Forget an R34 Nissan Skyline or a diesel Land Rover Defender. The 2018 Volkswagen California van is the not-legal-in-America car you should be lusting over. It’s comfortable to live in, easy to drive, has an expanding roof... what more could you possibly want from a big rolling brick?
Well, besides the option to buy one in the U.S., which does not currently exist. And believe me, we are missing out.
(Full disclosure: VW’s German commercial vehicles division was hosting a product launch for this camper van in and around Los Angeles. After a few waves of European journalists, from countries where the California will actually be for sale, sampled the vans a small group of Americans were allowed to check them out for fun. My colleague Jason Torchinsky and I roamed around the high desert and beach cities doing absolutely nothing and it felt like the most decadent two-and-a-half days of work I’ve ever had.)
Volkswagen hasn’t sold a camper van in the U.S. for more than a decade. The ones that are still on our streets are generally driven by surfers, stoners, collectors like Fluffy Iglesias or the relatively new caste of #vanlife-loving hipsters from Colorado via the PNW or the Bay Area.
But listen van fans, before you start ragging on the Pataggucci-clad organic overlanders, keep in mind that they’re the strongest case for VW to sell its new T6 California camper van in the United States. And that needs to happen so the rest of us can enjoy it.
Sixty grand is a huge chunk of change to spend on anything, but if you spend it on a California van, you get a car and a house and a conduit to live the comfortable vagabond life you’ve been experiencing vicariously through Instagram for the last six months.
The California is a bricky van, similar in proportions to a Chevy Express or Ford E-Series, except instead of a stark empty steel cavern the interior of VW’s van is a tastefully appointed living space. This camper is built on the VW T6 platform, which has been around since 2015.
Unlike the moon-eyed weed smoker wagons most people associate with the phrase “VW Bus,” the new California has a traditional water-cooled engine under a hood that’s in front of the windshield, like most cars.
That engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged gasser, or rather one of two 2.0-liter tunes, rated to make about 150 horsepower or 200 HP depending on which you pick. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is going to be the transmission most people will want, but cool kids can still order a stick.
4Motion all-wheel drive is also available, along with a litany of fancy driver aids including adaptive cruise control. But far more interesting are the features and functions located behind the driver like: a two-burner propane stove, sink, gas-powered rear section heater, little tiny shower/hose thing, fridge, swiveling front passenger seat, fold-out center table, fold-flat rear seats (to become a bed) and the roof which expands skyward to make room for a second sleeping area.
When equipped with AWD and hill-decent control, the T6 California has a decent chance of being able to make it to some camp spots beyond the safe confines of KOAs. Its significant length and road tires will preclude the thing from doing any serious wheeling, though.
But if and when you do find a place to pull up, the vehicle really starts to shine.
The front passenger seat spins to face backwards with an easy lever, though it has to be reclined to a strangely forward-raked position to be rotated. I did a lot of scratching up the van’s interior plastic by trying to figure this out.
In the back, the center table deploys easily enough though you’ve got to be careful with the small plastic hinges as it’s possible to pop them out of their track.
All your food and snacks tuck into the top-loading fridge and front-loading cupboards as easily as they do at your house. Well, assuming your house is adorably tiny. The fridge in here is actually closer to the one you might have had under your bed in college.
While the van’s interior is reasonably roomy, you’re going to want to take advantage of the infinite space of the outdoors and you can do that by extending the awning, then busting out the chairs (stored tidily in the tailgate, which forms another awning when open) and the picnic table (stored in the sliding starboard-side helicopter door). Now you’re ready for the #vanlife, baby.
When all the snacks and firewood and special brownies are gone and it’s finally time to go to sleep, just scrunch the carpet up and fold the rear seat flat. It only took me about an hour of pathetically slamming the seat slider and throwing a temper tantrum before realizing that rug had to be moved before the seat could come down, so don’t be like me. Read the manual before the psychoactives kick in.
