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VW T5 California Beach tested

2008-08-21 14:02
VW’s new California Beach surf Kombi range. Califo

VW’s new California Beach surf Kombi range. California models are all-wheel drive and loaded with kit; we tested the real world, front-wheel drive Beach derivative – with steel wheels no less.

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Volkswagen
Model Beach
Engine 2.5-litre, 5-cylinder turbodiesel
Power 128kW @ 3 500r/min
Torque 400Nm @ 2 000r/min
Transmission Six-speed manual
Zero To Hundred 12 seconds
Top Speed 185km/h
Fuel Tank 80-litres
Fuel Consumption 9l/100km
Tyres 215/65 R 16
Service Intervals 15 000km
Warranty 3-year/100 000km
Price R349 800
Rivals Mercedes-Benz Vito

Lance Branquinho

What’s it about

Well it’s pretty self explanatory, isn’t it? Although many might see it as a cynical marketing exercise with no relation to the original 1970s Kombi surf wagons, the California Beach is here with its odd two-tone finish and it would allow you to load it up and go away for the weekend – a long way away.

Essentially, it’s a T5 equipped for in-vehicle sleepovers in small coastal towns during weekend surf seeking sojourns along South Africa’s vast coastline. We tested the mid-range 2.5-litre Beach – despite having California Beach emblazoned on the flanks, it's not an all-wheel drivel model, so the California prefix drops away.


Mechanically you have the 2.5-litre, five-cylinder turbodiesel engine (128kW/400Nm) well known to top-line Caravelle owners shifting through a six-speed manual gearbox.

At 2.2 tons the Beach is hardly a lightweight, and reinforced axles are suspended by MacPherson struts with stabiliser bars up front and mini block springs with semi trailing arms at the rear.

Infotainment is pretty elementary with only a CD-front loader although the six-disc shuttle system is optional.

Entry to the passenger area is via a single-sliding door – like the Kombi’s of yore – on the left-hand side. Inside you’ll find long bench that seats three abreast with a bit of a squeeze.

Safety could be better catered for. If you’re up front with the driver; there are only front airbags; if you’re travelling behind the front seats hold on to those seatbelts.

A huge bugbear for me is the fuel-filler cap placement on the passenger side, located in the B-pillar, which means if you need to refuel the font passenger door has to be opened to allow the cap to flip open.


The reason for buying something as aesthetically challenging as the Beach is to profit from its cavernous interior dimensions. Use the ill-aligned floor-rail system to slide out the seats and you’ll usher in a ridiculous 5 800 litre load area. With the second row of seats in place it’s still a might 2 700 litres if you load to roof level.

For the rest, it's durable trim instead of discerning fabric and soft touch textures. The folding two-seater bench seat in the passenger compartment, together with an upholstered stowage box and bed extension at the rear, can be made up into a cosy sleeping surface for two, not four as VW claims.

The front seats can be swivelled around 180-degrees for an impromptu Chinese parliament meeting to discuss just how lost you have become on a particular dirt road sojourn seeking that elusive secret surf spot.

For those with privacy in mind, there are curtains which can be attached by magnets – VW Kombi acolytes will let you know you should make your own though.

The stowage boxes are welcome for stashing cameras and other items you hardly want rolling around during enthusiastic driving or leave out in sight of prying eyes when stopping over. They are comically cheap in respect of materials and design though; you expect the matric woodwork class at Daniel Pienaar High in Uitenhage could have designed and produced something better.

This practical table and two standard folding chairs can also be used outside the vehicle at braai time, but you could have bought your own at Outdoor Warehouse too.

For a vehicle that purports to be a surfer’s best friend the Beach lacks sufficient removable, plastic wet-wear stowage.

On the road

I packed the California Beach to the hilt – complete with regulation retro longboard – and went on a surf trip of sorts.

Mixing N2, dirt roads and some of South Africa’s finest coastal mountain passes, the Beach showed up the quality of its VW underpinnings.

The people’s carmaker – well they have priced themselves out of reputation lately, but anyhow – has been perfecting the people mover for over half a century and it shows.

Despite its substantial 2 ton plus weight and huge 3 metre wheelbase, the Beach is actually fun to drive. The 2.5-litre engine is perfectly matched to the six-speed gearbox and fourth-gear provides amble overtaking and hill-climbing urge.

VW claims a 12.2 second 0-100km/h time but in all-round driving the Beach feels quicker, especially when on the move and free of the inertia penalty of getting 2.2 tons off the line. Driven with gusty on the open road with the aid-conditioner running we saw 9 l/100 km, which is very reasonable with something the size and shape of the California.

With something as large as the Beach you want as much stability at speed at possible, and the suspension copes masterfully, making the oversized surf wagon confidence inspiring even through third gear mountain passes or on treacherous dirt roads. A serious dynamic safety omission is the lack of ESP; there is traction control though.

A key factor in the disarmingly enjoyable driving experience is the ergonomic seat design. There are only two vehicles I know of which have perfect driving positions. One is the Lotus Elise, the other is the Beach.

In an Elise you sit so impossibly low clipping points are nearly impossible not to register perfectly. In the Beach it’s just so comfortable. The steering wheel is angled upwards, a position reminiscent of commercial transport vehicles, and with the high seating position and perfectly executed armrest placement you can spend hours in the driver seat at a time suffering virtually no fatigue.

You can have your Beach with 4Motion all-wheel traction, but it would seem a bit much of a muchness. Besides, with a 3 metre wheelbase and only 167mm of ground clearance you’ll never get too far venturing off-road anyway.


With its odd accessories – which you could source yourself - R349 800 is a lot of money for a car with steel wheels. The Beach though is massive, and if you have the patience to reconfigure the interior via the infuriating floor rail system – be careful not to get sand from your wetsuit in between the running grooves – it really accommodates.

It's fun to drive too, and if you are an outdoorsy type or serious surfer, you won’t mind the lack of alloy wheels (which get chipped mercilessly on dirt roads anyway) and you’ll love the basic interior.

Three up with loads of kit the Beach works wonderfully. However, if you can live with a slight dip in performance and without the sleeping arrangement functionality the Mercedes-Benz Vito Crew Bus (R359 556) makes a compelling alternative - especially considering Merc’s strong country wide commercial vehicle service and after hours backup.

For the dedicated dirt road traversing surfer, the removable beach chairs and sleeping capability of the Beach will appeal no end, though. More stylish than a comparable panel van; less expensive than a similarly sized luxury people mover - it makes sense for a very small niche market.

If your idea of a good weekend is driving endless dirt roads to deserted beaches in the pre-dawn hours in a vehicle filled with reflective bags housing missile shaped pieces of fibreglass; you’ll probably love the Beach.


Long distance touring comfort
Big load capacity
Frugal yet powerful engine
Retro two-tone finish


Something this size should have ESP
Furniture extras superfluous
Vastly overrated sleeping capacity
Retro two-tone finish
Fiddly floor-rail loadbay system


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