Base vehicle: VW Transporter Price from: £37,995 Berths: 4 Travel seats: 4 Length: 5.60m Width: 1.90m Height: 2.05m Gross weight: 3,500kg Payload: 625kg
Words & photos: Peter Vaughan
Back in the December 2016/January 2017 issue, we compared a dozen VW T6 Transporter campervans, including the California Ocean – usually the standard by which all others are judged – and 11 rivals from all of the top converters in this market. The surprise winner was the Expo from the then relatively young and less well-known Cornish firm, Ecowagon.
Since then, Kenny Green, who signs his emails The Big Cheese, has been beavering away near Redruth, refining and improving his campervans. He ruefully comments that buyers have to pass virtually every other converter in the UK to reach him and is not put off by social media posts that have ridiculed his market positioning.
The 90-grand camper on his forecourt that had keyboard warriors so incensed not only sold fast but lead to five other sales on top, and his most expensive camper to date was £125k. Yes, that’s for a T6.1, because Ecowagon only converts Transporters, although it will still build on earlier T5s and T6s if a customer wishes.
The company also offers a range of models, from the DayVan Camper, through Combo, Slim 5/6, Classic and Expo to the flagship Expo+ which now accounts for around 19 out of every 20 sales. With this model, Ecowagon seems to have found its niche, building truly top-of-the-range campervans for those who probably don’t have to worry too much about the price.
If you’re going to build the ultimate VW camper, of course, you’ll want to start with an exceptional base vehicle. So, this Expo+ is built on a long-wheelbase Transporter with the most powerful motor (204PS), the seven-speed DSG automatic and 4Motion all-wheel drive.
It is then upspec’d with Pure Grey paintwork, factory-fitted swivels for the front seats, the Discover Media Navigation system, High Beam Assist, LED headlamps and rear lights, Park Assist and Rear Camera, a power latching sliding door, a glazed tailgate with wash/wipe and heated window, a removable towbar and cab carpet. So, that’s an invoice for £52,348 from Volkswagen (enough for some completed campers), before Ecowagon even gets out its power tools or orders the kitchen sink from Dometic…
Not that Ecowagon stops there with the spec. It then adds some very chunky-looking KMC wheels with 225/65 R17 BF Goodrich All-Terrain tyres, trapezoidal side bars, an extra spare wheel and jerry can on the rear (for the real off-road look), and some 4x4 styling accessories. This campervan looks like it means business and our slightly half-hearted attempts to get it stuck on January’s soggy mud and grass were shaken off with the sort of nonchalance employed by Daniel Craig when dusting off his DJ after a brawl with a baddie. If you’re fed up with front-wheel drive wheelspin on every farm site, this is like taking a bulldozer to flatten a molehill.
Not that the appeal of four-wheel drive starts and ends when you leave the Tarmac. This T6.1 put all of its 204PS to the road during the decidedly inclement weather of our road test with none of the embarrassing slip and spin that can affect my own T6 when I’m in a hurry. Not that it’s 100% good news, though, because the Massey Ferguson-style rubber drones in normal driving, blighting the otherwise sophisticated feel of the Volkswagen.
Other rival vans may now drive just as well as the VW but none matches the Teutonic quality feel of a Transporter. It’s not just the durable feel of the high-quality plastics in the cab, nor just the way the doors close with a thunk, not a clang, but also the smoothness of that twin-clutch DSG transmission.
Pity, though, that the sport mode on the gearbox has gone on the latest T6.1, as has (inexplicably) the left foot rest. While you’ll be everlastingly wiping away the fingerprints, it’s not hard to appreciate the latest touchscreen, however, with sat-nav instructions repeated in arrow form between the speedo and rev counter. And the reversing camera is a boon on a vehicle that’s just a tad too long to fit into a standard parking bay.
