Camper vans give you the joy of life in the wild without the discomfort.
Think back to the days when you were single and camping meant a cosy tent at a rock festival or a grassy site in Dorset, as close as possible to a pub. Camping with the family, on the other hand, can seem like a lot of hard work, which, surely, defeats the object of a relaxing break. It involves buying a wincingly expensive tent that “is guaranteed to survive a storm on Everest, sir”, countless chairs that will take your fingers off, a table that will collapse, a stove that will barely boil a kettle, ineffective plastic cutlery and special wipes for your bottom. None of this will come close to fitting in your car, so it’s off to Halfords for a roof box.
It doesn’t have to be like this, however. The alternative is a camper van (note: not a full-size motor home) that will double as a people carrier when you are not on holiday. For the same price as a premium car, you can get a vehicle that you can live in.
Beds, a built-in kitchen and plenty of storage mean that when you’re gripped by wanderlust you can hit the road at a moment’s notice and pitch up wherever you fancy. Camper vans offer increasingly car-like performance and mod cons, too, and hold their value better than cars. So we set off to Ireland and Kent to compare Driving’s pick of the best campers.
Volkswagen California Ocean
I let James Mills fumble away with the pop-up roof of his Wellhouse, manhandling it to the raised position, before demonstrating the simplicity of the VW’s electrically powered one, writes Nick Rufford. A push of a button and there’s a bed for two upstairs. It’s these touches that make the California Ocean more glamper van than camper van. After driving it on a 1,600-mile odyssey to the beautiful surf beaches on the west coast of Ireland with my wife, two children and more boxes of belongings than a removals van, I was smitten.
The California Ocean comes with a choice of two new diesel engines. It’s torque that counts with a van — the measure of how effortlessly an engine will pull from low in the rev range. The 2-litre 201bhp model has 332 lb ft of it at just 1400rpm, which means it has plenty of low-down grunt as well as an impressive turn of speed. Drivers content with a more sedate performance should settle for the 2-litre 148bhp TDI engine, which costs from £50,358 with the optional but, frankly, essential automatic gearbox.
A three-seat rear bench, rather than the standard two, is a no-cost option on the California Beach, the variant without a kitchenette. And when you have a gang in tow, an extra pair of seats can be fitted in the Beach to take the seating up to seven, for £720.
If you want a van that will draw admiring looks and whose hippie roots and surfer vibe make it the coolest camper around, the Ocean is for you. I parked next to the surf beach of Lahinch, Co Clare, and, left to my own devices, would still be there. And after my Irish sojourn, it functioned perfectly well as the family car.
On the minus side, sit down before you open the price list. You’ll need to stump up at least £60,000 to get it fully loaded. Even then, some features are far from cutting edge. The central electronic control system that operates and/or displays battery charge level, fridge settings, fresh and waste water levels and pop-up roof has a hard-to-read display that looks as though it’s been salvaged from a first-generation Casio calculator. And the sliding door is designed for left-hand drive so opens into the traffic when you pull in to the side of the road.
That said, there are some pluses to the fact that VW has left many parts of this, the latest version of the California, untouched. It’s got a pull-on handbrake and a traditional CD player. Perfect for old-time surfers like me to slip on the Beach Boys’ greatest hits and travel the world, or, at least, to the westernmost point of the British Isles.
Nick Rufford visited Ireland courtesy of Irish Ferries, irishferries.com Wellhouse Terrier 2 SE
Established in 2002 and based in Huddersfield, Wellhouse reconfigures models from Mercedes, Hyundai and Toyota, writes James Mills. But its bestseller is the Terrier 2, which is based on a Ford. Not any old Ford, but the Transit, the “backbone of Britain”.
I half expect to find two passengers covered in plaster dust asleep in the front seats, copies of The Sun on the dashboard and discarded fast-food wrappers and Red Bull cans lying about the place.
Silly me. This is a smart place, with two throne-like front seats that adjust every which way and swivel to face the kitchen area. Although, ideally, not when navigating the M25.
The finish of everything that Wellhouse has added to the Transit shell is first class. This is smarter and more spacious than some studio apartments. It’s also all terribly user-friendly. It was straight into the deep end, with two nights’ camping with my three children. But even though I chose a campsite close to home in Kent, I couldn’t persuade Mrs Mills of the merits of overnighting in a van. She mumbled something about a “diary clash”.
Yet without any choice expletives, the Wellhouse Terrier was transformed from a practical, five-seat car into a living space that can sleep four adults or a family of five and has more inbuilt storage than our house, a twin-ring gas hob, kitchen sink and a butler called James who waits on his children hand and foot.
It’s comforting to spot smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, solar panels, a wipe-clean floor and external hook-ups for an electricity supply (although the onboard “leisure” battery will last indefinitely thanks to solar-energy generation).
There’s mood lighting, a heater, reading lights and windows with fly screens. Perhaps, though, its ultimate trump card over a tent is that the beds are so comfy that we all woke up feeling as smug as Lenny Henry after a night at a Premier Inn.
Compared with VW’s California Ocean, the Wellhouse Terrier 2 isn’t as polished to drive and won’t generate as much envy at the campsite. But you aren’t buying a status symbol. You’re buying a vehicle that should be ready for whatever outdoor escapes you wish to indulge in. And here, the Terrier has got your back.