What kind of chemistry do you have with your car? Love it? Loathe it? Let us know and you could win a £300 John Lewis voucher | No thanks

Volkswagen T5 California Camper 2010 Road Test

Sat, 29 May 2010

Our experienced camper tester Martin Gurdon gets to sleep in the latest factory converted VW T5 Californina.

Back in the now dimly remembered ear of ‘Cool Britannia,’ purveyors of motor caravans desperately tried proving that their products weren’t terminally naff.

Fast forward fifteen or so years and they’re still at it. Although many of their offerings remain trimmed with materials and finishes that seem to mix Travelodge and Moulin Rouge, the publicity that accompanies them often goes on about the hip, happening, lifestyle opportunities they will, allegedly, open up.

Perhaps van makers should stop apologising, and embrace the Middle English territory which is rightly theirs, and the generations of people with happy memories tied up with their products.

The nearest thing to a trendy camper probably wears a VW badge and has a rear engine (visit our Danbury road test and video to see how you can buy one of these design classics new), but the people who built those famous vehicles also makes a camper version of its current, rather good T6 Transporter van.

The  Transporter has just been given a facelift, with new, Golf-like front lamp clusters and revised engines, majoring on a range of four-cylinder, 2.0 litre diesels that take over from well-liked, 2.5 litre five-cylinder motors, but beat them comfortably in terms of performance, economy and emissions. The new ones are Euro 5 compliant, and VW reckons are about 20 per cent more efficient overall.

Oddly, VW’s very German camper is called the California, and its clever, minimalist interior, with its subdued wood effect surfaces, alloy table and designer folding chairs, owes more to IKEA than MFI. It’s also been designed and built in house, which VW claim makes it unique. Potential rivals are van conversions from independent coach builders.

This gave the California’s creators access to a Cecil B. DeMille-scale research and development operation, second-to-none knowledge of all the safely and other laws that govern new vehicle designs, and of course the thing is screwed together on VW’s own assembly line using bespoke parts.

A cursory glance round the interior reveals a lack of sharp edges, and kitchen and storage units made from veneered light alloys that save weight and will absorb impact in an accident.

The California’s designers clearly had a ball finding clever ways to create storage spaces and cubby holes, and the systems that swivel the front seats, and turn the rear bench into a bed are simple and neat.

There’s a powerful auxiliary heater, and plenty of ‘that’s clever’ features, from the way the stainless cooker top and sink are formed from a single pressing, to myriad concealed lights. That heater is worked by a multi function control that sits above the rear view mirror and also actuates the electric raising roof.

This rises like a giant bellows and makes the California a true four-birth van. Lowering it takes practice, and careful study of the rather stern instructions. It needs to expel a lot of air, so windows need to be opened, and if a stop/start approach isn’t adopted it seems to get is stays in a knot and won’t close properly, thanks to bits of canvas going out of shape. Familiarity would probably make it easy to use, but I managed to provide neighbours on a Sussex campsite plenty of harmless amusement trying to make it behave.

My wife and our dog came too, and although the latter quickly grew to love this exotic wheeled kennel, the former did not. Both the dog and I slept soundly, but my partner found the bed ‘bloody uncomfortable,’ which wasn’t my experience, but then I’m an insensitive bloke.

Neither of us were enamoured with the California’s cooking and refrigeration arrangements. Accessing the top loading fridge always seemed to involve shifting stuff from its lid, and where was the oven and grill? The California costs £37k plus, and provides just two gas rings. Perhaps VW expect the well-heeled empty nesters who are likely to buy something like this to eat out most nights.

If they’re driving to those restaurants, the journey will be no pain at all. Our van’s 1,968cc, 177bhp engine was smooth and refined, and provided a pleasing stream of torquey power from low revs. Ours was mated to a seven-speed DSG, twin clutch transmission. I’ve sometimes found this two pedal auto/manual override system slightly flaccid in other VWs and Audis, but in the California it worked like a charm, and really suited the vehicle. For those who prefer changing gear conventionally, a six speed transmission is also available.

The high seating position offered the endless amusement of peering over walls, and generally being nosy. The steering is pleasantly direct, if a bit low geared at parking speeds –manoeuvring this big vehicle can sometimes bit a little involved- and although our example had alloy wheels and low profile tyres, it rode surprisingly comfortably. For the record, any driver wanting to get the cutlery to make a bid for freedom by cornering hard, will find the top-heavy California rolls a fair bit, but handles well, something helped by its neat, space-saving independent rear suspension.

