Minivans

California dreamin': Coastal glamping in VW's verboten van

Volkswagen’s California camper van is the coolest thing since the Microbus.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

I'm cruising along Pacific Coast Highway in a major bit of forbidden fruit: the 2018 Volkswagen California T6 van. Available in Europe, this 16-foot, Class B camper van is the envy of American van life compatriots. Think of it as a modern Westfalia pop-up camper, just with, you know, modern creature comforts.

But I'm not just taking this boxy van for a quick spin. For the next few days, it's my home away from home, part of a global media launch that celebrates the California's 30th birthday.

Super cool and never, ever coming to the United States. 

Emme Hall/Roadshow

Thankfully, this van is primed for on-the-road living. An awning deploys over the sliding passenger-side door and two camp chairs are stowed in the rear liftgate. There's even a collapsible table ensconced in the side door. Within 5 minutes of pulling up to a campsite, I've got a full patio space set up and I'm drinking a Diet Dr. Pepper that's been chilling in the van's refrigerator. All I need is a bandana-wearing dog and a handsome male companion to complete the perfect outdoorsy scene.

My top-of-the-line Ocean test van packs all the comforts of home. In addition to the top-loading fridge, it comes with a dual-burner gas stove and a small, stainless steel sink. A glass worktop can be moved out of the way when you don't need extra counter space, and spacious cupboards are housed below. A dining table slides out when you need it, and you can swivel the front seats to face backward, meaning you've got seating for a four-person dinner party. How elegant.

The pop-up roof holds a bed, but you can also push that platform up for more headroom.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

When it comes time to sleep, you've got two choices: pop the top or pull out the bench seat. The roof is operated via a multifunction display and extends upward; the bed folds down from the newly raised ceiling. With the roof all the way up, there's room to fully stand up inside the California. A heater keeps things warm on chilly coastal nights, and shades deploy from each window for added privacy.

Rise and shine

Come morning, I'm grabbing clothes out of a small closet in the back of the van. There's a shower head, but the water tank isn't heated and only holds 6.5 gallons, and I'm not too keen on brief, cold showers. There's no toilet in here, but given the close confines, that's fine. Things could get... smelly.

Beyond all this convenience, the California is full of little niceties. LED bulbs are scattered throughout the cabin, and the removable LED flashlight tucked behind the front passenger seat dually serves as floor lighting. That fold-out dining room table can act as additional counter space with the use of a strap that lets it hang over the back bench seat. There are even movable cup holders in the dining area. When's the last time a German-spec car had great cup holders?

The dining room table can be used as additional counterspace while cooking. 

Emme Hall/Roadshow

It's not all perfect, of course. Sliding the bench seat forward to make the bed requires a bit of muscle, and the front seats will only swivel around from one very specific position in the fore-aft slider. The sleeping surfaces themselves are also a bit tough. If you're Princess-and-the-Pea sensitive like me, bring an extra cushion.

Still, that all these features are crammed into a relatively small footprint is wonderful. And because of its small size relative to other campers, the California is super easy to drive.

Hit the road, jack

European customers can buy the California with a diesel engine, but my version has the gas-powered, 2.0-liter, turbocharged I4. With just 201 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, as well as a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, it's not exactly quick. But once you're up to speed, the California is perfectly happy chugging along at 70 miles per hour and has no trouble picking up speed for passing.

The California has a Sport mode, though I can't really feel a difference while cruising the twisty roads outside of Ojai. This isn't something you'll want to drive with gusto, anyway. Take one turn too quickly and you're met with lots of body roll, thanks to the extra, top-heavy weight. This van is equipped with Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel drive system and has a mechanical locking rear differential for extra rough-stuff prowess. I won't be driving over anything tougher than a grated dirt road, but with a proper set of knobby tires, you could probably get to campsites way off the beaten path.

You can be set up and ready to camp pretty quickly with the California van.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

As far as onboard tech is concerned, the California has a 6.3-inch touchscreen infotainment display. The navigation function doesn't work over here, as it's only loaded with European map data, but otherwise, it's the same colorful, responsive interface I've used in other late-model VW vehicles, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto built in. Blind-spot monitoring, forward emergency braking and adaptive cruise control are also onboard, for easier, safer driving.

The irony of a van named California not being sold in California kind of kills me, and that isn't going to change anytime soon. Volkswagen has absolutely no plans to offer it Stateside. Bummer. Even if Volkswagen did bring it here, it wouldn't be cheap. The base Beach trim, with no kitchen, front-wheel drive and a manual pop top starts at 43,200 euros, or about $51,000 at current exchange rates. A fully loaded California Ocean costs 91,000 euros, or a whopping $108,600.

That's not to say US-market campers are any cheaper, though. A 21-foot Winnebago van with an onboard toilet starts around $140,000 and the least-expensive Airstream Class B van comes in above $185,000. Yowza.

But there's hope yet for you VW van fans. The automaker is expecting to bring the I.D. Buzz electric van to market in 2022, which should be pretty cool, but probably won't be offered with everything and the proverbial kitchen sink... or refrigerator... or pop-up top.

Still, a few days of California dreaming along the coast gives me lots of "what if" fantasies about life on the open road. What if I just gave up the trappings of a Bay Area apartment and took off on the open road? I'd definitely bring along a dog, and give him the requisite bandana. Bringing a guy along is probably too much trouble.


Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. 

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.