Lockdown. Stay at home. That’s been the message. But with restrictions lifting and people’s wanderlust growing, the campervan marketplace is experiencing a boom. Even before the pandemic, campervans were popular, but now there seems to be a “you only live once” attitude, with many people eager to embark on adventures and make the most of their lives. There are numerous options when it comes to recreational vehicles, ranging from high-end luxury coaches with million-dollar price tags to converted vans that are more practical for everyday use.
While many companies worldwide offer camper van conversions, only a few original equipment manufacturer (OEM) car companies produce their own campervans, primarily in Europe. Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen, which is perhaps the most well-known, all offer camper van models that can be purchased directly from their showrooms. For those seeking the security of a manufacturer-backed, tested, and warrantied camper, these three brands are the top choices. Surprisingly, they often come with similar price tags as vehicles converted by specialists.
To determine which camper van is the best choice, we asked three European families to test drive the Volkswagen California Ocean, Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo, and Ford Transit Custom Nugget at the 2021 Camper Calling music festival in Warwickshire, UK. Here is how these three vehicles compare:
The Volkswagen California is the most popular camper van in Europe, thanks to Volkswagen’s long-standing presence in the market. With its iconic image and cool factor, the California has gained a dedicated following. However, we wanted to evaluate it solely based on its merits compared to its competitors. The California comes at a higher price, with additional costs for twin-tone paint and optional features, bringing the total to £71,249 ($97,201 USD). The interior of the California feels solidly built, and it offers various models to choose from. The California Ocean, which was tested, features cabinets, a fridge, cooker, and sink, as well as a pop-up roof and fold-flat rear seats that provide sleeping options. However, accessing the roof bed requires some flexibility and effort, and using certain amenities may require adjusting the seating arrangement. The California offers neat touches such as built-in camping chair storage and a user-friendly touchscreen camper tech system. The beds are comfortable, with the roof bed being more spacious.
Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo:
Mercedes-Benz is known for its luxury vehicles, and the Marco Polo is their camper van offering. The Marco Polo is priced lower than the other two contenders, starting at £62,710 ($85,552 USD), making it a more affordable option. The interior of the Marco Polo is exceptionally well-crafted, with high-quality leather upholstery, cabinets, and dashboard. It feels like a luxury product and offers features such as power-folding rear seats, a pop-up roof, sliding doors, and a large tailgate with a convenient opening rear glass. The Marco Polo provides a refined and sophisticated driving experience, with better performance, body control, steering, and ride quality compared to its competitors. However, it lacks some of the clever design details found in the Volkswagen California, and its camper equipment is not as advanced, with a standard LCD display for monitoring camping functions. Overall, the Marco Polo offers a compelling luxury experience and is an excellent choice for couples or small families looking for a capable day van or occasional overnighter.
Ford Transit Custom Nugget:
The Ford Transit Custom Nugget stands out as the wildcard in this group, being neither German nor as established as the other two contenders. The Nugget offers a unique interior layout, with the kitchen located in the rear and the pop-up roof hinged from above the cab. It is the most powerful vehicle among the three, with 185 hp, providing brisk acceleration. However, it lacks refinement and doesn’t match the driving experience of its competitors. The fit and finish of the Nugget are not as impressive, with more exposed wires and hard surfaces, reflecting its commercial origins. Despite this, the Nugget comes with the highest price tag, starting at £67,422 ($91,980 USD) before options. However, its unconventional layout proves to be a standout feature, offering the most practicality for families with its five-seat configuration and a well-designed interior. The Nugget’s camper equipment is provided by German company Westfalia, ensuring quality. Overall, the Nugget’s layout received praise from testers for its accessibility, versatility, and suitability for families.
In conclusion, each camper van offers its own set of strengths and compromises. The Volkswagen California stands out for its cool factor and iconic status, but its price may not be justified by its features alone. The Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo impresses with its luxury experience and affordable pricing, making it an excellent option for those looking for comfort and sophistication. The Ford Transit Custom Nugget brings a unique layout and practicality, particularly for families, but its higher price tag and less refined finish may deter some buyers.
Ultimately, the best choice depends on individual preferences, needs, and expectations. Renting and trying out different camper vans before making a significant investment is advisable. Additionally, specialized camper van conversion companies may offer more tailored options that suit specific requirements. However, if we had to choose, the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo would be our recommendation for couples or small families seeking a luxury camper van. Its quality, driving experience, and overall sophistication make it a compelling choice.