Okay, so foreign travel has mostly been off the cards in 2020 due to you-know-what, but with more people rediscovering the fun of the ‘staycation’, there is an increasing interest in campers. From home conversions to factory-made models, you can get a camper to suit almost every size (and budget) these days.
Volkswagen is no stranger to producing camper vans, with the first ‘Westfalia’ model appearing in 1951. During the 1960s the cute campervan became a symbol of the hippie movement and has since become every bit as iconic as the original Beetle. These days, Volkswagen’s campers are as modern as its passenger cars and joining its most popular model, the California, is a super-sized model based on the Crafter van. The Volkswagen Grand California is quite literally all you could want in a camper van.
Like its commercial vehicle equivalent, the Grand California comes in two sizes, called the 600 and 680. Both versions are powered by a 2.0-litre diesel engine producing 175bhp which is mated to an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Power is usually sent to the front wheels, but there is the option of a four-wheel-drive 4MOTION transmission with the 680 variant. That could be quite useful if you’re planning on venturing beyond the usual manicured campsite.
Aside from the different length of each model, there are different sleeping configurations, with the shorter Grand California 600 coming available with an ‘upstairs’ sleeping area. Although this second space isn’t as large as the rear (that can sleep two adults), it is ideal for kids and also makes the Grand California looking like the famous Airbus Beluga transport plane. The front section of this can also be equipped with a solar panel that can help to replenish the onboard batteries. One of the only negatives of this higher roof section is the overall height, which at 2,790mm does limit some places where it can enter. In fairness, the Grand California 680 isn’t much shorter at 2,840mm, but if maximising vehicle versatility is your thing, then sticking with the Transporter-based California may be wiser.
Part of what sets the Grand California apart is the inclusion of a wetroom with a built-in shower, toilet, fold-out wash basin and even some cupboards for your toiletries with a nifty magnetised hinged mirror. A fresh-water tank can carry up to 110 litres of water, and there’s a 90-litre waste water tank for the wetroom and kitchen sink. Yes, Volkswagen has literally included the kitchen sink with its five-star camper, and it is located next to the large sliding side door alongside a twin-hob gas cooker that can be powered by two 11kg gas bottles that fit into the rear. For added convenience, when you open the sliding door, steps electronically pop out from the floor to improve access.
Between the bathroom and the front seats, there’s a roomy seating area and table in case you don’t fancy eating al fresco. The interior of the Volkswagen is planned out rather well, and for the most part, space is maximised where possible. You’ll find plenty of storage cabinets, and along the upper reaches, there are airplane-style stowage bins. Ambient lighting adds to the modern feel, though it can still seem a little but clinical inside. Not quite like you’re in a Ridley Scott space movie, but you might want to add in a few cosy blankets and throws around the cabin.
The modernity continues with a healthy abundance of power sockets and USB charging ports, including ones usefully beside the beds. A central control panel in the main cabin area lets you manage all of the main functions, such as setting the interior temperature and heating, but it also displays the water levels and Wi-Fi information. You can also access this and adjust settings via an app, meaning you can run it from a smartphone or tablet. There are the necessary connections available for you to plug into the water and power supplies at a campsite, but if you’re somewhat ‘off the grid’ it’s good to know that the Grand California can remain self-sufficient.
Unlike some smaller campers, the Volkswagen has the advantage of height inside, meaning that if the conditions outside aren’t so great, it doesn’t feel as cramped within, and you can easily stand upright and move around inside.
When you need to get a move on the Volkswagen becomes a competent and comfortable cruiser, with the 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine performing best on long motorway journeys where it can prove its fuel economy. The high driving position provides a great view of the road ahead - far better than what you’ll get in even the largest SUV. Furthermore, Volkswagen offers many of its latest driver assistance systems, such as adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist. The stability control is specially tailored to prevent the van from swerving in extreme conditions. Other safety features include rear traffic alert, which is useful when manoeuvring out from a parking space, and there’s a park assist function to help squeeze into a spot when needed.
On smaller roads, you do quickly become aware of the sheer size of the Grand California, and the suspension isn’t so kind on poor surfaces like you might typically find in more rural settings. If you have the cupboards full of stuff, then it’s worth making sure everything is well secured, so you won’t hear everything rattling and shaking. This scenario is the only time where the Volkswagen’s size works against it, but if your focus is more on the destination rather than the journey, this is less likely to bother you. Plus, the longer owners live with this van, the more they are likely to develop tricks and tweaks to make it exactly how they want it.
It is by no means the cheapest camper on the market, but seeing how well everything works and is put together, it’s easy to forget about the costs. With so much in it, and the scope to add much more, the Volkswagen Grand California truly is a dream vehicle. All you’ll want to do it explore the world with it.
Model: Volkswagen Grand California 600
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel
Power: 175bhp at 3,600rpm
Torque: 410Nm at 1,500-2,000rpm
Max speed: 100mph
WLTP fuel consumption: 24.1mpg
WLTP CO2: 218g/km