A New Zealand Owner's review of the VW T5 (2011) California image library
In Volkswagen language this equals the iconic camper or motorhome which started its life in 1949 and is still delivering fun around the world today with the imminent launch of the T6 California in late 2015/early 2016. Better get your order in soon because there’s a wait list like you wouldn’t believe. Not much change from the T5. Exterior essentially as before, a more powerful engine option, some electronic bits and pieces and a larger capacity fuel tank. Nothing here to make an upgrade worthwhile for us as our 2011 T5 is already a very capable well constructed vehicle. Maybe the extra 10 litres of fuel could be useful in New Zealand’s more remote spots.
In the early Kombi days a partnership with the German Westfalia company saw the birth of the VW Camper, but it wasn’t until 2003 that VW brought the camper concept totally inhouse with the launch of the T5 California from it’s Hanover factory. A totally unique vehicle with every aspect manufactured and fitted in the VW factory. The result – a versatile, solid vehicle ready for fun and business where required.
Should you become the owner of a T5 or the upcoming, new T6 California do join the The California Club. This is a very worthwhile, UK based, owners club which hosts an owners forum where virtually any issues relating to Californias can be discussed and a technical area where many answers to niggly problems can be found. A long list of club sponsors offer good discounts on useful products.
Our T5 California, delivered through Continental Car Services Volkswagen in September 2011 is the diesel, 180 bhp twin turbo version which offers maximum power whilst being light on fuel. Being 4 motion detracts a little from the economy but on some New Zealand roads it is a welcome safeguard. The 7 speed dual clutch automatic is a dream in city traffic, with open road driving at 100kph in 7th, the revs are only 1800. The option of clutchless manual gear change is easily selected with a sideways shift of the gear lever – useful on hilly, windy backroads. The only slight downside with the DSG technology is a pick up lag when accelerating from a stop - seconds only, but the hesitation can be disconcerting. Overcome it by selecting manual mode when starting off, but generally you simply get used to making an allowance for the pick-up lag. The benefit of the DSG easily outweighs this very minor problem.
For our right hand drive market the rear side door opens on the driver's side into the traffic - not ideal and no doubt a 'deal breaker' for some, but we have not found it a problem with due care exercised.
The California comes equipped, as standard with most things, but some are options. Such as: cruise control – a must have. Front and rear climate control – a must have. Multi function steering wheel – a must have. Heated front seats – nice. Original Volkswagen fitted rubber mats for the front foot wells save the carpet and can be easily cleaned. Carpet for the living space and rear luggage area is a personal comfort choice which can be added later from Brandrup genuine VW accessories. Without carpet these areas are in a hard wearing rubberised finish – very functional if a bit industrial. The cloth seat covers are attractive and comfortable but inevitably, with the California’s intended use, spills happen. Avoid this from the start by ordering a full set of waterproof seat covers, including the rear extension mattress cover, from Inka UK. Not too expensive, fit well and the original covers have guaranteed protection. Brandrup do a set of ‘second skin’aftermarket seat covers – very high quality but hugely expensive.
A large folding table clips neatly inside the sliding side door and there are 2 deck chairs cleverly stowed inside the rear door.
An obvious gap in California equipment is a toilet. An annoyingly awkward, but necessary item. Solved by Brandrup with an ingenious hard plastic tray which fits neatly onto the floor of the cupboard below the sink. The middle shelf is then removed and a Thetford ‘Qube’ chemical toilet slots into this tray, easily slid out as required. The pull down aircraft type blinds all round in the living space give adequate privacy. When not in use, completely out of sight and the minor loss of shelf space not really noticed. Self containment can now be legitimately claimed.
It has been brought to our attention that this is not the complete answer to 'self containment' for Californias living down-under. A modification to the grey water tank waste system may be required. We use our California very mildly in camping mode so have no experience with this work however there is a thread on the California Club website which may be helpful. https://vwcaliforniaclub.com/threads/grey-water-tank-drain-issue.747/
An as yet unsolved problem is access to the upper roof bed. For now, it is climb on the front passenger seat, gently use the armrest as a step and up you go. No trouble really except, over time, armrest damage could happen. MaxxCamp, a German company, offer a purpose made, 2 piece aluminium ladder which, in use, neatly sits between the front seats and when stowed, breaks in 2 pieces and stows behind the rear seat. Unfortunately MaxxCamp do not ship internationally. Roll on 2016 and I have now managed to import a Maxxcamp ladder - not cheap at 180 Euros but purpose built and is perfect for it's intended use. www.vwcampershop.nl
The rising roof is a wonder to behold and on many occasions we have entertained other campers during raisings and lowerings. The main potential problem to watch out for with the roof is catching the bellows in the scissor struts during lowering. Lower the roof about 2 thirds then do a walk around to check all is as it should be. Corrosion starting on the front panel above the windscreen at the point where the roof slots and seals into this panel has become a problem on some vehicles. We have not had this issue so far, but Volkswagen have acknowledged the problem.
