By on December 27, 2011

I’m now experiencing my second winter as an ex-Californian in Denver, and I feel as though I’ve been adjusting pretty well— got an Outback in the garage and everything. However, there’s one big automotive mystery here, and that’s the incomprehensible love many otherwise sensible Coloradans have for the Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro. At the risk of enraging the Vanagon Jihad, I have to say that the only way Volkswagen could have made the fragile-at-best Vanagon even less reliable was to give it four-wheel-drive. And yet I see these things being used as very costly daily drivers all the time.

I understand the allure of a lovable, high-maintenance European vehicle loaded with interesting design features and with ancestry stretching back to the pre-hippie era, but the zealots of the Vanagon Jihad believe that the Syncro actually makes sense as everyday transportation in snowy areas. Please, someone, explain this!

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39 Comments on “What Is It About The Vanagon Syncro?...”

  • avatar
    Sammy B

    1986-1989 Toyota Van 4×4 would be my pick (5 speed, of course). I’d settle for a Previa All-trac (supercharged please!) if push came to shove :)

    • 0 avatar

      IIRC, Previa came in EITHER SC or Alltrac, never both. Something that doesn’t make much sense to me.

      • 0 avatar
        Sammy B

        Negative — the supercharged engine was an option w/ Alltrac in 94 & 95. For 1996 & 1997, the supercharged engine was standard across all models.

        The combo that was never offered was a stick shift w/ the supercharger. You could get a stick Alltrac. and you could get a supercharged Alltrac…but the supercharger and stick shift remained mutually exclusive.

  • avatar

    Go to

    It will explain everything except the virtual insanity one must posess to own a Vanagon (syncro or not).

    I own a Vanagon Westfalia (non-syncro). The more I learn about how fragile they are, the less likely I have been to drive it long distances. I was more likely to take it on long trips when I was a more ignorant newbie owner of my beast. I’m pretty sure, that like most non-gearhead people, that most of these Coloradans are just ignorant of just how fragile these beasts really can be. Oh how I envy them…

    You want to buy my Vanagon? (haha)

    • 0 avatar

      I spent SO MUCH time on that site a few years back! Now I lust after a Sportsmobile. Same floorplan as a Westy, but bigger, and on a more reliable Econoline platform!

      • 0 avatar

        I too owned a Sportsmobile, for about 6 years -had my syncro at the same time. As I told the Ford dealer every time that beast was flatbedded back for repairs, I felt better in my VW. My synco is on its’ 3rd rebuild, 300,000 miles and I will drive it anywhere, any time.

        It’s getting rhino lined right now – as this is my hunting rig, my snow rig, my daily driver. Just the old 2.1 wasserboxer for power – just can’t be in a hurry in life. That’s why KTM’s were invented.

        To recap. Syncro owner buys brand new sportsmobile. Owns both, keeps syncro, sells sportsmobile. Reason? Reliability. But ya, the Sportsmobile WAS pretty Badass. ;)

  • avatar

    Because Vanagon enthusiasts are extra crazy? They even sold diesel Syncro Vanagons and I’ve read some of the postings from those people. They definitely love their vans because they’re very unique. Find me another company that offered a smallish diesel AWD van in North America. That’s right, there aren’t any. As it is, VW cars aren’t meant to be owned by people that don’t follow scheduled maintenance intervals. So I can’t imagine how expensive a Vanagon syncro would be to own.

  • avatar

    As an non-jihadi ex-Vanagon owner (88—97) all I can say is that the chassis of the VW Vanagon provides the best “small-outside” (same overall footprint as a contemporary Jetta)/”HUGE inside” of any vehicle ever built. No other minivan ever built allows “stand up and walk to the back from the front seats” interior room. Cargo and kid/dog loading is super-easy. The rear bench folding out to a queen size bed is icing on the cake (not to mention having that two-liter heat sink under you as you sleep to keep you warm.) All the above in a package that can pull a u-turn on any two-lane road with ease.

    Yes, it is underpowered, and yes the early wasserboxer engines were famous for coolant-related failures. Both of those issues can be fixed with a Subaru swap.

  • avatar

    I don’t think Jihad is being used in the correct context here as those kinds of drivers typically drive a Toyota Hilux.

    I think NDV would work better as a title of owners of these vans: National Deutsche Vanagonpartei.

  • avatar

    Brain hypoxia due to the thinner mountain air?

  • avatar

    That’s the funniest car ad I’ve ever seen. I wonder how much the modifications to the van cost for it to do those stunts.

  • avatar

    A friend of mine owns probably no less than 20 VW Vans/buses from 1950 models, 21 windows, early campers, etc. and several Syncros. All in various states of despair. The Synco/ Vanagons are pretty sweet when you’re a climbing bum/campe,r although it is the only vehicle that has left me dead in the road in the middle of nowhere….three times. I think as mentioned above if you keep up with the maintenance there not that bad, something my friend is reluctant to do. Or what they say in Subie-land might apply “Is it a good one or bad one”.

  • avatar

    the premise of the vehicle is unquestionable: a small, relatvey affordable van maximized for best-use of space and utility, along with AWD, and it’s got hippie hertiage street cred. The fact that VW made it in the company’s darkest days of quality does not shock me. VW made all sorts of very different vehicles that were all crap. What does shock me is that no one has picked-up the mantle of the classic hippie van and it’s slap-in-the-face pragmatism. Where is Ford with the obvious solution of the Transit Connect Westfalia?

