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Wolfsburg branches out into the motorhome market. Now, who’s for tea and biscuits?

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To a great many people used to modern luxury hotels, the idea of a luxurious, aspirational ‘lifestyle’ motorhome may well seem like a brazen contradiction in terms.

Not to those who’ve spent happy days wandering around the trade shows organised to show off the various ways in which you can spend a six-figure sum on a high-end camper, though; and clearly not to the product planners at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, who’ve brought us the subject of this week’s road test, the new Grand California.

Bulbous shape to the over-cabin roof is present on the short-wheelbase chassis only and it’s there to make space for the smaller of two double beds on board.

VW isn’t the only (predominantly car-making) brand to have sought to explore such an idea in recent years, of course. As competition for Wolfsburg’s own regular California, German rival Mercedes-Benz launched the similar, V-Class-based Marco Polo only a couple of years ago.

And yet even the Mercedes doesn’t go quite as ‘large’ as the car we’re interrogating over the next few pages. Unlike its considerably smaller namesake, the Grand California takes aim at full-sized, third-party-conversion motorhomes and comes with all of the on-board sleeping, living and stowage space, and all of the fitted creature comforts that statement implies.

What distinguishes it from most of the ‘campers’ with which it’ll be compared is that it’s not a third-party conversion. After a special production line was added at Volkswagen Commercial’s factory in Poznan, Poland, the Grand California is being built by VW itself, at the same factory that’s making the current Transporter and Crafter panel vans and the California camper. But what does that mean, exactly, for the performance, usability and perceived quality of this vehicle – and how much will the motorhome fraternity be expected to pay for differences?

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The Volkswagen California range at a glance

The Crafter van’s flexiblity of design and layout is truncated a little bit for the Grand California motorhome: you get two choices rather than three on overall length, two choices instead of three on axle drive (front drive or four-wheel drive) and two choices on roof height (the shorter 600 has the higher top).

There is effectively only one common trim level on both derivates of the vehicle, with just a handful of options available on either the 600 or the 680.

Price £68,899 Power 174bhp Torque 302lb ft 0-60mph 15.8sec Fuel economy 26.1mpg CO2 emissions 218g/km 70-0mph 66.8m 30-70mph in fourth 19.3sec

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Grand California 2020 road test review - hero side

The idea of an enlarged California camper, based on VW’s bigger-boned, third-generation Crafter panel van rather than the current Transporter T6, first emerged in 2017 when VW Commercial Vehicles showed off the California XXL concept. That show car was close in layout and execution to the production-version Grand California that went on sale last year; so much so that if you’d simply edited out the XXL’s bulbous stepped rear end from your mind’s eye, you might have been viewing the finished article.

This is what motorhome experts call a van conversion – and sadly, an optional two-tone paint job doesn’t exactly make it attractive. As distinct from something with a commercial backbone chassis and a third-party body, then, this is effectively a Crafter van that has been slightly modified and refitted internally.

A factory camper comes with factory-quality driver assist systems: front assist autonomous emergency braking is standard, with lane keeping assistance, blindspot assist and rear traffic alert as options

Unlike most motorhomes, it has full-height twin back doors and a full-height sliding side door. On the inside, meanwhile, you’ll find an adult-sized double bed and lots of storage space at the rear; ‘dinette’ living quarters at the front immediately behind the swivelling front seats; and kitchen and – for the first time in a California – on-board bathroom facilities in between.

Thereafter, the layout of the two varying-length derivatives offered by VW diverges a little. Opt for the shorter-wheelbase 600 version (the nomenclature describes the vehicle’s six-metre overall length) and you’ll get a higher roof and an optional kid-sized double bed slung out immediately above the driving quarters. Go for the longer 680 instead and your roof will be lower and your wheelbase and primary double bed longer – although the over-cab second bed isn’t available.

Both versions of the Grand California are based on Volkswagen’s front wheel-drive Crafter van chassis, although part-time 4Motion four-wheel drive is available on the bigger one. Whereas lesser-powered versions are offered in other global markets, UK models have a 174bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine slung transversely in the nose and an eight-speed automatic gearbox.

Construction is body-on-frame, with suspension via MacPherson struts at the front and a beam axle and leaf springs, with load-sensitive dampers, at the rear – all pretty typical for a commercial vehicle of this size. The big shame for those who might like to tow with it is that VW doesn’t offer the Crafter’s less space-efficient rear-driven driveline and chassis here

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Grand California 2020 road test review - cabin

Access to the inside of a parked Grand California will typically be granted by the vehicle’s large offside sliding door, where a motorised step slides automatically outwards to help you on your way in. Once inside, you’re not immediately struck by the sheer expanse of space you find – and while there are reasons for that, whether you judge them to be good reasons or not may depend on how much you like sharing a loo.

Immediately in front of you, there is a two-seat rear bench seat that, via the addition of a small table and a swivel of the front seats, can become part of a four-seat dining area. Heading rearwards from there, though, your sense of space is intruded upon somewhat by the kitchenette (a two-burner cooker top, sink, worktop and refrigerator compartment) that runs opposite a fully fitted ‘wet room’.

