Volkswagen California T6.1 revealed – posh camper gets even slicker

Published: 03 September 2019

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

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 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 T6.1 Beach, though, is an incredible ‘mini-kitchen’, that folds out from the side panel. It’s truly brilliant engineering, being virtually indistinguishable when folded away, and certainly something we’d love to see in the UK. But curb your disappointment, as VW currently has no plans to offer the Beach model on these shores. Large families, you’ll just have to pick your two favourite children.

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. We’ve not had prices confirmed for the T6.1 model, but don’t expect a price drop from the previous T6, which started north of £55,000 for an Ocean.

It’s 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.

When can I buy one?

Early 2020. We’ll bring you a review of the latest model as soon as we’ve driven it – and slept, cooked and relaxed in it, of course.

By Tom Wiltshire

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