Syncro-Nined: An Ennead of Surprising All-Wheel-Drive Golfs That Predate the R32

Carter Johnson
by Carter Johnson

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 …

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.

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.

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.

Carter Johnson
Carter Johnson

More by Carter Johnson

Join the conversation
12 of 25 comments
  • Tedward Tedward on Sep 23, 2016

    "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.

    • See 6 previous
    • Tedward Tedward on Sep 25, 2016

      @tedward 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.

  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Sep 24, 2016

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

    • See 2 previous
    • Tedward Tedward on Sep 25, 2016

      @28-Cars-Later I've got a buddy in sf that owns a manual w8 passat and a friend's dad in lower Westchester with an auto sedan he's owned since new. In both cases they were instead of a Mercedes purchases so I'm not sure it'll be negative feedback cost of ownership wise. I can ask if you are serious.

  • Scott Le Mans - Steve McQueen. It's an oldy and cult only but those who saw it know who's cars were featured.
  • Sobhuza Trooper Gas powered generators? The Wretched Past. UGH!!!! Battery powered generators? The Glorious FUTURE. YEA!!!!! Let California Californicate the World!!!!
  • Yuda Power grid is already failing with the few chargers there are This is just gonna make things worse for normal people
  • Yuda EVs in general are a scam LMAO I'm not surprised
  • Lou_BC "In 2007, 85% of Americans drove themselves to work and 6% rode with someone else. But by 2018, while the 6% of Americans who carpool has remained constant, there has been a decrease in the percentage of those who drive themselves to work, edging down to 77%." .................. If people can't recharge at home, it would be logical to set up charging infrastructure at workplace parking lots. That would cover 77% of the population. An 8 hour workday should be adequate to keep an EV charged.