By on September 23, 2016

Golf Country

The recent news that Volkswagen is pondering an all-wheel-drive Golf for U.S. customers surprised many.

“All-wheel drive is now part of the Volkswagen DNA,” commented Dr. Hendrik Muth of Volkswagen at the U.S. launch of the Alltrack.

That means Volkswagen will be taking on Subaru, the reigning king of all-wheel drive for the masses in the U.S. And since the Golf is already fairly dear in price, adding an all-wheel-drive option to the hatch will make Volkswagen’s compact a near-luxury item. At that price, why wouldn’t you just buy an Audi? It’s the brand with the all-wheel-drive expertise in the VAG clan.

But the reality of an all-wheel-drive Golf is now 20 years old.

Let’s take a look back at nine of the more interesting pre-Alltrack, pre-4Motion versions of the Golf that most U.S. customers have never even heard of.

All-wheel-drive Golfs far predate the 2004 introduction of the R32 to U.S. customers. European customers have long enjoyed a full and diverse range of Golf models with all four wheels driven, each with a unique and individual character. Dubbed Syncro, the name isn’t unfamiliar in the U.S. to devoted VW fans (the Quantum Syncro Wagon was briefly available in the late 1980s). However, each of the Syncro (T3, B2, and A2/3 chassis) setups was different. While the B2 borrowed Audi’s Quattro setup, the Golf could not utilize that system.

Volkswagen Golf Syncro

Golf Syncro (~26,000 produced)

Volkswagen outsourced its all-wheel-drive-system development because, even though Audi had a perfectly good and proven design, the Golf’s transverse engine placement precluded use of the Audi longitudinal design, which used output shafts and mechanical differentials. Instead, Volkswagen turned to Austrian company Steyr-Daimler-Puch for development.

Noted for development of four-wheel-drive systems and probably most recognizable for the Pinzgauer military vehicle, Steyr’s solution to the transverse problem was to utilize a viscous coupling similar to the AMC Eagle. However, while the Eagle’s system was all-wheel drive, all the time, Volkswagen’s system would only engage when the front wheels slipped.

Volkswagen only produced the Golf Syncro for three years. They’re fairly rare to come across these days, and hide well in a sea of standard European Golfs.

Volkswagen Golf Country, Image: Volkswagen

Golf Country (~8,000 produced)

Have you ever seen a normal car body riding on a 4×4 chassis cruising down the road? That apparently inspired Volkswagen, who took the all-wheel-drive Golf to new heights with the Country model. Think of it as a German AMC Eagle SX/4.

Its signature color was Montana Green, a color whose name suddenly makes a lot more sense in this context than when offered on U.S.-bound GTI 2.0 16V models. A reported 438 unique pieces were required to create the Country; amazing since the interior, most of the exterior and the engine were all standard Golf.

Volkswagen Rallye Golf

Rallye Golf (~3,500 produced, in theory)

Watch out Quattro, here comes the Golf!

Volkswagen Motorsports wanted to enter Group A racing with the new all-wheel-drive Golf, which meant it needed to build more than just race cars if they wanted a mean motor in it. It was homologation at its finest. Okay, maybe not, but build more they did, with at least 3,500 road-going units planned of the Rallye Golf.

Defined by its rectangular headlights with cooling slats underneath, the Rallye continued the I’m a race car on the road … SHHHHHHH! theme with typical 1980s box-flared fenders. The Sebring alloy wheels were also seen on U.S.-bound Corrados.

Despite the racer looks, the extra performance of the 1H G60-supercharged, 1.8-liter 8-valve inline-4 rated at 158 horsepower wasn’t enough to overwhelm the additional mass of the rear drive system, and, consequently, a well-driven GTI 16V would be quicker to 60 and around a track. But BOXFLARES!

Consequently, though the Rallye may not win the VW drag race, it won the hearts of enthusiasts.

Volkswagen Golf G60 Syncro, Image: VWVortex

Golf G60 Syncro (~2,500 produced, maybe)

The G60 Syncro was essentially a GTI body with the underpinnings of the Rallye. Both of these efforts were made to homologate the Golf Syncro for World Rally, with the Rallye being FIA eligible in 1989 and the G60 Syncro in 1991. Volkswagen did not keep recorded production numbers of the G60 Syncro, but it believes it made 2,500. That seems somewhat suspect as G60 Syncros so infrequently turn up for sale.

