VW’s New Camper Van Isn’t Coming Here, But We Drove It Anyway
Product: California Ocean T6.1
Release Date: Never, at least for us Americans
Volkswagen is one of the few carmakers that’s managed to create icons both within and outside of the automotive world. Since its inception in 1947, the VW Type II van has become the symbol for any wandering tribe of free-spirited individuals not only as a vehicle, but as a home. Its self-reliant nature and simple design have allowed it not only to persist, but to become cemented as a symbol of the counterculture movement of the ’60s as well as part of the camping pantheon. These German vans have become as much a symbol as they are a vehicle, representing seemingly endless possibilities. And that legacy endures to this day.
Recently, your humble scribe spent three days in Canada driving the new Volkswagen camper van, the T6.1 California Ocean, around the southern half of Nova Scotia, covering over 400 miles of pine-lined rustic shores and sprawling interior farmlands. Although VW sent us to this Canadian coastal province to drive a van named after the state son closely identified with boxy Vee-Dubs, neither Canadians nor Californians can have one; it’s not sold in North America. Volkswagen, it seems, just wanted us to know what we were missing.
What We Like
The updated looks of the 2020 California Ocean — a new front bumper and an enlarged grill for added airflow to the engine — don’t seem overly striking at first; indeed, it somehow looks both very large and compact all at the same time. But the two-tone white on copper finish that our vans had gave the VWs a retro look that simultaneously managed to be modern and chic.
The appeal was clear: whenever we stopped, someone would pull up alongside the van and ask a flurry of questions — and inevitably walk away sad when they heard they couldn’t have one. It’s no Italian sports car, but the mix of strange beauty and German practicality here is hard to deny.
With the T6.1, the California has been loaded with even more comfort- and efficiency-minded gadgets. The interior feels truly massive — at least by New York City apartment standards. The cabin has an hoest-to-god lounge feel, made possible by its driver and passenger seats’ nifty trick of turning 180-degrees, allowing them to face the rear bench (slash fold-out bed that sleeps two) and camper-van-classic fold-out table.
The list of features certainly doesn’t stop there. Y’all ready? The California also has (deep breath) a two-burner propane stovetop, refrigerator, sink, cold-water shower, on-board water and propane tanks, twin removable tables and chairs, an awning, a diesel-powered heater and more Batmobile-esque gadgets that would take years of ownership to uncover.
In spite of all those features, the interior feels well-thought-out. A few new touches include aluminum handles for the interior cabinetry, wood trim and flooring, new push-to-release mechanisms for some of the kitchen appliances and updated upholstery. Though some of these details may feel small on their own, they add up to a vehicle that feels much more like a home than a van ought to.
Of course, there are still some classic features it shares with some of the camper vans of yore. The California is still fitted with that iconic feature, the pop-top roof bed that sleeps an additional two people. Unlike the Microbuses and Westfalias of the past, these new iterations aren’t a canvas tent with a sliding piece of wood for a bed. The T6.1 has a new bed design with a built-in box spring and queen-size mattress surrounded by a sturdy, almost white-water-raft like material, and it can be deployed in less than two minutes with the push of a button. The van also has a digital pitch gauge allowing the driver to find a level spot setting up camp.
If you decide, like I did, to forgo the new alarm clock feature (in which the cabin lights gently fade on at whatever time you choose), the pop-up tent has zip-open flaps on all four walls to allow the sunrise to wake you. It’s also great for letting in some fresh air if the diesel heater has been cooking a little too hard through the night.
There is a new 12.3-inch display at the helm, which acts as the pilot’s right-hand man. This screen is home to a heap of controls for the technological wonders of the modern motoring (and camping) world. VW calls it the Volkswagen Digital Cockpit; it controls the auxiliary heater and fan, cabin lights, Apple CarPlay, sat-nav and pop-top mechanism. You can track the power you’re using from this same screen; on a full charge, the van’s camping accessories can run for nearly 40 hours. And even if you run the cabin power flat over a weekend, never fear; the motor and radio are on their own dedicated battery.
It’s easy to forget this thing is a vehicle when it’s parked, but it drives pretty well too. The turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four provides plenty of power, while the three-way adaptive suspension provides a smooth highway ride in Comfort Mode and an appropriately responsive one when you hit the button for the rather-unexpected Sport Mode.
Watch Out For
It may be surprisingly good to drive, but that can lead you to feel a bit too trusting in the corners — a potentially hazardous issue with something that is nearly 10 feet tall and clocking in at 6,000 pounds. You really do have to keep its limitations in mind, because it is working hard to hide them from you.
The bigger issue though: it’s really expensive. Although there is a lot of value here, the price tag can be shocking: up to $99,000 for the fully-loaded Ocean package I tested. The differences between a base model and a fully-optioned one aren’t that extreme, essentially coming down to a flip-out kitchen instead of a fixed one and a handful of aesthetic items. The optioned-out model was a blast to spend a weekend in, but if these were available Stateside, I’d grab the simple, no-frills version and save tens of thousands of dollars while still having largely the same experience.
Even though it’s too expensive for me, the new VW T6.1 California Ocean has made me even more jealous of our European friends’ ability to spend the weekend in one of the excellent new iterations of VW’s long line of adventure machines. Here’s hoping this tradition of boxy camper vans continues into Volkswagen’s electric future — and that those future campers make their way Stateside.
VW hosted us and provided this product for review.
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