Weekend cottage on wheels

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It’s amazing what can be packed into a relatively modestly-sized vehicle for a long weekend away. How about this: I have just spent five enjoyable days on a trip to France with no hotel bills, living in a car that is scarcely longer than a Ford Mondeo. Yes, there was room inside it to swing a cat. Well, just about.

The vehicle in question is the only car manufacturer-built campervan on the market, rather than one converted by someone else after leaving the factory as a van. This wanderlust car is the Volkswagen California, and it’s a packaging marvel.

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Crammed into a mere 4.9 metres from bumper to bumper is just about everything you could possibly need – including the kitchen sink. Just contemplate all of this: seats for five, beds for four, kitchenette with cooker, foldaway dining table, wardrobe hanging space with a lockable safe underneath, chest of drawers, gas tank, water tank, and enough stowage for a month’s worth of luggage and groceries.

Then add an elevating ceiling that gives standing room inside the vehicle, and front seats that swivel to face those behind. Yes, all that plus a pull-out awning, a picnic table housed in a side door, and picnic chairs stowed inside a zipper compartment in the tailgate. Phew.

This remarkable piece of packaging is a veritable weekend cottage on wheels, a pair of double bedrooms you can drive off in, a car you can literally raise the roof in and have an indoor-outdoor party. It is a two-up, two-down with seats that double as a comfy divan, plus an electrically-operated tent built into the ceiling that rises into a roof-top bedroom for another two people. There is sleeping room for four adults, or a family with the kids given their own room up top. It is a weekend cottage-on-wheels that packs into a motorway cruiser.

While living in it, as I did with my daughter on a five-day trip to Le Mans, I couldn’t help wondering about the designers who devised this ingenious piece of kit. Every inch of space is so cleverly double-purpose utilised. I have this vision of people who are so obsessively tidy that they colour coordinate their folded socks and arrange their spice racks alphabetically.

I wish I could be like that, but just two of us in the California, we and our ‘stuff’ seemed to comprehensively fill all the available space. So I am in awe of those who occupy one of these with four people of board, but it can be done.

For a vehicle that carries a home on its back, the California is no snail. It has a top speed of well over a ton, so it cruises pretty comfortably at a legal 81 mph on a French autoroute. It can sprint to the benchmark 62 mph in around 12 and a half seconds, and its average appetite for fuel is around 37 mpg. That’s thirstier than a typical family car, but you can subtract the hotel bills it diverts you away from.

The driving experience is pretty civilised. It’s brisk and mannerly, although you do need to batten everything down first. Be a bit slow with the washing up, with a few items left in the sink before you set off, and you’ll soon hear a tell-tale rattle.

All this ingenuity doesn’t come cheap, at an on-the-road price of almost £50,000, and you wouldn’t find a second-hand one for much less as they tend to hold their value. But that’s below half what you’d pay for its automotive namesake, a Ferrari California, and you couldn’t give four people a good night’s sleep in one of those!

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Sue Baker is a seasoned motoring journalist with a love of all things automotive.