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17 May, 2019 4:15pm Alex Robbins
It’s the biggest, best Volkswagen camper yet – but is the Grand California worth its considerable cost?
You know it’s not going to be an ordinary road test when the marketing material mentions such features as a spring-plate mattress, a pull-out fridge-freezer and a toilet. Mind you, the Volkswagen Grand California is no ordinary camper van.
It represents a first for Volkswagen, whose smaller California has become a bit of a cult icon among campervan enthusiasts. But where the standard California is based on the Transporter, this new sibling is based on the larger Crafter van, making it just over a metre longer and, consequently, much roomier inside.
Arguably the biggest news, however, is the addition of a small shower compartment with a built-in cassette toilet, making this a much more practical proposition for longer trips or family holidays.
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There are two Grand Californias to choose from. Both come with a double bed as standard but, counter-intuitively, the shorter 600 is actually the family-friendly variant, as it comes with an extra-high fibreglass roof section into which you can add an extra double bunk.
The 680, as its name suggests, gains an extra 80cm in its wheelbase, which has enabled the fitment of a longer bed and a bigger kitchenette. But it loses the extra height and, consequently, is strictly for two.
The Crafter is one of the best big vans on sale, so it should come as no surprise that the Grand California drives beautifully. The eight-speed torque converter auto is smooth and quick-shifting, while the 175bhp 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine provides more than enough grunt to maintain your momentum, even up hills.
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The steering is light and direct, and despite the top-heaviness of the 600 we’re driving, it resists body lean pretty well. As a result it’s very easy-going and almost as nimble as the smaller California; indeed, on a wide enough road, it can even be rather enjoyable.
Mind you, most Grand Californias will spend their time on motorways, so it’s a good job it’s brilliant there, too. It’ll sit at 70mph quite happily with surprisingly little wind and road noise. The ride is more comfortable than many cars we can think of, and there’s adaptive cruise control to help smooth away those miles. All the seats are offer plenty of support, too, especially those in the front, which get flip-down armrests.
And when you decide to pitch camp, the good news continues. There are smart touches like fly screens and USB sockets throughout, and a neat touchscreen mounted on the wall, which allows you to control the heating and lighting. The extensive options list, meanwhile, includes static air conditioning, a Bluetooth speaker system, a satellite dish, and four-wheel drive.
The living quarters are furnished with the sort of tasteful fabrics and sleek cabinets we’ve come to expect in the smaller California. So, the Grand California is brighter, fresher and more modern inside than most motorhomes of its size. There’s enough space even for a six-footer to stand up straight throughout, too.
The shower cubicle, meanwhile, is spacious enough that a large adult can wash without feeling cramped, and the clever flip-down sink and mirror/cupboard combination make the best use of what space there is.
And when you want to bed down for the night, the Grand California becomes truly cosy and comfortable. Gas heating is standard, though you can add a diesel heater too if you want. There are blackout blinds for every window, so privacy isn’t a problem – and you won’t be disturbed when it gets light. You also get ambient lighting as standard, with four colour options to choose from using wall-mounted touchscreen.
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The bed, meanwhile, is firm, but not so much so that it’s uncomfortable, while even in warmer climes, there’s enough ventilation that you don’t find yourself waking up in a pool of sweat.
In fact, there’s very little here to dislike – with the possible exception of the price. Exact figures haven’t yet been confirmed, but expect to pay £69,000 or so for the most basic version – a significant chunk of money even in camper terms. A smaller Volkswagen California Ocean, complete with sink, hob and fridge, starts from just over £53k.
But when you consider this is probably the smartest, best-driving and most comfortable camper van going, it’s worth it. The Grand California isn’t just a must-have for camping buffs, but a truly desirable thing to own in its own right. If your next camper has to have a loo, and you’ve got a few pennies to spare, then this is where you should spend them.
4.5 It doesn’t come cheap, but the quality, attention to detail and driving experience justify the Grand California’s considerable cost. Even the most hardened camping skeptics will find they enjoy spending time with it, while for dyed-in-the-wool camper enthusiasts, this slick, smart and beautifully-appointed van will be achingly desirable.
- Model: Volkswagen Grand California 600
- Price: From £69,000 (est)
- Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl diesel
- Power/torque: 175bhp/410Nm
- Transmission: Eight-speed auto, front-wheel drive
- 0-62mph: TBC
- Top speed: TBC
- Economy/CO2: TBC
- On sale: October