We all like our morning shower and there are many aftermarket 12V shower units, some complete rubbish, others offering some durability. There is no hot water service built into the California so some ingenuity is needed. The simplest is the 12V shower pumping from a bucket of warm water heated on the gas stove. It’s easy but you must be quick! The more luxurious alternative is the Coleman hot water service. It’s ignition and pump system operate from the onboard 12 V with the water heated ‘on demand’ from an LPG gas canister. It is a neat unit but takes quite a bit of valuable storage space and is a very expensive capital purchase. A VW optional extra which gives privacy whilst showering is the original equipment shower tent which attaches to the open rear door. This adds about 1 square metre of enclosed ground space. Erecting and stowing down is a time consuming daily task so this facility is most useful for 3 day plus stays.
The size of the California makes it unique in the world of motorhomes. Able to fit into most residential garages with a 2metre roof clearance and into nearly all underground carparks, the California only takes the space of a medium sized car. Of course if you have roof racks or carrier pods fitted then take these into account for height. Overall (roof down) the California measures 1.99m high, 4.89m long and 2.24mm wide including the side mirrors. At 3 tonnes it is heavy, but the brakes are designed for this, however cornering needs a little more thought given the higher centre of gravity. Easy to get used to and becomes 2nd nature very quickly.
We have had the dreaded central control panel failure, fortunately at home in the garage, not away remotely with the roof up. The electro-hydraulic system for raising and lowering the roof is activated via the central control panel and it’s failure means the roof cannot be operated, also the frig is beyond human control. If the roof is up and the control panel fails, it can be lowered and secured manually (instructions are in the supplementary handbook). From other experienced owners’ accounts it is not a simple task, however you are able to drive the vehicle, as driving on the road with the roof up would be very unsafe. We understand that Volkswagen have remedied central control panel issues so we don't expect further trouble. Out of guarantee these units are expensive.
Changing a tyre is a challenge. Hopefully, if this is necessary, you find yourself on a suitable surface and able to be safely off the road. The wheels and tyres are heavy and take quite some manouevering, from lowering the spare from under the rear – you are lying on your back to do this – to jacking the California. Just pray it isn’t raining. The supplied jack is a fully functional screw type, although it seems too flimsy given the California's weight. A good replacement is a low rise (in order to fit under the jacking point) hydraulic bottle jack of the correct capacity. Another worthwhile extra is a quality 12V compressor. The Slime dual cylinder which works directly from the vehicle battery handles the task well . Minor emergencies in remote locations shouldn’t be a problem with these extras on board.
We welcome any comments or interaction with other California owners in New Zealand or Worldwide.
You can contact me via our contact page - Alex Donald
The electrical system is well thought out with plenty of interior access sockets – 12V and 230Vac. The 230V external supply cable comes with the new vehicle and enables 230V supply from campground outlets. A worthwhile extra is a power cable suitable for hooking up whilst the California is at rest in the garage. These have a normal 3 pin plug, an inbuilt 10 amp circuit breaker and the external connector required for the California end. No problem now keeping the batteries charged through the onboard regulator. The compressor fridge operates from the leisure battery and obviously if the California is parked up for a few days without external power, this battery will drain and the frig will shut down. Run the engine for at least 1 hour every other day to avoid this problem. The frig is quite versatile, capable of freezing items stored lower down when operating at level 6. Items stored from halfway up do not freeze. Level 4 or 5 are good maintenance settings. Lidded plastic containers of various square and rectangular shapes maximise the frig space.
Gas regulations vary from country to country which means that Californias exported to New Zealand are supplied without a gas bottle. This is because the regulator used in European markets is for some reason not acceptable here. This problem occasioned needing to have the cylinder compartment modified to accommodate a more proud fitting regulator. Efficiently handled by Continental Volkswagen resulting in a new gas tight aluminium screw on compartment lid being created. This is like a small tophat which allows the New Zealand specified regulator sufficient space underneath. If a gas leak develops, LPG, being heavier than air can escape to the atmosphere via a compartment drainage hole meant for this purpose. As this is under the vehicle it is wise to check for dirt blockage from time to time especially if off road or in extra muddy conditions. There are 2 stop valves in the gas system – 1 on the cylinder and another underneath the burners in the kitchen. When travelling a simple safety precaution is to always have the cylinder stop valve off. When stowing gear it is not hard to so arrange things to make easy access to the cylinder.
