The California can match the Marco Polo’s packaging if not its luxury, with the layout all but identical. Its fridge is near a rear corner cupboard, separated from the sink by a gas hob under which sit a row of drawers and cupboards. It feels every bit as solid as the Mercedes but for all the VW’s cool it lacks the Merc’s genuinely upmarket feel.
The VW counters with some gloriously intelligent space-saving touches. Indeed, they’re so clever you could miss them, with two camping chairs stowed in a zippered panel in the huge tailgate and a removable table in the trim of the sliding door at the side. If you appreciate clever design you’ll love these details.
All three vans have their own gas supply, leisure battery for power (as well as the option to plug in to mains power on proper campsites) and clean and waste water tanks, heater systems and more. Crucially, given our festival use, is that the fridges in all run easily off each vehicle’s leisure battery; the necessary beer/wine, and the odd sausage for a barbecue, are kept perfectly cool.
In the Mercedes and Ford the fridges are controlled by ancient-looking, though relatively simple to use, liquid crystal display (LCD) that also allows you to monitor power, water and gas usage. The VW wins this tech battle hands-down, featuring an of-the-moment colour touchscreen that’s not only a cinch to operate but easy to read. It also adds functionality, with features such as a digital spirit level that’s useful for helping ensure you don’t roll into each other in bed.
On the road, the Volkswagen is noisier and a bit slower than the Mercedes (relatively speaking, as none of the trio is particularly quick) and betrays its van origins a bit more. But it’s still comfortable and easy enough to drive to allow endless hours of roaming before you park and get some sleep.
The Ford feels the most workmanlike of the three. If the Mercedes is first class and the Volkswagen business class, the Transit Nugget feels like premium economy. That’s largely down to the materials in the cab, which are built with trade use in mind, as you’d expect from Britain’s biggest selling van. It is also the noisiest and least sophisticated to drive, although it feels the most swift, thanks to the most powerful 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine of all three at 185PS (the VW having 150PS and the Mercedes 163PS).
The camping part is where it really differs, with the three rear seats accessed by twin sliding doors – the VW and Merc making do with only one – which is made possible thanks to Ford positioning the kitchen and cupboards in the boot area. It’s unconventional compared with the two German vans but it works; the ability to properly compartmentalise the interior space is Ford’s masterstroke, every family here commenting how sensible it is, as well as allowing you to stand in the rear while using the sink, rather than having to perch on rear seats/the bed in the others.
The Ford’s upstairs double bed is also accessed from the rear, allowing a ladder rather than an undignified clamber up over the driver and passenger seats that you have to perform in the VW and Mercedes. You’ll want to sleep upstairs, because the bed is the widest of the three and is properly sprung, because it doesn’t have to double as a seat.
Clever as the Ford Transit Nugget’s packaging is, there’s a big but, and that’s the price. None are cheap, but the Nugget is £67,422 before options. Adding the metallic paint, towbar, upgraded entertainment/nav and rear-view camera of our test vehicle pushed the price to £70,614.
It’s also likely to fare the worst of the three in terms of retained value, should you ever decide to sell it. The VW California Ocean is the certain winner in this regard, because of its cool status and enormous popularity, which makes its lofty £66,419 list price a bit more palatable. The optional two-tone paint, a comfort sleeping mat, driver assistance package and pro navigation took the price of the van tested here to £71,249.
Although the Mercedes is the classiest and wears the most premium badge, amazingly it costs the least. As standard it is £62,710; with options – a better, online nav system and 360-degree parking camera and the side awning – it’s still the cheapest at £65,760. Add its refinement and ease of driving to the mix and it’s the preferred choice for everyday use.