Lockdown. Stay at home. That’s been the message. But with restrictions lifting and people’s wanderlust growing, the campervan marketplace is absolutely booming. It already was before the world stopped turning, but throw in a global pandemic and the zeitgeist now seems to be “you only live once” – and why put off to tomorrow what you can do today?
There are countless recreational vehicle options out there, from super-luxury coaches with slide outs and garages – and million-dollar-plus price tags to boot – to clever conversions of regular vans, the kind that a tradesperson or delivery firm might use.
Dozens of companies worldwide will take a basic panel van and turn it into a camper.But only a handful of OEM car companies do so themselves, and mostly in Europe. Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen (perhaps the most well-known) all offer something that you can walk into a regular showroom and buy. For those wanting the security of a manufacturer-backed, tested, and warrantied camper, these three are the choices you have. And actually, more often than not, they’re the same price as a vehicle converted by a specialist.
But which, if any, should you pick? We posed that question to three European families by letting them take the Volkswagen California Ocean, Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo, and Ford Transit Custom Nugget to join some like-minded enthusiasts at the 2021 Camper Calling music festival at Ragely Hall, Warwickshire, UK, to see how they measure up against each other.
First up is the Volkswagen California, because, let’s face it, the majority of camper conversions in Europe come from VW's compact Transporter van. Volkswagen owns this space, thanks in no small part to having occupied it since the days of the split-screen Type 2 “Microbus” and its numerous successors. The California is an institution, and when it comes to the cool factor, none of the other two contenders can touch it.
The VW’s image alone is enough to justify its success, but we’re going to ignore that and be a bit more level-headed, judging it on its merits against its two rivals here. That cool doesn’t come cheap, either; the twin-tone paint (a pleasing mix of Candy White and Bay Leaf Green) costs £2,880. That’s on top of the listed £66,419 before the other options, which here include a comfort sleeping mat, driver assistance package, and pro navigation system to bump it up to £71,249 total.
The most familiar of our trio here, the California feels solidly built inside. It was tested by the Farquarsons, a family of three seasoned campers who’ve an eye on ditching their tent and buying a van instead. VW sells enough Californias that it offers a choice of models, with the Beach model (below this Ocean) losing all the cabinets and the fridge, cooker, and sink that occupy them, but retaining the pop-up roof and fold-flat rear seats that provide a decent-sized double bed upstairs and a cozy (read narrow) one downstairs.
I say “stairs,” but there are none. Climbing up to the roof bed requires a degree of flexibility and strength to clamber over the two rotating front seats into the small hatch above them. All three campers present these sorts of compromises. Using the sink and fridge, for example, requires sliding the main bed back into a seat or just sitting on the bed, though everyone we spoke to at Camper Calling admitted that they rarely, if ever, use the cooker in the van, as the smell of food lingers in the interior.
There are neat touches that underline VW’s experience in this marketplace, like the way a pair of camping chairs slot into the large rear hatch and the table into the single sliding door. Meanwhile, the California’s touch-screen camper tech, which allows easy control of heating, gas and water tank monitoring, and even a spirit level, is a neat, easy touch. The beds are also comfortable, the roof one more so than the lower one because it doesn’t have to double as a seat.
The California is an institution, and when it comes to the cool factor, none of the other two contenders can touch it.
The California’s 148-bhp, 2.0-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder engine delivers adequate rather than remarkable performance. The same goes for the handling, which isn’t going to entertain you as you while away miles to your destination. Likewise, neither will it annoy, the California being a capable, though unremarkable, vehicle to drive.
The fit and finish all feels superb, though some cheaper hard plastics in the cab do betray the California’s roots as a commercial vehicle. But there’s something about the smug coolness of driving it that makes it so damned desirable. The Farquarsons (and all the kids who were part of the test) agree – the VW is the coolest, but that doesn’t necessarily put it at the top of the pile here.
Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo
Given that a Mercedes-Benz badge graces the grille of everything from garbage collection trucks to supercars in Europe, it’s not surprising that the company makes its own campervan. Like the Volkswagen, the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo is spun off the company’s compact van offering, the Vito/V-Class/Metris – depending which continent you’re on. Compared to the more outgoing VW, it flies somewhat under the radar, and despite the premium badge on its nose, it’s actually the cheapest of the trio here, costing £62,710 to start. It remains so even after adding a few options.
The Fletchers, a campervan-curious family of four, occupied the Marco Polo, and it would lighten their bank balance by £65,760 as optioned, thanks to the addition of a useful 360-degree parking camera, a side awning, and a better online sat-nav system.
A classy, understated alternative to the VW, the Marco Polo’s relatively low pricing comes as something of a shock when you get inside. It’s unrivalled among the other contenders for fit and finish, helped in no part by high-quality leather upholstery, cabinets, dashboard, interior lighting, and slick decked floor.
It genuinely feels like a luxury product, enhanced by standard power-folding rear seats, pop-up roof, sliding door, and large tailgate – something none of the others feature standard. The opening rear glass on that tailgate is useful too, offering access to the cargo area without camping detritus – pillows, sleeping bags, kids toys, and such – falling out all over the ground behind it. The Fletchers loved the overall ease and classiness of it, enjoying how it drove, too.
