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2023 Volkswagen California 6.1 Beach review

The last Aussie allocation of Volkswagen’s insanely popular California Beach camper van sold in a nine hours, so you better get cracking if you want another shot at owning one of these unique German-made icons.

I suppose you could always hang out for the new-generation T7 version of the Multivan that’s already on-sale in Europe, but according to VW Australia it’s not yet confirmed for this market – and there’s certainly  no mention of a California Beach version of the new MQB-based people mover.

The diehards will want to stick with the current 6.1 version for its durable commercial vehicles platform and boxy design, whereas the T7 is built off Volkswagen’s latest passenger vehicle platform, dubbed MQB Evo, which can’t quite match the towing capacity of the 6.1.

Mind, if you haven’t already got your order in for one the remaining allocation of just 100 VW California Beach units, you’re probably too late, as all are spoken for with a late-2023 delivery. That’s how popular this thing is, despite the fact it’s never been more expensive.

January 2022 saw California Beach prices jump $4300 to $91,290 for the TDI340 4Motion tested here, now it’s $94,990 before on-roads and options – yes, there’s plenty of must-have options for this coolest-of-cool camper vans.

There’s nothing really like it in terms of a full turn-key solution that doubles as a family chariot during the week and a weekend camper that sleeps four right off the showroom floor.

It’s absolutely unique in that regard, apart from its global cachet, which is why used versions are going for forty grand more than new sticker prices.

It’s also the very last of its kind, given we fully expect a T7 version to be given the green light, eventually.

How much does the Volkswagen California 6.1 Beach TDI340 cost?

The California 6.1 Beach line-up kicks off with the TDI340 front-wheel drive from $90,990 plus on-road costs.

The TDI340 with 4Motion all-wheel drive tested here is priced from $94,990, while the top-spec TDI450 with a more powerful turbo-diesel is yours for a cool $100,990 plus on-roads and options.

Euro rivals with a turn-key approach to camping are few and far between, though Mercedes-Benz has the Marco Polo Horizon, but that’s going to set you back considerably more with pricing from $109,188 for the base model – and I’d argue it’s not exactly suburb-friendly like the Cali Beach. Besides, drive-away is more like $130,225.

What is the Volkswagen California 6.1 Beach TDI340 like on the inside?

To many, including me, the current California Beach is an aspirational purchase and seriously prized procession, mostly for its iconic style and ready-to-camp fit-out as opposed to a regular Multivan.

Inside, it’s a mix of analogue and up-to-date digital tech, which buyers seem quite accepting of, despite the hefty price tag.

For instance, there’s no keyless entry and start, so you’ll need to use the key fob and insert it into the old-school key barrel and twist to start. It feels archaic in that regard and somewhat annoying if you’ve jammed the key in your jeans. First-world problems, I know.

No electrically-adjustable seats up front either, but at least that both chairs can swivel 180 degrees to face the rest of the family for an evening chat after dinner. Better still, each comes with fold-down armrests on each side for max comfort on long hauls in search of the perfect wave.

The steering wheel adjustment is also manual, though, it’s both tilt and reach adjustable, and the very latest flat-bottom design.

The forward cabin itself is classic Volkswagen and not much different to what you found in the previous-generation Golf, but only if you opt for the Digital Cockpit, giving you a digital instrument display and suitably large touchscreen infotainment -–both of which provide good resolution, colour, and quick response to the touch.

Volkswagen takes a utilitarian approach with its Multivan range which includes the California Beach using functional blend of hard plastics, aluminium inlays and a few tasteful chrome highlights on the knobs.

While there’s plenty of decent-sized storage spaces; namely the huge dual-level door pockets, secret sliding bins under the window seats in the second row and in-dash compartments, there’s not a lot of cubby holes for the likes of phones, wallets and sunnies, but for a small receptacle next to the shifter.

It misses out on a centre console bin that you can get in the Multivan Cruise but it’s not on the California’s options list, presumably due to the swivel seats.

Nevertheless, this is primarily a family camper and the packaging in that regard is exceptionally clever and more or less intuitive, so you won’t need to consult the owner’s manual.

The rear seats (in our five-seat configuration) are on an easy-to-use rail system, and can either fold forward or be completely flattened butterfly-style in preparation for the ground-floor bed, which comes with its own mattress. It’s easily wide enough to sleep two adults with sliding side windows should you want to hear the sound of waves crashing at night.

