VW T6.1 brings a new face to camper vans, from city center to off-grid
The world doesn't need a new reason to celebrate the Volkswagen camper van, but it has one anyway. Last year's launch of the T6.1 throws the spotlight on the fun-loving VW camping bus once again. Volkswagen itself kicked off the festivities with the launch of the updated California and redefined California Beach, and European conversion shops followed suit in transforming the 6.1 into their own unique camper creations. From multipurpose mini-campers, to rambling off-road penthouses, these are some of Germany's best and brightest T6.1 camper vans.
The T6.1 is a fairly minor refresh ahead of the T7, which has already been spotted out and about testing. The most noticeable change comes up front, where VW tugs the lower lip of its famed van down, nearly doubling the size of the grille. Frankly, we hated the new grille when we first saw it, but walking the floor of this year's CMT show in Stuttgart, we gradually warmed to it. It definitely wasn't because it looks better in person – it does not – but because that double layer of grille makes it very easy to distinguish T6.1 from T6. And since we were looking for the very latest camper van updates, it provided a big helping hand.
Outside of that incredulous gape, the T6.1 update brings some equipment additions, including electromechanical steering, an available 10.3-in digital cockpit, available 9.2-in Discover Pro nav-infotainment system, and driver-assistance options like trailer assist and lane-keeping assist. Unfortunately, none of the T6.1 camper vans we've seen so far have taken advantage of the available 248-mile (400-km, NEDC) electric powertrain, leaving T6.1 camper van updates centered around the more robust available equipment and tech.
All in the family
Built and sold by Volkswagen itself, the California camper vans were the first T6.1 campers to follow the debut of the T6.1 van. We looked at them in depth ahead of their 2019 Düsseldorf Caravan Salon premieres and spotted a couple again around the halls of CMT. Originally built by iconic converter Westfalia, the California launched in 1988 on the angular T3. Volkswagen brought production in-house in 2003 and has been building the camper vans at its Hannover plant ever since.
Being Volkswagen's own camper van series, the California enjoys some of the biggest updates among T6.1 camper vans. All California models gain a color touchscreen command center providing control and viewing of equipment like the fridge, lighting and pop-up roof. A recline function on the dual-seat bench of Coast and Ocean models makes for comfier lounging at camp, while light, natural trim selections keep the look bright and modern. Perhaps the biggest single addition comes to the entry level California Beach, which matures from a sleeper van without a kitchen to a more fully equipped camper van with a clever new hideaway kitchen that stows in the driver-side wall. The Beach now serves as a space-optimizing MPV that transports five to seven people while still offering the sleeping, cooking and dining support of a motorhome.
The California Beach starts at €48,796 (approx. US$55,300), higher-spec California models at €56,204 ($63,700), both including VAT.
Just down the road
The Westfalia and VW brands are forever intertwined in camping lure, but nowadays Westfalia does its conversion work for competitors like Mercedes-Benz and Ford. The German shop has not abandoned the VW camper bus business altogether, though. In fact, its Joker vans predate the California, having been first introduced in 1978, not long after other popular models like the Sven Hedin and James Cook.
In addition to a bit of extra history, the modern-day Club Joker offers a feature the California is sorely lacking: a proper bathroom. It's not all that common, but Westfalia proves it possible to fit a bathroom inside VW's mid-size van, shoehorning a toilet into the rear corner of the T6.1, right across from the kitchen. The shower drain sits in the middle of the tailgate area, ready to work with the pull-out sprayer. The 9.2-foot (2.8-m) high roof of the 208-in (529-cm) Club Joker allows for a more proper bathroom compartment, but the 193-in (489-cm) Club Joker City pop-top does still manage to fit in both the toilet and shower. Each model sleeps four people with a roof bed and convertible front dinette bed.
The Club Joker starts at €65,740, the Club Joker City at €60,840, both including VAT.
Off the road
It seemed most of the off-road specialists we dropped by at CMT were still working with T6 vans or other vans entirely, but Werz had its rugged Magnum camper planted firmly atop a T6.1 4Motion with high roof and Yokohama tires. The van also includes a Seikel suspension lift and underbody protection. The Magnum B floor plan inside has a familiar driver-side kitchen/convertible bench-bed layout but with a couple unique twists. A small seat wedged between the kitchen and rear storage console creates a rear seating group for three, four when you add in the swivel passenger seat in front. The kitchen is a bit more compact because of it, the sink and dual-burner stove packed below a lid on the short front block, a square worktop topping the taller stack of drawers next to it. A fridge fills out the lower section of the kitchen block.
At night, the Magnum sleeps four people on the sleeper roof bed and folding bench. It doesn't have a full wet bath like the Club Joker series, but that conspicuous third rear seat is built atop a storage compartment sized for a portable toilet, so it has the most important function covered.
The Magnum "B" starts at €66,507, and the show floor model was optioned up significantly to €95,419, after VAT. For those who aren't thrilled with that layout, Werz also advertises Magnum A, C and E floor plans, though D appears to be missing in action.
The California Beach isn't the only T6.1 light sleeper van roaming forests and coastlines, and it's not even the only one with a clever hideaway stove. Our favorite camper van of the entire CMT 2020 show, the Surf 'N' Bike from Reimo shows a sportier, more whimsical take on the weekend warrior sleeper van. This time, the kitchen console is on the passenger side just inside the sliding door. It packs a small 18L fridge box in back and a single-burner stove that pulls up and forward to fry up dinner or heat morning coffee. A small table attaches to the outside of the console to add prep space, and a removable table inside turns the two-seat rear bench and swivel front seats into a dining room.
The rear bed stretches over top the folded rear bench at night, and its adjustable raised frame and removable side panel make good on the van's namesake by adjusting around bikes, boards and other gear during the drive. Unlike other VW pop-tops, the show van featured a mini pop-up "mushroom roof," good for added ventilation and headroom but not for sleeping in. That pop-top is optional, though, as is a full pop-up sleeper roof for two additional people, helping keep the base price down to a very affordable €32,690.
We've liked SpaceCamper's vans since we first stumbled upon the Darmstadt-based builder more than a decade ago, and we've covered a few different variants since. This year, along with showing what its Limited package looks like with a mouthy T6.1 face, SpaceCamper adds some serious tropical style by partnering up with Drive Dressy seat covers. Those seats sprinkle a little zest on top, but the real appeal of the Limited's interior is in its smart, compact packaging. Its kitchen is one of the simplest, most streamlined you'll find, relying on the cabinet face to pull up and double as counter and dining table while providing access into the pantry. A small alcohol stove pairs with Trangia lightweight pots and pans that can lock onto the burner to prevent spills in the tight living space. A 25L compressor fridge box stands on its own behind the main kitchen unit.
The other critical component of the Limited package, the rear bench is a three-seater with under-bench storage that folds out into a full-width double bed with strap-adjustable head. The pop-up roof houses a second two-person bed. Other standard equipment includes two 75Ah AGM batteries, a rear shower with privacy tent and various storage solutions. Pricing starts at €59,990, and the model pictured costs €74,170 after its myriad van and camper options and 19 percent VAT.
Take a closer look at all these layouts and a few others in our VW T6.1 Camper photo gallery.