Volkswagen Golf Limited, Image: By ItsGrimUpNorth at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Golf Limited (71 produced)

The recipe of add-more-everything to the Golf took an interesting turn with the Golf Limited.

Like the Rallye and G60 Syncro, it had the same viscous coupling all-wheel drive system and unique rear suspension. Also, like the Rallye and G60 Syncro, it had a supercharger. But unlike those other two, the inline-4 had two cams and 16 valves, a recipe good for 207 horsepower. While that may not sound outrageous today, remember that specific output was about the same as the European-guise E30 M3 and close to the vaunted Quattro.

Contrary to popular belief, these were not solely built in five-door configuration, but since only two were made as three-doors (and of those, only one survives), you’re most likely to see them as a five-door hatch. The Limited also foregoes most of the GTI hoopla, with only BBS wheels and a unique blue-trim grill and badge setting them apart. Pricing was steep: in 1991, the Golf Limited cost the equivalent of $50,000.

Volkswagen Golf TDI Variant Syncro

Golf Syncro Variant

Audi has Avant, Mercedes-Benz has Estate, BMW loves Touring, but for Volkswagen the word for wagon is Variant — at least in Europe.

We may be more familiar with the Mk4 Jetta SportWagon, but it all started with the Mk3 Variant. So, too, did the introduction of the TDI in 1.9-liter form, and while the 1Z isn’t a powerhouse, it’s certainly legendary in its ability to cover massive mileage.

As it had with the Mk2, Volkswagen offered the viscous coupling setup in the Mk3. This is a seldom seen package capable of carrying you and all your friends through the Urals — coincidentally, where most of them seem to live now.

I managed to make it all the way through a post involving Volkswagens and diesels without mentioning …

Volkswagen Golf VR6 Syncro, Image: Volkswagen

Golf VR6 Syncro

While you could opt for the four-cylinder as before in the Golf Syncro, the real one to get was the 190-horsepower 2.9-liter narrow-angle VR6. This engine, the ABV, differed slightly from the U.S. spec AAA engine, and was featured in the European-market Corrado, Passat Syncro and Golf Syncro. BBS wheels and GTi bits filled out the options on these expensive Golfs.

Volkswagen Golf VR6 Variant Syncro, Image: Volkswagen

Golf VR6 Syncro Variant

You knew it was coming; if there was both a VR6 Syncro and a Variant Syncro, VW was bound to put them together. It did, and created a pocket rocket for the entire family in doing so.

As with the Golf VR6 Syncro, the Variant model carried the more potent 2.9-liter motor and looked like the strange love-child of Jetta GLX VR6 and a Volkswagen Polo hatchback. Until the R models rolled out, these were the most expensive Golfs you could buy.

Volkswagen Golf Project A59

Project A59 (2 “produced”)

Volkswagen Motorsport and Schmidt Motorsport in Germany built Project A59, which had a 2.0-liter 16V motor that was exactly nothing like the 2.0-liter 16V motors found in the U.S. market.

With a square stroke and turbocharging, it reportedly produced 275 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque channeled through all four wheels via a new electronically-controlled all-wheel-drive system, apparently similar to the modern Haldex setup.

Way before the WRX became synonymous with that layout, the A59 was conceived to combat the likes of the Escort Cosworth, and might have even changed the hot hatch market in the late 1990s were the project given the go ahead. Obviously, it wasn’t. Still, this was the spiritual successor to the Rallye and G60 Syncro, and the forebear of the modern Golf R.

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25 Comments on “Syncro-Nined: An Ennead of Surprising All-Wheel-Drive Golfs That Predate the R32...”

  • avatar

    “through the Urals -coincidentally, where most of them seem to live now.”

    It’s worth mentioning that the Urals are actually a very old and worn down mountain range, the grades are perhaps surprisingly nothing impressive. You’re right though, thousands and thousands of used VWs and Audis made their way across the border after the collapse of the Soviet union and a total free for all with vehicle imports. With a nation of gardeners, the wagons in particular are high demand items.

    I can’t imagine what it was like for someone who had been driving a Lada (even a newer Samara) to get into something like a B3 Passat. It must have blown their minds.

