Best campervans 2021

Published: 01 December 2020

► Which campervans are best?
► We round up top options for luxury staycations
► Something for all budgets

Thanks to a little thing event called ‘all of 2020’, international holidays took something of a back seat this year - so many have decided to investigate the so-called ‘staycation’ instead. And that’s understandably led them straight to the door of the classic campervan.

It’s easy to see the appeal. A mid-sized motorhome model will be no more daunting to pilot than a large people-carrier, yet offers the freedom of the UK’s 1500 campsites with no more preparation required than filling the cupboards with cornflakes.

Though expensive to buy, they can last for years and years of happy holidays. And now, you even have a choice of manufacturer backed campervans – vehicles sold and warranted by major vehicle brands rather than small third-party outfits.

2020 Volkswagen California front three quarter

We’ve put two of the best of these – the Volkswagen California and the Ford Transit Custom Nugget – head-to-head below, so scroll down if you want to read that. Or, click here to skip straight past it and read up on the alternatives you might also be considering.

For a more detailed comparison of these two campervans on our sister site, Parkers.co.uk, click here.

Volkswagen California vs Ford Transit Custom Nugget

Both of these vehicles look extremely appealing if you’re hunting for a mid-sized campervan. They’re based on two of the best panel vans you can buy today, Volkswagen’s classy Transporter and Ford’s best-selling Transit Custom. They both sleep a family of four, have pop-up canvas roofs to provide standing room, and offer everything you need to make them your self-contained home away from home.

They both cost around £65,000, too, though the Volkswagen California Ocean seen here steps that up to £72,000 with several optional extras including a near-£3,000 paint job.

But there’s plenty to separate them, and in our eyes – a clear winner, too.

What vehicles are they based on?

Though larger campervans are nearly all based on Fiats, in this mid-sized category, the Volkswagen Transporter reigns supreme. There are a variety of reasons for that, but one of the most compelling must be nostalgia – the classic VW Camper is as much an icon as any Beetle or Mini.

Transporters are great to drive, with the latest T6 vans featuring technology lifted wholesale from VW’s passenger cars, powerful diesel engines and slick DSG automatic gearboxes. They also have a really classy image and feel solidly built. And third-party converters like their high payloads, unobstructed interiors, and strong reliability record.

2020 Ford Transit Custom Nugget front three quarter

VWs have been converted into campers ever since their introduction, but the California name first appeared on a T3 Transporter-based motorhome in the 1980s. Back then, the duties of conversion went to camping giant Westfalia. But in 2003, VW itself resurrected the name and began building its own Californias in a dedicated factory in Germany.

In an interesting twist of fate, it’s Westfalia that’s responsible for the conversion on the Ford Transit Custom Nugget. Ford has no part in the building of these campers – but like the Volkswagen, you can buy, service and maintain it at a main Ford dealer and benefit from a full manufacturer warranty.

The Transit Custom makes a brilliant base vehicle in and of itself, too. This is the best-selling van in the UK for a reason – it’s great to drive, hugely versatile and so ubiquitous that repairs are cheap and easy.

Both vehicles are offered with a pair of engine choices. For the Ford, it’s a 2.0-litre diesel with either 128bhp or 183bhp, the latter paired to a six-speed automatic gearbox. The VW also has a 2.0-litre diesel, offered with 148bhp or 197bhp. All Ocean models have a seven-speed DSG automatic, and four-wheel drive is optional.

It’s the Transit that’s the better steer here, though VW’s automatic gearbox is slicker and its diesel engine more efficient. Really, though, there’s little to separate the two beyond personal preference. There’s more to moan on the equipment front, though, as the California Ocean trounces the Transit when it comes to in-cab comforts – boasting climate control, LED headlights and a fully digital dashboard.

What are they like inside?

These two vans use totally different layouts. The California’s the more traditional of the two – it has a side-mounted furniture unit, rear-hinged rising roof and a rock’n’roll bed downstairs. The majority of campervans of this size use this layout, and for good reason, as it’s simple and versatile.

Two can sleep up top in the electrically-operated roof and two below, while there are four belted travel seats. Along the side kitchen unit you’ll find the facilities – a sink with hot and cold running water, a twin-burner gas hob (fed by a gas cylinder in the rear) and a top-loading fridge.

2020 Volkswagen California kitchen

Behind the rear bed there’s a wardrobe and a ‘boot’ area of sorts – this is great if you’re using the California as a secondary car, or for storing suitcases and bed linens on the move.

The Nugget’s totally different. Its kitchen is L-shaped, and situated at the rear of the van – with a front-hinged roof providing standing room around the sink, twin gas burners and top-loading fridge.

