Syncro 4WD Westies

Capt. Mike

In response to a question elsewhere re Syncro 4x4:

From 1986-1991 VW made the Vanagon in a 4WD version. It used a viscous coupling, so was an automatically engaging 4WD -- if the rear wheels slipped, it kicked in the front until no longer needed. It worked very well and was available in all Vanagons & Westies.

Syncros were made in Germany as KD kits, sent to Styer-Daimler-Puch in Austria for assembly and the installation of the 4WD drive train, then sent back to Germany for installation of the interior. The 4WD is Styer's but is based on a Porsche design for viscous couplings. The design is well known in various forms, including considerable military applications.

The Syncros also had a few other bells & whistles. There was an extra gear -- a very low gear that you used only for extreme conditions, normally starting out in what would be the original 1st gear. The rear differential, a limited slip, also had a manual lock-up. Reverse, because it was on the same idler as the granny gear low, was also "granny gear" ratio.

The cost -- about $4,600 extra, more in reality because it was only available in the deluxe GL versions with all the accessories. Also, it added 306 lb. to the curb weight, actually reducing load capacity slightly. The extra weight shows up in performance and mileage. The performance drops to about the same as the older Type IIs and mileage dropped a good 1-2 mpg. Offical EPA was 16 vs. the standard Westy's 17.

An additional cost is repairs. Although very reliable IF you didn't do something stupid like mismatch tires sizes, repairs are expensive. The rear-to-front driveshaft is not serviceable and has to be replaced when a U-joint goes. Pushing a grand$. The viscous coupling is a one-piece sealed unit. Pushing a couple grand if you drop it. It's harder on tires and there are 4 more CV joints to maintain.

Worth it? To ME, an unequivacable yes! See my "Towing trucks in the snow" post on the Fond & Funny moments board. I've been in some situations where I'm convinced it saved my bacon, or at least a major tow job. In snow & ice, with a set of studded M&S tires, it has no equal for its size. A friend said it best, "You never know how much trouble it kept you out of."

Because of their higher cost and the shortage of good condition ones, their resale value on the used market has sky-rocketed. Do not be surprised to see the premium examples going for as much or more than new. They have become a mini-cult within the Westy crowd.

A converting a 2WD to 4WD topic exists in the TRANSMISSION & CLUTCH forum. (Not practical.)


New member
Capt. Mike,
Your right about Syncro Westies, they are really appreciating in value. I'm really surprised by the asking prices. When I was looking for one, asked a couple of people who had them if they'd consider selling. No Way! Then one day as I was checking job sites, I passed a house with a white Syncro in the carport ( I could just make out the little SYNCRO emblem just below the Vnangon GL emblem.) There was an older man fixing fence posts in the front yard. I stopped and asked if he would consider selling the van. He said, "Funny you should ask. I haven't thought about it but my doctor won't let me take trips and I have another Westfalia to use around town. My wife said the other day I should sell it." Timing is everything! I asked him what he would ask for it and he said $7000 firm as is. I asked if my wife and I could come by for a test drive and he said sure. So we showed up the next day and drove around some. Drove great, no power, vague shifting, but those things you expect. It even had less than 4K on the tires. It looked pretty good except for minor chips and dings that you expect at 100K. Everything worked fine and best of all-it had an unused porta-potty in a matching, strap-down cabinet behind the passenger seat. When my six-month pregnant wife saw that she said When can we get it? SOLD! Wolf ( how's that for a great German name?) said that if we changed our minds he would advertise it for $11,000. He hated to see it go.I don't doubt that he might get that much for it.
I just put it through inspection with just a new muffler and rear brakes ( about $125 all together.) So now we have a wonderful Syncro Westy that we can't wait to take out camping. That may be some time later as Lorena is approaching 7 months and I have LOTS to do to get the baby's room ready. In the meantime I have a useful daily driver/hauler. Home Depot here I come!

