Volkswagen California 6.1 Beach – kitchen sink no longer included

Published: 12 October 2020

► New base vehicle brings raft of improvements
► Still posh, still pricey
► The most fun you can have in a Volkswagen?

Volkswagen has noticed that for some reason people are buying more campervans and not getting on planes and stuff, and has responded with admirable alacrity by introducing a pair of new entry-level Beach models to its California campervan line-up.

Ooh – a cheaper VW California?

Entry-level does mean cheaper. But the VW California Beach still costs upwards of £52k, and on the most basic Beach Tour version you’ll have to bring your own camping stove, as there are no cooking facilities included at all.

VW California Beach, 6.1, 2020, pull-out kitchen

The higher spec Beach Camper does include a single-burner hob, which stows away in the side of the van when not required. Which is pretty clever. More details below.

As this all suggests, the California Beach models are more MPVs with pop-up roof than fully equipped mobile getaways. But they are also able to carry more people as a result – the Tour seating five as standard with the option to increase to six or seven, while the Camper carries four as standard (same as existing Californias) with a fifth optional.

What else separates the two?

An awning and about £300 – which is all the extra dosh you’ll need to get the Beach Camper instead of the Tour. The Tour does come with twin sliding side doors to the Camper’s single item, though; both get a camping table and two chairs hidden in the tailgate.

VW California Beach, 6.1, 2020, rear view

Both versions are set to go on sale before the end of October 2020, combined with a single 150hp TDI engine choice.

Want to know more about the rest of the California 6.1 range? Then read on – or check out our VW California review.

Meet the new camping boss: VW California 6.1 on sale from summer 2020

Pack the kids up, put the Portapotti in the cupboard and practice your two-burner gas cookery. The Volkswagen California has been refreshed ready for summer 2020, now based on the latest T6.1 Transporter van and packing a raft of minor improvements.

It’s still the only campervan that’s built in-house – Volkswagen has a dedicated factory building Californias, in contrast to most rivals such as the Ford Transit Nugget or Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo which are merely rebranded third-party conversions. That gives the Cali a properly car-like level of fit and finish, with camper functions seamlessly integrated. 

The reason people buy these vehicles is for freedom and for fun. They can be packed up for a weekend away in minutes, are small enough to navigate tight streets during the week and even operate as a family car if needed. No wonder they’re so popular among young and old alike. They’re especially useful for sporting pursuits – and what image is more perfect than a VW Camper with a surfboard strapped to the roof and a bike on the back?

What’s the base vehicle like?

The latest California’s based on, unsurprisingly, the latest VW Transporter, now in its T6.1 generation (the changes weren’t significant enough to justify calling it T7). Though the body’s pretty much the same, up front it’s all change – updated engines, a smart new face and a car-like cabin that feels like it would be more at home in a Passat than a van.

There’s a big touchscreen infotainment system, and the move from hydraulic to electromechanical power steering means the Transporter now gets access to VW’s full suite of safety aids – autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assist, even self-parking and trailer assist. Given that most Cali buyers will be using a car during the week, rather than a van, that’s good news and should make adjusting to a bigger vehicle an easier process.

What’s new in the back?

There are plenty of small changes here, but first let’s refresh the memory on what you get as standard. Opt for a ‘Coast’ or ‘Ocean’ model – the true campers in the range – and you’ll find two swivelling front seats that face a sliding rear bench. This is offset to allow for a side-mounted kitchenette, with a gas hob, sink, top-loading fridge and lots of storage.

There’s no bathroom or toilet cubicle – the Cali’s simply too small for that – but if you really want to defecate just inches from where you’re going to sleep that night, there’s a cupboard where you can hide a PortaPotti. Please don’t, though.

On this T6.1 model, there are small changes throughout. The cupboards and storage units all feature new, sturdier latches – buyers complained that the old ones kept popping open under acceleration or braking. The lids for the hob, sink and fridge now also feature proper, positive-locking catches.

Above the cab, there’s now a touchscreen unit to control the camper-specific features. It’s every bit as user-friendly as the infotainment system in the Cali’s dash, and holds information such as battery charge, water tank capacity, heating and lighting, and there#s even a clever spirit-level to make sure the van’s not on the skew.

Behind the rear seat, there’s a new modular platform which should give more flexible storage – and it can be raised, lifting the head of the bed for a comfortable lounger effect.

Where do I sleep?

You can sleep ‘downstairs’ – the rear bench folds flat, and a thin mattress topper turns it into a fairly comfortable double bed. The best berths, though, are those in the roof. Raise the lid and lower the sleeping platform and you can easily hop up there.

Canvas sides – now made of a darker fabric so sunrise won’t disturb your beauty sleep – unzip to provide ventilation, and where there was previously a wooden slatted bed base there’s now clever plastic springs. These won’t transmit movement across the bed, so you won’t wake your partner by turning over in the middle of the night.

What if I have more than two kids?

Sorry. Coast and Ocean models – the Calis with the full kitchen – are strict four-seaters. Beach models can seat five, though. They’re set up more as ‘day vans’, with a smaller storage unit along the side of the van and no standard kitchen. They’re also lower-spec, with a manually operated rising roof rather than an electric one.

Optional for the 6.1 Beach (it’s in the Beach Camper version), though, is an incredible ‘mini-kitchen’, that folds out from the side panel. It’s truly brilliant engineering, being virtually indistinguishable from the standard trim when folded away.

What engines can I have?

Again, not confirmed. They’ll all be 2.0-litre turbodiesels, and you can expect the higher-end of the regular Transporter’s engine range – the range will likely kick off with a 148bhp unit with six-speed manual gearbox and top out with 196bhp, a seven-speed DSG and 4Motion four-wheel drive.

How much is it?

Enough to make you suck air through your teeth, that’s for sure. Prior to the introduction of the Beach models, UK pricing the California 6.1 model was upwards of £55k. As of October 2020 it’s from £56,395 for the Coast and £64,873 for the Ocean.

It’s all somewhat justified, though. Not just by the high-end cab or powerful engines – though these are plus points – but by the California’s truly integrated nature. No other manufacturer builds its own campervans in-house like this, and even the most upmarket such as the Ford Transit Nugget or Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo can’t hold a candle to the Cali’s sheer solidity and class.

By Tom Wiltshire

Bauer Automotive staff writer; enjoys Peugeots, naturally-aspirated diesels, column shifts and steel wheels