Before I’d popped up the roof, made a brew or swivelled a seat, this Ecowagon had demonstrated its most expensive optional extra – one that I’d love on my own camper. Accounting for £6,250 of the total price is its VB Air Suspension.
With a simple hand control by the driver’s door, this serves multiple purposes. In everyday driving, it simply improves on the T6.1’s ride quality, although much of the time (except on the roughest roads) I preferred it in sport mode, which seems to cut out the usual roll and lean when cornering and gives the Transporter a very poised feel. The last VW I drove with a lift kit like this (raising the ride by 30mm) felt as stable as a jelly on a plate in comparison while, if you really get a move on in this camper, the optional Audi R8 cab seats hold you firmly in place with their much deeper side bolsters.
Then, there’s car park mode, which makes the camper look as if its suspension has collapsed as it hits the deck to limbo under height restrictions – doubly welcome with this camper’s taller off-road stance. Or, you can go the other way and raise the campervan up in off-road mode (perhaps for that hideaway wild camping location), which (like the car park mode) can only be used up to 10mph. All this comes with an increased maximum gross weight of 3,500kg, as standard 4Motion VWs can often be a little sparse in the payload department.
The function you’re sure to love most, though, is the automatic levelling. Again, it’s just one touch on the appropriate button and the suspension rises and lowers to suit the terrain – as long as you’re not parked on an Alpine pass, of course.
Then, perfectly level, it’s time to pop the top – a Reimo Easy-Fit elevating roof, which Kenny believes is the best of the best. Not that Ecowagon does everything the German way, as it fits its own roof bed (a vast 2.23m long by 1.18m wide berth on plastic springs for comfort) and its own design of sliding panel to tidy the cab ceiling and leave no canvas on show. Incidentally, it’s also worth noting that this roof has, perhaps, the easiest locking system we’ve come across with bonnet-style catches on either side, rather than the simple straps we’re used to seeing on Reimo roofs.
Inside, the Expo+ doesn’t offer anything radically different to the norm, just the same recipe of top-notch components and high-quality finish. Like most converters, Kenny simply feels that a classic side kitchen layout is the best option inside a Transporter, even a long-wheelbase one like this.
You can certainly tell that it’s the 400mm longer van here, because the interior feels super-sized. With the bench seat in its rearmost position there’s a HUGE 1.75m length of floorspace between the cab and the rear pews. Think other campers feel claustrophobic? Simply like space to stretch out? Or have a hound or two to accommodate? This could be a winning feature.
If you’re au fait with your campers, you might also have spotted the origins of that sliding seat – it is, of course, VW’s own, from the California. Here, though, it’s relocated on the left-hand side of the T6.1 as the door is on the UK side (unlike Californias). It is fitted using the same rails, same holes and same bolts as in VW’s own campers and Ecowagon buys the seats direct from Volkswagen.
Compared with the popular RIB bench, the California seat is massively more comfortable, primarily because you don’t have to have legs like a giraffe for your feet to touch the floor but also because it’s a well-proportioned seat with a slight slope to the base and two positions for the backrest.
It also has advantages over the Reimo Variotech as its tracking is covered (so doesn’t fill with dust and dirt) and it can be positioned anywhere along its rails, not just at set points. It has the same automotive head restraints as in the Cali, the same capacious drawer underneath, but the luxurious leather with hexagonal stitching (standard on the Expo+) is Ecowagon’s own.
Of course, not only can you slide it all the way back but right forward, too, which is great for bringing the kids closer to mum and dad and also for creating a vast boot area for bikes, etc. It’s worth remembering, though, that the rearmost cupboard in the main galley unit can only be opened when the bench is all the way back (and the boot area mattress is folded in half). I preferred to have a larger boot (with the mattress unfolded) for my camera gear and to house a Porta Potti and would have liked the boiler to be moved aft to minimise the loss of easily accessed locker space.
