’s nobody sleeping in it, it’s also quite handy as an extra storage space.
There are plenty of other nifty features too. A foldable picnic table forms part of the sliding door, with two picnic chairs hidden in a zip pocket that’s part of the boot door lining. There’s also an extendable awning, available as an optional extra, which is quite nice on a sunny day though you could easily live without it. Storage is in abundance – the back is home to a built-in wardrobe and shelf fittings, a good-sized storage drawer underneath the rear bench seat, a fold-down roof storage box over the boot door, and numerous cubbyholes front and back.
Basically, everything is very clever and yet very simple, achieving the right balance of sleeping and living quarters without things feeling too claustrophobic. It shouldn’t take much more than ten minutes from the time you pull in for the night until your picnic table is ready to host dinner, the beds are made, and your phone is recharging.
But there are one or two bad marks. The material is moderately decent, built more for functionality than style, and is easily marked during the rough and tumble of the camping lifestyle. Take the front doors – space is tight when you’re rotating the seats to face backwards, and it’s easily scratched or ripped by the fold-out armrests if you aren’t careful. An additional USB port would be quite useful, and you’ll need to bring along a travel adaptor for the two-pin 230V socket. And, in the Coast version, a multi-functional steering wheel isn’t standard – one of the first vehicles I’ve driven in quite a while where that hasn’t been the case. One could argue that you should be focusing on the road and what’s in front of you, and hopefully that is the case, but it is handy to have the ability to switch the station or song without stretching towards the radio. First world problems etc.
Equipment & Pricing
In terms of technology, driving-wise there’s just a few standard toys in the California Coast – highlights include cruise control, speed warning, automatic lights and VW’s intuitive media centre. Surprisingly a reversing camera or sat nav doesn’t come as standard – for the latter VW opts instead for a smartphone app connection through Android Auto or MirrorLink. It’s handy in that you can mirror your phone’s mapping app, media player, Spotify, text messages and so on, it’s easy to set up and use, and it’s cheaper than an ordinary sat nav unit, though you’re reliant on your data allowance and a decent signal. Then again, part of the charm in having a camper is that you’re generally in exploration mode – I found it nice to switch off the technology and rely on road signs and my own sense of direction (with admittedly mixed results), resulting in a few roads travelled that we might never have seen otherwise.
There’s a few more items on the camping side of things. Mounted on the roof above the central console is the California’s control box, through which you can fiddle with the auxiliary heater (also operated remotely via the key fob) and the fridge, and displays information such as leisure battery status, water level etc. The sink is fed by a 30L frost-protected water tank (fill up via an external cap), alongside a 30L wastewater tank, operated by an electric pump. A shower connection at the back is optional for both Coast and Ocean, though to be honest that doesn’t seem like a very pleasant prospect. And, once it gets dark, there’s a decent amount of lighting mounted strategically around the rear. Pretty much everything in the back runs on the leisure battery, separate to the main vehicle battery and boasting an impressive lifespan – you could easily run the camper for several days on battery power alone without hooking up to the mains, particularly as it’s recharged during the day while driving.
For all of the above, a not inconsiderable list, Volkswagen Ireland has an asking price of €51,395 for the cheapest four-seater California with 102bhp (€52,415 for five seats), of which around €15,000 accounts for VAT and VRT, with annual road tax of €102. If you want something more powerful there’s a 201bhp version available, though the 150bhp option I had will likely be the most popular as it combines fuel efficiency with a decent amount of power.
Standard equipment on the California Coast isn’t sparse, including cruise control, roof rails, heat insulating glass in the back, automatic lights, and the camping equipment such as your fridge, cooker, storage cabinets and some carpet for those in the front. My test model would set you back €59,072 (including €5,772 worth of accessories), but is it worth it?
You could get a bigger secondhand camper for the same or less money, but there’s no doubt that the California is a very handy vehicle – over the course of those three days I was in some tight spots (as Ulysses Everett McGill might say) in several towns and villages that you simply couldn’t navigate in anything bigger. You could also fork out for a cheaper and older T5, but truth be told that offers a less refined, economical and overall driving experience, though perhaps the cost savings might soften the blow.
The T6 is undoubtedly more expensive, an option for the more affluent travellers, but there’s quite a lot of bang for your buck and the California tends to hold its value quite well. It really depends on what you’re looking for. If you don’t mind a more cosy interior, coupled with the latest mod cons and the ability to navigate narrow streets or overhead barriers, the California really is the ultimate tool for the job – a comfortable, clever and reasonably economical hotel on wheels.
Depending on where you’re heading, the camping infrastructure available is worth considering. If your destination is the warmer climates on the continent, you needn’t worry as much, as rest spots and other facilities are widespread and generally quite cheap.
Ireland, however, is something a different story, and generally speaking isn’t overly friendly towards those in motorhomes. For starters, travellers are advised to stick to campsites rather than pull into laybys, car parks or viewing sights – bylaws are often in place setting time limits on the duration of your stay. Campsites aren’t that hard to find in Ireland, but compared to hotels or B&Bs, there is a vast decrease in choice, with an average nightly rate of around €28 for a camper, two adults, electric hook-up and some welcome hot showers.
But there are other options. If you’re going to be on the road regularly, consider signing up to Safe Nights Ireland – a fee of €15 per year gives you access to a list of safe offroad overnight locations across the country, such as business car parks or on private property. For example, I spent one night in the village of Sneem, Co Kerry, in the car park of the Sneem Hotel. Though it’s not free, €10 gets you an overnight spot and use of the hotel’s gym facilities. While the atmosphere is a little muted when compared to a campsite, it’s a good way to find a cheap spot after a long day’s drive, or to save money every couple of nights.