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Nick Harding switches the diminutive, car-like Caddy into camper mode
Volkswagen’s California family is growing. Alongside the original, Transporter-based California, we now have the Crafter-based Grand variants and this, the smallest sibling. The Caddy California is based on – you’ve guessed it – the Caddy van, itself derived from the ever-popular Golf car. Which makes it more of a car-camper, I’d say.
Despite its pedigree, assessing it is very tricky: it lacks many of the facilities you’d expect to find in a campervan, let alone a full motorhome, but that misses the point. I can imagine folk wanting to make the most of a very sophisticated daily driver that’s kitted out for occasional camping, and hitching up a trailer tent/folding camper or even a small caravan for extra functionality.
Prices start at £32,909 for the short-wheelbase version and £35,665 for the longer Maxi, as featured here (it's £33,565 if you're happy with the manual). Extras fitted to this example include: California Plus Package (£1,002 for a 230V inverter; rear tinted glass; front heat-insulating glass; front centre armrest with two cup-holders; LED rear combination lights; and power-latching for the side sliding doors and tailgate), Discover Media DAB+ Navigation system (£1,170 for 10in colour touch-screen and six speakers); panoramic glass roof (£990); front and rear parking sensors (£558), and metallic Indium Grey paint with Palladium/Titanium upholstery (£636).
Volkswagen is synonymous with well-built cars and vans, so it’s no surprise that the Caddy California is made with the same sense of purpose.
The conversion work is carried out by Volkswagen itself, starting beyond the rear trio of travel seats. There’s a sturdy folding framework for a double bed, a slide-out kitchen unit for use when the tailgate is open, and some clever clothes storage in the form of fabric, zipped holdalls that clip into the rearmost side windows either side.
You don’t get an elevating roof, but there’s that fixed glass roof option – great for stargazing in bed.
Quite simply, the Caddy California is as car-like as they come. There’s a positively lively 1.5-litre petrol engine under the bonnet, allied in this example to a super-smooth automatic transmission. That’s a £2,100 option, but I think lots of buyers will deem it worth having. Two-litre diesel engines are also available, but I suspect petrol will prove more popular here.
It’s impressively quiet at all speeds, and highly economical. Steering and brakes are great, and the suspension is definitely more forgiving than any larger motorhome. It certainly has the makings of a good towcar, too – Volkswagen puts a towing limit of 1,400kg on this particular Caddy California. As for height barriers – don’t even worry yourself about them.
This is a tricky one. Those non-swivelling seats are pretty much strictly for travel – although the small flip-up tabletops on the backs of the cab chairs could come in handy.
Alternatively, how about sitting outside? A free-standing table and two folding chairs (instantly recognisable from the Transporter-based California, though not as cleverly stowed) take up a fair chunk of boot space, but allow for alfresco dining. Just bring additional chairs if there are more than two of you.
Volkswagen also offers a £412 tent option. It attaches to the back, with the tailgate up. However, I can’t help wondering whether a decent-quality standalone tent would be preferable.
Full marks to the designers for coming up with a full-size double bed that’s fairly straightforward to make up – but you will need to be organised. It’s easier to assemble from the outside via the sliding side doors – fold down the rear seat backrests then pull out the hinged bed sections and two support legs that give absolute stability to the mattress area. The bed measures some 6ft 6in x 3ft 6in and is supportive and comfortable.
After a fortnight of testing I still couldn’t decide whether it’s better to fit the curtains before or after getting the bed ready. They’re elasticated, attaching internally to the bodywork via magnets. It’s definitely easier to open each door in turn to fit them. There’s also a single black-out panel for the windscreen, which hooks onto the sun visors.
You sleep with your heads towards the front of the vehicle. The only floor space is just inside the tailgate, but you can’t open this door from the inside. So, if you want to make a dash to the toilet block at night, your best exit is through either of the sliding side doors. Finding a place to stow your bedding could be a bit of a challenge.
It’s back to basics in the kitchen. The slide-out section just inside the tailgate is home to a single gas ring for cooking (using a cylinder), with an adjacent metal tray. There’s also a cutlery tray, which slides across to reveal storage space for small tins, packets, etc. You’ll have to provide your own cool box. There’s a 12V socket, but no facilities for electric hook-up.
A big ‘N/A’ here, of course: there’s no shower fitting because there’s no water supply. And unless you decide to use a supplementary tent, the only space to house a portable toilet is just inside the tailgate.
Most Club sites have excellent amenities blocks. My advice would be to pitch close to one of them and take advantage of the facilities.
There’s a good scattering of interior LED lights, including units in the tailgate that act as downlighters when it’s open.
Should you require extra ventilation, there are a couple of a handy flyscreen net panels that slot into the partially opened cab windows.
If you fancy tweaking the California to suit your needs/budget, there’s a great configurator on the Volkswagen website that allows you to play around with options to your heart’s content, including a choice of 12 exterior colours and six alloy wheel designs.
It’s small, clever and very well put-together, but camping facilities are limited. It drives like a dream, carrying up to five in the kind of comfort you don’t normally associate with a motorhome. The ultimate camping-car? You bet.