If you need even more sleeping space, the ceiling pops up with a digital power control mounted over the dashboard. That same little display can set the overnight heater’s temperature, and that device has more than enough power to keep you warm just about anywhere you’d reasonably want to camp. Seriously, I get cold easily and I was roasting with it on the “3” (out of 7) hotness setting.
But the best sleep-friendly feature on the whole van is the shade system. Big shades that tuck neatly into the van’s body can be pulled out to cover all the windows while you do whatever it is you want to do in your van by the river. Or wherever. It’s a very elegant solution to the problem of morning light pouring in when you’re trying to sleep.
The VW California is a triumph of space utilization. Every tool and accessory for living and vacationing stows neatly away in some tidy pocket or snap, and the build quality of everything is solid.
Levers and switches are modest but elegant looking, and everything feels robust enough for life on the road.
And incredibly, in spite of lugging around all these cozy creature comforts, the T6 van is just as easy and comfortable to drive and park as a Jetta.
This van’s not particularly fast, but you’re going to be too busy enjoying the view through its massive windows to want to break the speed limit anyway.
As far weaknesses when they van’s not moving, the lack of a toilet is a real downer. In the middle of a cold night of camping where there might be bears, who wants to climb down and out to pee into a black abyss?
One night I heard our lower window grind open, and I knew my busmate Jason was attempting to relieve himself through the portal above the sink, but thankfully the only thing I heard afterwards was a soft cursing and more scuffling until he realized his first plan was untenable.
Perhaps a funnel or catheter system could work in a pinch, but as it comes from the factory, there’s no urine evacuation solution beyond getting your lazy butt out of the van.
But of course the most glaring weakness of the California van is the fact that it’s not sold in the United States. Yeah, we’re going to have to keep bringing it up until VW does something about it.
There’s nothing memorable about the way the T6 California accelerates, stops or takes turns. Which is pretty impressive considering the fact that, again, it’s got a most of house inside of it.
Between its many parking sensors and commanding high-seated view of the road, this van is easier to drive and more user-friendly than a full-sized SUV like a Chevy Tahoe or Ford Expedition.
Everything just works; power is adequate, the steering is light but makes the van easy to get around parking lots, and the general vibe of the vehicle is too relaxed to get you to drive fast enough to trigger significant body roll.
In a wide, empty dirt patch somewhere north of Ojai we tried to whip up a DIY tornado by disabling traction control and hurling the California around in a circle but... nah. The engine just cuts power before the vehicle can build any real momentum and the handbrake doesn’t bite hard enough to do anything exciting. So I wouldn’t bother wasting gas on driving a T6 in anger.
In England, one of the markets in which the T6 California is sold, prices start at £45,885 which is the equivalent of about $62,000. That’s a hefty chunk of change, but unless you’re towing a boat or horses on the regular you’d be so much better off toting your family around in this than something like a GMC Yukon and you’d probably get better gas mileage, too.
If you really want to live lean, you could just get a couple gym memberships at national chains so you can shower, spend whatever else on this van, and save the rest of your money for food and fuel. Anything else you need you should be able to get through sponsorships as an Instagram influencer.
The Volkswagen California van is so sweet that writing this review made me mad. This vehicle is so much more interesting and appealing than everything else in VW’s current lineup, with the possible exception of the Golf R, and yet the enormous American market is denied it.
Americans are spending comical amounts of money on overland adventure vehicles and the aforementioned #vanlif is still blowing up. I know this because I pass all kinds of lifted Land Cruisers and off-roady RVs while I’m driving my own Pan-Am Safari truck to get groceries. VW has the perfect platform to capitalize on that, but only seems interested in building and selling regular-ass cars here.
If you can get a VW California, you probably should. Cross-shopped against any other people-mover, how could you not get the one that’s also a house? This might be the only vehicle on Earth that’s as easy to daily drive as it is to live in, and as far as I’m concerned that makes it one of the best things on wheels.