Our guide to the best campervans and compact caravans

What’s new and wonderful at this year’s NEC show? We’ve looked at all the new campervans, compact caravans and trailers and come up with our favourites – and some not-so-greats – to save you the slog!

 

This year, we’ve noticed a few new developments that might be of interest. On the campervan front, there are more with removable interior fittings, some with a ‘panoramic’ rising roof and a few models with opening doors on both side of the rear cabin. For compact caravans, the rush to retro continues, though there’s now more of a sci-fi space pod design being added into the mix. On trailers, nothing very new, and our favourite still stays our favourite by a long chalk.


Which campervan should I buy?

If you’re looking for a brand new campervan, all the manufacturers and converters bring their star models to the show. So, it’s still surprising that, year after year, there really doesn’t seem to be much change.

You can choose designs that look a little like hospital or office interiors with grey cupboards in preponderance and grey carpeted walls, or something that aims for difference with splashes of lime green and orange and a zillion LEDs.

Reimo cupboard catch

We NEVER want to see one of these inside our campervan. A brown plastic catch inside a Reimo Caddy.

With new vans starting at around £35,000 and more likely to cost well over £50,000, you need to be picky. And we certainly are. Behind the swank and glamour, check the drawer fittings and the details. Too often, we find screwheads on show, sliding cupboard doors that don’t slide and odd bits of gubbins that should be behind the scenes rather than visible.

Inside a Volksleisure

Take the Volksleisure model we looked at, for example. You might be won over by the company’s logo woven into the carpet and the sleek fittings, but look a little closer and you’ll see unfinished screwholes and doors that stick and bend. Reimo’s Trio Style attracted us with some clever layouts and a pull across flyscreen on the sliding door, but why not spend some of the £45,000 your customers are giving you by finishing off the inside of cupboards properly? Watch out too for their floor channels on models that have a sliding bed – they’re wide, deep and unprotected by a brush strip, so will soon jam with dirt and gravel.

Don’t be too won over (or put off) by the colours and finishes on show. You’ll usually have a choice.

Orange anyone? Inside an MRV.

Our advice would be to look for build quality and attention to detail. If you don’t like the mock leopard-skin panels or beige seat covers, chances are the manufacturer will let you choose from lots of different finishes. But also make a list of your must-haves – passenger seats, types of roof, parking heater, size of bed and so on. Go armed with a list so that you can compare models and prices from the same basis.

The rising roof

Though we’re a bit fed up with Bilbo’s solid but uninspiring interiors, they (and a few other companies) offer a side rising roof, which looks neater and more sturdy. It will definitely be a clincher for some, but check head height over the kitchen area if you’re tall.

The best new development on the rising roof is the ‘panoramic’ option. We saw this on the Rolling Homes range, on a G&P and a couple of others. The roof canvas has a zip around the front section that allows you to convert the van into an open-top (more or less). Fantastic for hot climates.

Versatile ‘pods’

Jerba’s J-Pod

Lots of manufacturers are now making campervans with removable furniture so that you have more options for how you use your van. Where you put the cupboards and bed and kitchen pods when they’re out of the van is another question!

Jerba’s J-Pod offers four different configurations of full campervan layout, family car, awning living (with outside service connections) and a half-in-half-out set-up.

Bilbo’s makes the Space model, and Reimo has the Trekker. Auto Campers‘ Day Van (based on a Tourneo) is highly customisable for camping and anything from carrying bikes to work tools to show dogs.

Twin sliding doors

Auto Campers’ twin doors

This is a nice feature to have because it makes the interior of the van lighter and airier, makes it easier to keep cooking smells at bay and gives you more options for chatting with the family when they’re outside.

Auto Campers, for example, have designed their award-winning MRV with two opening sides, one of which reveals a kitchen that can be used both from inside and outside the van. Rolling Homes are another opting for twin sliders. Designing that inside-outside cabinet is a tricky business and some do it better than others. There’s a height-issue when you’re standing outside and the units are built from van floor level. Some attach a fold-down table or pull-out to make better use of the outside space. And it needs to look as good from both sides – you don’t want to be looking at the unfinished back of a kitchen unit.

