Piston Slap: Polly Want a Subaru-Powered Vanagon?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

TTAC Contributor David Holzman writes:

Sajeev, my friend Polly, an avid sheepdogger, wants to know how much weight her early to mid-80s Vanagon can pull. Specifically, she is interested in buying a 700 lb trailer, in which she would haul up to six sheep, each of which weighs 100-150 lbs. Thus, she could end up pulling as much as 1,600 lbs, and who knows, maybe more. How much can she pull without damaging her pride and joy?

The Vanagon has a ’94 engine from a Subaru Legacy–she doesn’t know which engine–but is otherwise all old Veedub. 212k miles on the car, less on the engine, but how much less is unknown. No rebuilds that she knows of. I don’t believe she’s going to be doing any major hill climbing.

Sajeev Answers:

How much “cool” can be stuffed in a Subaru-infused Vanagon? Even unloaded, that’s one sweet vintage ride. Switching to a Subie Boxer motor is certainly a step in the right direction, but towing is less about the engine and more about the transmission and brakes. Transmissions are the weak link, and brakes will either make or break the whole vehicle in an emergency situation. Even if Polly had the soul of a WRX…

According to the Internet, a 1986 VW Vanagon has a maximum (braked) trailer weight of 2,000lb or 1,320lb (unbraked). In this case, there’s no way I’d pull 1600lbs without trailer brakes and a modern electronic brake controller mounted under the dash. If she wants to pull that much weight sans braking buddies, keep it under 55mph: the Internet also says these VWs have a tough time accelerating and braking above that speed. In its current configuration, the Subie-Vanagon will easily break 65mph. Stopping is another story, so leave plenty of space between you and everyone else on the road. And have a brake job with performance friction pads done before even attempting this.

Maybe I’m a safety snob, spoiled by the mass quantities of pickup trucks available in the Lone Star State. I’d buy a real truck or SUV: Tacoma, Explorer, Blazer, F-150, Silverado, Ram or whatever. Leave the frou-frou (so to speak) German niche vehicles to those who don’t need to tow, cause this ain’t Europe. Americans drive fast, drive like idiots, and you need a better (stopping) tow vehicle to stay out of trouble.

Send your queries to mehta@ttac.com

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2 of 23 comments
  • Vaujot Vaujot on Jun 03, 2010

    May I invoke this article: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/the-great-american-anti-towing-conspiracy/ The answer I think is quite simple as stated in the original article: "According to the Internet, a 1986 VW Vanagon has a maximum (braked) trailer weight of 2,000lb or 1,320lb (unbraked)." So, for 1600 lbs. the trailer will need to have brakes. For what it's worth, in Germany, the 60hp (!) T3 Vanagon was rated at a towing capacity (braked) of 1300 kilogramms. That's about 2800 lbs. if I am not mistaken.

  • Jacksonbart Jacksonbart on Jun 03, 2010

    unless you want to eat lamb chops get a used Chevrolet Silverado

  • SCE to AUX I'd admire it at the car cruise, but $20k gets you halfway to a new truck.
  • Lou_BC Panther black? Borrowed from Dodge panther pink? One could argue that any Camaro is a limited run.
  • SCE to AUX I much prefer the looks of the Tucson version, but either is a great value.How was the driveability, namely the electric/gas transition? I had H/K's first attempt in a 13 Optima Hybrid (now in my son's garage), and it was gruff and abrupt in that phase of driving.
  • SCE to AUX My guess of $60k from a few years ago may be low.My EPA estimate would be 263 miles, but that's unladen, temperate conditions, driven at the speed limit, and 0% left in the tank - all unrealistic.Subtract 15% for full payload, 20% for cold, 10% for speed, and 20% minimum battery level, and you're down to 129 usable miles at times. Even in nice conditions (springtime, town driving), I'd only expect 180 usable miles.This vehicle will have the same challenge as electric pickups do - when used as intended (traveling with family and stuff in this case), the utility is lost.When these hit US roads, expect to see videos of unhappy/surprised customers who thought this thing would go 260+ miles all the time. For starters, it should have a 150 kWh battery, minimum, and then you're talking real money.No, I wouldn't buy it, but it might be a fun rental for local driving.The common argument "once everyone who wants one gets one, sales will die" may not apply here. 789k New Beetles were sold in the US from 1998-2021. True, sales dropped 50% in 5 years, and another 60% in the next 5 years, but it ebbed along for two decades, helped by a refresh along the way. That's not a bad run for a niche car.
  • Theflyersfan I still have visions of Radio Shack and Circuit City and Silo - the huge walls filled with hundreds of aftermarket cassette players fit for any budget and style. And the eyes would always go to the Alpine ones with the green lighting. When I see the old Japanese cars like this, I'm always reminded of those aftermarket stereos because it was like a rite of passage slapping in your own cassette deck and maybe if your rich enough, four new speakers, and mega-bucks here, the equalizer and amp. And this Toyota still has less rust on it than an 07 Silverado, so there's one positive.