The “California” name alone makes it seem as though Volkswagen is trolling us. The company that brought us one of the first camping ready vans, the Microbus, and later iterations of the Vanagon and even the underrated Eurovan, sells a van purpose-built for camping and living out of, calls it the “California,” looks at the booming market for overlanding vehicles and camper vans in the US, and still refuses to sell it here. It’s as if they haven’t heard of #vanlife.
This is particularly annoying because VW just released details about the newest version of the California van, and it looks near-perfect. The setup is an offshoot of the Transporter van, which you can’t buy in the US, probably the reason they won’t sell the California here either—more on that in a moment—and the new California is the T6.1 version.
Besides the ingenious camper-friendly and no doubt camper-designed guts of this thing, there are two crucial bits of envy-inducing details to share: they all come with a 2.0-liter diesel engine, and you can have one with AWD.
Essentially it’s as if you took a Vanagon Westy Syncro and modernized and electrified everything and gave it a torquey, fuel-efficient diesel motor. This thing would sell like hotcakes in the US.
You could consider this a “smart camper.” A sophisticated control system handles things like the onboard fridge, lighting systems, and the pop-up tent. All of which is displayed and operated through a clean-looking display above the windshield. There is even a setting that shows the van’s angles when parked, helping the driver dial in the most level camping position without having to eyeball it or use a line level.
If desired, maybe on a cold and grey morning, when extreme privacy is wanted, or just to keep out a soul-penetrating early morning sun’s glare through the windows, you can set an alarm that will gradually raise the interior LED lights to mimic the sunrise.
The inside is styled out in wood and aluminum trim, which sounds like something out of a hipster farm-to-table restaurant, but looks clean and appropriate here. There’s a two-burner stove, the front captain seats swivel, the rear bench seat reclines, the tables stow easily for huge amounts of floor space.
So why can’t we get this thing here? Well, it’s hard to say exactly, but seems to be that VW doesn’t think there’s a big enough market in the US and that potential buyers would balk at the cost. The base model starts at nearly $50k, without shipping charges, which, sure that’s a lot of money. But people are climbing over each other to drop twice that on a Sprinter van, buying far, far more van than most actually need, and Mercedes isn’t complaining. If memory serves, the Eurovan has always been a really expensive van too, and VW has sold plenty of them in the US.
Michigan radio interviewed the press relations pro at VW, Christian Buhlmann, a few years ago when the California first debuted and here’s what he had to say about keeping the van out of the US:
“It’s either love ’em or hate ’em. People who nowadays still drive a T2, T3, T4, you name ‘em – those vans that we used to have until the 2000s – most of them are enthusiasts that run these vehicles in perfect weather conditions. Those are people who are hardcore fans for this segment, but they’re just too few to justify making a new version of this only for this market.
“The second problem is currently we make those vans in Europe, and even with the rising dollar and weaker Euro share, it is not enough units to make up for a reasonable price. We are selling vans, very well-equipped vans with four-wheel-drive, with kitchenette, with everything that you want for prices of $50,000 and up, which is not where the market here is, or where the camping market is. There is an RV market, true, but those RVs are much larger in size than what we currently offer.
“Let’s say you’re taking your average camper van and you’re going to Italy, take a U.S. van, you wouldn’t be able to access all these little alleys, these streets that they have – you would be stuck.
So you need something compact in order to get where you want to go. Over here, where everything is accessible, even for large RVs, there is just not this demand. Therefore, people in the majority would rather go for something bigger, if they’re looking for RVs.”
Buhlmann went on to explain that VW is aware people love vans in the US, but they’d need to sell 200,000 units to make it worthwhile, economically. Because of their small market share, VW doesn’t think they can do it. Ford can sell boatloads of Transit vans, for example, but they’re one of the Big Three, so they can sell a ton of anything they make. VW has to be more selective.
So, we get the, uh, Tiguan. Europe gets the California. Great.
Well, California vans have occasionally been spotted in the US, so maybe, just maybe some enterprising van lover can get their hands on one. Or just move to Europe. In the meantime, VW is promising the electric new bus, the “ID Buzz” will hit US dealers in 2022.
The folks at Jalopnik did a nice walkaround of last year’s model that’s more illustrative of what this van can do than the stock VW shots above. Check it out below.