They used to look like caravans; now they’re more like cocktail bars. They cost upwards of £35,000 new, but even £45,000 doesn’t guarantee you won’t get wobbly doors and carpeted walls. We’ve been taking a look at what’s happening in the world of campervans.
Camping is fabulous – the being outdoors, the ineffably happy-making things like the routines you get into, chatting to people in campsite washrooms and the simplicity of it all.
But for some, there comes a point when the pleasure-pain balance of camping tips just a little too far to the negative…all that faff and the making-do. It’s not surprising, then, that a campervan starts to look like the best of both worlds. You’re still camping, but one-night stops become simple, you’re sleeping off the ground and bad weather isn’t a problem.
The downsides? Well you could end up with two vehicles instead of one, unless you use your camper as a day-to-day car too. Isn’t there a lot of hassle in packing everything back into the van when you need to leave a site for a trip to the shops? The cost, the depreciation, the cost, the cost…
Campfire contributors Chris and Ali have been looking at what new campervans are available in the hope of being swayed one way or another. Here’s their very personal guide to the highlights and lowlights.
Choosing a campervan
The appeal of the California is that it comes off the VW production line as a campervan. None of that cutting off the top with an angle-grinder and lining the sides with carpet! It’s fabulously well-designed for cooking, storing, sleeping and sitting, and it looks more contemporary than many of its rivals.
Oh, but is it expensive! Even preloved ones fetch well over £30,000 unless you choose something pretty old with a lot of miles on the clock.
Here, though, we’re comparing new, so the question is whether (if we had £50,000) would we buy one. Or, would we wait for the arrival of the T7!! Have a look at this extensive review of the VW California Beach, by the way.
Pros and cons
Great factory-built looks (no carpeted walls or bodged workarounds) and comfort built-in. There are some beautifully clever touches, such as the stowaway outside table and chairs and rounded edges on the fixtures. The camping chairs that tuck away in the tailgate are the comfiest we’ve found for eating and relaxing. On the negative side, after the cost, the interior feels fragile – perhaps the preciousness would wear off with the newness but, at this price, would you ever feel relaxed about scuffs and scratches? The hobs and sink are a little too close together and are covered by one hinged glass top. Better to be able to cover the part you’re not using so that you have a worktop. The downstairs bed is really uncomfortable. You’d need a mattress topper.The grey interior is a bit chilly-looking.
Ssangyong Turismo Tourist
No, no, no. We spotted one of these outside a Go Outdoors. The rising roof was tilted off to one side thanks to some poor installation and immediately made us sceptical.
They’re based on the Turismo car and cost from £30,000 – mains hook-up is extra (!), as is diesel heating and a solar roof panel. The two-berth (the standard configuration) offers two single ‘beds’ made up from the seats. They’re not really beds as they’re not flat and they look horribly uncomfortable. There’s a roof-bed option, but only for children.
The small kitchen is at the back and includes a sink, fridge, hob and portable toilet. The Tourist is around 5m long and is powered by a 2.2 litre Euro 6 diesel engine, with the choice of a 6-speed manual transmission or Mercedes-Benz 7-speed automatic. There’s a 4×4 option.
We’d love to hear from someone who’s got one of these, but for the price we’d certainly be looking at a second-hand VW.
We came across the rather hidden away Rolling Homes area at the NEC motorhome show a year ago – and we found it at the end of a day of looking at rather a lot of so-so MDF, plastic and trying-hard-to-be-contemporary campervan interiors. Suddenly, there was the campervan equivalent of a Christian’s kitchen, Farrow & Ball paint and all things tasteful and middle class. Real wood cabinets, sheep’s wool insulation, Corian-type worktops….and all looking gorgeous.
The company (and it’s a small family business) make a range of converted VWs, have vans ready to be converted and will also Rolling Home-ify your own van. The demo model at the NEC cost (deep breath) £55,000. Conversion only is £13,000 upwards.
Pros and cons
This is stunning workmanship and materials, plus you still get the VW California tailgate chairs. It’s a small, family business happy to come up with bespoke options. The space is used cleverly and the fact that the fittings are real wood means any knocks and scratches can be sorted out (or add to the character if you’re that way inclined). There’s a five-year guarantee on conversions. The price is the sticking point. And the style is that of a traditional cabinet-maker, which might not be your thing
We were quite bowled over by G&P’s demo model of the new Toyota Proace campervan in 2014. It’s neat, offers 45mpg (they say) and had some really nice design features – not least two opening sides at the back. Now that might not sound terribly important, but – as well as giving access to a dinky external shower – opening the door behind the kitchen units means you get great ventilation for cooking and, if your fellow campers are sitting outside, you can still join in the conversation.
Back to the Proace…It’s based on a long wheelbase 2-litre TD diesel and comes with air conditioning, two or four berths (two in the roof), a pretty standard Smev two-burner hob and sink and a Waeco fridge-freezer (39-litres/5.3-litres). The demo model had a built-in microwave too.
It’s probably the cheapest new campervan we’ve seen – the demo model was selling at just under £35,000 on the road.
Pros and cons
Theres’ a lot of equipment cleverly designed into a small package and the two sliding doors give a more open, airy and sociable cooking area. There’s good standard kit and some nice options – like the microwave. You can have your choice of finishes on the units, floor and seats. However, there’s very little storage space. Open the rear door and you’re bang up against the back of the bench seat. Compare that to the acres of space in most VW T5 campervans. It’s an as-yet untested campervan conversion, so you’ll be the one to discover the quirks.