The real party trick though is the electro-hydraulic pop-up roof (you so want this optional extra over the manually wound version) that’s controlled via the Camping Van Control panel – a roof-mounted touchscreen that can also be used to adjust the heating, lights (just like a lush hotel room), and also displays the angle (or level) of the vehicle.

In less than a minute, the roof opens up, exposing a second properly sprung double bed that’s easy enough to access, even for older folks like me. The roof itself is made from a robust, weatherproof fabric with three integrated mesh-protected windows – opened via low-friction zippers. It’s all really simple stuff but wonderfully effective.

Another useful function in the overhead touch control unit is Max Charge, which ups the idle speed to charge the 60 amp-hour battery in the shortest possible time.  

There’s LED lighting throughout the entire cabin, too, including extra-lumens for the step and floor as well as a handy LED magnetic torch that lives behind the driver’s seat in its own charging port. Make sure the kids don’t lose it.

There’s a lightweight picnic table that magically stores inside the right-hand sliding door, and pairs with a couple of fold-up chairs that live inside a zippered compartment at the top the enormous tailgate. They’re also superlight and look to be beautifully fabricated and dead easy to access.

The tailgate itself is power latched only, so you’ll need to manually open and close it which takes some effort. No doubt it’s a safety aspect as it’s large enough to sit under during a rain storm as was the case throughout our shoot.

But, if you need more outdoor living space with protection from rainy weather, go ahead and grab the awning winder from the camping chair holder – and wind away.

I’ve always found the light-alloy legs of the awning to be a bit fiddly when trying to find a solid anchor point, but do it a few times and it’s a non-issue.

What’s under the bonnet?

All Volkswagen’s 6.1-generation passenger vans, including the California Beach, are powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine.

The lower-tuned and entry-level TDI340 develops 110kW of power at 3250rpm and 340Nm of torque at 1500-3000rpm through a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox driving the front wheels.

Our California Beach TDI340 4Motion tester uses the same powertrain and gearbox but directs power to all-four wheels.

The more-powerful TDI450 engine tune makes 146kW and 450Nm by adding a second turbocharger to the mix, with power going to all-four wheels.

How does the Volkswagen Volkswagen California 6.1 Beach TDI340 drive?

You’ll soon get used to using the key fob to unlock (lock) the doors, and the key itself to start your van. In fact, there’s something quite therapeutic about the process, given 90 per cent (or more) of vehicles these days offer push-button start.

The driving position is naturally elevated but ergonomics are good and the steering wheel is adjustable for reach and height. Moreover, all-round vision is superb and the turning  circle is small enough to make the California Beach a breeze to manoeuvre even in tight carparks (as tested).

While some might have cause to whinge and moan about the TDI340’s modest outputs, I’d rather say it’s a powertrain that’s fit for purpose, though, we’re still keen to try the TDI450.

It’s certainly not punchy like the twin-turbo TDI450, and there’s a fair bit of low-down lag until the diesel nudges 2000rpm, then it puts the power down in a more linear fashion and doesn’t feel hampered.

At least there’s sufficient torque to get things moving and ascend the steeper slopes without fearing you won’t make the summit.

It’s not a quiet four-pot diesel either, in fact it’s all a bit agricultural, especially under heavier loads. It’s most apparent in stop/start traffic, but in the end you get used to it – or just start thinking about just how cool the California Beach is. The envy of all surfers and universally applauded.

The dual-clutch gearbox is smooth-shifting and a good match to the diesel, but the shift pattern is skewed more towards economy and finding top gear as quickly as possible, so it doesn’t always get off the line as quickly as you might want.

There are no paddleshifters, but at least you’ve got the option of using the shift lever if you want to hold the lower gears longer.

Still, once you’re up to speed it’s quite happy to it the maximum legal speed all-day long using as little diesel as possible, or marginally more than Volkswagen’s claimed average (7.5L/100km) on the combined test cycle.

Going with 4Motion all-wheel drive eliminates any unwanted wheelspin in slippery conditions (as tested) and therefore a safer bet in my mind.

Ride comfort is pretty good for what is effectively a commercial vehicle, thanks to the optional adaptive dampers. Passengers aren’t completely immune from effects of bumps and cracks, and there’s a few unavoidable shakes and rattles but larger speed humps are more or less ironed out.

