Can the VW California cope with a trip to Ben Nevis? | Top Gear
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Wednesday 6th December
Road Trips

Can the VW California cope with a trip to Ben Nevis?

Sensible consumer advice alert! We take VW's camper van on a big, long road-trip

  • If this was a straight review of the Volkswagen California Beach, I don’t think many of you would hang around to read it, so I thought I’d tell you what we got up to with it and use that as a method to pass on some information.

    We’ve done this before, in a Bentley Mulsanne and an Audi S8, but they were more ironic in tone because we did things with them that you normally wouldn’t. This time, we’ve taken a camper van and done with it exactly what you would expect – headed to Scotland and used it to sleep in. Well, it was either that or a hot lap of the Nurburgring, but I’ve already done that (four-up in a Range Rover full of holiday kit – but that’s another story).

    Anyway, the California is based on the new T6 van that launched last year. Visually there’s not much to tell it’s new, just cleaner, more integrated lights, and a bit of smoothing. It’s fitted only with a 2.0-litre diesel, with three power outputs: 102, 150 and 204bhp. The upper two can be had with four-wheel drive and 7spd DSG gearboxes, the base one makes do with a five speed manual.

    Prices start at £38,214 for a base Beach and climb to £55,790 for a fully kitted Ocean. Now, ignoring the daft names, the difference between Beach and Ocean is crucial. The Ocean is the fully kitted camper with sink, fridge, stove, cupboards, flip-up table, electric roof, the works. The Beach is the lightweight RS version – you’ll need to supply your own cooking, storage, washing and chilling facilities. Without all of that you get a much wider bed when the seats are laid flat. Still gets the pop up roof, but here it’s manual. Model for model you save a whisker over £8,000 doing without.

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  • TG has previous with the Ocean version (back when it was just called the SE). We ran one on our fleet for 18 months and it was mega. Here it is with a French oompah band walking past. Don’t ask. This one had the 2.0-litre twin turbo 180bhp diesel that’s now been given a power-up to 204bhp.

  • And here’s the latest one. Clearly not a staged press shot. This is the Beach, near, um, a beach out west of Fort William. Glenuig, if that means anything to you. Anyway, this is the 150bhp DSG that retails at £42,132. It doesn’t have 4wd, but honestly, you just don’t need it and it ruins fuel economy. Speaking of which...

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  • ...I know this is a VW we’re talking about and any talk of fuel consumption has to be caged around accusations of cheating and talk of NOx etc, but check this out. Over an easy 100 mile lollop past Scottish lochs and glens, the Cali was claiming 44.8mpg.

    It’s less good once you take into account the high speed motorway stuff, because, well, aerodynamics obviously. Overall it was claiming 38.8mpg, while actually doing 37.1mpg. That’s still good though – the old one (admittedly probably a couple of hundred kilos heavier with the sink and fridge etc) would have returned no more than 30mpg with similar use I reckon.

  • Anyway, family Marriage is of an outdoors persuasion. Like a bit of a daft adventure. Love a road trip. We wanted to climb Ben Nevis (highest mountain in the British Isles etc). So we had a look at the weather forecast, saw that it was good and drove 500 miles north to Fort William. It was a rather spur-of-the-moment thing.

    Anyway, the California is ace at road trips. After it, all cars are too cramped inside. Here you have space, you sit high, it’s light and airy, there are blinds to pull down if it gets too light and airy. Those in the back can stretch out in all directions, it’s pretty much as refined as a car, and sits just as happily at a, ahem, good motorway lick (just takes a bit longer to get there, what with 0-60mph taking 14.5secs) so you get where you want to go just as fast.

    Until the road turns twisty. Then you have to be circumspect, because this is a weighty commercial vehicle. Plus point for the Beach: without the kitchen facilities on board there’s a lot less crashing and banging as there are no pots and pans to be sent flying about the cupboards. We packed everything into plastic crates and wedged the gaps with coats and shoes.

    Also, I’m sure it’s a factor of the weight, but the last gen Cali suffered a fair dose of structural shake that this one has mostly banished.

  • This was sunset at Glenuig on the first night. In my eyes this alone made the whole trip worthwhile. Turns out I would drive 500 miles and I would drive 500 more…

    That’s the islands of Eigg and Rhum out across the bay. You can wild camp almost anywhere in Scotland and at this time of year I reckon a VeeDub van is about the most common car you’ll see in the remoter, prettier parts of Scotland.

