One quote sticks out from the press blurb about the Volkswagen Grand California. “It feels like a yacht on wheels,” it says. And in that quote, you have the reason why this is no ordinary road test. For most roadgoing vehicles, such nautical aspirations would be seen as a bad thing – but not here.
Aside from anything, this is not a car. Volkswagen’s largest and most luxurious camper van takes it into the six-metre category, and aims – as its name suggests – to take the recipe that’s made the California so popular and make it, well, grander.
So the Grand California is based on the Crafter, rather than the Transporter, and as a result you get more space and more headroom – not to mention a few more toys.
The biggest news, though, is that the Grand California is the first official Volkswagen camper to feature an on-board washroom. A neat little cubby in the centre of the van hides a toilet, a dinky wash basin and a shower.
As you can imagine, this greatly increases the appeal of the Grand California to those who might want to spend more than a couple of days camping; no longer must one plan to pull up at a serviced campsite or carry an emergency porta potty.
You can have your Grand California in one of two forms, both based on high-top Crafters. The 600 is the entry-level model, and comes with a roof raised further thanks to a plastic addendum with a somewhat ungainly proboscis at the front.
Within that roof section you can add an extra pair of bunk beds, making this into a four-berth variant aimed at family touring, though you’ll have to pay more for the privilege – over and above the not-inconsiderable £69,000 or so VW says the basic camper set you back.
The 680, as its name suggests, gains 80cm in the wheelbase but loses the bulky top. As a result, it can only provide accommodations for two, but they do at least get a proper-sized bed that runs longitudinally down the back of the van, rather than the smaller, transverse item you’ll find in the 600. The 680 also gets a slightly more commodious kitchenette, though it does lose out on the extra head-level storage you get in the 600.
All Grand Californias have a similar layout; the double bed takes up the rearmost third or so of the interior space, and can be folded away to give you access to the 800-litre storage area beneath, in which you’ll also find four cupboards, two of which house gas bottles and a third home to the circuit breaker, battery cut-off and water system relief valves.
Forward of that sit the kitchenette and the shower room. Then there’s a 'dinette', with a decent-sized table and a bench seat for two; the remaining seating consists of the two front seats, which swivel around to become rather comfortable reclining armchairs.
Both Grand Californias come with a 175bhp version of Volkswagen’s latest 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine, mated to ZF’s eight-speed torque converter automatic. It’s the 600 we’re in for our tester trip around Gran Canaria, and it’s a balmy 30 degrees, which leaves us hankering for the optional static air-conditioning system once we’ve set the van up.
The drive across the island to our stop for the night reveals that the Grand California is a fine thing on the road; remarkably soft of ride for a big van, and yet uncannily good to drive. Indeed, any ‘handles like a boat’ jibes you could make given that PR spiel would be entirely misplaced.
It feels big, of course, and tight, twisting roads require a great deal of care, but it’s more wieldy than a chassis-cab motorhome would be. The steering is slow, but it’s also light and direct, and in fast corners it resists lean remarkably well for something so top-heavy. That being the case, it’s even possible to have a little bit of fun, as long as your expectations aren’t set too high.
The power of that diesel means despite its considerable kerb weight, the Grand California never feels out of breath, even on twisting inclines. Meanwhile the automatic box does a great job of keeping the engine in its power band, and shifts swiftly and sweetly in manual mode when you’re engine braking on the way back down again.
And in tight spots, the Grand California’s tight turning circle means it’s more manoeuvrable than you’d think. Indeed, for such a big vehicle, it is remarkably easy to drive.
The switchgear is standard Volkswagen group and the dashboard feels as robust and well-built as you could imagine. It’d be overstretching things to call it plush, but neither does it really feel utilitarian, and with toys such as adaptive cruise control, dual-zone climate control and heated seats on board, covering big miles is a breeze.
Of course, the Grand California is much less about the experience up front than the one you’ll get in the back once you’ve stopped and pitched for the night. There are plenty of neat tricks on show here, and not all of the standard fayre for a camper.
