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Why I chose a VW California



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Having spent over a year tracking down the Perfect Campervan I hope that this ramble is useful for people who, like me, are looking for a T5 camper and are undecided with the plethora of conversion companies out there over a VW California.

"Surely I can get the same thing a little cheaper?"

Bit of background; we’ve been living in the Cayman Islands for several years and decided to return to the UK. We’ve a new baby and we wanted to make the most of weekends and days out as a family. Camping ticks all the right boxes, but having previously had a Splittie, we wanted a bit of speed, comfort and safety (not to mention, warmth!). This is how it happened.


Bliss, but all style over substance?

There are 1001 reasons why to do, or not to do something. These are just mine. It’s just my (extremely biased) opinion, so please don’t be offended if something in here gets your back up (it’s me, not you!).

First off, why we initially discounted the Cali:
The price; we’d set a mental budget of around £30k. Other than older Cali’s they were all out of this bracket. I’d prefer a facelift
It can be a bit bland in comparison with the bespoke T5 conversions. Whilst I’m not a big fan of bling, those 16” wheels and some of the colours can be a little dull
The left hand setup of the kitchen and more importantly the door opening on the offside. We thought this ruled it out as we’d read stories of “accidents waiting to happen” etc etc. TBH if we’d applied some common sense here, this wouldn’t have been an issue. Using that thinking, all cars would only have near-side opening doors. Duh!
Hard-to-find. Most are 4-seaters and we want 5 so that we can take the grannies out with us on day trips (DAY trips, I am done camping with my mother. Love you!)


Is there room in there for another?

So we started to look at conversions. MAN, there are a lot of them out there. Some look extremely cool, but some look like they’ve been the subject of a bad shopping day at Halfords & MFI. Some promising the world for £25k, but when you see them there are just shortcomings everywhere.

Ideally we wanted it ready for our return in the spring of this year (2013) so we didn’t have to buy another vehicle (we want to use this as our all-purpose, single car)

We narrowed things down to three conversion co’s. that offer really good quality conversions:
Dirty Weekender, Smartworld Campers & VolksLeisure

Now I have a lot of time for each of the people I spoke with here, they are knowledgeable, helpful and really do offer a lot of time to help you out. They can also all source vans suitable for conversion.

We thought our desired spec was simple enough; facelift, tailgate, maybe some nice styling (body coloured bumpers, 18” wheels, nothing OTT) 5 seats, pop-top, air conditioning, night heater, regular electrics & usual kitchen stuff. Easy eh?

Well the 5 seat thing was a complete struggle. It appeared we had a solution based on the Cali setup (i.e. middle swivel seat) for 2 of the above Co’s (to save the narrow kitchen alterations/cost a 3-seat bench would need), but this did mean fitting a California rear sliding bench, or going with a LWB van. Volksleisure do have a nice Reimo 3-seat rear bench, so these emerged as a decent option and at 30k, seemed ideal. Hmmm…


Looks good?

However, once we insisted on a pref non-white, tailgate AND a/c then the vans became hard to find, barn doors being the norm (as fork lifts can’t get into a tailgate). It was suggested that we should either buy new or source our own and have it converted. The guy at Volksleisure even went so far as to suggest a Hyundai (the vehicles that they normally convert). He clearly missed the point… I’m sorry, a WHAT?

So, out budget was up to £35k. Once we browsed the, I kid you not, DOZENS of options on a new T5 van to find what we wanted or needed, it became apparent that this was getting silly. For all of our options (including extra camping stuff like a bike rack, awning etc) then even £35k was stretching it.

We decided that £40k should absolutely, really, really do it. Even at this rate, there are still uncertainties. For example, despite talking with one company for months, I still did not have a definitive price (but had guestimated on £42k). All this for a 102ps van, I might add.
It seemed that we had to have serious pockets or compromise. I was reluctant to do the former, but adamant there would be no compromise. I wanted this to really work for the family and needed something we could use all the time, or it would risk becoming a chore or worse, a waste of money.

I’d joined this forum some while back and returned to have another look & ask some questions (not just about that off-side door) and found that this place really was a bit special. A ton of help came forward :thanks with admittedly a bit of bias, but I also asked similar Q’s on the T4/T5 forum, so I think I had a lot of balanced opinion.
The issues of quality, factory-fit and resale values began to sink in. “You mean it has an ALUMINIUM, electrically-operated roof, no straps hanging down and flappy material above my head??” A/C & heat in the REAR?

With a conversion, as good as they are, they’re a bit of an unknown quantity in terms of finish & resale until you’re in one (& paid for it). I have no plans to sell quickly, but if I had to I’d like to have everything covered by one company – Volkswagen. I can also have a look at another and be assured that the layout and spec is what we need before buying. Lastly, the aftermarket finish just cannot match a factory Cali; there is always single-glazing here, bare metal there (or carpet-covered metal with fixing studs showing) etc. Should I really part with 40k for that? Not to mention insurance hassles with a van pre & post conversion. And then there’s that Reimo flappy roof!

So looking at the new budget, we were now into new Cali territory, without even realising it. Dithering with ordering online thru DriveTheDeal, I then happened across the perfect-spec 18-month old, 5-seater 180SE. All our must-haves, with the nice-to-have options of 510 SatNav, DSG, bike rack, awning, 18” Sportlines, side bars etc, still under warranty. I’d only ever seen a handful like this one in the year or so I’d been looking.

After a quick presentation to the FD (aka my wife), we put a deposit on it and will pick up (or rather my poor, suffering father-in-law will) in a months’ time, going into storage for when we get back a couple of months after that. The added bonus that it was close to our middle, £35k budget really was the icing on the cake.


Now you're talking. Bring on the Northern European weather!

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Hurrah! I love a happy ending. Excellent choice :)
great story and you definitely made the right choice.
Thanks for the comments folks. It's been a long haul & now I just can't wait to get behind the wheel!


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An excellent post, Andy. Lots of similarities with my own experience and I suspect many others.

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