Driven: Could the Grand California camper convince us to give up our hotel room?
Kyle Fortune is a freelance motoring journalist who has written for a host of newspapers, magazines and websites including Motor1.com, Car Magazine and the Daily Telegraph.
“I’m buying one, that’s it, even if it takes me 1,000 years to save for it,” shouts my lad, who’s seven. I’m inclined to agree with him, even if I’d like to think that I might manage to save up the £68,899 the Volkswagen Grand California costs in a bit less time.
Campers, you either get them, or you fall into the ‘that buys a lot of hotel rooms,’ urm, camp. Yes, you could grab a 12-inch plate, release your inner Partridge and spend 2,236 nights, or around 6.3 years living in a £30 a night Travelodge. But that’s not really the point, is it? Few on here would question the validity of spending £70k, and more, on a sports or supercar that you only use the odd weekend, so why not a camper?
And the Grand California is the king of campers, and, unlike every other one you see out on the roads, it’s built by VW in its own factory rather than converted by a specialist. It takes its name from the regular California, that familiar, popular, pop-top camper, which is built off the smaller Transporter. The Grand California, is, as its name suggests, bigger, being based on VW’s Crafter van.
The 680 here is 6.8m long, there being a 600 at 6.0m, too – both having double beds permanently in the back.
The two Grand California models
In the 680 that bed is lengthwise, in the 600 it’s across, though if there’s more then two of you that 600 does come with a taller roof to accommodate a small bed. As an adult you’ll look up there and think, ‘no’, but your kids will see it as the best den ever – indeed, good luck trying to convince the they can’t stay up there when you’re on the road. They can’t, just in case you’re wondering.
There are a pair of seats for them (for a maximum roll call of four, including the driver), the small bench situated behind the two swivelling captain’s chairs up front, which, with the help of a table, quickly turn into – and here’s some camper-speak – a ‘dinette’.
The 'dinette' in the middle of the van
If you’ve got the table out then you might as well eat off it, a couple of gas burners meaning you can cook up whatever you like, the deep fridge underneath it giving you space for food (and, let’s be honest here, booze, for when you pitch up for the evening).
I skipped the cooking, instead guiltily munching a tube of Pringles, but I did fire up the stove for a coffee. With plenty of cupboards around for everything else, a kitchen sink, and even a bog and a shower, a large camping battery and all the necessary plumbing for all of that, means you really can go off grid if that’s your thing.
I may not have cooked in it, but I did sleep in it, the massive bed in the back being extremely comfortable. Warm, too, thanks to the heating system that’s all operated off a small touch screen panel which gives you an instant status on all the Grand California’s camping-specific functions - things like the battery charge, water tank levels and suchlike. It’s the first vehicle I’ve tested, that I’ve been naked in (at least that I’m willing to admit to) – the shower being hot, and the water flow strong enough to feel like a proper shower, rather than a derisory trickle.
The shower is in a cleverly designed, compact, but not constricted, wet room, which has a fold-away sink, and a shunky. It’s up to you how you use the latter, but if you’re camping in the wild then the world can be your loo, for wild wees at least.
The wet room is very neatly packaged
If you really want to be at one with nature, the Grand California also comes with an additional shower for outdoor use. Think more washing off salty water from a wetsuit or muck from a mutt or a mountain bike, rather than a full-on loofah and lather situation, which might just get you arrested.
It’s all very neatly packaged, and unlike so many campers the fit and finish is feels more Poggenpohl than flat pack. There is no sign of any flock finishes or pensioner-grade fixtures that once defined camper (and caravan) interiors, the world having moved on a good bit in recent years. It’s desirable in there, indeed, it’s nice enough to live in.
The bed in the back is very comfortable
On the move it’s much as you might expect from a van, though modern vans drive nicely, and come with all the safety equipment like Lane Keeping Assist and suchlike, though the most useful things are the parking camera and the blind spot monitoring. Being based on a Crafter van, rather than a cab, means width is rarely an issue, though you do need to be aware of height restrictions, and, indeed, check whether you’re allowed to drive it – the larger 680 requiring C1 certification on your driving licence because it’s over 3.5 tonnes.
The 177PS 2.0 TDI is mated to an eight speed automatic gearbox, driving the front wheels (a 4Motion 4x4 version is coming, if you’re determined to escape that little bit further). It’s not overly brisk, VW yet to have any official performance figures for it, but it’s capable, if happier at a motorway cruise than a country road, where the gearbox is pretty busy. On either you’ll be forever be reminded that you’re essentially hauling a house around with you, as the large interior resonates with all that furniture and equipment inside.
Thing is, none of that matters, there’s something peculiarly liberating about driving the Grand California, more so, even, than its smaller T6 relation. With the Grand California everything’s already in place, there being no need to convert it when you stop. And that’s its genius – it allowed you to turn any journey into an adventure, it’s your own mobile haven that enhances and enables whatever it is that interests you.
The evening after I dropped it back to VW I took the kids paddle boarding and immediately thought how nice it would have been to be able to have a warm shower or hot drink afterwards.
I’m doing a trail run this coming weekend where I’ll get pretty muck – which would have been the perfect time to use that outside shower – before using the one inside. Then, of course, there’s the tow bar, which you could bung a race transporter with a track car on for some weekend fun. Want one now? Or would you still rather that hotel room?