Bilbo’s win a lot of awards and they’ve been around for almost 38 years. They use the VW T5 in both short and long wheelbase versions for their range of solid-looking campervans that come with a side-raising roof as standard. There’s a fitted solar panel roof option too.
Pros and cons
These really do feel like well-built campers, plus there’s the reassurance of the company’s experience and expertise. We really wanted to like these, but the interiors are rather drab and institutional-looking, which didn’t excite us very much (not that we want glitz either). There’s a model to suit most needs – modular versions, high-top, basic or fully equipped. The Space is the newest, with prices starting from just under £34,000.
Wellhouse, known originally for their Japanese import conversions (the Bongo especially), have stopped production of the Hyundai i800 because of delivery and pricing issues, but also because their Ford conversions have taken off so well. Newest in the range are a long wheelbase Ford Terrier and the baby Connect camping-car. The Terrier starts at £40,000. They also created the Ssangyong Tourist featured above, by the way.
Pros and cons
The Terrier is spacious and Wellhouse know a thing or two about style, though sometimes at the Joan Collins end of the scale. If you like gloss, lights and glamour, you’ll love them. Of course, like most of the converters, you can choose your own finishes and fittings if you want to tone down (or up) the glitz. We weren’t so keen on the clunky kitchen hinges and wobbly doors, but Wellhouse are by no means alone in occasionally missing some of the finer detail.
The worst we’ve seen is Reimo’s Caddy Camp Maxi (from £30,000) with its brown plastic inner catches, cabinet panel ending in mid-air and cables on view.
Danbury are perhaps best-known for their VW T2 classic campers – modern, driveable vehicles with the traditional VW look. They start at £35,000 for the right-hand drive model (yes, there’s a slightly cheaper LHD) and go up to around £40,000 for the more luxurious SE with leather or retro upholstery. Their other claim to fame is the DoubleBack – a VW T5 with a slide-out rear that adds two metres to the length (when stationary!). In between, there are four models ranging from £34,000 to £42,000.
Pros and cons
Last year, when we looked at the Danbury VWs we were a bit disappointed by some ill-thought-out bits and pieces. Imagine building a cutlery tray into a neat worktop hatch, but leaving gaps round the edges and with no way to remove it for cleaning. A small thing, but that – and the nasty plastic catches inside the cupboards – gave us the suspicion that corners had been cut. This year, though, we met their new Ford Transit-based GO! (from £35,000) and were impressed. We liked the curved furniture, removeable modular storage and electric seat-to-bed transition.
Hillside Leisure have created the first all-electric micro-camper, the Dalbury, based on the Nissan NV200. It’s tiny, but they’ve managed to fit in a full kitchen and plenty of storage. We really liked the neat, sliding worktop, for example. It takes about eight hours to fully charge from a normal household or campsite socket, but less than an hour at fast charge stations. It costs from £26,000 – and it’s silent!
Price is where Hillside scores. Their regular-sized campervans – the T5-based Birchover, for example, and the Renault Trafic Ellastone – start from under £36,000, yet come with everything you need and some nice design touches. Shame about those grey carpet walls again, but at least we can have a splash of yellow in the sunny-looking Birchover!
Despite some so-so fabrics, we liked the finish on the Kingston Campers T5s. They’re a little bit different, at the lower end of the price scale (because you can choose models from 2011 to 2013 with new conversions). They’ve teamed up to create the Mercedes Vito-based Horizon MCV (including the first UK build on the new design of Vito). It has a light and airy interior and pretty sleek exterior. It also comes with some great fittings, but we’d have liked something a bit more exciting on the inside, given that it’s being billed as a luxury vehicle and costs upwards of £47,000.
Daft name aside, we wanted to see what the Club Joker had to offer. Although it’s a VW T5 at heart, it’s got more of a mini-motorhome feel. There’s a proper rear kitchen and even a shower and loo. The high top is very high, but it fits in an extra bed with real windows. Downstairs, the bed seemed a bit fiddly to set up, though. It’s clean, contemporary and functional looking and we were surprised to find we rather liked it. Prices, though, start at £47,000.
We were immediately drawn to Auto Campers’ Ford Transit/Tourneo conversions because of the two opening side doors with fold out table. It just seems nice to have a breeze blowing through and you can maximise your inside-outside combinations.
The clever Day Van comes with modular wardrobe and kitchen, seat and beds that can all be removed. There are innumerable ways to customise your layout and fittings on the whole range. The Day Van starts from £25,500, though the price soon goes up when you start adding all the extras you’ll need. There are some funky colours to choose and, overall, we liked the fresh feeling of the range.
And if we decide on a tent after all?
We love Sprayway’s Zempire range. The one pictured here is the Hubble. The prize goes to Coleman’s Cortes Big Top tent, though, for having a real, hinged door. It can also be used as a screenhouse/gazebo without the inner tent and looks cool. Now we want someone to combine Khyam’s ease of putting up with Coleman’s door. You can find more in our quick-pitch tent feature.
And if it was going to be a trailer tent? Holtkamper made us smile with their 1950s safari style and field kitchens in a box. Only for long-stay camping, though, and costing between £10,000 and £17,000. There’s more on trailers and caravans in our Why Pull Dull? feature.
This article was written in 2015 and updated in early 2017. A new update coming soon. Subscribe to Campfire Magazine to get updates as they skip from our keyboards.