VW California vs. Transporter conversion – specs and comparison

Any campervan is an awesome ticket to freedom, staycations, and discovering places you wouldn’t otherwise stumble-upon.

It’s a fairly well-established fact though (well, in my opinion), that the VW Transporter (or factory-fitted VW California) is the most iconic and best campervan to have. Of course, other options exist on the market such as the Ford Transit or the Renault Traffic, but they’re just not as ‘cool’.

In this post we talk about the pros and cons of getting a VW California vs. an aftermarket converted VW Transporter.

The winner, and the one you should get if you’re in the market for a campervan, isn’t actually as obvious as you think!

To save you some time, the summary is:

  • Under £30k: converted Transporter
  • £30k-£50k: it depends on what you want
  • Over £50k: buy new, definitely the VW California

Find out why this is our summary be reading more below.

Does a VW California have better spec than a converted Transporter?

The Cali comes as standard with a very good spec list, and always has done. The short answer is that there are inevitably converted transporters for sale that have the same spec as a Cali, but there typically won’t be any converted Transporters that have a better spec than a VW California.

When a VW California is for sale you know exactly what you’re getting, from the spec list down to the build quality. That’s not the case for a VW transporter.

When I bought my 60 plate converted Transporter in July 2020, I was very surprised to learn that the onboard computer (on the dash) was very, very basic. I want to find out what MPG I was getting on my first long trip to pick it up from Plymouth, but the computer doesn’t even show MPG.

That’s when I realised that there are different computer options on the Transporter, and mine didn’t have the posh, more expensive computer.

It wasn’t a deal-breaker, because I can still work out my real MPG when I fill up by dividing the miles I’ve done by gallons used up. But it’s worth pointing out if you’re new to the Transporter camper market.

If you’re in the market for a Cali, this wouldn’t happen. You can be sure that you’re buying the best of the best in all specification options.

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Cali Ocean vs. Cali Beach

The VW California comes in two different models – the California Ocean, and the California Ocean. The Ocean is by far the most common model.

What is the difference between the VW California Ocean and California Beach?

The Cali Ocean has a kitchen including a hob, sink, and fridge, but the Beach does not. The Beach comes with the option of 5 or 7 seats, but the Ocean only has the option for 5 seats. The Beach also comes with a picnic table and two chairs hidden away in the boot and doors, whereas the Ocean doesn’t include these because it utilizes the space slightly differently to the Beach.

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How much does the California Ocean cost?

The base price is listed on the VW website as “From £63,817”. There are of course optional extras that can be added, but since it’s so well-equipped out of the factory, most extras are purely for those with very deep pockets.

VW California Ocean Interior

You can quite easily add an extra £10k+ worth of optional extras if you want to, but they’re all minor improvements on what is a very highly specced vehicle as standard.

The most expensive Cali out of the factory, if you added all optional extras, would set you back around £75k.

The Cali Ocean optional extras include:

  • Upgraded engine: Choose from the standard 2.0 TDi 150 PS, 2.0 TDO 199PS, or 2.0 TDI 4MOTION 199PS (all of them are DSG only)
  • Paint: Ascot Grey and Cherry red are included as standard; Candy white (+£300); metallic paints +£762 (lots of choice); Pearl effect paint +£762; or two-tone paint for +£2,880
  • Wheels: As standard it comes with a choice of 3 different silver 17″ alloy wheels, which are actually all rather nice. Or you can upgrade to 18″ for either +£936 or £1,245
  • Other options: As with any new car, there is a huge array of optional extras. Some examples include swivel seating +£396; upgraded nav system +£678; a range of driver assistance including lane assist +£474 and driver assistance package Plus +£780; sports styling package +£2,640; wooden flooring +£498; removable and lockable towbar +£768; grey cupboard with shower connection +£348; safe box +£132; and a bunch more options.
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How much does the California Beach cost?

In 2020 the Cali Beach was taken out of the VW line-up and replaced with the Cali Coast, which is a lower specced version of the Ocean. This was due to the drastically higher demand for the Ocean than the Beach.

VW realised that more people wanted kitchen equipment in their camper, which is the Beach didn’t have.

When it was available, the Cali Beach cost £10,000 less than the Ocean. The optional extras were similar to the list provided above for the Ocean.

VW California Beach interior
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How much does a converted Transporter campervan cost?