Flyscreens as well as blinds on every window and door (except the rear); a boot-mounted external shower with which to rinse off muddy boots or sandy feet; a fridge that’s mounted side-on so that you can get at it from outside as well as in; ambient lighting around the rear half of the living area; a neat strip of LEDs just above the door that light up area outside the living area’s sliding door – all come as standard.
Swankiest of all is the touchscreen pad mounted on the wall that gives you readouts of your water remaining fresh water supply and battery life, and controls your lighting, heating, and air conditioning – if fitted. We can but dream.
There are plenty more options – indeed, the list is vast – but those of note include a Bluetooth speaker system to which you can pair your smartphone or laptop, solar panels that feed power to the leisure batteries, and a host of infotainment bits and bobs including a WiFi hotspot and a satellite dish. Oh, and you can spec your Grand California with four-wheel drive, too, if you’re feeling really adventurous.
What stands out most about the Grand California, though, is how tasteful and well-resolved it all feels. This is, of course, partly because both the camper and the van on which it’s based have been conceived by the same company, so it doesn’t feel as disjointed as some conversions. But it’s also because Volkswagen has eschewed faux wood and chintz in favour of crisp, white, easy to clean surfaces and tasteful fabrics – and not a dangly, patterned curtain to be seen.
The shower cubicle is the Grand California’s party piece, and it works extremely well, with a flip-up sink, swivelling cassette toilet and clever fold-away mirror that doubles as a cupboard door. There’s enough room for even a large adult to shower in relative comfort, without brushing the sides or accidentally opening the door, and the all-white fittings make the space feel bright and fresh.
The master bed, meanwhile, is mounted on springs, although the mattress is quite slim so the bed still feels a little unyielding. You’ll be fine if you like a firm mattress, but if you preference is for a softer one, you might find it a little uncomfortable at first. Having said that, we still managed a fairly solid seven hours, and woke up feeling refreshed.
Issues? There are very few. That price is steep, for one thing, but the best campers generally don’t come cheap. Besides, most of the Grand California’s rivals will be conversions; the slick, integrated OEM sheen and tasteful decor make this one quite unique. Given that – and the fact it’s so well-specified you could probably live in it, at a push – the price doesn’t actually seem that unreasonable.
No, the Grand California doesn’t feel like a yacht. It feels like a really good camper van; one that’s been painstakingly thought out, one that makes camping as hassle-free as it gets, and one that’s a far nicer place to spend time than most.
Whether you’re driving it or staying in it, it is a truly feel-good vehicle, not just for what it is, but for what it allows you to do – which is to find your own little slice of the wilderness with the sort of style and comfort you’d expect in a bijou holiday apartment. Yes, it’s an expensive way of going camping – but if you can afford it, it’s worth it.
Volkswagen Grand California 600 – facts, prices and specifications
TESTED1,968cc four-cylinder diesel turbo, eight-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE £69,000 (est)/October
POWER/TORQUE 175bhp @ 3,600rpm, 302lb ft @ 1,500-2,000rpm
TOP SPEED tbc
FUEL ECONOMY tbc
CO2 EMISSIONS tbc
VERDICT The Grand California is smooth and easy to drive, effortless to camp in thanks to lots of clever touches, and feels every bit the semi-premium product you’d expect from Volkswagen. No, it doesn’t come cheap, but it is probably all the camper you’d ever need.
TELEGRAPH RATING Five stars out of five
Volkswagen Grand California 600 – main rivals
Rapido V68, from £53,775
This Fiat-based camper rivals the 680 more than the 600, and it sleeps three too. It’s also significantly cheaper, but it’s based on a much older Fiat van with a fairly unrefined powertrain. The interior fittings feel cheaper and less slick than the Volkswagen’s, too.
Bailey Advance 59-2, from £44,499
Offers much of what the Grand California does in a similarly compact package, and that makes it great value. But build quality isn’t as high, the fittings aren’t as classy, the layout’s a little more restrictive, and again, the Fiat commercial vehicle underpinnings mean a comparatively agricultural drive.
Hillside Heatherton, from £59,995
If you want a converted Crafter, the Heatherton looks smart, but while it’s cheaper than the official version, it also offers less space and the interior layout is less sensible. Volkswagen’s build quality will be higher, too – if you can stump up the extra cash for the OEM product, it’s worth it.
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