Living big in a tiny van: We drive Volkswagen's new Caddy California

Published: 22 June 2021

► Unique mini-camper based on latest Caddy
► Sits underneath California and Grand California
► We've been for a spin in a German model

The smallest – and cheapest – addition to Volkswagen’s popular range of California campervans is fast approaching. The Caddy California sits beneath the larger Crafter- and Transporter-based Grand California and California, succeeds the previous Caddy Beach and offers potential buyers something a bit different.

What you’re getting if you opt for a Caddy California is the convenience of a car during the week and the flexibility of a tent at the weekends. Quick and informal getaways are the order of the day – sure, you could use the Caddy California for a fully-fledged family vacation, but that’s not what it’s going to be best at.

Volkswagen Caddy California - front three quarter

As the name suggests, it’s based on the Caddy van, which was released as an all-new model earlier in the year. Despite this diminutive frame, it crams a lot in – buyers will enjoy a proper, adult-sized foldout bed, a kitchen unit with hotplate and storage, and the option of a full driveaway awning to act as living space and additional sleeping berths. It even meets motorhome type approval.

We’ve had a brief drive and a look around a German-spec model in the UK, which was sold to us as ‘close to production’. Read on for our first impressions, or for a more in-depth take you can read the full Caddy California review on our sister site Parkers.co.uk.

Why would I want a tiny campervan?

Campers like this provide something their bigger rivals can’t – freedom and convenience. The Caddy California has about the same footprint as a family car, so unlike the larger vans it’s easy to park in town, won’t struggle with height restrictions and will fit easily onto a driveway or in a garage.

Best campervans

With car-like driving dynamics and fuel economy, too, you barely need a reason to take a van like this away. It’s perfect for people who wait until Friday night to decide they’d like to go away for the weekend.

Volkswagen Caddy California - side profile

Campers like this are popular with kite-flyers or surfers, who’ll flit from site to site and simply want a quick meal and a comfortable bed after a hard day of physical exertion, and it’s ideal for former tent-dwellers who want the peace of mind of a solid roof above their head.

The Caddy Cali’s also great when it comes to using it as a car. With twin sliding doors and space for five adults, there’s no reason this couldn’t be your daily driver as well as your weekend accommodation.

So it’s a van with a bed?

Kind of, but that’s doing the Caddy California a disservice.

We’ll start with that bed, and it’s the main draw of a proper campervan over, say, folding the seats down in your people carrier. While many mini-campers have awkward beds made up of hastily-arranged passenger seats, the Caddy California features a proper three-part folding unit that sits neatly in the boot space.

When extended out, it sits above the folded rear seats and measures 1980x1070mm – that’s longer and almost as wide as a standard small double mattress. Better yet, it features plastic cup springs and a proper mattress. These are similar to the sleeping arrangements found on the two larger California models, and we can confirm they’re extremely comfortable.

Volkswagen Caddy California - bed

Since the rear seats no longer form part and parcel of the bed-making process, they can be removed for extra storage – turning this from a slightly cramped five-person van into a capacious model for two.

And stargazers rejoice – you can option the Caddy California with an enormous panoramic glass roof. This obviously lights the van well during the day and provides a great view of the heavens by night, though as with all the side windows, a full set of magnetic blinds are provided.

What about the kitchen?

Kitchen’s a strong word – kitchenette would be more apt – but with a gas burner, storage and a work surface, it’s enough to meet European motorhome type approval.

The optional kitchenette stores in a large drawer unit underneath the Caddy’s boot floor, sliding out when needed. It includes a single burner hob with storage for a gas bottle, plus cutlery drawer and shelf.

We can confirm that while basic the kitchen feels extremely well-built – the drawer units slide out on very sturdy rails. While you will no doubt need to brush up on your one-pot cooking skills, there’s nothing stopping you bringing along a barbecue for outdoor dining. In fact, next to the kitchen unit, you’ll find a storage bag containing two folding chairs and a folding table.

Volkswagen Caddy California - kitchen

There’s no built-in fridge, so you’ll have to supply your own coolbox - but there's a 12V socket just inside the tailgate to facilitate that. And the kitchen’s location round the back of the vehicle does mean you’re forced to cook al fresco, which could be an issue if you’re stuck in a freezing cold rainstorm. Or August, as we like to call it in the UK.

However, the tailgate does provide some scant protection from the elements – and you can always call on the large driveaway awning if you’d prefer to be fully enclosed.

What does the awning provide?

In a word, space. With no real ‘lounge’ in the Caddy as you get in its larger brethren, anybody going proper camping in this van will more than likely spec the awning as a place to sit, cook, and generally relax while parked up.

A bedroom pod can be zipped on, too, turning the Caddy from a two-berth into a four-berth – so you can even leave those rear seats in place.

Volkswagen Caddy California - with awning

It’s an airbeam design, meaning instead of faffing about with poles you can just pump it up with a compressor. That makes for far speedier pitching. It’s also what’s known as a ‘driveaway’ awning – which means you can leave it in situ and enclosed when you take the van out for day trips.

Does it have a bog?

Nope. Sorry.

Bring your own Porta-Potti if you’re desperate, or stay on serviced campsites with shower and toilet facilities.

What’s it like to drive?

It’s worth mentioning at the outset that our experience is based on a model we won’t get in the UK. Available at launch will be a 112bhp 1.5-litre TSI turbo petrol, or a pair of 2.0-litre TDI diesels with 101bhp or 120bhp. The lower-powered diesel will come with a six-speed manual, the more powerful with a seven-speed DSG, and the petrol can be optioned with either.

VW’s German arm sent over the 120bhp diesels equipped with a manual ‘box and 4Motion four-wheel drive, neither of which are confirmed for the UK market.

With that being said, we’re familiar with how the Caddy drives in all of its forms, and the Caddy California (as you’d expect) feels very similar to its Cargo van sibling to drive. The extra weight isn’t too noticeable, and it’s comfortable across most road surfaces.

Volkswagen Caddy California - cab

Performance is hardly scintillating – the fastest will do 0-62mph in 11.4 seconds – but chunky torque levels means the additional weight of the camping gear doesn’t feel like too much of a burden.

Other criticisms include intrusive levels of road noise and a cab that, while rather glitzy, does feel a step backwards in terms of usability. The infotainment touchscreen is annoyingly laggy, though standard equipment is good and there’s plenty of storage round the cab.

You can read a more in-depth review of the Caddy Cargo van range at our sister site Parkers.co.uk.

I’m sold. How much and when can I buy one?

UK-spec models aren’t due until the end of the year but the price – especially compared to the larger California – is massively appealing.

Entry-level models will start at £29,975, which for a vehicle this versatile (or indeed, a camper built to VW’s exacting standards) is nothing short of a bargain. For reference, the Transporter-based California Beach - which is similar in concept to the Caddy California - starts from £54,665.

Optioning up to the longer Caddy Maxi will cost £1,320 extra, but brings with it useful additional storage at the back – well worth having, as luggage room isn’t palatial.

Volkswagen Caddy California - camping

Caddy Californias are purchased and serviced through Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, so don’t go asking your local car dealer for one.

Early impressions, then, are very favourable indeed. As soon as we’re able to spend some real time with a Caddy California in the UK, we’ll bring you a full review, but the good news is that this van looks and feels as good as we’d hoped.

By Tom Wiltshire

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

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