I’ve always been a bit of a fair-weather camper. The prospect of setting up a tent in the pouring rain, or traipsing up a mountain in the biting wind, isn’t my idea of fun. Having somewhere warm and dry to retreat to is a top priority, so visiting pubs is a particularly pleasing pastime of mine.
The concept of a camper van had always seemed like an ideal solution. While I’d never been able to explore the idea of owning one, you can trace back the obsession to my childhood bedroom, where a sixties VW Type 2 money box nestled itself among a vast array of 1:18-scale diecast supercars.
I’ve still got the model, and while it isn’t as full of cold, hard cash as you’d hope after 20 years of saving, I can finally claim the dream has become reality – albeit with a little help from Volkswagen.
That’s right, I’ve just picked up the keys to my very own VW California. I’ll be running it for the next six months or so, to see if that boyhood fantasy is as rosy in real life, or whether I should stick to surfing the south coast with my sopping wet tent.
There are currently two models to choose from: the California Beach or the California Ocean. We’re testing the latter, which is the more expensive of the two, thanks to the addition of a sink, fridge and two-ring gas hob. It’s beautifully laid out, with cupboards and drawers running the length of the van.
Even after a few weeks and a long weekend away in Wales, my wife Anna and I are still discovering hidden treasures, such as the picnic seats in the tailgate, or the small mirror in the wardrobe. Every window has a built-in blind, and the front chairs swivel 180 degrees to accommodate four people around the table.
Not only will it seat two couples, the California Ocean will also sleep four people. The roof raises electronically in around 30 seconds to reveal a raised bed up top; the rear seats then fold flat to provide space for your friends. We’ve yet to discover quite how tight it is with four on board; Anna and I shamelessly forced my brother-in-law and his pregnant wife into an adjoining tent during our Bank Holiday trip to Fishguard.
Our van isn’t cheap, but for a smidge over £60k you get an equipment list to rival the latest luxury SUVs. Fit and finish isn’t quite on par, but this is a functional vehicle designed to withstand years of abuse from impatient children and mucky dogs. We’ve got a set of waterproof seat covers in the drawer under the back seats, but luckily we’ve not had to use them yet.
Every California Ocean gets 17-inch alloys, automatic lights, three-zone climate control, heated seats, Bluetooth and USB connectivity and a five-inch touchscreen. The kitchen and associated gubbins are included, of course.
We added a few options to our van, the most expensive of which is the eye-catching two-tone paint. We couldn’t resist speccing our camper in Auto Express red and white, despite the hefty £2,604 bill. Elsewhere, we went for the more accomplished Discover Media Nav system (£1,602), Adaptive Cruise Control (£414) and front and rear parking sensors with a camera (£714).
Our van has the VW Group’s 2.0-litre TDI diesel which, due to WLTP constraints, now produces 196bhp. It’s linked to the tried-and-tested seven-speed DSG gearbox, which works wonders on fuel economy, thanks to a clever coasting function. Given the van’s bluff shape and the power on offer, I’m not too disappointed by a 32.9mpg average over the first 1,900 miles. As the engine loosens, there’s a very real possibility that figure will improve.
*Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.