'Sold out until June 2021' – that’s the official line from the Volkswagen Australia website.
It’s a great problem to have, especially when the first 30 allocations were snapped up within nine hours of going on sale. Some will say it’s pent-up demand of dedicated Volkswagen-philes waiting years for the factory-backed camper to land. Others will say it’s a byproduct of restricted travel conditions we currently live in.
I’d say it’s a little bit of column A, and a little bit of column B.
|2021 Volkswagen California Beach TDI340 4Motion|
|Engine capacity (cc)||2.0-litre (1968cc) turbo diesel four-cylinder|
|Power||110kW @ 3250–3750rpm|
|Torque||340Nm @ 1500–3000rpm|
|Claimed fuel economy||7.5L/100km|
|Fuel economy on test||7.5L/100km|
|Automatic transmission||Seven-speed dual-clutch|
|Price before options||$86,990|
|Price as tested||$101,330|
|Dimensions||4904mm long / 1904mm wide / 1970mm tall|
Regardless, I found myself fortuitously with a 2021 Volkswagen California Beach at the time I had some scheduled leave. And funnily enough, I had talked my wife into taking the kids camping for the weekend despite the forecasted cold weather.
Imperfect conditions, but a great opportunity to properly test out Volkswagen’s campervan on a Purcell family camping trip. We made a beeline for the pine forests of surrounding Oberon, with the plan of settling in for a few days of precious little.
The California has been a staple of the European market for 30 years, but this is the first time Australians have been treated to the model. While Mercedes-Benz also has its own Marco Polo camper, the California also competes with the likes of a Trakka and Achtung Camper, which have more interior cabinetry.
In Australia, there are also popular things like camper trailers and small caravans to consider, for those who have a tow rig and an appetite to tow. But many don’t want to tow, and would prefer a more integrated camping set-up. The California could fit that bill, and double up as a family car at the same time.
It’s not a cheap exercise, with a price range starting from $82,990 before on-road costs for a front-wheel-drive TDI340. We’ve got the 4Motion variant, which adds an extra $4000 to the asking price before you start looking at options.
Compared to a TDI340 Multivan Comfortline Premium, you're looking at roughly $21,000 more for the California.
Throw in an Appearance Package ($5760), Off-road Package ($1600), electric pop-top roof ($2990) and two-tone paint ($3990), and you’ve moved into six-figure territory: $101,330.
Although expensive, the Appearance Package does a lot to take the Multivan upmarket: cloth seat trimming gets traded in for ‘Art Velour’ microfleece and leather seating, with heating for the front seats. There are also LED lights all round, high-beam assist and a digital instrument cluster.
The Off-road Package is a simpler one, and a worthy consideration for those keen to explore unsealed surfaces. It includes a locking rear differential and hill descent control working with the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system.
Otherwise, it’s standard fare for a California camper, with most of the additions centred around camping comfort: swivelling captain’s chairs up front, integrated camping furniture, auxiliary battery and diesel-powered heater, wind-out awning and integrated window blinds.
And don’t forget the pop-top roof, which acts as a double bed up top and up to 2.3m of interior standing space.
Unlike a seven-seater Multivan, the California only seats five. The second row has a trick folding mechanism, which allows it to form into another double bed, in conjunction with the shelf in the boot.
There is a fold-up mattress topper for sleeping down below, but we found it to be pretty uncomfortable. Instead, we raided the camping gear in the shed for an inflatable mattress, which improved things greatly.
The experience up top was better, with a relatively thin mattress made more comfortable by a sprung base. We found even just a doona and two pillows up top was enough to stop the lid from fully closing, which required us to decant the bedding before moving off.
A lot of additional features and changes in the California are smartly thought through. There are plenty of power outlets littered throughout the cabin, along with lighting and controls. I like the torch in the second-row footwell, and you'll find another one in a cigarette plug.
Much of the California’s auxiliary ability is accessed through the roof-mounted control panel up front – smartly integrated and easy to use. Here, you can do things like control the heater and ventilation, as well as operate the electric roof and all of the lights.
Another handy function is max charge, which increases the idle and charges the 60 amp-hour auxiliary battery as quickly as possible.
The level meter is one we found handy for setting up camp on flat ground. Or at least making sure our heads were higher than our toes.
In the back, you’ve got raw storage space separated by the shelf set-up. There’s plenty of space, but keen travellers and campers will likely want to invest in some kind of storage solution to keep things organised.
TDI340 nomenclature indicates a 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel engine, which makes 110kW at 3750rpm and 340Nm at 1500–3000rpm. You can get a more powerful TDI450 variant with an additional turbo to make 146kW and 450Nm, but I reckon what we have is plenty enough for the application.
With the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, the power goes down to the ground with much more composure compared to my previous experience in a front-wheel-drive Multivan. The front wheels don’t spin as easily, and the extra driven wheels soak up torque well for a smarter, better take-off.
The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is also more settled, shifts smartly on the move, and allows low-speed crawling at the same time.
And if you’re keen to do some light off-roading, Volkswagen’s 4Motion system would probably do better than you imagine. As long as you don’t overdo the 213mm of ground clearance on offer, the California 4Motion would handle some sand, dirt and fire trails quite well.
Otherwise, the California operates quite well as a day-to-day operator when you're not lucky enough to go camping. Things like the pop-top roof and interior layout don't get in the way, and the shelf in the back is also handy for grocery shopping.
At the end of our test, we had an indicated 7.5 litres per 100km after a mix of cruising and town driving, along with camping and bush driving. That matches Volkswagen's claim, although our mix did include a lot of highway driving.
However, only having five seats in such a vehicle might miss the mark for some.
Back to camping. We found the diesel heater easy to operate and quite effective on a cold night amongst the pines. We set it on five (out of 10) on the control panel, and that was enough to keep things cosy. Crank it up to 10 and occupants would likely get cooked if they weren't in a blizzard.
I like the quality and integration of the camp chairs and table, and the ease at which the side awning deploys. The awning arms can't be tightened, however, so strong winds would need to see some solid pegging down (or putting away).
The captain's chairs are handy and allow you to set up a bit of an interior party. But they are fiddly to get them to spin past the handbrake and B-pillar.
We also had some issues with the window blinds: one of them jammed up, and another refused to stay down. But we worked around it, and they were good enough at keeping morning light out.
The windows have blinds on them, and some were fiddly and jammed a little. Imperfect, but they work well enough.
The Multivan isn't as nice to drive or sit in as a Carnival, like I have mentioned before. But in isolation it’s certainly good enough to pass muster. And it's the same case with the California: it's comfortable enough and easy to drive during the boring chores.
Ergonomically, the van-like seating position is comfortable for long drives, and with the digital instrument cluster you've got plenty of tech in front of you to feel modern. The infotainment display, which is upgradable, is big enough and packs plenty of features. However, we'd prefer that Volkswagen kept the AM radio.
Although it proved to be a good campervan in the bush, the price is the hardest part of the California to swallow. Although, there are at least 30 punters out there that don't seem to have an issue. And from my time with a Mercedes Marco Polo a little while ago, I reckon the California is a better choice.
Like the Multivan, there are some new safety features for the T6.1 update: six airbags (including curtain airbags), forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking (only up to 30km/h), blind-spot monitoring and lane-keep assist. There is no ANCAP safety rating, however.
The California Beach is a turn-key camper that's ready to go off the showroom floor, factory-backed, and a vehicle that has no shortage of cool factor and heritage to draw upon.
However, it is expensive at around $100,000, so buyers will need to weigh up other options in the broader camping market to see which suits them best.