The California is equipped with 2 frost protected 30 litre watertanks – fresh drinking water and grey water. The fresh water tank is filled at the rear left and for this a length (2 metres seems about right) of food grade flexible piping is required. Adding water purification tabs to the tank at the appropriate dosage is a good safety measure. The grey water tank drainage valve is located on the rear wall of the kitchen cupboard. Should the California be at rest for more than a few weeks it is a good idea to run the water pump to avoid the possibility of it seizing. Never run the pump dry.
Original equipment tyres are Dunlop Sport 235/17 with, in our case, a pair needing replacement at 25000kms. These are expensive in New Zealand, but Bridgestone offer a good alternative and so far running well. Time will tell.
Used efficiently the California has plenty of storage space, but doesn’t treat inherently untidy souls kindly. Even with the toilet stowed, there is the cutlery draw immediately under the kitchen sink, the left hand cupboard with a middle shelf, the large draw under the seat/bed, the overhead aircraft style drop down locker over the back seat, the deep wardrobe cupboard where the optional solid steel box safe is fitted into the base. The safe, as a security option, will give you peace of mind if you are planning on leaving the California in a remote carpark during say, a day long hike. Best to take your valuable items with you but this is not always possible. With the safe they can be locked away (separate key), not easily found or accessed even if the unthinkable happens. Moving to the rear, on the left there is a tall cupboard above the gas cylinder compartment. The bed extension acts as a cargo shelf with space underneath for a variety of washable, rectangular, square or combination, unlidded plastic crates which are the best option for carrying loose items, bottles, tinned and dry food. These can be packed according to usage, item size and if necessary cushioned to avoid travel rattles. The crates are easily brought to your home kitchen for loading up pre departure and similarly carried where needed on arrival at destination.
As we have a four legged pal who loves California days, her extensive kit is always on board.
The bits and pieces that you give permanent residency to in your California, make each journey workable, convenient and enjoyable – or not. A full featured picnic set in its own carrybag/backpack is much better than cutlery odds and ends and various left over crockery from home. A stainless whistling kettle is far superior to a 12V jug which will take forever to boil. If you love coffee, a stove top espresso pot is a must. The Alessi range never fails to please. Great coffee and not too long to wait. A Nespresso machine is a great luxury addition for when 230V hookup is available.
Actual cooking on board is OK but be careful with ingredients as certain smells cling and linger. Better to invest in a quality, portable, marine stainless BBQ which can be used outside and easily stowed. We highly recommend the American Magma range which uses the Camping Gaz disposable LPG canisters. 8 - 10 BBQs from 1 canister - not bad! Good to use - easy to clean. A nesting set of pots is easy to stow and cleanup. Magma have a good offering of very high quality 18/10 stainless available via Amazon. That’s about it for the kitchen.
A comprehensive 1st aid is essential – haven’t used ours yet but it is there. Maps for all occasions and/or GPS. Plenty of music choice. The California has bluetooth and media player inputs plus the trusty CD player. Sleeping gear in the form of light duty bags and sleeping cocoons for those very hot nights. Keeping warm inside the California is easy with the auxiliary diesel heating. Insect screens for the windows are standard equipment and very necessary in New Zealand. A hot summer night, windows open, no insect screens invites an invasion of mosquitos, especially if interior lights are on Not pleasant. A couple of towels, a waterproof picnic groundsheet, several umbrellas – Blunts are great as they are rated for high wind such as often experienced in various parts of New Zealand, several torches, but remember to renew batteries from time to time, a couple of Leatherman multitools and a range of jumpers and waterproof jackets. A word to the wise about keys - keeping the spare ignition key with you but elsewhere, such as in your partner's handbag is a very good precaution against being locked out. You may think you are ready to leave the California, press the lock button, then walk to the side, notice the side door still open and an item on the seat that is needed for your hike, inadvertently place the keys on the seat whilst collecting this item, then close the side door. As you previously pressed the lock button on the key, this process will now complete - keys inside and you outside. There is no way back, but no problem, as your partner has the spare key at hand.
After 4 years of ownership we love our California and can confidently say - if you are an intending owner you will not regret a purchase decision.