Optional over-cab bed allows this area to slide out and convert for sleeping. It’d do fine for a smaller adult or two kids sharing.

The inclusion of a ‘wet room’ breaks new ground for any VW California and means owners needn’t be tied to camping sites with toilet and shower facilities but can roam more freely abroad. For size, it’s more water closet than wet room, but given the impact it has on wider available space in the car, you wouldn’t want it to be bigger.

It’s certainly a cleverly configured and usable space, though, the shower drawing water from a 110-litre on-board fresh water tank and draining into a 90-litre waste tank. The main bed at the vehicle’s rear, meanwhile, is comfortable and of the most useful size for two adults sleeping transversely. That it can’t more easily be folded away during the day is one of the other reasons that space could be a little more economically utilised inside the Grand California. However, the same can’t be said of the optional over-cab berth, which slides out and away very neatly, although it’s only really big enough for a smaller adult or a couple of children sharing.

Move forwards from the main sliding-door access area where we began and you’ll find a driving environment that offers plenty of occupant space, has fine comfort levels and is very well served for storage areas. It doesn’t quite match the impressive perceived quality levels of the living quarters (which have classy-looking white fitted cupboard doors and ritzy ambient lighting strips) but it doesn’t let the side down, either, and includes instrumentation, trip computer and infotainment systems, which all impress for clarity, functionality and usability.

However, parents of younger children may be interested to read that Isofix-equipped or not, the relatively narrow rear bench would be at a squeeze to accommodate bulkier child seats next to each other.

The Grand California’s infotainment system is something of a rarity among Autocar road test subjects: a multimedia set-up that isn’t upgradable at extra cost. It’s Volkswagen’s familiar Discover Media navigation system with an 8.0in colour touchscreen and comes with four speakers up front, Bluetooth, voice control and App-Connect (which brings with it smartphone mirroring, of course). It looks great, works well and seems to hold its own in a £70,000 vehicle with pseudo-premium positioning.

And it’s not the only touchscreen display or music source in the village, either. Farther aft, a similarly sized wall-mounted tablet is your route to adjusting cabin heating and ventilation, or deploying the roof-mounted satellite dish, Thunderbirds style. And farther aft still, optional Bluetooth speakers around the bigger double bed mean someone at one end of the vehicle can listen to an entirely different choice of music from someone at the other. (Pity the grandparents in between.)

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Little seems to be either recorded or published about the performance of full-sized motorhomes by the specialist press that concerns itself with them and less still is claimed about the same subject by their manufacturers.

Since this is the first such vehicle to undergo an Autocar road test, relevant benchmark comparisons are hard to make about the Grand California’s performance statistics. What we can say, having tested back in 2015 an example of the Volkswagen Caravelle on which the regular California is based, is that someone ‘trading up’ from the smaller recreational vehicle would quite plainly notice what they were giving up on the road, as well as what they were gaining in cabin furnishings. The Grand California feels, and goes, very much like a large commercial vehicle – and, unlike the regular California, there is nothing you might call ‘car-like’ about it.

Most motorhome drivers will be pleased with the Grand California’s safe and stable road manners and the relative accuracy with which it can be placed on a narrow road

Despite being evidently short-geared, it’s an order of magnitude slower than even a slow modern passenger car; and although the automatic gearbox combines with decent engine isolation to make it relatively mechanically refined in use, it’s still far from an effortless thing to drive, mostly because of its sheer size. The upshot? That while a regular California or a Mercedes Marco Polo could just about serve as a second family car, a Grand California definitely couldn’t.

Still, while the VW needed nearly 16sec to hit 60mph from rest, and longer still to get from 30mph to 70mph through the gears, it’s decently drivable and responsive for roll-on acceleration once you get acclimatised. The gearbox is fairly slick, getting through several gearchanges on the way even to urban speeds, and the Grand California gets up to the easily maintained 50mph cross-country stride that UK traffic law allows for it without straining.

Wheezing from there up to motorway speeds is more trying. You really can hear the toll that wind resistance is taking on your fuel economy here, as the air whistles past the vehicle’s A-pillar and its large door mirrors. Still, once you’ve persuaded it up to speed, there’s enough torque to keep it there.

Emergency braking performance is passable, although again it’s adrift of modern large passenger car standards by a considerable margin. The good news is that the Grand California stays stable and goes straight when you nail the middle pedal; that it doesn’t dive too hard onto its front axle; and that the various brake-force-distributing and boosting electronics seem to work as well as you’d hope.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Grand California 2020 road test review - cornering front

Most motorhome owners might be minded to accept a vehicle that just about passes muster in these dynamic respects. For most, safe and secure will probably do. Still, we’re dealing here with a factory-built prospect that aspires to deliver against higher standards than its rivals in so many ways.

