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Driven: Volkswagen Grand California. Image by Volkswagen UK.

Driven: Volkswagen Grand California
A week’s holiday touring in Volkswagen’s ultimate holiday vehicle, the four-berth Grand California 600.

   



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Volkswagen Grand California 600

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Good points: astonishing packaging to get so much into the frame of a VW Crafter van

Not so good: you pay a lot for it, and a bespoke motorhome might be better laid-out inside...

Key Facts

Model tested: Volkswagen Grand California 600
Price: Grand California 600 from £73,603 inc. VAT, model as tested £81,973; or Grand California 600 from £915.31pcm on PCP deal across 36 months and 10,000 miles per annum, with 10 per cent customer deposit and optional final payment fee of £38,627.49, 2.8 per cent APR representative
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Body style: five-door motorhome
CO2 emissions: 298g/km (VED Band Over 255: £2,175 in year one, then £475 per annum years two-six of ownership, then £150 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 24.8mpg
Top speed: 100mph
0-62mph: N/A
Power: 177hp at 3,600rpm
Torque: 410Nm at 1,500-2,000rpm
Bed space: four berths

Our view:

Aah, the lifestyle dream - buy yourself a sumptuously kitted-out van that you can live in for extended periods of time, and then go off and tour some sun-drenched coastline somewhere, maybe surfing in the sea or just walking your dogs along the shore each and every day, happy in your life choices and content in the knowledge that you're not wasting a single second of your time on Earth. So, to fulfil this idyllic vision of touring life, there can only be one real vehicle choice: the Volkswagen California. A machine which, as any self-respecting motoring journalist ought to tell you, is far cooler and much more desirable than Ferrari's attempt at a car with the same model name.

Yep, the VW Cali has cultivated coolness thanks to a history that stretches all the way back through its lineage to the Type 2 Microbus of the 1950s, the original 'camper van' which commands stratospheric used prices if you can find a decent one today. And a Volkswagen camper has always been based on its equivalent-era Transporter, which is the name the German company gives to its Ford Transit-rivalling light commercial vehicle (LCV). Or van, if you will. The Transporter continues today, in its '6.1'-generation guise, and so there's an equivalent California too; coming in an evocative trim hierarchy of Beach, Beach Camper, Beach Tour, Coast and then Ocean, it'll set you back anything between £54,655 and £66,409 before options. It's the perfect creation for the dream beachcomber life.

Except... is it? What if Volkswagen could go bigger? While you can sleep in a California, it's more of a 'sleep-in-it-at-a-push day van' than an out-and-out motorhome. So what if Volkswagen went bigger? Delivered a lifestyle motorhome XXL? Would that be possible? Would it be the better machine for touring the seaside? Well, incredibly, there is now a bigger California. A Grand California, to be precise, and here it is. Based on the larger Crafter panel van LCV, which is a step up from a Transporter, the Grand California aims to bring even more elan to the idea of a wanderlust lifestyle. It doesn't have quite the same vivid model names as its smaller Cali sibling, as there are just two choices - the Grand California 600 and the Grand California 680. These numbers somewhat pragmatically refer to its length in metres (the former is six metres from tip to tail, while the latter measures 6.8 metres long) but such prosaic nomenclature rather undersells just what a feat of packaging Volkswagen has pulled off here. Mind, you'll pay for the privilege of appreciating this architectural puzzle-solving: because the 600 kicks off at £73,603 and the 680 starts at a stonking £76,132.

Our test vehicle, an optioned-up 600, rocked in at almost £82,000, however, thanks to some choice upgrades which we'll outline later. But yes, we finally cracked and decided we wanted a slice of the California/Grand California lifestyle, booking the big VW for a week of coastal touring. But not to the west did we look; oh no. Instead, we went east. To the North Norfolk coast. Which is not known for its wide-open boulevards and four-lane highways, but is instead basically a series of windswept locales linked by the narrow, sinuous and non-six-metre-long-van-friendly A149. This wends its way from Hunstanton (which we're reliably informed is known as 'Sunny Hunny' by all its fans) to Cromer through picturesque villages in which all the houses are tightly packed up against the roadsides. 'Perfect' for a vehicle that looks a bit like a road-going version of the Airbus Beluga cargo plane.

You see, despite the fact the long-wheelbase 680 is the more expensive Grand California, it is actually only capable of sleeping two people onboard in a large double-bed arranged longitudinally at the rear of the vehicle. The 600, however, has the distinctive, bulging high roof - which makes it almost three metres tall - that allows for a fold-out double-bed to be located over the driving cab. The rear bed arrangement, meanwhile, switches to a transverse layout, so taller occupants need not apply; even at a whisker beneath six foot, sleeping there requires a little bit of physical folding.