Big and small

Inside the Hillside Leisure Crafter

Although we aimed to look at campervans no bigger than the VW T5/6, we did have a peek at the first Crafter to be converted. Hillside’s Heatherton costs around £60,000 and is the size of a small motorhome. They’re rather hefty beasts on the outside, but what stood out about the Heatherton was the unusual interior – crafted wood in a stylish design with a smart kitchen area, toilet and even a shower. Shame about the internal plastic fittings in the cupboards, the white plastic window frame and the rather difficult to use pop-out doorknobs, but there we go again with our pickiness. For someone feeling constricted by usual campervan sizes but put off by the size or weight of a motorhome, then this will be tempting.

Inside the Dalbury

Some companies are now converting the small VW Caddy. G&P’s model has some very odd-looking floor-level single beds and possibly the ugliest brown units we’ve seen. Reimo also have a Caddy at £35,000 with a downstairs (very) compact double and a small upstairs bed. Hillside make the Dalbury, based on a Nissan NV200, for around £29,000.

Hot news is that VW will be making a Crafter California, or the California XXL, with under-floor heating, a bed that can be heated and cooled, a retractable wet room, chemical toilet, full kitchen with hob, sink and fridges, plus a living and dining area. Much of the technology on board can be controlled via a tablet or its own app. This includes controls for the lighting, music and opening and closing the panoramic roof. No prices yet, but we’ll let you know. Follow us on Facebook for instant updates.


Inside a California Ocean

The VERY best campervan

No surprise that our first choice would still be the VW, factory-built California. A close second is the stunning Rolling Homes range, which beats all contenders for well-made interiors. Third may surprise you…so read on.

Volkswagen California – Ocean and Beach

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.

VW California Beach

Inside a VW Beach – no kitchen, just lots of versatile space

A new Beach model (and we’ll come back to that) starts at around £40,000 and the Ocean at around £44,0000. Preloved ones retain value well.

There are some beautifully clever touches, such as the stowaway outside table and chairs and rounded edges on the fixtures. The camping chairs in the tailgate, by the way, 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? But isn’t that true of all campervans – complex beasts that they are.

While the prices above are for the very basic models, there isn’t much of a difference these days between the price of a California and those of some of the better conversions. We did find a couple of new campervans for around £35,000, however.

A couple of years ago, two of the Campfire team decided on a California and were finally won over by the versatility (and cost-saving) of the Beach. It has two double beds (one in the roof), an awning, swivel seats, storage, a table and outdoor chairs, just no kitchen to cart around. Add in your own fridge, cook outside or go to the pub and you have a versatile campervan that’s also a daily car and workhorse.

Inside a Rolling Homes van with a rear kitchen. Side kitchens are an option too

Rolling Homes

The Rolling Homes brochure doesn’t do this Shropshire-based company any favours, but see the vans in real life and you’ll be won over.

Interiors are handcrafted (using real wood in many options), corners are rounded and, even in the ‘starter’ model at just under £40,000, there are touches like a fantastic curved cupboard to maximise space.

There are, as with all companies, endless customisations and options to choose from, and base vehicles can be either a Mercedes or the VW. We loved the twin sliding door option and the roof fabric that unzips to give you an open-top camper (when stationery, of course).

Inside a very unpleasant but relatively cheap Firefly

And third place goes to…

There really isn’t much to choose between the rest for third place. So…maybe it’s time to consider a homemade option? Think how much you could do with a good base van for half the price of the cheapest new conversion (Devon Conversions’ very basic Ford Transit based Firefly and the Hillside Birchover at around £36,000).

 

Berlingo mini campervan

Testing out a Berlingo stealth camper on the Honister Pass.

Have a look at what you can do with just a Berlingo people carrier and a few hundred pounds, for example (as basic as it gets!) or look at how a decorator’s works van became a part-time campervan.


