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Driving a VW Vanagon

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Driving a VW Vanagon

Ryan Tomas, Staff Automotive Writer

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After a blisteringly hot weekend camping with my friends near Cache Creek, my dad and I packed our supplies back into a 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon. This boxy 80s van was fully loaded with all of the factory options like the Westfalia package, which gave it a sink, stove, refrigerator, full-size beds, and a pop-up top. What makes this Vanagon really special, though, is that it’s also equipped with VW’s Syncro all-wheel drive. As I had just gotten my learner’s permit, my father offered to let me drive home. Of course, I said yes.

I have liked Volkswagen Vanagons since I first saw one, so I was very excited to finally drive one. Around town, it almost feels like a regular 80s car. The only things that would feel really different are the upright steering wheel and tall seat. Imagine driving a car at a school desk. The pedals are almost right under you, the steering wheel faces more upwards than towards you, and the shifter is almost four feet long; it goes all the way to the floor. The large steering wheel and power steering (a luxury at the time) make for easy steering at any speed. The transmission is smooth and easy to learn, the clutch is light and catches softly. The front disc and rear drum brakes work well at lower speeds, but you’ll have to brake early for downhill freeway off-ramps. The all-wheel-drive system is designed to disengage until it is needed, so there isn’t any mechanical clunking like in other full-time AWD vehicles.

I drove the Vanagon through the long, sweeping curves from the campsite into a nearby city. Going through turns at about 40, the top-heavy van felt stable. There was body roll, as I expected, but it never made me back off the throttle.  Along the way, I stopped at a red light in front of Cache Creek Casino. As I sat there, I saw the speed limit sign, ‘45 MPH’. There was a flat, straight road ahead of me. When the light turned green, I floored the van and dropped the clutch. After revving all the way out through the first three gears, I checked the speedometer. I was only going 35 miles an hour. This is because this huge 5100-pound van only has 93 horsepower. To put it in perspective, the average car today has around 200. This becomes very noticeable on freeway inclines. Coming over the crest near the local Six Flags, I took a run at the hill at about 80 MPH. By the top of the hill, I was only going 55.

Performance aside, the Vanagon works great as a camper van. With the factory-equipped Westfalia camper option, it’s got all the accessories you need, like a sink, stove, tables, and a refrigerator. It’s even got a swiveling ‘captain’s chair’ as a passenger seat, which can turn to face the rear seats. There’s more than enough storage for all your stuff, so don’t be afraid to pack extras. With the pop-up canvas top and lower fold-out bed, there is enough sleeping space for four people. From experience, I can tell you that these beds are very comfortable.

The all-wheel-drive system on this van, which Volkswagen calls Syncro, isn’t just there for show. I’ve seen these AWD vans do crazy stuff at off-road parks, like crossing rivers and climbing up steep, rutted hills. This system has three differentials, all of which can be locked for maximum capability. It acts like rear-wheel drive most of the time because there is a coupling

Despite being old, the Vanagon isn’t dated. There aren’t any cheap plastics, once-trending computer screens, or ancient vinyl graphics. The conservative interior and exterior styling give the Vanagon a handsome appearance, especially compared to a Volvo from the same year.

The main problem is the price of a Syncro Westfalia. Better examples can go for over $100,000, which is ridiculous for a 30-year-old VW. A Vanagon Camper without AWD will be a lot less, and a garden-variety Vanagon will only cost you in the neighborhood of $18,000.

If you are looking for an RV to live out of, the Vanagon isn’t what you want. It’s a van that you can drive every day in any weather that can also sleep the family when you go on a weekend trip. If you can find a good one, the VW Vanagon won’t disappoint, whether you’re taking the kids to swim practice, driving through off-road trails, or just taking a nap.

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Driving a VW Vanagon