Nevertheless, it's the 600 which provides the most fascinating packaging. Honestly, what Volkswagen has achieved here is little short of genius. This Grand Cali precisely measures 5,980mm long, 2,970mm tall, 2,410mm wide (including the mirrors) and has 3,640mm spaced between its axles. There are five doors into the body: two standard front-hinged items for the cab, one large sliding side door for the 'main' entrance to the living area and then two side-hinged barn doors at the back for further access. Within these parameters, the German company has managed to cram an engine, a gearbox, a fuel tank and all the necessary safety and crash-structure systems required for modern-day driving, plus two bedrooms sleeping up to four people, a kitchen, a dining area/living room, storage units all around the place, fresh and waste water tanks, and, of course, the Grand's pièce de resistance which separates it from the 'mere' California, a bathroom. Complete with shower, sink and bog.

It's genuinely astounding and wonderful how Volkswagen has made all this work in something with an interior cubic capacity no greater than 45m3. Some of the detailing, too, is thoroughly breath-taking - as in, the winder for the side awning, which itself has two attached, fold-down supports which function beautifully, is stashed in a little holding area up near the roof at the back of the van, which you can only access with the rear doors open. The outdoor tables and chairs are stowed neatly in two pockets on the inside of the back doors. The way the bed over the cab slides in and out on its runners is a work of art, while the little ladder which allows access to said sleeping area can be stored neatly up on the bed in its folded position for the times when the van is in motion. The fridge-freezer sits cleverly under the kitchen sink, the storage units in the back all look superb and operate in the slick, damped fashion you'd expect of Volkswagen, there are mosquito blinds on all the key openings and lights dotted in all the relevant places within, and the way the front two chairs rotate on their axis to create the seating area when the Grand Cali is stopped is simplicity itself. Even the blinds for the cab are marvels, as they use a system of magnets, folding rods and the sun visors to neatly blank off all the front glasshouse at night.

The 600 is a real marvel, then, but once the novelty of the sheer engineering gumption that has gone into it has worn off, does it still convince you? Not. . . quite as much, if we're honest. Oh, don't get us wrong; we adored our week with it and it provided such a memorable holiday driving experience that we doubt we'll ever driven anything as special again when we're 'staycationing'. Indeed, it covered almost 530 highly enjoyable miles as it beetled its way around the top of East Anglia, returning a reasonable 28.4mpg in that time. Well, come on - it has a gross vehicle weight of 3.5 tonnes and all the aerodynamic prowess of Blenheim Palace, so that's not bad economy at all. In fact, a best of 33.3mpg was quite remarkable, actually.

As something to drive, the Grand California belies its sheer mass and size to give an unintimidating, car-like experience behind the wheel. The 2.0-litre TDI engine is refined, quiet and smooth, and is mated to an exceptional eight-speed automatic which sends power to the front wheels. Light steering and plenty of driver-assistance aids make it easy to thread the Grand Cali about the place, although it always feels very top-heavy and very hard to stop on the brakes, so don't even ask us about 'spirited driving' and its handling manners. This is not something you would ever, ever throw into a bend, even once. Apart from its totally bizarre fly-off handbrake, which is necessary so that walking out of the cab into the main cabin isn't likely to see you breaking your shins, then the Grand Cali is highly conventional to steer.

The ride quality and general suppression of wind noise flowing all about that high roof is deeply impressive, though, and so it's left to the noises of your ill-secured stuff (cups and plates and so on) crashing about in cupboards to spoil the interior ambience on a longer run. No, dynamically the Grand California is fine. It's operationally where we have reservations. Admittedly, we didn't work it as hard as possible for its week with us, because we didn't actually sleep in it much. We had a holiday cottage booked for the seven nights anyway, so it was left to a few evenings spent on the driveway at home at either end of the trip to properly sample the sleeping accommodation. But, even so, we could tell that living with the Volkswagen on a holiday where you were cooped up in it 24/7 might become tiresome, especially if you're a family of four with two young kids.