Our tester was also fitted with the Off-Road Package; which adds a rear diff lock and downhill assist, and while bad weather excluded any such excursions off the beaten track, it’s certainly a worthwhile option for such a vehicle.

What do you get?

California 6.1 Beach highlights:

  • 5 or 7-seat configuration
  • 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment screen
  • Satellite navigation
  • Wireless Apple CarPlay, Android Auto
  • Touchscreen camper control
  • Swivelling front seats (180 degrees)
  • Manually-elevating pop-up roof
    • 2 side windows
    • Front opening window  
  • Manually-operated awning with winder tool
  • Bed extension
  • Fully-sprung loft bed
  • Camping table (lightweight, foldable)
  • Two camping chairs (lightweight, foldable)
  • Second battery
  • Programmable parking heater
  • Privacy glass
  • USB/AUX/SD connectivity
  • Bluetooth
  • Two USB-C ports
  • six-speaker sound system
  • 17-inch ‘Aracaju’ alloy wheels
  • Automatic ‘H7’ halogen headlights
  • Daytime running lights
  • Rain-sensing wipers
  • Electric heated, folding mirrors
  • Power-latching sliding rear doors
  • Carpeted floor for cockpit
  • Plastic floor for passenger compartment
  • LED interior lighting
  • ‘Quadratic’ cloth upholstery in Titanium Black
  • Tri-zone climate control
  • Sun blinds in passenger compartment
  • Heat-insulating windows
  • Driver fatigue detection
  • Front and rear parking sensors
  • Chargeable LED torch
  • Power-latching tailgate

Options (as tested):

  • Two-tone paint: $4050
  • Microfleece seats, heated front seats, Digital Cockpit: $3690
  • Electro-hydraulic roof: $3050
  • LED headlights, tail lights: $2050
  • Adaptive Chassis Control: $2010
  • Off-Road Package: $1720
  • Power-sliding doors: $1640
  • Fog lights with cornering function: $770
  • Park Assist: $460
  • Light Assist: $320
  • Silver Awning: $NCO with two-tone paint

These optional inclusions also bumped the price of our California Beach to a bank account-draining $114,750 plus o-roads. We consider most of the above list to be must-have add-ons.

Also note, the list price includes GST but excludes LCT, which is part of the drive-away price.

Colours

Solid paint finishes include

Metallic paints include:

  • Indium Grey
  • Starlight Blue
  • Mojave Beige
  • Fortana Red

Two-tone paints include:

  • Candy White/Ascot Grey
  • Reflex Silver/Indium Grey
  • Starlight Blue/Reflex Silver
  • Cherry Red/Reflex Silver
  • Mojave Beige Metallic/Deep Black Pearlescent

Note – Bay Leaf Green Metallic/Candy White is no longer available

Is the Volkswagen Volkswagen California 6.1 Beach TDI340 safe?

Volkswagen’s 6.1 passenger van range hasn’t been tested by ANCAP or Euro NCAP.

However, standard safety equipment includes:

  • Autonomous emergency braking (up to 30km/h)
  • Blind-spot monitoring
  • Rear cross-traffic alert
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Cross wind assist
  • Reversing camera
  • Front and rear parking sensors
  • 6 airbags incl. curtain airbags

How much does the Volkswagen California 6.1 Beach TDI340 cost to run?

The California 6.1 Beach is backed by a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty with one year of roadside assist.

Servicing is required every 12 months or 15,000km – whichever comes first.

Volkswagen Australia offers a five-year Care Plan which covers scheduled servicing for said period, and is significantly cheaper than paying as you go.

Until June 30, 2022, the service package costs $1400 for California Beach front-wheel drive models, and $1600 for 4Motion versions. Best to check with the dealer on service costs before you negotiate the final drive-away price.

CarExpert’s Take on the Volkswagen California 6.1 Beach TDI340

For sure there are cheaper solutions if you and your family choose to go bush for the weekend but they won’t look as cool as a Volkswagen California Beach – not even close.

That’s just one of the reasons why you can’t get one for love or money, despite the big-league price tag. Another is the fact you can drive directly from the dealership to your favourite camping site without the need for any further third-party fit-out costs.

You’ll need the two-tone paint, electric pop-up roof and the auto sliding doors, but then there’s the factory-backed five-year warranty for peace of mind.

If you find one, let me know.

Click the images for the full gallery

MORE: Everything Volkswagen Multivan

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