Capt. Mike

I've often been asked how do I know if the 4WD is working since it is automatically engaging and so smooth most drivers can't tell.

Two tests come to mind: 1. put it up on jackstands. When engaging the wheels, ALL 4 should run evenly. Since there is nothing to turn the fronts, it will assume the rears are slipping and engage the fronts within ¼ turn.

2. For a 'stress' test, park on a slightly inclined area of wet grass with a 20 or 25 yards of ahead room. When you start, pop the clutch quickly which should spin the rear wheels. The fronts should also show initial spin marks, at least until the vehicle is moving on its own.

A couple of other warnings to consider when looking at a used one. If the vehicle has been run with wrong size or mismatched tires, there is a high probibility it has ruined the viscous coupling.

The rear-to-front drive shaft is not repairable; bad U-joints or shock coupler require a full replacement.

The locking rear differential operates by vacuum. It engages a set of "dogs" inside that lock the two sides of the axle together. It may take a few seconds and turns of the wheels to reach a mesh position. This is normal. Also to disengage. You can see it move in & out up while doing the on-jackstands test. When engaged you cannot turn one wheel without the other; when disengaged you can turn them separately, though with resistance.

The front outer CV's changed in mid-'89 at serial number 24-K-119-058. Joints & boot kits are not interchangeable.

The front will "bind" in very sharp turns, often enough to kill the engine. This is normal and caused by the sharp angle on the CVs and propable engagement of the 4WD now turning against the limited slip differential. But it should ease to the same as a 2WD car as soon as it comes off the hard-over position.
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Capt. Mike

There is an informative post on a sister site, that has a good discourse & diagrams under its tech section on the viscous couple of the 4WD, along with some excellent warnings. You may be able to reach the post direct at
Bear in mind that the text is NOT official VW, but repeats parts with some personal interpretations. Although the data is not 100% technically correct, it may provide some usefull guidance.

DO NOT attempt some of the dangerous "tests" posted there.

Capt. Mike

Transferred from another post to consolidate similar topics.

Syncro or Digifant as a replacement?

moriatti, Junior Member posted 05-14-2001 03:07 AM

Dear Capt. Mike,

I'd like to buy a Westfalia. In my area the selection is very limited. My budget allowes me to buy from 82 up to 87. All these vehicles have rebuilt engines and lots of km's. I found one with a 88' Syncro 4wd engine and one with a '92 Digifant engine.
Both have low milage compare to the others.
Can I trust in these types? Thanks for your answer: Moriatti

Capt. Mike

Your post constains several contradictions to resolve indicating you do not know the variations of Vanagons, engines & drive-trains. Your first comment is budget constraints tie you to an '82-'87. This spans two versions of the Vanagon. From '82-'83 the engine was the proven and reliable 2.0 liter air-cooled with AFC fuel injection from the Type II. '83½-'87 spanned two versions of the water-cooled boxer. The early engines were the 1.9 liter Digijet fuel injection and the later years a 2.1 liter Digifant fuel injections. The early 1.9's had head & head-gasket problems which a factory reman or competent rebuild should have updated to current specs. There are numerous posts under engine, cooling and tips concerning those problems.

The Syncro was only available from '86-'91, thus would have the 2.1 liter engine. The Syncro drivetrain is reliable and works excellent but be aware that abuse or improper maintenance and driving conditions can ruin a very expensive drive train. Also expect to pay a considerable premium for a good condition Syncro as they cost about $4600 above a 2WD version new. See the posts on Syncro above and the Syncro notes elsewhere on this site including OEM tires & wheels in that Forum.

Digifant is the name for a digital fuel injection system. It does not refer to a model. VW went to the Digifant system with the 2.1 liter engines. The 1.9's had Digijet, an analog system. Both were excellent but not interchangeable. I wouldn't make purchasing decision based solely on the FI system. Even the AFC system of the 2.0 air-cooled was excellent.

