We’ve had numerous Vanagon posts here at CC over the past few by other authors, and inevitably many of the comments (or even the text) will be utterly predictable: it’s so slow…underpowered…unreliable…couldn’t compete with American minivans…it’s so slow…underpowered... Ok; I get it. But you don’t. The T3 Vanagon was one of the most remarkable vehicles ever built, and has one of the most fanatical followings out there. Yes, it’s not perfect; but it has a number of qualities that are unique, which convincingly convey greatness upon it. And the all-wheel drive Syncro version takes it to a whole other level; to the very peak of automotive Valhalla. All Hail the Vanagon!
Where to start? With a box, obviously. But a really stellar box: Tall, straight, solid, rigid, superbly space efficient, and with nice big windows to boot. What better starting point from which to build the ultimate multipurpose vehicle. Despite being a good foot shorter than a contemporary Grand Caravan, the Vanagon was massively roomier inside.
Getting into the back of a Vanagon through its giant sliding door is more like walking into a genuine bus than clambering into a glorified station wagon. Let’s face it; American minivans have always been designed more for carrying kids in the back than full-size adults. The seats in the Vanagon are kitchen chair height, as well as very comfortable. No minivan has ever been able to seat three across in the back with anything approaching the room and comfort of the Vanagon’s back seat. Well, the Vanagon really wasn’t a minivan; it was a European full size van, the equivalent of our Econolines and such, despite being less than 180″ long.
Which of course explains why it made such a superb compact camper, in the form of the Westfalia conversion (or others). Nothing could touch it in terms its ability to accommodate two (or more in a pinch) in a vehicle that is also perfectly suitable as a daily driver. That’s a picture of CC reader Alistair somewhere in the back woods of British Columbia with his Syncro Westy. And if I was a bit younger and less spoiled by the space and bathroom of our Dodge Chinook, it’s what we’d be using for our backwoods haunts. How I lusted after one back in the day…
But the Vanagon isn’t just any old rectangular box; it’s superbly solid and rigid, in that old-school German way. Which makes it eminently suitable for a long life, in the right hands.
And which is of course the important first step in a well-suspended vehicle. The Vanagon is again unbeatable in that regard. Its independent suspension all-round has long spring travel but is well damped. Reviews of the Vanagon back in its day consistently raved about its stellar handling and ride, unlike any other van, full-sized one or minivan. A big American van might have a smooth ride on the freeway, but the Vanagon’s supple legs come into their own once the road turns, or turns rough, or one turns off the road completely.
Even the 2WD versions have exceptional traction, thanks to the rear engine. But the Syncros are in a league of their own. With their AWD system designed and built by Steyr-Puch, the Syncro happily plays where only Jeeps and such usually fear to tread.
Of course, the optional front differential locker (which this one seems to lack) is desirable in these extreme terrain situations, but then this isn’t exactly the kind of use most Vanagons will ever see. But it can take it…
As can its driver. One sits very tall in the high quality seats, has superb visibility, and one feels very much like at the helm of a bus. It’s all business here, with that big steering wheel and industrial-grade gear shift. Both were designed for the inevitable workout they receive at the hands of an engaged Vanagon driver. The steering is unassisted, but not really all that heavy, especially once the wheels start rolling just a bit. Consistent with the Vanagon’s seemingly infinite upgrade-ability, aftermarket power steering is available.
I had a chance to ride in one again just recently, and all my impressions formed in the past were reinforced: the solid body, the excellent ride, the superb view, the firm but comfortable seats, despite being thirty years old. Vanagon are now inevitably in the hands of its lovers; anyone who bought one naively decades ago and moaned about the performance or lack of power amenities or reliability and wished they’d bought a Caravan has long passed it on to more appreciative hands.
The result is that Vanagons today still command prices way beyond that of any old minivan. Westfalias and Syncros have a substantial premium, more so if it’s a Westy Syncro. This one with a Subaru six was being offered for $70k. More typical might be in the low-mid twenties and up, depending on equipment and condition. How much would a 1990 Grand Caravan AWD fetch?
Speaking of engines, that is obviously the Vanagon’s weakest link. The early air-cooled ones really were a bit overwhelmed by typical American conditions and expectations, although one can certainly build up an air cooled VW engine to make them less pokey. And the Wasserboxer liquid cooled engine is known to have certain weaknesses, which can be mitigated considerably with the right maintenance as well as improvements.
But the increasingly popular solution is to re-engine the Vanagon, and the options are extensive. All manner of power plants have found their way in one, but the three most common and logical choices have boiled down to the VW inline four, either in gas or diesel versions, and the Subaru flat four. The VW inline gas engine is the easiest swap by far, but its power curve is not ideal, especially for a Syncro. A TDI four is substantially more complicated because of its electronic engine controls and other aspects, but is very sought after for those looking for maximum efficiency, as well as a fat torque curve.
The 2.5 L Subaru has become very popular, because it fits under the stock engine lid and has such a significant boost in torque and power, as well as being a rugged engine, generally. And it just looks like it was meant to be there.
I could go on and on about the Vanagon, which is a bit odd, since I’ve never owned one. My brother has had one for many years, one of the rare one-year US diesels, which he’s upgraded to a turbo diesel and to run on veggie oil. We covered that here. And when the time came to actually buy a minivan in 1992, the Vanagon was not a realistic option, and not just because it was out of production. We needed a mommy-mobile, and a used Vanagon wasn’t going to cut it with mommy on many levels. The idea of one being used to haul kids over the Santa Cruz Mountain summit on Hw 17 almost daily with an automatic and air conditioned Vanagon just didn’t sit (with mommy).
There was a point in my younger life where I imagined what my ultimate vehicle would be; one that had the least compromises and could do more things than any other: drive and handle well, be roomy enough so to able to live out of it, have four wheel drive, be long-lived, and have a turbo-diesel engine for good efficiency. It became my dream escape vehicle; the optimum device with which to drop out and roam and explore all corners of the world in a fantasy trip. And it turns out that VW made my dream vehicle, to a T, even if I didn’t pursue it just then.