The California is a camper van, so it’s important to remember that the performance is very much a secondary consideration when assessing the worth of the vehicle. After all, it’s the camper bit of the name that most people buy these for. That said, the top-of-the-range 171bhp 2.5-litre engine we tested was more than adequate in pulling the two-and-a-half-tonne California along and is sufficiently strong to take it 0-62mph in 13.3secs, a more than respectable time, before topping out at 112mph, which is plenty fast enough for a vehicle of its type. There’s also 295lb-ft of torque on hand at 2,000rpm to add in to the mix, enough to ensure that you can overtake caravans on tow with relative ease. The California shouldn’t therefore lack power, whether cruising on the motorway or going uphill and down dale in the rural environments that are likely to be its final destination.
On the move, the California does feel like what it fundamentally is – a van. Despite power steering it can feel a little on the heavy side at times, unsurprising considering its 3,000kg gross weight. Indeed, the weight can palpably come into play at high speed when encountering even the relatively gentle bends of motorways and dual carriageways: you can sometimes feel that you're working quite hard to keep the weight of the vehicle under control at it tries to wallow about. Yet despite this, the ride is comfortable and compliant, with all the major bumps and potholes are ironed out thanks to a MacPherson strut suspension at the front and miniblock springs at the rear, plus anti-roll bars front and rear. The California is certainly a comfortable enough vehicle to rack up the miles when travelling around the country, proving to be remarkably quiet when cruising at high speed.
The California is a solid, purpose-built recreational vehicle and comes with VW's reputation for sturdy vans. The technology has proven itself over the years in the competitive commercial environment when fitted to the Transporter, so the diesel engine can be relied upon to carry on and on for many miles. Inside, the cupboards and storage units do seem a little light and flimsy, but the rest of the equipment seems solid enough. We also subjected it to one of the toughest tests known to mankind - the rigours of a group of curious young children over the course of a long weekend - and it responded well, with no breakages. However, the beige upholstery is probably not a good idea: it's very pale and unlikely to cope well over the long term to the mud and dirt of the countryside. Choose a darker colour would be our advice.
Solidly built, the California offers plenty of protection to its occupants while on the road and static on a campsite. There’s the full range of safety equipment, including six airbags (front, side and curtain for driver and front-seat passenger), three-point seat belts with pre-tensioners, plus the full set of electronic safety aids – ABS, ESP (including Active Rollover Protection), traction control (all versions apart from the 4Motion) and EDL (electronic differential lock). Security comes in the form of remote central locking with deadlocks and internal locking (good for when it's time to go to bed at the campsite), while there’s also an immobiliser and an alarm that includes interior and tow-away protection, which will help when the California is parked up.
The California is excellent as a home away from home. There's room for four to sleep – two in the roof bed created by the electro-hydraulically activated aluminium pop-up roof and two on the rear bench seat that folds back to form a bed. The kitchen unit has a sink with a 30-litre water container and two gas burners. For electricity, there's a socket and cable that allows you hook up to an external power supply to power the fridge, sockets, lights and internal heating. Storage includes numerous cupboards and compartments, plus there’s a folding worktop/table inside and another folding table stored in the sliding side door that can be taken out and used with the two folding chairs that are stowed in the tailgate. The box-like shape of the vehicle and optional parking sensors also mean that manoeuvring the California into spaces and pitches is easy.
The diesel engine’s fuel economy ranges from 29.1mpg to 34mpg, depending on the power rating and transmission you choose. They’re not great figures, but you are lugging quite a weight – and think what you're saving on hotel rooms. VW’s LongLife servicing regime means that the interval depends on how you drive your vehicle: expect to see the Service Interval Display telling you to get to a garage anywhere from 9,000 miles to 18,000 miles or 24 months. Road tax isn't cheap: of the four versions, two just about make Band F (£210 per year), while the higher-powered versions with Tiptronic or 4Motion are in the top Band G (£400 per year). However, expect residuals to remain strong: the California’s reliability combined with the desirability of a modern VW camper featuring the latest kit means that its resale value will be very healthy when you come to sell it.