Since VW discontinued the Vanagon in the US, Canadian and European markets, '92 Vanagons would have to be South African or 3rd World versions. A '92 camper for the US market would be the Winnebago designed Eurovan conversion. For the European and Canadian market, a Westfalia conversion. There are differences. The Canadian market switched to the US Winnebago design a few years ago.
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New member
This Seems to be the right place to ask about Synchro's, so I will ask here.

First, let me say I have been running a 85 Westy Wasserboxer for 11 years and have loved it.

I have been fascinated with joining the Westy Synchro subcult, and have found me a 90 Westy Synchro I really want to buy, even though it is "blue book" very overpriced, no big deal.

I have studied all the synchro online stuff I could find, all there is I think, but my mechanic brother keeps shoeing me away from the Synchro drive. So here it is?

If you keep the alignment and tires responsibly rotated and straight, what is the lifespan of a synchro drivetrain? (read on Synchro org 30-90k?)

You mentioned 2k above to replace Synchro, I found some online for $800 - hidden costs or mechanic fees?

I guess my love for the Westy Synchro could be overcome by dropping 2 grand every 90k miles on the drivetrain - whats been your experience?


Capt. Mike

I always question the competency of a mechanic that decides some particular model or component has "X miles of life". Especially when the real world experiences bely their predictions.

First, on this forum you'll find many Syncro owners that have routinely gone double or triple your mechanics evidence. I've got 175K without a problem. I routinely see them pushing 200K and have heard of well over that.

One of the inconsistencies of any web site or mail list is how do you ask, "How can I not fix something that's not broken?" It is rare that posts about good things make the boards -- only the problems. I'm not belittling the system but readers often come away with false impressions. is a good site with much valuable information, but also, like any site staffed and written by non-professionals, contains some bad info. You also should understand its basic 'personality' and the attitude of those that use it. has a strong contingent of users that modify and off-road their vehicles. The Syncro was NOT intended to be an off-road vehicle.

Many syncro owners failed to use reasonable maintenance and driving habits, thus have a higher than normal failure rate. Mixed and mismatched tires is a serious contributor to short driveline life. Others will use the locking differential excessively, which translates into additional strains.

Consider the parameters of the Syncro system. It locks -up within ¼ turn of the rear wheels or 6% speed differential. This is extremely tight, but perfectly suitable for slippery ROAD conditions. If you hit a patch of ice, you want quick reaction. However the constant slip, spin & grab of an off-road use will have it slamming in and out of 4WD, putting unexpected strains on the system; I.e. abuse!

Nothing comes for free. Besides the increased cost and higher maintenance, you can expect some high repair bills. You will suffer a notable reduction in mileage and preformance, mostly because of the higher weight (306 lb.).

But I'd hazard the drawbacks are not particularly extreme compared to SIMILAR systems. Check out the equivelent systems in Suburu, Audi, MBenz and others. The old manual systems of the early Amercian 4WDs may fair slightly better due to lack of complexity, but from what I'm hearing (and experiencing with my Dodge 4WD Ram) not necessarily cheaper or more reliable.

Regarding the suspension and tire life, they are naturally a little shorter. But 40 & 50K is still obtainable from tires, and though hardly a thrill to overhaul, the front suspension on the Westy seems to be acceptably reliable. They Syncros do seem to be harder on the bushings -- no surprise -- and seem to use up alignment adjustment before a 2WD but neither is insurmountable.

I know the "List" prices of several components but having never had a failure of the 4WD system, not bothered to check the aftermarket. My one front suspension overhaul cost no more or less than a 2WD -- just a lot more work.

