Six alternative campervans to the VW California
The VW California might just be the best-known campervan around – and the only one produced in-house by Volkswagen – but it's by no means the only popular model on the market.
If you're in the process of shopping around and are deliberating about what kind of campervan to buy, while the VW California is almost certainly on your shortlist, there are a range of other competitors well worth checking out. We've put together a quick shortlist of other campervans that a potential buyer should consider, including:
- Bilbo's Nexa+
- CMC HemBil Urban
- Dirty Weekender
- Hillside Birchover S
- Rolling Homes Columbus
- Mercedes Marco Polo
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Bilbo’s has been converting VWs into campervans from its Surrey base for over 40 years and in that time it has earned a reputation for building high-quality and, above all, thoroughly practical campervans.
Its range includes the usual side kitchen designs (both with a slimline galley in the Komba and a fuller kitchen spec in the Celex), but it’s the newest addition to the range that we’re focusing on here, simply because the Nexa+ is a wholly different proposition to the California. And, if you like the idea of a rear galley layout, or want single beds, the Nexa+ is probably the best of its type.
With this style of floorplan, the Nexa+ has an immediate advantage over its rivals because Bilbo’s uses its own, side-hinged Low-Lie elevating roof, which is not only very easy to operate but gives the same generous headroom in the galley as in the front lounge area.
Up front, the Nexa+ has four individual seats, with the cab chairs rotating on factory swivels to create a lounge for four, and dining for two with a wall-mounted table on the offside. At night the seats convert into a pair of single beds, leaving a central aisle free to get to the kitchen or the toilet.
Where the Bilbo’s excels, though, is in the galley where there’s a three-burner hob and more storage than in its rivals, thanks to tall furniture on the offside (incorporating a 47-litre compressor fridge). Also here is the built-in cassette toilet, for which an elasticated privacy curtain is provided.
Based on a T6.1 Kombi with VW factory-fitted windows and seatbelt mountings, the Nexa+ is available with a wide range of options, including a long-wheelbase version for even more galley space.
CMC HemBil Urban
So good that the What Motorhome Editor bought the very first one they built! Here, then, is another reason to eschew the California – needing five seatbelts. Yes, technically, you can add an extra removable seat in the Cali but it’s about as practical as hopping to save on shoe wear. Campervans with a double passenger cab seat are equally unappealing in our book – awkward to rotate, they have a fixed backrest that means you won’t want to travel far. No, the answer if you need more seats is a wider rear bench.
In that case, you could buy a California Beach Camper, but this is better. It has a much more comprehensive kitchen and the fact that the hob section can be removed for cooking outside is an added bonus.
A further advantage of campers with a wider rear seat is, obviously, a wider bed and on warm summer nights that’s really appreciated. Then, there’s the excellent Reimo sliding seat system here, which gives you the same additional versatility as in the Cali.
CMC has been building campervans since 1988 and its HemBil range also includes the Drift, with a second sliding door – out of which the kitchen cleverly pivots. All models are offered in Smart Line or Comfort spec (from £55,950 for the Urban), with the latter based on a T30 Kombi Highline. Long-wheelbase versions are available, as well as a new electric elevating roof and stunning full leather interiors.
From around £60,000
If you want a truly bespoke build, we’d probably point you towards Dirty Weekender. This Worcester-based converter likes to do things differently, while still retaining the practicality of the proven side kitchen layout and using tried-and-trusted components such as a Webasto fridge, RIB seat and Reimo roof in its Adventure Vans. Many campervan firms cut costs by using cheaper fittings but there’s nothing like that here.
Instead, you might see Bilstein lowered suspension, metal-coated cabinets (with zinc and copper powder applied in layers and then sanded back for a stunning finish), tweed and leather upholstery, a personalised wrap on the underside of the roof bed, or, our favourite feature, a coffee machine that disappears under the counter at the flick of a switch. An extra-long (1.95m) bed is another plus of these VW campers that can be as individual as you.
Hillside Birchover S
Hillside is one of the UK’s largest converters of VWs, also building campers for several leading dealers, and it offers a full range of models. It’s the price of its entry-level Birchover S that should really grab your attention, though. Almost £15k less than the cheapest California, this looks like a bargain before you even open the sliding door. Do that and you’ll see a full side kitchen conversion (with cabinets in a grey or wood finish), an RIB seat and a top-quality SCA elevating roof (with roof bed!).
For the price of a pre-owned camper, the Birchover S has none of the compromises of going to a lesser-known converter or building on a used panel van. The conversion has full European Whole Vehicle Type Approval and has been passed by the NCC (National Caravan Council), too. It’s based on the latest T6.1 Transporter Startline with air-conditioning, cruise control, front and rear parking sensors, DAB radio with touchscreen and leather steering wheel.
You’ll have to pay extra to upgrade from the standard 90PS engine (we’d recommend the 110PS unit as a good compromise here) or to add metallic paint or diesel heating, but don’t buy a used camper until you’ve had a very good look at this brand-new one.
Rolling Homes Columbus
One of the USPs of the California is its very automotive interior, but some buyers prefer something more homely, something more traditional. If that’s you and you want the very best solid oak cabinetwork in your campervan, then Rolling Homes is the place to go.
It’s no surprise to discover that company founder, Mark Cooper, has a background in high-end domestic kitchens when you look inside a Columbus. The layout may be familiar but the standard of finish of the furniture, complete with Corian worktops, is certainly a cut above the norm.
It’s the cabinets that make a Rolling Homes camper special, but you also get eco-friendly sheep wool insulation, blackout curtains on a twin track system, a crash-tested RIB seat/bed unit, blown-air heating and a TÜV-approved SCA roof with double bed. Its conversions are NCC approved and can be upgraded with all the usual VW options. The price above is for a 90PS model, with a 150PS DSG starting at £56,301.
Of course, the Columbus is just one model in the range and, if getting right off the beaten track is your aim, you should look at the Expedition. With 4Motion four-wheel drive, extra underbody protection, and diff locks, this chunky-looking camper is designed to go where others wouldn’t want to get muddy – or stuck.
Mercedes Marco Polo
Like the VW California, the Mercedes Marco Polo is sold through the motor manufacturer’s own retailer network, although here it’s the car franchisees, not van centres. Also, again like the Cali, there’s a choice of models, the Marco Polo Horizon (a five-seater with no kitchen and a manual pop-top) and the fully spec’d version, which starts at £61,735.
This, in turn, comes in two flavours – Sport (with electric roof, full galley with top-loading fridge, two-burner hob, etc, reclining two-seater rear settee, diesel heater, camping table and two chairs) and the AMG Line, which adds 19-inch wheels, AMG body styling and rear spoiler, metallic paint, sports suspension and a chrome strip on the rear bumper.
Recently updated with new engines, the Marco Polo is based on the swish Mercedes V-Class people-carrier, rather than the much more utilitarian Vito van. Uniquely in its class, the Merc is rear-wheel drive, while you can choose from 163bhp or a remarkably potent 236bhp version – both with a nine-speed automatic gearbox (no manual option).
Inside, the Westfalia-built design certainly looks sophisticated, but it lacks the practicality of the California Ocean and cannot match its storage capacity. For buyers wanting a glamorous daily driver with which to impress their neighbours, however, the Marco Polo has no equal!