Despite having an optional, retractable shop-style awning attached to one side, the California was surprisingly free of wind noise, and overall made for a very pleasant travelling companion.

VW claims you could use it as a daily driver, which is true, but the California’s bulk might become irksome after a time. Better to have it as a long-lived, weekend plaything and holiday companion, as long as you camp close to some nice restaurants or eat more salad.        


140PS TDi                             £36,965,

180PS BiTDi                        £41,865,

180PD BiTDi DSG                           £43,515,

4Motion                                 £44,465.


California SE DSG equipment specifications

80 litre fuel tank with secure flap

Body coloured bumpers, exterior mirrors and

protective side moulding

Chrome trim on radiator grille

Clear glass headlights

Covered sliding door guide

Insulating double glazed glass in living area

(except sliding window)

Jack and tool kit

Mirrors: convex on passenger’s side, aspherical with

outer wide angle section on driver’s side

Pop-up aluminium roof (electro-hydraulically

activated) with 2 attachment rails for roof luggage

rack system (roof load max 50 kg), exterior mounted

stay arm, self-furling bellows and 3 zip vents

 Right side sliding door

 Roof load rack preparation

 Self supporting and galvanised full steel body

Tailgate, double glazed

Tinted cab windows

Towing eyes, front screw-in and rear fixed to body

2 silicone-damped grab handles above cab doors

and grab handle at ‘A’ pillar, left

 2 storage compartments in driver and passenger

door, lower holds 1.5 litre bottle

 2 sun visors, folding and pivoted with vanity mirror

and document pocket

 Blackout for night use on windscreen and cab doors

 Carpet floor covering

 Centre console

 ‘Crete’ fabric seat covers

 Dash mounted gear lever

 Drinks holder

 Driver and passenger swivelling seats with lumbar

support and armrests

 Fabric push-on frame insert to shade door window

 Front floor mats

 Hook on lower dash on front passenger side

 Interior entry steps, illuminated

 Interior light and two reading lamps in overhead

console, with switch-off delay

Leather covered steering wheel, handbrake grip

and manual gear knob

 Lockable glove compartment

 Open storage compartment in dash panel including

mobile phone holder

 Storage compartments in dash panel beneath

outer air vents

 Storage compartments in outer side of driver

and passenger seats

 Storage net on lower dash passenger side

 Storage pockets on front seat backrests

2 folding chairs (stored in tailgate)

 Clothes cupboard and storage compartment, rear left

 Cooler ‘Waeco’: 42 litre capacity, cooling system

compression unit

 Draw curtains for side windows, rear left

 Drinks holder

 Flexible worktop (attached to kitchen

cabinet, adjustable)

Floor with plastic safety cover

Flourescent light and 5 LED spotlights,

switched individually

 Folding table (stored in sliding door)

 Fresh water container, approx 30 litres: filling

outside vehicle, rear left, with access for cleaning;

with electric pump

 Gas cooker: 2 burners, burner power approx

1000W/1800W, power from 2.8kg gas cylinder

(not supplied), energy consumption rated

approx 140g/hr

 Interior entry step with automatic illumination


 Kitchen unit: sink/cooker combination with height

adjustable safety cover, sink: stainless steel with

height adjustable single tap (with switch for water

pump) and removable washing-up bowl, drawer for

cutlery, storage space with 2 sliding doors

 Light in luggage compartment (tailgate activated)