The average user, typically driving the Interstates to a National or State park, hardly needs 4WD, but I go where the 'average' doesn't apply. Only you can determine if the gains and peace of mind can be justified. I dearly enjoyed being about the only one safely mobile during our major snowstorm of 2000 where my syncro and its studded tires went were few supposedly more hardy vehicles dared. See the stories under CONVERSATIONS.
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New member
Don't know if this has been discussed before, but what is involved in taking a Syncro donor vanagon and converting a 2WD Westy of the same year over into a Syncro Westy?
This subject has drawn enough additional interest to be given its own topic in the TRANSMISSIONS & CLUTCH forum. This and subsequent replies have been moved to "2WD to 4WD Conversions" in that forum. -- Moderator
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New member
This might make many 2wd Vanagon owners feel a bit better. In response to "converting a 2wd to AWD...forget it! Unless you gots LOTS of spare change in your pocket. Take a quick look in the green Bently book at the comparitive pictures of the raw undersides of the Syncro and the standard vanagon and you will see huge fabrication differences between the two. Get out your torch and welder and metal stamping machine its going to be a LONG project, not worth it, buy a Syncro.

Ok, now onto the 4wd / 2wd debate. I own an 85 sunroof GL and love it dearly. I test drove an 86 Syncro just for fun and curiosity. Wondering what to think. I have owned several 4wd vehicles in the past. I like the low 1st gear and the xtra traction but would rather have a transfer case and locking hubs any day of the week. This would allow you to free spin the front wheels for 90% of your driving and save wear on all those expensive drive componets and gas. I could also quickly tell the difference between the way the syncro turned on the street compared to my 2wd. It definitely scrubbs and feels and turns like a front wheel drive vehicle. I crawled under it to take a peek at things and after having spent hours on end under my 2wd, the Syncro looks WAY too busy under there for me. So many mounts and brackets and hard to get to areas. So many parts in constant motion that are expensive, hard to get, difficult to service, for what, for those times you go beyond the 2wd rear engine traction capabilities? 95% of the driving of "regular users" don't require AWD. I like things that are simple and easy to work on and have spent lots of hours under cars. The Vanagon Syncro underside is a nightmare. Lastly, I have had my 2wd up in the snow at Tahoe and with standard snow tires it did just fine. Much better than most front engine rear wheel drive vehicles on the road today. With chains it would do even better.

Live in remote areas of the outback, have an unpaved dirt driveway, high icy climate many months of the year, deer hunter, etc, The Syncro makes total sense. Average joe traveller the 2wd vanagon offers simplicity, lower cost, better milage, better steering, easier to work on, especially the front end! If it had locking hubs and my 4sp was compounded in all 4 gears so I get the choice I could see it. Since its a "package deal" I will take the 2wd anyday. Dave

Capt. Mike

You have missed the function of the viscous coupling. In a Syncro, the front wheels are 'free-wheeling' as you call it probably 99% of the time. They are only engaged when the rear wheels are spinning and the sensativity is so great the coupling detects a 6% differential or within ¼ turn of the rear wheels. But they disengage almost equally. The function is completely automatic.

Yes, there is some binding or scrub at hard-over lock but that is a function of the differential slip parameters and the extreme angles of the front CV joints. Steering ahead and in normal curves, they are free-wheeling like a 2WD.

Whether the advantages and safety of a 4WD are worth it is a personal decision. Like any feature designed to supplement the extreme end of a design range, those advantages and safety only come into play at those extremes.

Capt. Mike


New member
I appreciate the reply. I am fully aware of the design of the coupling. Kudos to VW for creating such a simple operational design. Though somewhat unconventional here in the US the VC is used in many european AWD vehicles. My point still stands about the free wheeling issue. ALL that drive train is turning, not just the wheels as in a 2wd vehicle or locking hubs. The downer is I would rather it was stopped dead. I can feel it running by comparison even though its not locked in. It has mass and inertia.

I agree with your second point about personal choice, limits of design, and trade offs. I also feel we are lucky to have an AWD Vanagon of ANY design, albeit still a very good and well thought out one.

I do wish there were a kit that would allow you to disengage the front output shaft on the syncro trans and install locking hubs. Though on first pass of looking at this the spindles do not allow any simple or even effortful design change as is the same for the trans.