Fold the top bunk down and put the ladder in place, and you can no longer walk up and down the van to get from the back to the front. This is maybe not a major issue, as you only need the ladder to get into and out of the bunk, but if a five-year-old is up there, enjoying playing in his new den (no, not Millwall's ground, thank you), then he tends to get a bit panicky if you take his exit-strategy 'comfort blanket' away. Also, when the bunk is down, there's nowhere to store the ladder if it isn't in place - a minor gripe, considering how brilliantly VW has packaged everything else, but a gripe nonetheless. Furthermore, put the large table in situ between the four seats and it becomes somewhat cramped in the interior for anyone to move around. The rear-most two seats, fixed in a bench, are necessarily narrow and small to allow for the central walkway corridor of the van, so they're not that comfortable to sit on when the Grand Cali is in motion. The bathroom is as tightly dimensioned as it can possibly be, but that doesn't alter the fact it is still an 'inverse Tardis' that takes up a lot of room in the van's interior while still being minuscule inside. You have to travel with the rear bed folded down, which isn't a colossal drawback but it does alter how you pack the van for transit (sorry, shouldn't have used that word in a review on a Volkswagen commercial) because you give consideration to the fact you don't want to have to unload a tonne of stuff off the rear bed when you do eventually get to your destination, just so you can get in and out of the doors. So it feels like 'wasted' space back there, although - intelligently - Volkswagen turns the floor area underneath it into a pseudo-boot by including two separator boards which slot into the walkway just aft of the bathroom.

There's more, such as the fact that in typical UK fashion, all the best weather in 2020 was during the first lockdown of the Covid crisis, when we couldn't go anywhere. By the time we toured Norfolk in August, the weather was by turns either mizzly or shockingly torrential rain, with gusty winds on most of the days we were away. This made using the fabulous awning and outdoor furniture a very rare occurrence, because the breeze whipping in off the grey, tempestuous North Sea threatened to tear the awning away from the van if we weren't careful. Obviously, Volkswagen can't be held responsible for the vagaries of the English climate, but the idea of cruising a coast in a day van is more appealing in California itself than it is near Cromer, Craster or Crantock, if we're honest. Oh, and there's another problem, which again is not one specific to the Grand Cali - but practically every beach car park along that stretch of the UK coastline had either a 2.2-metre height restriction on it, or signs saying 'No Camper Vans'. The latter of which was particularly galling when we turned up at Winterton-on-Sea to see no height barrier (yay!) but were turned away by a surly-faced attendant in the gatehouse booth, when there was a California 6.1 clearly visible already within the car park beyond. Appalling double standards, but something you'll have to put up with as a Grand Cali owner.

All of which left us feeling that we might just have been better off with a regular California instead of the Grand. Interestingly, we saw plenty of Californias tooling around Norfolk, in which many of the drivers were casting longing glances at the Grand. And three or four Cali owners managed to talk to us about the van, expressing their desire for the bigger vehicle. We can certainly see the appeal of it, but then there's the expense to factor in, beyond its impracticalities brought about by its vast size. Things like the over-cab bed with access ladder (£2,514), the rear-view camera (£282, and absolutely essential on a behemoth like this) and the swish ambient interior lighting (£480) were all part of a lengthy cost options list that pushed our 600 to the threshold of 82 grand, a big part of which was the £2,868 dropped on the highly desirable Candy White over Deep Ocean Blue two-tone paintjob. So while we undoubtedly think the Grand California is an excellent creation and a marvel of interior packaging, and it was a pleasure to spend a week with it, those daydream ideals of cruising the coast at some point in the future are going to have to be conducted in something a little smaller. Wieldier. A touch more affordable. And not likely to annoy grumpy car-park attendants. Something like a Volkswagen California, in fact.

Alternatives:

Ford Transit Custom Nugget: one of the only other manufacturers to do its own camper/day van from scratch is Ford and its oddly named Nugget. Nothing like as grandiose as the Grand Cali, but nothing like as expensive, either.

Swift Edge 494: you might be better off buying a bespoke-built motorhome from a company which puts a body on a CV chassis-cab frame, rather than a Grand California 600. This one sleeps four, has a roomier living area and costs around £50,000.

Volkswagen California 6.1: well, it makes sense, right? If you're looking at OEM-built touring vans, you have to look at the icon itself. And, unless you need a mobile lavatory more than anything else, we can't help but feel the smaller VW camper is the better bet here.


Matt Robinson - 24 Aug 2020



  www.volkswagen.co.uk    - Volkswagen road tests
- Volkswagen news
- Grand California images

2020 Volkswagen Grand California 600. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Grand California 600. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Grand California 600. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Grand California 600. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Grand California 600. Image by Volkswagen UK.

2020 Volkswagen Grand California 600. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Grand California 600. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Grand California 600. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Grand California 600. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Grand California 600. Image by Volkswagen UK.








 

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