If you’re converting a VW Transporter straight out of the factory, then you wouldn’t be wise to choose the cheapest model. The price of a brand new VW Transporter ranges from as little as £27,626 (inc VAT), which will get you a T26 Startline SWB with very little spec at all, through to a T32 Highline 199PS 4MOTION for £46,250.

The official VW price list for Transporters is here.

The cost of the campervan conversion is what may surprise you.

Since by definition every aftermarket campervan conversion is custom, there is no single set price list for it. However, to match the camper spec of a Cali, you’re looking at upwards of £15,000 for a good quality campervan conversion.

If you were to choose a middle-of-the-range VW Transporter like a 150PS 6-speed T30 for £33,266 and then add some good spec like Air conditioning, nice paint and wheels, better audio, and a few other bits, then you’ll reach £40k for your starter van quite quickly.

Once you’ve got your £40k van, you’ll need to take it to one of the many campervan conversion companies and hand over £15,000. Then you simply wait around 3 weeks for your transporter to be converted to a campervan (assuming there’s no waiting list, which isn’t the case).

The total cost for a brand new, nicely specced VW Transporter campervan then is around £55,000. I think a reasonable range would be £45,000-£60,000, because you could choose a lower specced starter van, and you probably could spec a little bit more or less on the conversion itself (again, depending on spec).

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Second hand pricing

Pricing is both a positive and a negative, depending on how much you’d like to spend.

Since Californias depreciate significantly less (some say they’re going up in value!), it means buying one second hand may leave a salty taste in your mouth compares to an equivalently specced converted Transporter.

Depending on your budget, a second hand conversion could be an outstanding choice for you if you’re looking to get into the campervan scene.

Let’s take an example for someone who wants to spend £25,000 on a campervan and are relatively flexible on mileage and specs. Here are some of the choices you’ll meet with that sort of budget.

Converted Transporters for around £25,000

VW Californias for around £25,000

There literally aren’t any Californias on the market available at this price!!!

That is my point. If you want a California, then you’ll either need extra deep pockets, a loan, or a sizeable lottery win.

Here are the closest I could find (baer in mind that one of them is a Cali Beach, so doesn’t even have a kitchen), and the other is the older T5 model on a 2008 plate for £29,500.

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How long does it take to convert a Transporter campervan?

I spoke to 3 campervan conversion companies during July 2020 and asked them how much they charge for a full conversion (including pop-top), and what their waiting list looks like.

The average time to complete a Transporter camper once you’ve taken it to your conversion company is 3 weeks, but you may have a long wait to take it to them beforehand.

Here’s what I found when I asked 3 individual companies:

Company A: South Wales – 4 week waiting list plus 3 week conversion – £10k

Company B: Bristol – 12 week waiting list plus 3 week conversion – £13k

Company C: Plymouth – 6 month (!!!) waiting list plus 2-3 week conversion – £15k

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What is the waiting list for a VW California?

It varies according to the specifications you’ve paid for. On average, based on the research I’ve done and the people I’ve spoken to, you can expect to wait 10-16 weeks for a brand new VW California, but it’s very much a “how long is a piece of string?” question.

Having special paintwork will leave you waiting a couple of weeks longer than without that option.

Because every California is very custom and they don’t churn them out like they do a VW Golf or Polo, the wait list is typically much longer. It’s worth it though (well, depending on who you ask!).

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Used VW California vs converted Transporter

This is where the comparison between the Cali and a Transporter campervan conversion comes into its own for a number of reasons.

California vs. Transporter second hand price and resale value

The fact is that VW Californias hold their value unbelievably well. I recently watched a 2008 plate with 35k miles go through auction for 28k! For that same money you could buy a fully converted T6 (albeit it with higher mileage)!

On Autotrader I did a search for a 2018 plate VW motorhome. Here’s the price differences I see.

2018 place California Oceans are coming up for around £50k.

Whereas converted Transporter campervans for the same sort of year and mileage are coming up for much less. Obviously the price varies massively because as we’ve already mentioned, the spec varies so much.

You’re looking at around £38k on average for a 2-year old second-hand converted Transporter.

Warranty

All new VW vans come with a 3 year warranty as standard. You can see what that covers here.

You also have the option of purchasing an extended warranty, and name specific coverage on parts like the braking system, clutch, etc… or go for the full coverage for all parts with varying excess options. The extended warranty booklet can be seen here.