I suppose I could just move to the snow /infopop/emoticons/icon_wink.gif


New member
My family just moved to Arizona and we're looking to buy a camper to spend every weekend we can out enjoying our new state. The question is: which type is most suited to this area and our needs? I'm not sure we really need a synchro, but on the other hand, it could come in handy for high altitude winter driving. I found an 86 synchro w/nearly new 2.0 l. inline 4 cylinder engine. I'd also be using this for in-town daily short drives (taking my son to school), so it would need to double as a "regular" vehicle, i.e., not only for camping. I'd appreciate any suggestions or input.

Capt. Mike

No one can answer whether you "Need" 4WD or not; millions of 2WD VW's seem to be serving their owners well. Is the few times you need 4WD a matter of choice (going when you would otherwise opt out) or the very rare emergency circumstances worth the high cost in original cost, weight, loss of fuel economy and maintenance/repair costs worth it?

Also do understand that you are looking at an unofficial VW engine conversion (VW has never offered any conversions to the US market) so you must analyze the quality and disadvantages of these previous owner modifications and resultant loss of VW support. Dealers may refuse to work on a home-made rig with good reason.


New member
Anyone know where I can get a copy of a typical MSRP for a 90 westfalia GL syncro? If not, any idea of original cost?

Capt. Mike

A '90 Camper GL Syncro had a base MSRE of US$25,575. Optional paint (3 colors, white std.) was $390; AM/FM/Cassette $350. Destination charge would vary -- $320 from East Coast POE to NC. So you start at $26,635 plus dealer and private accessories, taxes & fees. EPA mileage was 16 City/16 Highway.

In '90 these prices reflect a reduction from '89 of a couple thousand dollars and the packaging of numerous accessories into the GL configuration at a much lower price since VW knew the Vanagon was being phased out. These included alloy wheels w/ 205/70R14r tires, locking rear differential, A/C, power windows, mirrors & locks, cruise, speakers & antenna (radio extra), rear heater, tinted glass, digital clock & tach, driving lights, intermittent F&R wipers, and rear window defroster.

Bear in mind this is the US configuration as ALL US '90s were GL's. Non-GL's (gray market), Canadian & other markets did not necessarily include these accessories. Pre '90 US models could be obtained without the above, and even GL packages in pre '90 models did NOT include the same accessories package.

The Synchro also had differences figured into the base price but not listed on the MSRE sheet. Black mirrors & bumpers instead of body color, no chrome glass trim, no side deco stripes, no rocker panel covers, LF (only) mudflap, raised suspension, protective skid plates, larger fuel tank in rear and the 5th gear (extra low 1st & reverse) to name a few.

You will find differences in other parts as well. Besides the expected suspension & drive train, the Synchro has cooling system differences and the engine shielding is different.


New member
I have decided to begin the quest for a '90 or '91 synchro westy or weekender. Anyone know of a buyer's guide or checkoff list to help evaluate candidate westies? I have read quite a few articles with lots of great info, but before I try to put it all together in one place (and post it after review), I thought I would ask. Also, anyone know of a list of respected mechanics in various US cities that can evaluate prospective purchases? (particularly California.)


'87 westy

Capt. Mike

What's the matter with all the info on this site? You have topics on various pricing guides; pre-purchase check-lists; purchasing considerations; mechanic/shop recommendations; and numerous tech topics that include some of the special Syncro considerations such as suspension, drive train, etc.

Choosing between models includes deciding if you really need & want a Syncro. The trade-offs are not insignificant, including the very hefty premium you can expect to pay for a good condition Syncro. There are no magic books; it's a matter of reading a vast amount of material on Westies in general and Syncros in particular and applying it to your PERSONAL criteria per Guideline #9.


New member
HIGH MILEAGE - Your opinions, please.

Hi all. I have my eye on a '90 Syncro but it has 220,000 miles on it. The 2.1 was replaced w/ another half way through those miles. I have to drive out to look at the van but I'm wondering what your thoughts on this large number of miles for a Syncro. What should I pay most attention to?