The most interesting caravans

We didn’t look at any of the big white boxes and turned our attention to compact caravans that are more likely to compete with campervans. If you’re still wondering which would be best, take our campervan or caravan test.

The retro caravan craze has led to lots of new rounded shapes with amazing space inside. Unlike many of the campervans, these have stunning interiors.

Basecamp from Swift

Adria Action (wide angle turns this mini caravan into a palace, eh!)

Adria’s Action is fabulous inside and has a brilliant panoramic glass roof. Sleeps three, includes heating and has a bathroom, yet it costs only £17,500. Comparable is Swift’s new Basecamp (starting at £16,500), designed as a sporty caravan, if that’s not an oxymoron. Clean and practical inside, it’s light and spacious, has a lovely kitchen and shower-room, great storage and a range of graphics to show it’s not your ordinary tin tent.

The Airstream, as you might expect, takes the prize for beautiful interiors and exteriors. The smallest, though (the single axle Missouri) cost £79,000 upwards. People are buying these now to plant in their gardens for use as a home office, but the same is true of our under £25,000 favourite too!

The teeny GoPod

The prize for tiniest goes to the GoPod micro-tourer. It starts at £10,000 and offers a kingsize bed in a mini space.

The Eriba anniversary edition

Hymer’s Eribas are lovely things, and their 60th anniversary model has the GT pack of silver finish, alloys, external storage and other bonus features. Prices are from £18,500 to £24,500 (plus £1,200 delivery from Germany) from tiny to bigger, but all amazingly spacious inside. They’re well-made and hold their value. You get to sleep in a big bed and use a proper kitchen. Ones from the ‘80s are still going strong.

The cheapest caravans are the Freedom, and these are a peculiar breed. Retro outside and retro (in a bad way) inside as though they’ve been found stockpiled from the ‘80s in a hangar somewhere. Cheap and light, though.

Our caravan choice

We loved the Barefoot. It’s a beautiful, small-but-perfectly-formed combination of retro and modern. It’s not flashy, just well-designed, well-built, easy-to-use and remarkably spacious. £24,000 will buy you a fully fitted model with shower-room and great kitchen, but you can also buy a ‘naked’ version to fit out yourself as a home office, catering business and so on. There’s a wait of around five months from order to build, but they’re upping production to meet demand.

Have a look at our feature on vintage caravans too.


Opus camper trailer tentTrailer tents

Our Why pull dull? article is a great round-up of all the unusual trailer tents and caravan hybrids out there. And our winner, by a wide margin, is the utterly fantastic Opus.

Many trailer tents are so enormous and complex (Conway, for instance, is like a bungalow in a box) that you may as well buy a caravan and not have all the setting up to do. Others are nice and small for towing, but fold-out to little more than a tent.

So, why the Opus? Well, for its looks, its ease-of-opening, its build quality and its all-round versatility. Price isn’t bad either (£13,000 to £18,000). In appearance, it’s a mix of safari tent and sci-fi – airy, spacious and with options and accessories to suit family size (four- to 10-berth) and your camping and outdoor life.

The kitchens are beautiful, the beds comfortable and the sitting/dining room made for socialising. What’s more, the new Air Opus inflates itself in two minutes. It’s lightweight and low-profile and the racking system means you can load it with bikes, kayaks and more for your travels.

Do have a look at the other trailer options too, though!


What about a tent?

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 or caravan starts to look like the best of both worlds. You’re still camping, but 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, or something heavy to tow and store. Then there’s the cost, the depreciation, the cost, the cost…So, if you’re still thinking tent.

Coleman Cortes big top tent

Coleman’s lovely tent with hinged door

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. You can find more in our quick-pitch tent feature.

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One Comment

  1. this is a really helpful article. My family of 5 were at the show yesterday and we were open minded about what option to choose for our future family getaways. However, the Opus Air won by a mile and is far cheaper than buying the VW which doesn’t really cater for 5.

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