A newly converted Cali obviously is covered by all of this warranty. However, a Transporter that’s been converted into a campervan may have the warranty voided for parts being claimed for.

Here is some good advice on warranties for converted campers:

The warranty for a converted transporter is only affected if a particular system has been modified/adapted.

Converting into a camper cannot affect the warranty on your engine, but if you lower it then have a driveshaft issue they may well question it. My local dealer says for them to reject a warranty issue they would have to be happy that a particular modification has caused the issue/failure etc.

Styling

Californias look lovely as standard, but the same isn’t necessarily true for aftermarket converted campers.

The standard spec for a Cali includes alloys and some elements of styling, plus optional extra styling kits which are quite often added from the factory.

Some of the cheaper converted campers on the market are sometimes barely distinguishable from a commercial builder’s van.

Some converted Transporters are, unfortunately, very UNtastefully done. It’s not uncommon to see bright red interiors and the exterior plastered in stickers. Not only can they look stupid like this, but the resale value will also be affected. Customizing a vehicle so that it looks extremely unique will only reduce the size of your potential demand when it comes to sell it, and therefore get you a lower price.

Road worthiness and safety

It goes without saying that anything leaving the VW factory is second to none when it comes to safety. The Cali is no exception.

The main things to look out for when it comes to safety are the pop-top and the rear bench seats.

You’ll want to ask if the pop-top is TUV approved, and if the rear seats are crash-tested, or not. I personally wouldn’t purchase a van where the answer is no to either of those.

You may get a better deal on a used conversion that doesn’t have crash-tested components, but is it worth driving a vehicle very long distances while knowing it’s not as safe as it could be in the event of an accident?

Insurance

More insurers will insure Californias as standard because the spec is well understood, and the build quality is always going to be outstanding.

For converted Transporters, you’ll need to go down a more specialist route and speak to a company like Adrian Flux for your insurance needs.

Ride height

The California is just below 2m, which means it can enter the majority of car parks around Europe.

Many converted Transporters are a tad above 2m if they have a pop-top and haven’t been lowered. This means have to be extra careful while navigating those seaside resorts with multi-story car parks.

Quality

Do not assume that all converted Transporters are of low quality. Like anything, it depends who has done the conversion.

Many professional converters are genuine craftsmen and craftswomen and take a lot of pride in the quality of their work. Others simply churn out van after van purely for the money.

Obviously the quality of the California is pretty much unbeatable, not least because VW build top quality vehicles. But please do not be put off considering converted Transporters purely based on quality concerns alone. The best thing to do is go and look at a few, and have a genuine conversation with some conversion companies to see which you like.

If you’re buying a camper that’s already been converted, then make sure you ask to see the paperwork and details of the company that did the conversion. It’ll prove that it’s a quality conversion (or not), and will also provide you with a full spec list for when it’s time for you to sell in the future.
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Summary

It depends on your budget and exactly what you want out of your van.

If you like customizing and want to make your van unique, then don’t bother buying a California. It’ll be waste, and you’ll end up wrecking the resale value.

If you’re spending under £30k

Winner: converted Transporter

If you’re looking to get a campervan that has all the bells and whistles for under £30k, then you simply won’t find a VW California. They generally don’t exist for that price without faults or being especially old or high mileage.

You should be able to find a good quality professional conversion for around £25k with good spec and without stupidly high mileage.

If you’re looking more around the £10k range, then you’ll be after a higher mileage T4, or potentially a T5. Don’t worry too much about mileage as long as the van has been regularly serviced and looked after. I’d prefer a high mileage van with full service history and the cambelt changed a few times, than a lower mileage van with no history or proof of parts being changed.

If you’re spending £30k-£50k

Winner: it depends

Here is gets a little bit more subjective. You’re weighing up the year and mileage of your van, and that’s something only you can decide on.

All things being equal, for any given price, a California is going to be 5-8 years older than a converted camper around this range. For example, you can easily pick up a lovely 2016 converted T6 for £30,000. For the same price though your only California option will be on a 2008 plate.

If you’re buying new

Winner: California

By the time you spec up a Transporter and get it professionally converted, you’re really not far off the cost of a brand new California.

Also bear in mind that the California will hold its value significantly better than your new converted Transporter. As mentioned earlier in the article, on a 2018 plate, the equivalent converted vehicle sells for £10k less than a California.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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