Volkswagen Grand California (2019) review: happy camper

Published:17 May 2019

Volkswagen Grand California (2019) review: happy camper
  • At a glance
  • 4 out of 5
  • 3 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5

By CJ Hubbard

Former CAR magazine associate editor, road tester, organiser, extremely variable average wheel count

By CJ Hubbard

Former CAR magazine associate editor, road tester, organiser, extremely variable average wheel count

► New big brother to VW California
► Fully equipped, including bathroom
► Based on Crafter van, but easy to drive

Love the idea of life on the road with VW’s California campervan, but can’t live without the reassurance of knowing where the next civilised bathroom stop is going to come from? Volkswagen now has the solution – but you’re going to need a bigger space to park it in.

This is the Grand California. Like the regular model, of which some 160,000 have now been sold, the new addition to the family is factory-built by VW. But instead of being based on the mid-size Transporter van, the Grand California is an off-shoot of the (much) larger Crafter.

Basic physics will tell you this means there’s more room inside, so in addition to the familiar kitchen, dining and sleeping areas the established California excels at, the Grand California also has room for a shower and a toilet.

Could this make it the perfect home away from home? We’ve been living in it to find out…

Exactly how big is the VW Grand California?

It comes in two sizes, and even the smaller 600 version we’ve been driving is just shy of six metres long (the available twin bike rack takes it well over that threshold); the larger 680 model is over 6.8m and has a wheelbase longer than a Ford Focus.

It seems strange at first, but the ‘smaller’ one has the taller ‘camper’ roof – which means more headroom to stand up inside; though both should be ok for six-footers, if you’re anything like us you will likely still bang your head in the places where the internal height changes.

VW Grand California rear quarter

Perhaps stranger still, the 600 can be equipped to sleep four, while the 680 is exclusively for two, and they enjoy a larger bed area in the rear.

Both are 2m wide – or just over 2.4m if you include the twin-lens door mirrors.

Is it a pig to drive, then?

Quite the opposite. If you aren’t used to driving big vans be prepared to clip a few kerbs with your trailing inside wheel at first. But once you’ve got the necessary swing space down, the Grand California is surprisingly unintimidating.

You’re probably not looking for a van history lesson here, but it’s perhaps at least worth pointing out that this latest Crafter, which was introduced in 2017, is entirely Volkswagen’s own work, and no longer part of a joint venture with the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. It’s also pretty much the best large van on the market right now – at least from a driving perspective.

As a result, considering its size, the Grand California is incredibly easy to handle. The electrically assisted power-steering is effortless without being vacuous, it goes where you point it with adroit accuracy, and although obviously something this tall is going to roll in the corners, the movement is graceful and controlled rather than lurching and unpredictable.

More importantly, the Grand California is thoroughly comfortable, even over broken surfaces. Good news for the crockery.

VW Grand California tunnel

You do get a bit of low-speed torque steer if you bring the accelerator in a bit keenly when there’s some lock on – the Grand California is front-wheel drive as standard, 4Motion at extra cost – but for something that weighs over three tonnes it drives really very well.

Standard active safety aids for UK buyers include autonomous emergency braking and cross-wind assist, which did its best with Gran Canaria’s coastal breezes but didn’t completely eliminate the side forces. Tick all the boxes and the Grand California will even steer itself for short periods – ideal for opening pesky snack packets we absolutely cannot confirm.

What’s under the bonnet?

The engine is a 175bhp 2.0-litre TDI with 302lb ft, paired to an eight-speed automatic as standard on the Grand Cali. The gearbox is excellent – smooth and efficient – which means it swiftly compensates for the moments when the engine is caught breathless on the mountain roads through central Gran Canaria.

This is not what you’d call a slow vehicle in routine circumstances, however, easily passing other traffic whenever the opportunity presents itself. That said, it’s hardly loaded to gunnels with camping supplies on this occasion – and there are many, many cupboards for camping supplies – so four-up for a week away you may find a more considered approach is required.

VW Grand California rear tracking

Regardless, refinement is superb, with little wind or road noise even when cruising at 75mph. Although, it does have the same refinement issue as the standard California, in that those who are easily irritated may be driven mad by things rattling around in the storage spaces in the back.

But actually, this is a reminder that you’re essentially driving a studio flat on wheels, and will likely give most others a warm fuzzy feeling. The overly sensitive will need to invest in lots of felt, or turn the stereo up.

So what’s the Grand California like as a mobile home?

If you’re at all familiar with the Transporter-based California you’ll know that Volkswagen has become a master of integrated living, with clever features such as tables hidden inside doors, chairs inside tailgates, and so forth.

The Grand California is like this, only on an almost scarily functional scale.

Modern life means plenty of power, so there are up to six USB sockets for keeping tablets and phones juiced up – four of which are located near the sleeping areas – and up to four proper 230v sockets as well. Some of these power sources are accessible from the outside, via a flap on the back of the kitchen counter.

VW Grand California interior

The kitchen counter in the 600 extends at both ends to create additional space when required, and the fridge not only has a freezer compartment, but the basket/shelf area below this doubles up as a means of keeping bottles upright on the move; sadly this doesn’t stop them falling over when you open it. The night mode is welcome, though, making the fridge quieter when you’re trying to sleep.

Aircraft-style overhead lockers surround the rear sleeping area, and there’s more storage beneath the bed as well. If needs be, the bed folds up the walls, making enough room for a bicycle.

All the windows have blinds and mosquito nets, including the ones in the roof. There’s dimmable lighting everywhere, magnetic blinds for the front windows, and if you’ve got the window above the exhaust for the hot water heater open, the hot water heater won’t turn on.