  • avatar

    Maybe I’m wrong, but most of these seem extremely underwhelming to me.

    Most of all the “Rallye Golf” — I’d like to know how competitive it was with its staggering supercharged 158hp engine.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      Well, remember that was 1989 and the performance figures were pretty similar to the U.S.-spec 10V Quattro (160 horsepower). But it does fall pretty short of the then-revolutionary and hence quite successful Cosworth RS (*launched after the end of Mk.2 production) with 227 horsepower and a rearward biased all-wheel drive. By the way, who penned the Cosworth? MGA – the makers of the Observer I wrote up a few weeks ago!

      Closer in performance was the Integrale 8V which had around 185 horsepower and a bit more torque in about the same weight. The Rallye can really be seen as a reaction to the success of the Group A Delta HF, though, which won the WRC outright in 1987 and 1988. Those only had 160 horsepower. So, VW was just a little late to the ball with a dress a bit too bulky and not flashy enough. If the Rallye had launched in ’85/6 – when the Quattro was still the focus of the premier WRC effort – the history might have been different and they could have developed the Rallye into more of a winning car.

  • avatar

    Lol, $50k for that Golf Limited. Don’t think so, not even with AWD and lace alloys!

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      To put it in some perspective, the homologation specials from everyone were very expensive. In 1986, Ford was trying to shift the immediately obsolete RS200 road versions for double the price of the Golf.

  • avatar
    Click REPLY to reload page

    “All-wheel drive is now part of the Volkswagen DNA,” commented Dr. Hendrik Muth of Volkswagen at the U.S. launch of the Alltrack.

    Dr. Muth must not have known much about VW history. Did he think that CRISPR was used to somehow alter the Golf?

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      To be fair, I think he was probably referring to just his domain in the U.S. market, where all-wheel drive Volkswagens have really been fringe cars with only the B5.5 Passat 4Motion selling in any reasonable number. But yeah, they’ve been available here on and off again since the 1985 model year in the Quantum Syncro.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the well-researched article. A VR mk3 Syncro is a dream car of mine, and I’m considering scouring Japan for a super clean one… The only issue being that the Japanese seem to equip all (a lot) of their eurocars with slushboxes, and the 4 speed of that era was a great big turd. I suppose there’s always the swap option though?

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      Japan does love automatics – it’s not unusual to see Alpina cars coming to market being imported from Japan, and a fair amount are autos. Good like finding a nice Syncro and thanks for the comment!

    • 0 avatar

      Orchid euro for euro transmission imports. It’s a great idea. Not sure if that’s feasible from Japan though at a reasonable cost.

  • avatar

    Interesting stuff. Thanks, Carter.

  • avatar

    “the Golf is already fairly dear in price, adding an all-wheel-drive option to the hatch will make Volkswagen’s compact a near-luxury item. At that price, why wouldn’t you just buy an Audi?”

    Wait what? I know that the mazda3 and focus hatchbacks are within a grand of the golf base price, and the article I read seconds ago shows the civic hatch right at the golf price but with a smaller and less powerful motor. Were you referring to the prices of the homologation golfs in the article (which I enjoyed)?

    What awd audi only costs 2 grand more than a base golf? I’m not aware of any even close unless they’ve done some miraculous things with the a3 I’m not aware of.

    • 0 avatar

      Show me in the article where Carter said “base Golf” or “base price.”

      • 0 avatar

        So, I just priced out some cars:

        ’16 VW Golf SEL w/ Lighting and Driver Assistance Packages: $30,735
        ’17 Audi A3 Premium FWD w/ no options: $31,200

        Add AWD to the Golf SEL and you start to see overlap.

        Not that it matters.

        • 0 avatar

          C’mon now. His next line makes it pretty clear that his point was just go get the awd audi instead.

          “At that price, why wouldn’t you just buy an Audi? It’s the brand with the all-wheel-drive expertise in the VAG clan”

          If the conversation was about fwd I wouldn’t dispute the overlap. I wouldn’t choose an a3 as a manual shopper but I could absolutely understand picking one to get the dsg over the regular auto in the golf. No such thing as a cheap awd audi though.