The rear seat – this time a three-seat bench – sits ahead of this, closer to the two front seats. It makes up into a bed, though not in as intuitive a way as the California’s, and the top beds of both vans are very similar.

Okay – so how are they to actually live with?

Which layout you like best is a matter of personal preference. We prefer the California’s traditional layout – it’s more versatile, feels more spacious and that ‘boot’ area is super useful. However, others have pointed out that the Nugget’s more split personality can be useful. One parent can cook in the rear of the van while another entertains the kids in the front, for example.

The Ford’s twin sliding doors and three-seat rear bench make it more useful as a people-mover, too, though it’s worth noting it’ll still only sleep four. The California can be optioned with a third rear seat as a separate unit, but it’s an expensive and awkward addition.

No, what really sets these two vans apart is the quality and usability of their interior conversions, and it’s something that a few minutes with either van will display. Where the Volkswagen California’s interior is a model of clarity, quality and ease-of-use, the Ford Transit Custom Nugget’s is awkward and clunky.

2020 Ford Transit Custom Nugget kitchen

Take something as simple as folding out the downstairs bed, for example. In the California, it’s a three-step process – drop the rear headrests at the touch of a button, slide the seat forward, and drop its backrest down flat. In the Nugget, that process takes twice as long, uses incredibly stiff and uncomfortable levers, and is very difficult to do without stepping out of the van – not ideal if you’re pitching on a cold or rainy night.

Then there’s the little things. Who’d’ve thought curtains would be such a problem? The Nugget has them on every window, fastened with desperately fiddly popper buttons. By the time you’ve closed one, you could easily have dropped all of the California’s one-handed roller blinds. The same goes for the front windows, where the California has magnetic blinds that fasten in an instant while the Ford has insulated screens held on by suction cups. Or barely held on, in our case – we stepped down from the top bed in the morning to find they’d fallen off in the night.

These issues may not be big deals to you, and given that both of these vans are available to eye up, poke around and experience in main dealers means you can – Covid-permitting – make a totally educated decision. For our money, though, it’s the California all day long. To save cash we’d sack off the options our test van came with (though it’d be hard to skip the £2,880 two-tone paint job…) and opt for the lower-powered 150hp engine, which is still far from sluggish.

The resulting van would be effortlessly competent and beautifully built, with residual values most cars could only dream of. It’s easy to dismiss the California, and vans like it, as expensive toys – but the memories you could make in a decade of stress-free ownership would be priceless.

What are the alternatives?

Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo

2020 Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo

Don’t fancy a Ford or a VW? There’s one other campervan sold in the UK with the full backing of its base vehicle manufacturer – the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo. Coronavirus prevented us from testing this van alongside the two above, but we tested one back in 2019.

It’s as luxurious as any vehicle carrying that three-pointed star, based on the V-Class people-carrier and fitted with powerful diesel engines and smooth nine-speed autos. For a couple, definitely a higher-class option, but we’d say it’s not quite as family-friendly as the Volkswagen California. It’s similar in price though, and well worth considering.

Volkswagen Grand California

2020 Volkswagen Grand California

If space is your concern – you want more of it on the inside and don’t mind how much you take up on the outside – then look at the Grand California. This is based on the Volkswagen Crafter, itself a brilliant large panel van, and takes everything we enjoy about the regular California and scales it up.

So now not only do you get four seats and a kitchen, but you get a permanent bed at the rear, standing room throughout, and best of all – a wetroom with shower and toilet.

The conversion inside is all Volkswagen’s work, and the quality is, of course, spectacular. Though it’s more pricey and less practical as a daily drive than the standard California, this really is a true home-away-from-home, and one we rated very highly when we drove it.

Third-party conversions

Ford Transit Custom MS-RT Wellhouse Campervan

Just because you can buy a campervan from a main dealer, doesn’t mean you have to. The UK is littered with motorhome dealers who’ll sell you any number of third-party conversions – vehicles that hail from all across Europe and come in a dizzying array of specs and layouts.

If you have specialist needs, a third-party conversion is the way to go, as you’ve so much more choice. It’s even possible to spec your own from the ground up, ideally suiting it to your own needs. If you need extra seats, or wheelchair accessibility; if you want a bigger kitchen, or a longer bed or a wine cooler or crocodile-skin upholstery – there’s a converter out there for you.

Some even specialise in campervans built on used base vehicles, helping to bring the price down to a level that might be more manageable.

By Tom Wiltshire

Bauer Automotive staff writer; Cotswoldian, Peugeot enthusiast, SsangYong Turismo apologist

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