Review: our summer holiday starts in (the Volkswagen Grand) California
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Volkswagen Grand California 600
- Value against smaller $142k California Ocean
- Beautifully integrated campervan equipment
- Provides driving pleasure as well as living space
- Takes up a lot of road
- Soft-close doors would be a bonus
- It's not quite the 'real' Kombi, is it?
With Christmas Day behind us, ’tis the season for summer holidays. And due to the unique situation we’ve found ourselves in during 2020, it’s a time to focus on domestic travel.
And that’s a silver lining, right? A chance to explore our own backyard and set out on some proper summer roadies.
Welcome to the first in a series of DRIVEN Summer Special stories, with a focus on motoring-themed trips. We’ve kept it to the North Island this time, so if you’re a dweller of the top half of the country you’ll find places you can drive to from wherever your home base is – enjoying the journey, the people and the places on the way, as much as the destination.
We like to lead by example, so we’ve kicking off this holiday celebration with a little roadie of our own – in quite a big vehicle.
Campervans are a common site on New Zealand roads, but is there anything with appeal quite as broad as the new Volkswagen Grand California? There’s something about the Kombi heritage and sense of style that makes this one very cool camper.
It’s not quite the Kombi as we know it. The modern equivalent of the classic Kombi is the California Ocean, which is based on the Transporter van. That model continues, but as the name suggests, the Grand California is substantially upsized. It’s based on the larger Crafter van and is about as big as you can get without seriously compromising urban driving and parking: the entry $159,000 600 version is 5986mm long (yep, 6m, it’s in the name), while the $163,000 680 is 6836mm.
The payoff for those exterior dimensions is a real sense of space and luxury inside. Both models are fully self-contained, with kitchen, combined shower/toilet and solar panels on the roof that can harvest enough electricity during the day to power the “house battery” for a couple of nights. You can also charge it using the engine while you drive, or simply plug in at a camping ground.
What might surprise is that the entry 600 model has twice the sleeping capacity. It features a double bed at the back and another two-berth top-bunk in the roof that slides out and locks, complete with ladder.
The 680 is two-berth only, but goes for the ultimate in comfort with a larger double bed that’s also certified by the German Chiropractic Association.
To get a proper sense of how the Grand California works we drove it, but also lived in it a little. We headed north from Auckland for a long weekend in Leigh, a coastal town that’s in prime position for day trips to Matakana, Goat Island (also the site of the University of Auckland’s Marine Laboratory and the Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve) - and lots and lots of beaches.
Not a huge distance (less than 100km to Leigh from Auckland’s centre), but plenty of opportunity to drive the Grand on motorways and winding country roads (even a few hilly hairpins on the way to Goat Island), as well as getting a taste of packing and unpacking the camper.
Because it wasn’t just our home away from home, it was also our only means of transport. Want to go out for dinner? You have to fold the house away and bring it with you.
It’s a big machine, but the Grand is a pleasure to drive. It has a grunty 130kW/410Nm turbo-diesel engine and 4Motion all-wheel drive as standard, so there’s plenty of momentum and traction on winding backroads and grassy camping grounds.
We had the 600, which is taller than the 680 (to house the top bunk). A height of three metres would make any vehicle susceptible to crosswinds, but as well as adaptive cruise the Grand has the full range of active driver aids including Cross Wind Assist, which uses the electronic power steering and stability control to automatically resist body movements from big gusts.
The Grand California is a full factory model from VW, which means astonishing attention to detail. The exterior step folds out automatically as soon as you open the side door, and will stay that way once you enter and press the touchpad setting for Camping Mode (although it will retract if you start the engine to drive away).
Not a floral curtain in sight: this is apartment-style interior design, right down to selectable ambient lighting and faux dark wood floors. There’s a small dining table with two chairs and the driver/front passenger seats can be swiveled around for a four-place setting.
Indoor/outdoor flow (that’s what grown-ups call it, right?) is brilliant. The Thule awning can be unrolled in a few minutes and the integrated legs drop down with a simple clip. The outdoor table and folding chairs are seamlessly integrated into the lining of the barn doors at the back. Best of all, you can access the fridge from outside the vehicle because it’s right in the doorway.
The combined shower/toilet is cosy for sure, but that’s a matter of function over being too flash at the cost of space for other stuff.
Overall the cabin is cosy, well insulated (made for extreme weather environments in Europe) and very easy to pack up when you want to leave the camping ground and hit the road for a day trip.
Anything missing? Well there’s not a lot of hanging space for clothes, having the fridge in the doorway means… there’s a fridge in the doorway, and electronic soft-close for the side and rear barn doors wouldn’t go amiss, because when you do drive into a camping ground after dinner off-site (admittedly, we weren’t exactly roughing it this time) there’s a bit of door opening and closing that has to happen while you get organised for bed. Hate to think you’re annoying the neighbours.
Mind you, they might already be annoyed you’ve got such an awesome campervan. The Grand California really is something special: lots of wow-factor and perhaps the ideal crossover between a vehicle that’s still practical for holiday driving, but still offers plenty of room to move around inside when you park up.
VOLKSWAGEN GRAND CALIFORNIA 600
ENGINE: 2.0-Litre turbo diesel
GEARBOX: 8-speed automatic, AWD