 Reclining bench/bed, adjustable and tilting: backrest

adjustable to 3 positions, folding, articulated and

adjustable headrests, storage compartment under

bench seat, removeable integrated seat belts, sleeping

area 114 x 200cm, together with bed cushions

Roof bed (120 x 200cm) with gas-spring supported

pivoting mechanism: ventilation windows in sides

(closable) on left and right, mosquito net, comfort

slatted frame, foamed plastic padding (55mm),

insertable child safety net and flexible halogen lamp

 Safety tank valve: gas pressure regulator, shut-off

valve for gas feed

 Sliding windows with flyscreens

 Waste water tank: protected against freezing in

passenger compartment, capacity approx 30 litres

4 12V sockets in living area

Air conditioning dashboard, manually controlled,

with dust and pollen filter

 Electric windows, front

 Electrically adjustable, heated and folding

exterior mirrors

 Heated front seats

 Heated washer jets, front

 Instrument illumination, dimmable

 Instrument panel includes: brake fluid level, brake

pad wear indicator, coolant temperature display,

digital clock, fuel gauge, rev counter, trip computer,

speedometer with total mileage and trip counter,

warning lamps for handbrake applied and

door/tailgate opening, windscreen washer fluid

level indicator

 Parking heater with radio remote control

 RCD 310 Radio/CD player with 8 speakers and

AUX-IN socket

 Remote central locking with deadlocking and internal

locking button, 2 remote keys supplied

 Separately controlled heating system for living area

 Side sliding door with power latching

 Steering column, height and rake adjustable

 Tailgate with power latching

Vented moulded trim above side windows

in passenger compartment

Warning buzzer for lights left on

Windscreen wiper with 2-speed operation

and variable intermittent delay Roof bed (120 x 200cm) with gas-spring supported

pivoting mechanism: ventilation windows in sides

(closable) on left and right, mosquito net, comfort

slatted frame, foamed plastic padding (55mm),

insertable child safety net and flexible halogen lamp

Safety tank valve: gas pressure regulator, shut-off

valve for gas feed

Sliding windows with flyscreens

Waste water tank: protected against freezing in

passenger compartment, capacity approx 30 litres

 2 reversing lights

3rd brake light

ABS: Anti-lock Braking System

 Airbag for driver and passenger with passenger

airbag deactivation

 Airbags, side and front curtain

 Anti-theft protection: alarm with interior and

tow away protection, deactivation switch for both

functions on ‘B’ pillar, breaksafe steering wheel lock,

electronic immobiliser, locking wheel bolts

 Childlock on sliding door

 Dual tone horn

 EBC: Engine Braking Control (not with 4MOTION®)

 EBD: Electronic Brakeforce Distribution

 EDL: Electronic Differential Lock

 ESP: Electronic Stabilisation Programme including

Active Rollover Protection (ARP), brake assist

system, maximum brake support, prefill and Rain

Brake Support

 First aid bag and warning triangle

Fog lights, rear and front with cornering lights Halogen main headlights with daytime

running function

 Headlight range control

 Head restraints, height and tilt adjustable

for all seats

Hill hold control

Rear view mirror anti-dazzle function

 Seat belts, 3 point inertia reel integrated into

rear seats

 Seat belts, 3 point with height adjustment

and tensioners for front seats

 Side mounted indicators

TCS: Traction Control System

 12V system

 12V to 230V adapter (in kitchen cupboard)

 230V system with battery charger

 AC inverter with 230V socket

 Alternator 180Ah

 Batteries: 72Ah, 2 auxiliary batteries (maintenance

free) with cut-off relay for powering living area

(cooler etc.)

 Battery charger (current and voltage regulated)

 Central electronic system with waking alarm function

in cab above interior mirror for control and status

check of: battery charge level, battery capacity, cooler

(digital temperature setting), outside temperature,

fresh water supply (3 settings), waste water level

(3 levels), charger display, activation of electric

pop-up roof, parking heater display and control

 Charging via alternator or battery charger

 Circuit breaker (FI/LS 0.001/13A)

 Cooler: power consumption – approx

50W @ 100% on-time, average on-time approx 30%,

running noise under 35dB (A), classification ***

(to -18°), operation electric 12V

 Earthed mains socket in living area

 Fuses for power consuming devices in living area

Supply via CEE outlet on outer side, rear left



1,968cc, four-cylinder diesel six-speed manual/seven-speed DSG: 140PS (138BHP) 340Nm torque @1,750-2,500rpm

(BiTurbo 180PS (177BHP) 400Nm torque @1,500-2,000rpm)


Length: 4,892mm (16.4”)

Height: 1,995mm (6.5”)

Width: 1,905mm (6.2” (not including raised roof?)

Weight: 3,000kg

Fuel tank 80litres

Turning circle 11.9m

Steering lock to lock. 3.3 turns






140PS 2.0 TDil 6sp man : 0-62 15.7 seconds; top speed 106mph, economy 36.7 mpg (combined) CO2 emissions 203g/km.

180 PS 2.0 BiTDi 6sp man: 0-62 12.4 seconds; top speed 117mph, economy 36.2 mpg (combined) CO2 emissions 205g/km.

180 PS 2.0 BiTDi DSG: 0-62 12.4 seconds; top speed 117mph, economy 34.9 mpg (combined) CO2 emissions 214g/km.

180 PS 2.0 BiTDi 4Motion: TBC.




Wentworth RV T5 conversion

Danbury Active/Royale/Surf T5 conversion

Jerba Tiree T5 conversion

Bilbo’s Motorhomes T5 conversion

Rainbow Conversions T5.

More at VW California


Read more


Ask Honest John

Value my car