Heating – and cooking – is fuelled by a pair of gas bottles in the rear compartment, with an upgrade to use diesel also available. Similarly, you can option a roof-mounted air-conditioning unit powered by the electricity feed from a campsite. It does get hot inside the Grand California if you’re parked up in the sun, so serious campers may want to consider this.

VW Grand California touch panel

A touchscreen panel mounted beside the bathroom door controls all the camping mode features, such as whether the automatic step that slides out whenever you open the side door should function when you’re parked up, and the temperature of the heating – and the water.

Which brings us rather neatly to the bathroom.

What’s the bathroom like?

Has that question ever been asked before on a CAR review? Anyway, it’s packaging genius.

The space is less than a metre on each side, yet VW’s still managed to cram a shower, a sink, a toilet and storage in there – the sink folding up when not in use, and the faucet doubling as the showerhead.

The all-important toilet roll tucks away into a cupboard to keep it dry (which mostly works), while the lighting is operated by motion detector. Heating the 110-litre water tank takes 10-15 minutes.

You have to be careful not to spray too much water at the door, or you end up damping down the kitchen floor, but we found showering in it surprisingly roomy.

Bathroom not big enough? If you’re an exhibitionist this is no problem, as the Grand California also comes equipped with an outdoor shower – which just plugs into a fitting at the back. There’s even a temperature control for this.

And how is it to sleep in?

In the 600 you sleep sideways to the main length of the van in the rear. Fitting side-by-side should be no issue for most people, but if you’re six-foot or more, even with scalloped out side panels, the width of the vehicle is going to make it cramped. In the 680 you sleep lengthways and the bed is bigger.

In either version you’ll be looking up at the bottom of cupboards; these aren’t too close, but you will notice them. There are a couple of clever storage nooks at the very back, one of which comes with twin USB sockets for power.

No issues with comfort. An 80mm mattress is combined with a technical-looking sprung metal base, and even with the mattress being in three sections you can get a fine night’s sleep. But if it’s been a  hot day there’s no means of cooling this camper aside from opening the windows (which seems to make little difference) or optioning the extra air conditioner, and hoping there will be somewhere to plug this in. Or just buy a fan, but it'll have to be a USB-powered one as the 230v sockets don't work without an external mains supply either.

The optional second bed in the 600 is above the cab, and is intended mostly for children – though it does have an extendable area one side that’s 1.9m long. A support automatically pops out of the wall when you deploy this, while a special child catching net stops anyone up there falling on their head during the night.

Anything VW hasn’t got right?

There are a few things that raise the eyebrows.

The dining room table is supposed to be stowed away when you’re driving, and apparently the only way VW could think to do this was to strap it to the rear bed; presumably most people will just leave it up, and the hell with it.

VW Grand California shade

The winders for the pop-up skylights are – naturally enough – mounted in the roof, and function like an old-school manual sunroof. However, since the Grand California 600 is so tall inside, shorter people (and I’m thinking of my wife here) simply won’t be able to reach the one over the living area without standing on the seats.

And, like the regular California, the sliding door into the rear compartment will be on the wrong side for the UK. But if you’re worried about kids getting in from the pavement they can always enter through the front passenger door and walk through to the rear – there’s no divider and the Grand California has a flat floor.

Presumably there are stacks of options available?

Oh, yes – everything from two-tone exterior paint (note the natty white over metallic beige in the pics) to a satellite dish, Wi-Fi and solar panels is available, if you’re prepared to pay for it.

A special Bluetooth sound system allows passengers in the back to listen to something different to those up front, too, with both sets of speakers combining when you want to deafen everyone else at the campsite.

How much does the Grand California cost?

UK pricing hasn’t been set yet, but we’ve been told to brace ourselves for a starting price around £69,000 when it finally opens for ordering here – which is expected to be in October 2019.

No doubt with options it’ll be possible to bring one of these exceedingly close to six figures.

VW Grand California: verdict

Sounds like a stupid amount of cash for a van with a bed, doesn’t it? But it’s actually not far off what third-party converters are already charging for a Crafter-based campervan (the thing is already a big hit with people looking for an upgrade over a motorhome based on the aging Fiat Ducato), and minor foibles aside, the Grand California is an utterly convincing product.

The standard of fit and finish is great, the functionality is superb, the design fresh and modern, it’s genuinely good to drive, and the clever thinking really impresses.

You could literally live in it. And frankly, we’d be happy to.

For full details of the VW Grand California’s dimensions, see the dedicated page on our sister site Parkers...

Check out our Volkswagen reviews

Specs

Price when new: £69,000
On sale in the UK: October 2019
Engine: 1968cc twin-turbo diesel 4-cyl, 175bhp @ 3600rpm, 302lb ft @ 1500-2000rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Performance: 0-62mph not quoted, 101mph top speed, 29.0mpg, 212g/km CO2
Weight / material: 3015kg / composite and steel
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 5968/2040/2971mm

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  • Volkswagen Grand California (2019) review: happy camper
  • Volkswagen Grand California (2019) review: happy camper
  • Volkswagen Grand California (2019) review: happy camper
  • Volkswagen Grand California (2019) review: happy camper
  • Volkswagen Grand California (2019) review: happy camper
  • Volkswagen Grand California (2019) review: happy camper
  • Volkswagen Grand California (2019) review: happy camper
  • Volkswagen Grand California (2019) review: happy camper
  • Volkswagen Grand California (2019) review: happy camper

By CJ Hubbard

Former CAR magazine associate editor, road tester, organiser, extremely variable average wheel count

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