    There’s enough of Scotland that you’re sure to find a spot to call your own, with a view that’ll blow your mind. To top this one off, the Glenuig Inn was only a ten minute walk and the midges weren’t out.

    When we got back from the pub, we grabbed the fold-flat chairs out of the tailgate compartment, the children went exploring and the missus and I watched the sun drop while supping whisky. Well, she did. Can’t abide the stuff myself.

  • Cooking inside the Cali was always a hassle in the morning – two of you getting dressed, trying to fold the bed away and making tea in the same area is awkward. So we used to carry a small stove anyway. With the Beach you have to. Not much difference.

    The pop-up tent? My top tip – when you stop in the evening throw it out and fill it with all the clobber you haven’t got anywhere else for.

    Oh, and those downstairs sleep better in the Beach as they’ve got about 18 inches more width of bed.

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  • These people look happy don’t they? Not my pic, clearly. Anyway, here’s the interior of the Ocean, complete with its swiss army knife of a sideboard.

    For the Beach just imagine a full width bed and none of the clobber. Sorry, should have taken a pic, but clean forgot.

    Oh, and if you want to carry more than four people, you can get additional seats swiveling seats. Those are pretty awkward. Alternatively, a three-seat bench is a no cost option. That’s handy – better than having to leave one of the kids at home.

  • This is near the top of Ben Nevis. Still snow, not as warm as it looked. It’s not a long hike, about 4.5 miles, but you climb from sea level to the summit at 1345 metres, so it takes a while. The way down hurts more than the way up.

    I’ve also developed a new found admiration for anyone who completes the Three Peaks Challenge (climbing the highest peaks in England, Wales and Scotland in 24 hours). I couldn’t move when we got back down. This might have something to do with the fact that we were in the Ben Nevis Inn.

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  • Did eventually move to drive about five miles further up Glen Nevis for our second (and last) night in Scotland. Could have chickened out and headed to a campsite, but we found a cracking spot, got the awning, beer and firewood out and settled in to watch the shadows extend and play in the river. As far as I was concerned this was an outdoor ice bath for muscle recovery.

    Rivers = water = breeding ground = midges. They arrived as the sun set. If you’ve experienced them you’ll know the horror. Smoke doesn’t put them off, nor does midge spray. We abandoned the fireside for the indoors. Only to find that midges fit through the vents in the Cali’s upper sleeping quarters.

    Chap arrived to pitch his tent for the night, dressed like a midge-ninja: black one piece, head to toe cover, mesh gauze for the eyes. Told us they were still flying into his mouth.

    End result? Not a good night’s sleep.

  • The next morning we drove home. Well, it took all day, but this was part of the plan – up, climb Ben Nevis, down. Short and sweet. The journey back was as easy as the journey up – honestly, this is very relaxing way of covering distance. You’ll feel cooped up in any car after this one.

    So, some final thoughts. I prefer the manual roof to the electric one in the Ocean. You need a bit of physical strength, but there’s less risk of pinching material and it’s just as quick to operate.

    The driving position is great. Not sports car-ish of course, but upright and ergonomic. Your feet fall easily, you’ve got armrests for your elbows and the two-level door pockets are massive. For some reason VW has done away with the pull out cupholders, which means the only place for your phone is now the tray on the dashtop, which just isn’t as convenient. And does anyone else with a California, Transporter or Caravelle struggle to get the USB interface to recognize their iPhone? Bluetooth hook-up was the only way.

    We missed the sliding fold-out table in the back – very useful for putting iPads and the like on. But the rest of it, well I didn’t miss the sink, fridge and stove, not even the extra storage compartments. We plugged in our own fridge, had a portable gas stove and carried bottles of water. The conclusion (and having run the old Cali SE for 18 months, this really surprises me) is that the Beach is probably the one to have. It doesn’t have the same self-containment and wonderful packaging, but it has a couple of big lockers and masses of open space for you to fill as you choose.

    Yep, it feels a bit more like a plain van as a result, and I’m sure if you’ve read this you probably think I’m barking, but you really could have one of these as a daily driver. It shades no more road space than a Mondeo estate and at the weekends you can go and have adventures. Love this thing.

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