That said, storage is supremely catered for in the Expo+. Here, the furniture was in a pale blue with contrasting wood countertop, all handcrafted and edge banded by Ecowagon. You can feel the high-end domestic kitchen quality in aspects such as the Häfele soft-closing drawers, which click shut with a precision rarely seen in campervans.
There’s a neat curve at the end of the worktop, too, and, of course, you can have any colour you like, from bold and bright to classical and conservative.
However you choose your décor, your Ecowagon will have plenty of cupboard capacity, including surprisingly generous top lockers that are large enough for mugs and bowls, if not full dinner plates. Under here, a full-length LED shines down onto the counter and, like the other lighting, it’s dimmable.
Beyond the familiar hob and sink combo from Dometic, the LWB van allows for extra worktop – 670mm of it before you get to the tall shelved locker behind a tambour door (ideal for folded clothes) and then a corner cupboard that’s most easily reached through the tailgate (or with the bed down). There’s even more storage in a ceiling cupboard above the boot.
Meanwhile, alongside the galley’s worktop, you’ll find the Eberspächer heater controls, a wireless charging station, a 230V socket and twin USBs – these power points are duplicated on the opposite side of the camper, too.
As standard, the Expo+ gets an Airtronic diesel heater with seven-day timer but, here, that had been upgraded to the much pricier Combi Hydronic unit which also provides hot water to the sink and outside shower but which has just one (potent, if quite noisy) temperature setting for space heating.
As well as a shower tent that drops down from the open tailgate, this Expo+ also had the ultimate gadget – a Bluetooth shower control that magnetically attaches to the side of the camper.
That’s not the only fancy fitting on this high-end camper. On the roof is a 350W solar panel, while the leisure battery here is an optional 150Ah lithium unit and there’s a 1,200W inverter, too, for when no hook-up is available. Better still is the Simarine control centre – a fitting from the yacht market as Kenny became disillusioned with poor-quality components from caravan/motorhome industry suppliers. The touchscreen here gives clear readouts of the state of vehicle and leisure batteries, fresh water and gas tanks, as well as what amperage is being used separately by lights, fridge and heating, and how long the battery will last at current usage levels.
This camper isn’t just a techfest, though. There are practical details, too, such as the table that hides on the inside of the sliding door. It can be used outside or inside (clipped to a rail on the front of the galley). Use it up front with the swivel cab seats, at the back with the bench, or slide the back seat forward and four of you can sit around it – if you’re organised enough to then not need to access the kitchen.
At night, the blinds on the side and tailgate windows are the best we’ve seen in any campervan.
With metal frames and magnets to link flyscreens to pleated blinds, they speak volumes about Ecowagon’s attention to detail. Then, of course, there’s the bed, which is as easy to make as in a California. Simply slide the seat forward, tip the head restraints out of the way and pull a strap to flatten the backrest. Although firm, the 1.88m by 1.18m mattress here wasn’t rock hard like the one in my old T5 Cali and I slept well – so well that I needed my phone’s alarm to wake me up, as the Expo+ achieves real blackout inside (a huge plus if you’re a light sleeper).
That the wind-out Thule awning is standard on a camper of this ilk is no surprise but the neat tube for storing its winding handle is an example of Ecowagon’s practical approach. The Expo+ also comes with a very comprehensive spec (as you’d expect with a conversion-only price tag of £37,995) that features everything from the solar panel to the full leather interior.
You don’t need to be as extravagant on the Volkswagen base vehicle front as on this demo model if you want to keep the price closer to a California Ocean, although alternatively you can tick every box (as here) and add another, ahem, £18,690 of conversion options. It all depends on your needs, priorities and, of course, your budget. As tested, this is certainly an expensive campervan but it’s also one of the best VWs we’ve ever seen.
We have created a fully searchable library of every issue of What Motorhome from February 2012.
Our archive partner provides the searchable database to help you find, download and read any and every issue instantly, on any device, on any topic, wherever you may be, including the latest editions!
Why not try searching for more great motorhome articles now?