The biggest story of this set of revisions to the California is under the bonnet. Replacing the five-cylinder 2.5-litre diesel from the previous model is a new range of four-cylinder 2.0-litre units. This is indeed a brave move, as the old unit was a much-loved powerplant that proved its worth as a reliable engine across the Transporter/Caravelle/California range. However, it’s a move that has paid off, as the new engines are more powerful, efficient and refined than before. There are four versions, with different power ratings: 83bhp/162lb-ft of torque, 100bhp/184lb-ft, 138bhp/250lb-ft and 177bhp/295lb-ft. We drove all but the least powerful and while the 100bhp is still a little on the rattly side, the range-topper is smooth, powerful and very quiet, thanks to a twin-turbo system that is exclusive to that version. Indeed, when mated to VW’s excellent DSG automatic gearbox, the 177bhp provides a very accomplished and refined driving experience.
Fundamentally, the California is a van filled with a lot of equipment required for camping, so it’s never going to have the handling abilities of a sports car. That said, though, and taking into account the inevitable body roll that you will always get with a high-sided vehicle, it reacts well on the road. This is especially true if you opt for a model with Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive, which provides plenty of traction on the road, especially in the wet. The ride is also accomplished, soaking up the bumps and potholes, and remaining composed at all times. We tested the California on some very poorly surfaced roads and it responded well, never becoming unsettled and always leaving the occupants comfortable. However, there were a few rattles in the cabin when coping some of the biggest bumps, largely from the fastenings on the cupboard doors in the rear.
The California and its sister vehicles, the Transporter and Caravelle, have a good reputation for reliability: there’s no reason to believe that will change with this latest version. The fit and finish of the interior is excellent, with high-quality materials used throughout, including new plastics on the dashboard and new foam in the seats that help to make them even more comfortable than before. There’s also a new woodgrain finish on the cupboards and surfaces in the galley (kitchen) area that gives it a greater air of modern sophistication and is the kind of style you wouldn’t be surprised to find on domestic kitchen units. The only concern we had was that the sunglasses holder - which opened with a nice damped action, rather like the drawer of a high-quality CD player – had an irritating tendency to open when we encountered large bumps in the road, which suggested that the fastening was at fault.
Volkswagen included all the latest safety equipment when it revised the California. Among this kit is the latest-generation electronic stability programme (ESP), which includes improved braking in off-road conditions, rear lights that flash when having to brake in an emergency (warning traffic following behind) and trailer stabilisation. There’s also ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD), brake assist and a parking brake that helps with hill starts. Also available as options are a side assist function that provides a warning when indicating, in case there are vehicles to the side or in the blind spot, that uses a radar system to scan the sides and rear of the California. There’s also a reversing camera that displays a picture in a screen on the dashboard. Other safety features include a tyre pressure monitor and active headlights that swivel with the movement of the steering wheel, illuminating the area into which the vehicle is turning.
Practicality is one of the strongest weapons in the California’s armoury, which is perhaps only to be expected for a camper van. The California is full of equipment designed to ensure that spending a weekend (or longer) away is no hardship. The most obvious feature is the electro-hydraulic roof that opens at the touch of a button to allow two people to sleep in the roof area. In addition, the bench seat in the rear of the cabin folds out to become another double bed, enabling a total of four people to sleep comfortably in the California. The kitchen area also has plenty of equipment to make the California a home away from home, including a sink with working tap, a 42-litre coolbox and a two-ring burner for cooking. The equipment in the front has also been upgraded, with a new touchscreen sat nav system and a choice of infotainment systems.
Although prices won’t be released until it goes in sale in early 2010, the California is expected to cost slightly more than its predecessor – which means that, at around £37,000-41,000, it won’t be cheap. However, running costs will be lower, thanks to the improved efficiency of the smaller 2.0-litre diesel engines (fuel consumption has been lowered by up to 20% and CO2 is also lower across the range) and there’s also the excellent residual values to take into consideration: Californias are relatively rare, and very popular, so second-hand versions are snapped up quickly and without too much loss to the previous owner. The California also has the benefit of being used frequently for travelling at weekends and longer holidays, saving owners a packet on hotel rooms. You can travel almost anywhere in a California, pitch up at a campsite, and live relatively comfortably away from your home. Which makes it a bit of a bargain.