Specified with a four-cylinder turbodiesel, the Mercedes-Benz’s engine is the middling choice in relation to performance, with its 161 bhp giving it slightly better pace on the road over the VW, but not so much that it’s a deal-maker. The refinement might be, though, as the Mercedes is quieter and more sophisticated, with finer body control, crisper steering, and a smoother ride than either the VW or the Ford.
It genuinely feels like a luxury product, enhanced by standard power-folding rear seats, pop-up roof, sliding door, and large tailgate...
The Marco Polo and VW share a similar layout, which means you must slide the main bed back into a seat if you want to sit inside or use the sink/fridge/cooker easily. Likewise, the clamber to the roof bed isn’t aided by anything other than standing on the seat cushions and seatbacks of its swivelling front chairs. The Fletchers loved its sophistication and quality, and noted, like the others, the upstairs bed was worth the effort to get to thanks to its proper mattress.
Overall, the Mercedes lacks some of the VW’s clever details, doing without the neat camping seat stowage and smart touchscreen camper display. As such, camp chairs must live in the boot, and an ancient LCD display monitors camping functions like heating, gas, electric, and water storage. There’s no denying that elsewhere, though, the Marco Polo makes an extremely convincing case for itself both on the road and as a genuinely upmarket luxury experience.
Ford Transit Custom Nugget
The Ford Transit Custom Nugget is something of a wildcard in this group because it’s not German, and because it’s not as well established as the other two. That explains my family taking this vehicle, because while the Fortunes have had plenty of time previously in both the Marco Polo and California, the Nugget is a new one to us. Practicality came into play too, as the Nugget is able to seat five, which my growing horde required. Not that I’m disappointed, as the Nugget’s the most curious of the three, eschewing the common interior layout of both the VW and Mercedes-Benz and trying out something very different.
Based on Ford’s popular Transit Custom model in Europe, the Nugget is the most powerful of the three here. There’s 185 bhp, which means it’s actually quite brisk, especially considering you’re hauling everything including the kitchen sink. It’s all a bit unruly, though, not being able to match either of its competitors in refinement or road manners
The Nugget betrays its commercial origins far more readily than the other pair here. That’s evident with its fit and finish, which is notably downmarket with plenty of hard surfaces, exposed wires, and sharp metal seat brackets. It’s all undoubtedly robust, but not what you’d describe as appealing. All of which makes the Nugget’s price a little bit difficult to stomach, because at £67,422 before options, it’s the most expensive here. As tested, with metallic paint, a tow bar, upgraded entertainment/nav, and a rear-view camera, it’s a frankly terrifying £70,614.
The Nugget’s got some work to do to justify its lofty price point, and it does so, in part. That five-seat configuration means it’s the only one my family could reasonably use, but more than that additional pew, the Nugget’s interior layout makes a great deal more sense than either of its German rivals. There’s some German influence here, too, because the Nugget’s camper equipment is provided by German firm Westfalia (once a name associated with old Type 2s before VW took production entirely in-house).
The Ford bucks convention here by putting the kitchen in the rear and hinging the pop up roof from above the cab. That means with the roof bed pushed up you can stand up in the rear and use the sink/fridge/cooker. And when you pop that upstairs bed, there’s a handy ladder for access to it. The Ford has the widest boudoir of the three, too, which is useful for a family of five, especially given the downstairs bed’s relative narrowness.
Based on Ford’s popular Transit Custom model in Europe, the Nugget is the most powerful of the three here.
Everyone agreed the Nugget’s layout is the best after three nights of clambering around, using, sleeping, and the kids playing in all three. There’s access from both sides via sliding doors, the downstairs bed can accommodate all three children, and the rear access allows some degree of separation between it and the upstairs compartment, which is useful for differing bedtimes if you’re a family camper.
Access to the fridge in the evening, an essential at a festival or proper campsite, while the kids are sleeping is also possible. That’s not justification for it being the most expensive, but the Transit’s unconventional layout underlines that the traditional campervan configuration of the other two isn’t as clever as it could be.
All three factory-backed camper vans came with leisure batteries that kept the fridge and more running for days, heat via an auxiliary diesel heating system, gas for cooking, and onboard fresh water and grey water tanks. None here have a toilet or shower, which is noteworthy if you’re in the wilds; find a proper campsite for that.
Three nights in three vans with three families underlined that these campers can be huge fun, but they’re not without compromises. The best advice is to try them first by renting before committing to a significant outlay. What’s also clear is that different people have different expectations, requirements, and uses, and what’s right for one might not work for others. There’s no clear winner here then. Indeed, the best vehicle here is arguably a mix of all three.
We’d want the cool factor, strong residual values, and neat touchscreen camper display unit of the Volkswagen mixed with the luxury, sophisticated ride, and most affordable pricing of the Mercedes-Benz, but with the uniquely sensible layout of the Ford. That might exist elsewhere among specialist campervan conversion companies, so if you’re not entirely wedded to the idea of dropping into your VW/Merc/Ford dealership to buy and are happy to do some more shopping, then you’ll likely find something to suit your specific needs better.
Ignoring all that, though, we’d buy the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo if we were a couple or small family looking for a capable day van or occasional overnighter. Its quality far exceeds the others here, and it feels the least like a converted van and most car-like to drive. In fact, it might even make a compelling daily driver for those reasons, though at that point, maybe it would be best to just buy a cheaper people-carrier version and spend the savings on hotel stays. But then again, how would you signal your fun, carefree lifestyle?