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First Look

Volkswagen's new California Concept is a house on wheels

Your first look at the camper-special version of the really rather brilliant T7 Multivan

Published: 24 Aug 2023

Hang on, we’ve already got a VW California - what’s with the ‘concept’ tag?

Aha. Yes, we do have Californias at the moment, but this one is a new proto-version, so it’s called a concept. But to be honest, there’s not much in the way of 26-inch rim and alligator-eyelid leather outlandishness here; it’s the final showing-off phase of the California based on a new platform. In this case, the really rather brilliant T7 Multivan.

Right. So it’s the new middle-one?

Absolutely. We’ve had California branding since 2003, and there’s currently California versions of the Caddy (little) and Crafter (big), with the middle one based on the Transporter/Caravelle. The Multivan is the new platform, so now it gets the camper treatment. But with the new bones comes some opportunity to modify the living arrangements a a bit, and VW has always been pretty good at interior design on these things, so it’s worth noting.

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Also because the Multivan is the Goldilocks option on size - you can use it as a four-seat van in normal life and still have plenty of space for proper camping. The Caddy is a bit of a quick-stop king and the Crafter is luxe, but too big for town and general use.

So what’s the basics of the hardware?

Admittedly this is still a ‘concept’, but if you base the functional stuff off what’s already available in the MPV Multivan, there are plenty of options. Engines are likely to be a 148bhp, 2.0-litre diesel that’s probably going to be the most popular choice, but also the option of 1.5 and 2.0-litre petrols and a 1.4-litre, 215bhp plug-in hybrid. All are front-drive and autos - but that’s not a problem in this class of car. We’ve also not seen a PHEV camper before - neither the Ford Transit Nugget, Toyota Proace Matino Camper or Mercedes Marco Polo offer the option. And that could be useful, as hooking up to a campsite electrical point could run the van’s electrics while parked and top off the traction battery for a few extra miles.

And the same for the rest?

The Multivan brings with it a bit more dynamic ability than the Transporter, as well as more refinement, a whole host of advanced driver assistance systems and other gadgets. Still recognisably a California, but based on the newer and more advanced platform, with all the good stuff baked in.

So what about the actual camper part? Is it like it was before?

Pretty much - except better. Lots of little detail changes that make it more useable, more space efficient and generally clever.

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It’s probably worth running through some of the best bits - it sounds like small detail changes, but when you actually poke around the California, even the most die-hard anti-camping types might be at least tempted. It’s chock full of neat ideas - and yes, it feels pretty much a production car.

First up, the bigger stuff. This version of the California would come with sliding doors on both sides. Great for us right-hand drive markets (making for safer access), as well as giving a walk-through space. There’s a triangular sun shade sail-type arrangement on the offside, with a proper awning on the nearside - that gives you three spaces (according to VW), with one side being the dining room and kitchen (more on that in a moment), the middle being the bedroom and the other side being the living area.

The middle chairs fold and transform into a small double bed, and there’s the usual pop-top for another roof-space double, this time with huge panoramic zip out ‘windows’. When it’s all set up, it’s a remarkably airy space. But that double-door arrangement means there’s little wall space for where the kitchen usually goes. The solution is a slide-out section. So there’s a capacious fridge drawer underneath, with an induction hob on top. Slide the top out and there’s a gas ring and sink under covers that reverse to reveal preparation surfaces. There’s also a prop-out table that sticks out of the side of the van, double-ended drawers that pop out towards the outside or the inside, a removable/portable gas BBQ and even a little built-in rechargeable camping light. Plus there’s USB and charging points all over the place, drawers and cubbies in pretty much every void.

Sounds pretty solid. Anything else?

Of course. The front seats rotate and now come with height adjustment - handy - and in the rear hatch are the usual large camping table and comfy camping chairs, this time with higher backrests for more comfort. There’s also a retractable shower head attachment that pulls out of the water tank in the boot and clips onto the underside of the tall hatchback so you can douse yourself after strenuous camping activities. ‘Lifestyle’ type-folks are going to appreciate that one.

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So it’s lots of little improvements?

Yes, but they all work well. Plus there’s some tech enhancements. In the C-pillar above the main Kitchen unit sits an iPad-style tablet that sits on an adjustable arm, or you can remove it for roaming. So you can watch YouTube/TV, or use it to control all the functions of the van, from interior lighting colour to heating/ventilation. A process which is also achievable from the van’s HMI/multimedia up front, or an app on your phone. Playing with it, it really is convenient, and allows you to pull up a chair and programme the camp.

What about the full electric version?

There will undoubtedly be a California version of the ID Buzz in due course, but once you’ve played with the Multivan version, there’ll be no worries there. And there’s a slight feeling that if you really do want to tour and do big miles, the PHEV Multivan might be just that little bit more convenient at this point in time - even though VW’s own representatives have done big multi-country miles camping in a non-California Buzz, there’s a lot to be said for fuel-based options in a camper.

So what’s the damage?

No pricing as yet, and we’ve not driven it, but this looks like an absolute belter. Given the current pricing of this type of VW product, there’s likely to be a starting price of around £70k and rising from there. But that’s cheap for a house, right?

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