Johannesburg - If you've been paying attention you’ll have heard of Winnebago, an American brand that builds huge recreational vehicles and has become synonymous with motor homes.

Meet the ‘minibago’, as I’ve nicknamed the new Volkswagen California, which provides most of the amenities of a caravan without the hassle of having to tow one. Based on the T6 Caravelle, it’s a compact mobile home that’s decked out like a caravan so you can rest your weary head wherever your adventurous travels take you.

The T6 California comes in two models: the Beach priced at R853 600 and the more powerful and well-equipped Coast priced at R1 020 700. Each employs 4Motion all-wheel drive, but the Beach is moved along by a 103kW/340Nm version of VW’s two-litre turbodiesel engine in six-speed manual, while the Coast gets the full-blown 132kW/400Nm spec with a seven-speed DSG automatic.

The Coast also has extra features such as navigation, a detachable towbar, dark-tinted glass, and park distance control with a rear view camera which is a particularly handy feature in a big vehicle such as this.

Instead of the usual three rows of seats the Coast gets just two rows, with the rest of the rear cabin equipped with a fridge, a gas-powered stove, a sink, storage cabinets, and a two-seater bench that folds down flat to form a double bed. There’s an additional double bed below a pop-up tent on the roof, with two side windows in the canvas.

If you want the iconic ‘heritage’ dual-tone paint job you’ll have to pay R33 289 extra for each derivative.

We took the California Coast to the Vaal river for a weekend camping getaway, though it was more of a ‘glamping’ trip with all the onboard luxuries on offer.

Setting up the California into a four-sleeper for the night requires unclipping latches and manually lifting the roof - it’s not as efficient as the previous-generation California’s electrically-lifting roof but still a relatively quick and easy exercise. Under the lifted roof there's a double bed roomy enough for two adults, and the upstairs area gets its own light.

Downstairs, the rear seating bench folds down into another spacious double bed. During the day these seats can be used as a dining bench in conjunction with a fold-out camping table, and the driver and front passenger seat swivel round to face the cabin.

A rally tent on the side of the vehicle is deployed by cranking a handle and unfolding the supporting legs.

Once you get the hang of it all - after a possible broken fingernail or two - you’re set up reasonably quickly. All that’s left is to haul out the two folding camping chairs stashed in the tailgate, and you’re ready to sit and gaze at the bush television (the campfire) with your favourite drink in hand.

It’s winter-friendly with a climate control unit that heats the interior, and the California can be plugged into a camping site’s power point so you don’t have to drain the vehicle’s battery.

A huge boot area swallows four peoples’ holiday luggage including bedding, and there are cupboards and storage nooks galore so that smaller items don’t have to slide around while driving.

Driving the fully-loaded California is a pleasant experience, as the diesel provides gutsy cruising power with lots of overtaking poke and decent fuel economy (around 10 litres per 100km and the 80-litre tank provides a good range). It’s a quiet engine too, though there are some rattles and squeaks from the various cupboards and caravan paraphernalia.

It’s a large vehicle at nearly five metres long but easily manoeuvrable, assisted by large windows that give a commanding all-round view. A reasonably tight turning cirle and a rear-view camera takes some of the stress out of parking.

The fully-loaded spec sheet in the California Coast includes climate control, cruise control, and a Discover Media navigation system with touchscreen and eight speakers. Electronic stability control, ABS brakes, trailer stabilisation, and blind spot monitoring provide the safety. Front seat occupants get front, side and curtain airbags.

Each California model is sold with a three-year or 120 000km warranty, a five-year or 60 000km maintenance plan, and has 15 000km service intervals.

VW’s California Coast is a masterpiece of clever packaging in a small vehicle area, and makes a comfortable little home-away-from-home. The long road beckons, in search of exotic vistas and tales around the campfire.

FACTS

Volkswagen T6 California Coast 2.0 BiTDI 4Motion

Engine: 2.0-litre, 4-cyl, turbodiesel
Gearbox: 7-speed automatic
Power: 132kW @ 4000rpm
Torque: 400Nm @ 1500-2000rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 12.9 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 185km/h
Fuel consumption (tested): 10 litres/100km
Price: R1 020 700
Warranty: 3-year/120 000km
Service plan: 5-year/60 000km

Drive360