Volkswagen California Ocean road test: Life’s a breeze
THE CALIFORNIA OCEAN ISN’T QUITE A KOMBI IN THE FREE-LOVE-1960S SENSE — BUT IT’S EASY TO SEE THE ANCESTRAL DNA IN THE DESIGN
You might not be in the market for one, but you have to applaud Volkswagen for persevering with a dedicated campervan model in its line-up. Somehow, it just seems right that it should still exist after all these years.
Based around the T6 Multivan people mover, Volkswagen’s California Ocean is unique in the automotive world, in that it is the only campervan to roll down the same production line as other commercial vans and people movers.
By default, Volkswagen New Zealand is the only local distributor that can offer a campervan model off the shelf in its showrooms alongside standard passenger-car fare.
A Passat wagon sir?
Can I perhaps interest you in this large campervan instead?
Popular history suggests Volkswagen essentially invented the idea of the compact campervan with bed-and-breakfast-orientated versions of its Type 2 van back in the early 1950s.
Known as the Kombi or Microbus, the box-on-wheels design (already popular as a delivery van) leant itself to a roomy recreational vehicle replete with fold-down beds, pantry space and cooking equipment.
Westfalia-Werke — the outfitter associated with Volkswagen’s campervans over the decades — produced its first Kombi camper back in 1951, so there is a rich seam of history for Volkswagen to mine. And mine they do with the latest iteration of the California camper. Suffixed “Ocean” (there are lower “Beach” and “Coast” grades available in Northern Hemisphere markets), the California available to Kiwi camping aficionados is a bells-and-whistles affair.
But we’ll get to the van’s expertly packaged interior soon, because first there’s no ignoring that exterior paint scheme.
The two-tone paint comes in a number of variations (the red-and-white combo of our test van is particularly head-turning) and there are even optional alloys with shiny centre discs that do just enough to mimic the look of an old Kombi hubcap.
Taken together, the look makes you smile and caused a fair bit of conversation with passers-by while we were grabbing a few photos at the beach.
Though the exterior is retro-tastic, the California Ocean’s interior remains modern, spacious, robust and cleverly packaged; the product of all those years of experience in manufacturing this model.
The 5m long van is a four-berth model, although we’d suggest it is at its most usable as a spacious camper for two, rather than a much “cosier” environment for four.
Just like the old Westfalia campers, a “pop top” roof rises to reveal a double mattress framed by strong canvas and zip-opening windows; raising or lowering the roof takes around 10 seconds at the touch of a button on a overhead panel and the mattress and bedding can stay put in either mode.
The bed area “upstairs” is surprisingly spacious, although a degree of physical dexterity is required to clamber up.
Using the seat back of the front chairs as a leg boost seems to be the most elegant method for the California Ocean’s equivalent of climbing the wooden hills to bed. The sliding rear bench (which features a large storage drawer underneath) can be lowered to create another double bed if needed.
The rear living space works out to 4m3 and the items within are configurable; we’d suggest a couple of nights away and any owner will have the van set up in a way that works efficiently for them.
Everything you need is inside the California Ocean, including the kitchen sink.
There is also a top-opening fridge box, a fold-out table, plenty of under-bench storage for pots and pans, a two-burner stove and onboard 9kg gas bottle, along with extra storage for clothes in curved cubbies.
The driver and front passenger seats swivel around 180 degrees to provide for a more conversation-friendly lounge set-up.
The side door slides open electronically and there is a built-in awning above, which folds out (and is supported by extension legs that reach to the ground) to shade you from the sun.
What do you sit on? Ah, Volkswagen has thought of this, too; zip open the clever canvas compartment in the tailgate and you’ll find two outdoor deckchairs stowed there.
That fold-out table inside also unclips and can be brought outside for afternoon drinks too. Excellent.
Underneath, the California Ocean is powered by Volkswagen’s reliable 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine, a familiar aspect of their commercial line-up. The van features a seven-speed DSG gearbox and is 4Motion all-wheel drive assisted, so roads less frequently travelled (and maintained) aren’t out of the question for that long weekend away.
You might involuntarily suck in air at the California Ocean’s $130,000 sticker price. But actually for a well set-up camper straight out of the box, this is good value. Something brand new with onboard bathroom facilities (the California Ocean’s lack of toilet means it’s a strictly campground-friendly vehicle) will set you back a fair bit more.
Also if you’re after that nostalgia buzz, then things don’t come more genuine than a Volkswagen camper.
And with the prices of restored original Type 2 Kombi campers going stratospheric over the past couple of years (original split-window Kombi campers have been known to trade hands for six figures in New Zealand), this brand new camper represents something of a bargain.
VOLKSWAGEN CALIFORNIA OCEAN
|ENGINES:||2.0-litre turbo diesel (132kW/400Nm)|
|PROS:||Set-up for camping straight out of the box, head-turning retro exterior elements|
|CONS:||A degree of athleticism required to access top bed area, zip-on sides would make awning four-seasons-in-one-day proof|