Is handling one of those ways? Perhaps, but if so, you’d certainly have to concentrate to know it. Then again, since this motorhome is sufficiently viceless in negotiating open roads, city streets and car parks that you have so much spare mental capacity when driving it as to wonder what its distinguishing dynamic qualities really are, instead of having to devote so much brain power to managing and mitigating its quirks and weaknesses, perhaps VW can consider this a job well done. Yes, the Grand California is big and it doesn’t disguise its size much. Yes, it turns pretty slowly. Sure, it feels unwieldy at times, although a smallish steering wheel and plenty of steering angle both help to resist on that score.

Vehicle leans hard on its outside wheels around corners but remains stable and drivable, with the help of its electronic aids

Mostly, however, you’ll find that it’s easy enough to make it go where you intend on the road, and to keep it on the path you had in mind around a bend or within a lane, as long as you invest enough attention to its bulk. The steering certainly helps make the process straightforward, being medium weighted and reasonably accurate and responsive just off centre, while the chassis is civilised enough to allow the rear axle to dutifully follow the front over all but the very worst surfaces.

Body control is a little limited but only in proportion to outright lateral grip, so the car feels intuitive when cornering at reasonable speed and delineates its adhesive capacities pretty simply, plainly and effectively.

The Grand California 600 has a self-imposed natural speed limit, which is readily apparent around the Millbrook alpine hill route, yet it handles in a sufficiently viceless, stable and benign way that it reassures you it would remain secure and controllable in an emergency.

The obvious worry with a car so high sided is rollover, but that’s managed and mitigated quite effectively when it comes to it. The vehicle retained respectable lateral body control even when cornering in something approaching a hurry. Your entry speed is naturally quite circumspect and the always-on stability control prevents you from trying to pick up too much pace mid-corner.

Such gently paced steering and slow handling responses are all most drivers will need to adopt the fairly gentle cross-country gait needed to keep things comfortable – yet, should they plough on in ignorance, the VW remains reasonably accurate and composed at higher speed.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

This is a markedly more comfortable and sophisticated customer when touring than many might expect from a van-derived chassis. Vans are, after all, surprisingly agreeable vehicles to drive thanks to their raised cabins and upright, well-supported seats, as well as their fine visibility. This motorhome seems to add a good deal of extra road and engine noise deadening into the mix and has a soft-feeling, fairly absorptive ride, so it’s the kind of vehicle you’d look forward to taking a long European road trip in – albeit at decidedly unhurried pace.

The driver’s seat supports thighs and backs quite well and is comfortable over distance. The diesel engine can be a little obtuse on start-up and when revving hard, but most of the time, it settles into the background obediently enough.

Wind noise, meanwhile, is kept low at A and B-road speeds, only becoming at all distracting at and above 60mph – and at that pace, it’s not the only thing that’ll tell you you’re rowing the vehicle along a little more quickly than is sensible.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Grand California 2020 road test review - hero front

Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles’ UK distributor has pretty unashamedly gone after moneyed motorhomers with the Grand California’s pricing, having ruled out the lesser-powered engines available in other markets from the showroom range.

The Grand California line-up therefore opens for business just below £70,000, with very few examples likely to leave the order form for much less than £75,000 and a fully loaded 680 4Motion easily likely to beat £90,000. Third-party conversions of similar size can be had for less than £60k without shopping too hard, so VW had better hope, for the long-term sales performance of this motorhome, that the market responds to its distinguishing lures.

Grand California is the first Volkswagen camper with its own onboard loo, fitted in a ‘wet room’ with a shower and wash basin. Uses what campers call a cassette toilet

Touring fuel economy is unlikely to be among them, although it’s respectable enough for a vehicle of this size. Our habitual touring economy test is carried out at 60mph in one of the outside lanes of Millbrook’s high-speed bowl, and at that speed, it was clear that aerodynamic drag was taking its toll on an indicated return of 28.5mpg. But wider testing also made it clear that, at a reduced cruising pace, the Grand California could just about beat 30mpg.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

VERDICT

Volkswagen Grand California 2020 road test review - static

The Grand California has several evident strengths that (thankfully for us) you needn’t have expert knowledge of the motorhome scene to appreciate. Where we needed the aforementioned to position it relative to its rivals, we sought help from our former colleagues at Practical Motorhome magazine, to whom we’re grateful.

Readily apparent even to us, though, was the appealing perceived quality and classy material ambience of this vehicle; likewise, its impressive comfort, refinement and drivability.

New California is classy but not half as clever as smaller namesake

However, among its disappointments, we noted an inefficient cabin layout, which seems to present the on-board ‘wet room’ as if it were some kind of totem and generally makes the vehicle interior feel quite a bit less spacious than you expect.

If the regular California is a packaging miracle for its on-board adaptability, then, it’s clear that, while this Grand version is a lot bigger, it’s not half as clever; nor can it hide its commercial vehicle derivation half as cleverly when driven. A betting person might expect the former to matter more to seasoned motorhomers than the latter, and possibly neither as much as Volkswagen’s fairly ambitious pricing – but only time will tell.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.