BUYERS GUIDE - 4X4 CAMPERVANS
We didn’t think the VW Caddy light commercial van would be a candidate for a camper conversion, but the VW factory thought otherwise. The end result was a surprisingly useful little travel machine.
The 2022-model Caddy California Maxi was priced from $54,990 when launched in late-2021. This fifth-generation California campervan variant was based on the extended-wheelbase, Caddy Maxi people-mover variant.
Powered by an efficient 90kW/320Nm diesel that coupled to a seven-speed DSG transmission, the 2022 Caddy California Maxi featured a newly-designed dash and instrument cluster; a leather-wrapped, multi-function steering wheel; two-zone Climatronic climate control air conditioning; a 210mm (8.25-inch) colour touchscreen with Apple Carplay and Android Auto connectivity and DAB+ digital radio.
As with previous modes, the 2022 California transformed into a practical camper, with folding seats that become a double bed; darkening curtains for the windscreen, doors, tailgate and optional panoramic sunroof; two ventilation grids with integrated fly-screen for driver and front passenger windows; two storage bags that hang over the rear windows and drawers under the front seats. A fold-out table and two picnic chairs ensured the campsite was complete.
We couldn’t test the 2022 model because of Covid restrictions, but were were impressed by the previous campervan conversion on the little Caddy that was called ‘Caddy Beach’.
The 2022 model’s basic design and structure is similar to the previous generation, so the following findings regarding the 2019 model shouldn’t change radically.
In 2019, we thought the sub-title ‘Beach’ was somewhat optimistic, because the front-wheel-drive Caddy was one of the last vehicles we’d drive onto a soft sandy beach.
Beaches – apart from a few that have hard-packed sand – are strictly for 4WDs, in our opinion. Backing up that opinion are years of experience pulling stranded 2WDs off beaches and out of boggings all around Australia.
That said, the 2WD Caddy came with traction and stability control and an off-road oriented differential lock, so it was certainly capable of handling rough-ground campsites and mild fire trails. Maybe ‘Beachfront’ or ‘Beachview’ would have been more appropriate monikers.
Other off-road issues with the Caddy started with limited ground clearance of only 175mm and a three-metre wheelbase. That made for vulnerable belly clearance and approach and departure angles of only 15 degrees.
The other downside was the fitment of 50-profile street tyres, but the Caddy did come with a full-sized spare on an aluminium road wheel. The rubber could probably be swapped for reinforced 205/60R17s, with five-percent more rolling radius and that would increase ground clearance by around 18mm, as well
as providing more puncture resistance and sidewall flex for rough road use.
The proved Caddy has been around for many years and the 2019 version was state-of-the-art.
VW neatly sidestepped the ‘dieselgate’ issue it created in the USA by fitting the Beach with a transversely-mounted 1.4-litre, turbocharged, direct-injection petrol engine, with decidedly ‘undersquare’ bore and stroke dimensions of 74.5mm x 80mm and an efficient 10.5:1 compression ratio.
Those characteristics were diesel-like, which is why the little 1.4-litre petrol donk put out a respectable 92kW at 4800rpm and 220Nm of torque in the 1500-3500rpm band.
(However, the 2022 went back to diesel power, for a 50-percent increase in torque.)
The grunt went into a new-generation, seven-speed DSG transmission that was more reliable than early units, which suffered from well-publicised failures. A DSG gearbox has twin torque paths and the next ratio is already pre-selected before it’s required. Automatic shifts are smooth and lightning fast, compared with a torque-converter transmission and economy is better in most circumstances.
Our test vehicle did town and country driving on secondary roads and freeways and averaged 6.5L/100km, running on 95-octane petrol.
The partly-loaded Beach tipped the scales at just on two tonnes (GVM is 2280kg) and performed very well. Acceleration was brisk and shifts were jerk-free.
The downside of a small engine was that it had virtually no engine braking, even when manually downshifted and revved to around 4000rpm, but the all-disc braking was powerful.
The Caddy was designed as a light commercial van, so its rear suspension’s primary task is load carrying. A tubular beam rear axle, mounted on long taper leaf springs with hollow rubber assist springs, ensured that it could handle its rated 600kg payload, of which 100kg could be on the roof and another 100kg on the towball.
It was rated to tow 1300kg of braked trailer and the turbo engine was more than capable of handling that imposed load. However, ball weight was limited to the very sensible EEC limit of 100kg.
Up front was an independent Macpherson strut design and both front and rear dampers were tuned for Euro-style handling. The little Caddy embarrassed some sports sedans through the twisty bits, sitting flat and responding well to its electric steering system.
It handled gravel roads better than its beam axle/leaf spring rear setup suggested and would be even better with more tyre flex available.
We also poked it up a couple of fire trails and only backed off when rock shelves threatened the mechanicals underneath. Traction and stability control helped with grip and the electronic diff lock limited wheel spin on loose surfaces. However, a rock scrambler it wasn’t.
The Beach home
Having established that the VW Caddy Beach had sufficient cred’ for consideration as a bush tourer by a single person or a couple, we checked out the Euro-designed camping kit and found it very well sorted.
The all-important bed was double-sized and simply rolled forward into place, over the folded second-row seat backs.
Colour-keyed vinyl bags housed the tailgate-hung tent, camping table and two chairs, tent pegs (including sand pegs), window shades and a meshed, louvered panel that popped into one of the sliding window panes and allowed ventilation in the bed area.
The tent slipped into place easily and was secured to the rear door opening by snap fasteners and to the ground by pegs, through elastic straps. There was no tent flooring, so a mat would be a necessary addition to pack. As with all tailgate tents the Beach’s fitted snugly, but wouldn’t be mossie- or midge-proof. Bring repellent!
The nighttime privacy window shades for the windscreen and front windows were shaped cloth, with magnets inserted into their hemmed edges: simple, quick and effective. The rear windows were already covered, being fitted with tailored bags for stowing clothes and personal belongings.
The table and chairs were good quality and unfolded easily.
There was sufficient space in the cargo area to stow sleeping bags or Duvalays, plus a compact stove and small portable fridge, for which a 12V power point
was already installed, along with two more 12V points up front.
The VW Caddy Beach proved to be an excellent compact camper – the smallest we’ve ever tested – and at an ask of just under fifty grand was good value for money, we reckoned.
What we still wanted in 2022, VW, was a hybrid version, with auxiliary electric motor drive in the rear axle, underbody protection and more ground clearance…