          I really liked the historical perspective, I wasnt at all aware of the limited and at least one other on the list. That throwaway line just bugged me though as while it certainly was true in the past we’ve all discussed many times how ford, Mazda, vw, soon gm and soon Honda have entered the hatchback c segment and kept the cars in relatively euro spec. It’s becoming a distinct segment from the sedans in my opinion, and is a major change in our consumer choice here.

          • 0 avatar
            Carter Johnson

            @tedward – actually, the line was a reference to the multiple comments in Mark’s article about the potential Golf Alltrack and Audi. And, honestly, it makes a fair amount of sense and is one of the reasons few all-wheel drive VWs have made it here traditionally. Remember the Passat W8? It cost more than an Audi A4, and to the point of the commentary, didn’t work both literally and figuratively even though it was a neat car. When you break down the difference in payments over 5 years the month to month difference isn’t a huge number. Presented with the option to own an Audi for 5xx$/month versus a Volkswagen Golf for 5xx$/month, to choose the Volkswagen you either have to be so close to the edge of unaffordability that you probably shouldn’t be selecting the Golf in the first place, or you set out specifically to buy it originally because you like something about it more than what’s offered from Audi – the hatch, for example. Anyway, it wasn’t the point of the line or the article, but more a rhetorical question which I see popping into the heads of some consumers.

          • 0 avatar


            Oh, if you were mostly referring to passat 4 motions I would agree. I would agree actually on that point with any pre-“americanized” vw, awd or not, especially since they were so far off on lease muscle. That’s actually a massive agreement on my part as I always shake my head at comments that we should have full fat euro mainstream models from any brand. Didn’t work for saab, volvo or vw. It works for acura and Buick (sort of kind of Lincolns thing too without the euro thing). That kind of pricing needs a dedicated brand in the us, and that brand better not have delusions of a true stand alone dealership model and a purchase as opposed to a lease business model.

            I would disagree with the contention that the awd wagon coming soon fits that dynamic, they’re talking about coming in below the outback base price on those, and substantially below audi’s price point for anything awd.

            Again, wasn’t trying to be a prick, I liked the article. I like to save my vitriol for cheerleader articles.

          • 0 avatar
            Carter Johnson


            So, a friend works for a VW dealership at just had an Alltrack SportWagon SEL arrive – $36,000 out the door, not fully loaded. There is a manual, basic model coming which is supposed to start $10,000 under that price, but it needs to since the Outback starts at $25,500. However, an all-wheel drive Golf would need to come to market another $4,000 below that to contend with the Crosstrek/Forester on any meaningful level. Is that possible? Maybe. But do most people buy a zero-options car? No. So, your mildly loaded Golf just became very expensive again. But again, the comment was not me saying “you are stupid to buy a Golf, just buy an Audi”, but rather I was directly and rhetorically addressing the comments indicative of enthusiasts from Mark’s article:

            “Just put some Audi rings on it and call it a day.”
            “That’s the problem. VW costs a lot more in the EU. If you look at the euro catalog, lots of options we don’t see, and 100 colors. Once you go with the high end VW, you hit the Audi space in the US market. Think Golf R.”

            Thanks for the discourse and glad you found it interesting!

          • 0 avatar

            Carter, I’m sure you’re sick of this discussion but I really don’t think top trim pricing is the big problem. For instance, many of the mid size sedans that are basically US specific products can sticker well into the upper 30’s while still starting in the very low 20’s and doing most volume in the mid 20’s. No manufacturer should expect volume there of course, and they never ever advertise those trim levels in their meat and potatoes regional advertising.

            In a way I admire those cars. They represent value of a sort to buyers who would otherwise do luxury brands. I’d consider the new fusion twin turbo to be an ES killer once incentives get factored in, likewise a 200 awd (in intent if not execution), passat vr6, etc… I’d avoid them personally unless there’s panic incentive pricing in play, but I’m not really the target for those products. For me, or the door after tax at around 30 is about my limit, but mostly because I drive way too much to lease and I like to tinker.

            The sportwagen has clearly been analysed to hell in regards to the us market pricing preference. It ranges from 21 and change to, apparently, 36+, which is exactly the spread I see on many us market offerings. Now, whether vw has the volume to support that spread is a different issue entirely, but the numbers themselves aren’t offensive.

  • avatar

    There is a Passat W8 wagon synchro in my town. I’ve yet to meet the owner but want to

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