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Perhaps 20 years from now SX4s with their shiftable 4wd will have just as crazy of a cult following.

  • avatar

    I drove a non-syncro version of a salvaged-title ’87 Vanagon as a car-share vehicle and can attest to the fact that, with proper maintenance, these things are tough little beasts. For almost four years our “vanpoolagon” hauled 7 people on an 80-mile round-trip commute until crevice corrosion in the head gasket sealing surface finally killed it at just over 210,000 miles. After a rebuild it survived a couple more years on the road before being replaced by a contemporary Chrysler product. It may have been mind-numbingly slow, but the van had character and would typically average around 20 MPG. I don’t consider myself a Vanagon enthusiast or a hippie (note that said commute involved a nuclear weapons lab), yet ever since those days I yearn for a non-camper syncro to tool around in…

    • 0 avatar


      Once upon a time LRL?

      Old man was once head of hazards control during Cold War era.

      Site 300 was his ultimate desired asked-for locale.

      Horny toad, tarantula and rattle snake chasing the main activity.

      Just curious.

      Sandia still across the street?

      Unsure what happened up Berkeley way.

      No reply= no problem.

      • 0 avatar

        Yep, LLNL. Sandia is still there (as with the main local in Albuquerque is now part of Lockheed), Lawrence Berkeley Nat. Lab. remains perched on the hill above Cal, being run exclusively by UC, while LANL and Livermore are managed by a consortium of defense contractors. Obviously very different than the cold war days, but they’re all chuggin’ along…

  • avatar
    Andy D

    That’s just plain silly, I loved it. I had Bugs and the occasional bus for 20 yrs. Nothing, absolutely nothing, better in snow or off road than an old bus with the portal rear axles loaded with people. When you got stuck, the passengers could just pick the thing up and carry it to better footing. Anything those guys did in that Vanagon could be done in a pre-68 bus.

  • avatar

    Only explanation: there’s hope for this country, still! Not EVERYONE is brain-dead after all. ;)

    • 0 avatar


      God forbid that some favour ‘interesting’ and ‘cool’ over zombie-like appliance banality that most new cars offer.

      It’s the same thing with clothes and much of life. Dressing smart or fashionable is often far less practical than wearing a sweatsuit all day. Yes, a sweatsuit is comfortable, reliable and requires little maintanance and care, but there is more to life than wearing sweats…

      Obviously if one has 4 kids or has a long commute, then something boring and new makes sense, but if you have options and fancies oneself an auto-enthusiast, please drive something fun!

  • avatar
    Diesel Fuel Only

    A friend had one when he lived in California. Great for driving to the beach, or on the beach, without getting stuck in sand.

    Compact, fuel efficient, and big enough inside to live out of for a weekend.

    If they are like other VW’s of the era, I imagine that they would be fairly rust resistant.

  • avatar

    Can’t speak about the reliability of a Vanagon Syncro, but my 1989 2WD Westfalia has been mostly trouble-free for the 16 years I’ve owned it. It’s been from Toronto to the west coast twice, has 250,000 kms on it and has left me stranded exactly once: I was cut-off by an 18 wheeler, panicked, and downshifted to first instead of second, blowing the engine. Prior to that, the original engine gave me 200,000 kms with no coolant leaks. This past summer, the 22 year-old transmission (which has been serviced once) started leaking. My mechanic suspects I can get another 2 years out of it. Just ask any Eurovan owner how reliable those transmissions are.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    Ain’t got nuthin’ but nice things to say about Syncro Vanagons, after a good samaritan in one towed my rented Opel out of a snowed-in driveway in Bavaria about 10 Thanksgivings ago. In a TDI no less! Ever since then I’ve wanted one, it just seems like an ideal utility/camping vehicle…

  • avatar
    Japanese Buick

    How closely are they related to the Eurovan? I have a pal who is living out of his traveling all over the country. I’ll see him in about a week, will be interesting to see how the van is doing.

    • 0 avatar

      The two couldn’t be more different. The Vanagon is rear engine RWD or 4WD; the Eurovan, front engine, FWD. About the only thing the two share is the inside layout for the fridge, stove, cabinets and beds.

  • avatar

    i want a westy BAD

  • avatar

    Must be some hillbilly shack up there that keeps these things running…

  • avatar

    Have you ever seen the Jeeps with the “you wouldn’t understand” sticker? It is the same concept. I drive an 86 Vanagon Syncro that I love. Drove it for a year with it constantly breaking down and I continued to fix it. Have ran it now for almost 2 years with no problems. Just returned from a 2500 mile road trip to Southern California with no problems. I also own several old split busses and a few early beetles (6 actually). They all require constant tinkering but once you own and old vdub you are hooked. Check out our latest project below:

  • avatar
    Hellenic Vanagon

    You really do not know anything about VANAGON SYNCRO T3:

    please visit us!

    You are welcome!

  • avatar

    I’ve had an ’87 Vanagon Syncro Westfalia for the last 12 years. It was the perfect vehicle for cruising the coast in California, and now it’s the perfect vehicle for hunting and camping in Montana. It’s not a vehicle to suffer fools lightly, but then those vehicles can’t climb up a logging road and provide sheltered standup room, a bed and a full galley.

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