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This Or That: 1987 VW Vanagon Syncro vs. 1987 Land Rover Defender [w/poll]

Thu, 13 Nov 2014

As I scoured auction sites and classified ads for the perfect vehicle to take into battle with Autoblog Associate Editor Brandon Turkus, I knew I needed to find something unique. You see, I'm currently 0-2 at winning a round of This or That, in which two of our editors agree on a category, choose a side, and argue it out over a (mostly) friendly chain of emails.

The first time we did this, my chosen Fiat 500 Abarth took about a third of the popular vote in our reader poll. The second time, my lovely 1980 Oldsmobile 442 did just a little bit better against a 1989 BMW 635 CSi. Despite holding the opinion that my automotive choices, though perhaps a little bit more... obscure than my fellow editors, are still better, an outright win would go a long way toward boosting my vehicular self worth a few notches upward.

With all of that out of the way, even if three isn't my lucky number after all, I go into battle against Brandon knowing full well that I've made the perfect choice: A 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro. My rough-and-tumble van/'ute has a formidable opponent in the form of a 1987 Land Rover Defender, which, truth be told, is exactly what I was expecting from Turkus, a self-proclaimed Rover aficionado.

Without further ado, join us as we take a look at how our two off-road mounts compare... or, really, don't compare, as the case may be.

Of Contenders, Pretenders And Defenders

The rules were simple: Choose any legitimately off-road capable vehicle, new or old, for under $30,000.

The rules going into this round of This or That were simple: Choose any legitimately off-road capable vehicle, new or old, for under $30,000. The vehicle had to currently be for sale online, but other than those few boundaries, we were free to let our imaginations run wild. Options ran the gamut from brand-new Jeep Wranglers to classic Toyota Land Cruisers – the rules were purposely kept mostly untied in an effort to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. Interesting, then, that both Turkus and I chose box-shaped combatants.

The one-box shape of the VW Vanagon used to be a regular sight on American roads. Throughout much of the 1980s, the box-it-came-in Bus appealed to van buyers who wanted something different from the big body-on-frame fullsize vans and their hugely popular shrunken minivan-sized siblings. They found just what they were looking for in the Vanagon, with its rear-mounted, water-cooled engine powering the rear wheels, myriad of seating and interior options (including a full kitchenette and pop-up tent-like sleeping quarters) and European driving dynamics.

This particular Vanagon, though, is equipped with the ultimate option: Syncro four-wheel drive. Syncro, developed by VW engineers in collaboration with Steyr-Daimler-Puch (creators of the legendary Pinzgauer), boasts a viscous coupling between the rear-mounted 2.1-liter flat-four engine that connects to a the front wheels with a continuously variable torque spread. The four-speed manual gearbox includes an extra super-low gear and the rear differential is electronically lockable for when the going gets really tough. Every single bit under the chassis is protected by beefy skid plates and veritable armor plating, and my chosen Syncro features a bit of a lift for more ground clearance, courtesy of the off-road specialists at Old Man Emu. Its somewhat modest 95 horsepower and 117 pound-feet of torque can propel the Syncro to a top speed of about 80 miles per hour.

In the opponent's corner sits a vehicle that really needs no introduction. From its inception in 1983 as a replacement for the classic Series III, the Defender (initially known as the 110) is known all over the world as one of the finest off-road vehicles ever to roll out of Great Britain. It's locking center differential makes its full-time four-wheel-drive system practically impervious to worst terrain that Mother Nature can serve up, in the most uncomplicated way possible.

The Defender chosen by Turkus isn't really a Defender at all, but a real honest-to-goodness military machine that's been legally imported (with distinction, says Turkus) into the United States. As such, it's right-hand drive and is equipped with a 2.5-liter diesel four-cylinder engine (no turbo) that puts out... uh, 68 horsepower and 114 lb-ft. In other words, it will always get to where it needs to go, just not very quickly – with a rated top speed of 55 miles per hour, Brandon will need to keep well clear of the highway while making his way to the trailhead. "Considering you rarely get over five mph on the trail, I'm not bothered by that," says Turkus. Fair enough.

Bringing A Knife To A Gunfight?

Turkus: While I respect your, ahem, bravery, in choosing a minivan to go off road, I'm going to opt for something that isn't just as iconic as the long-running VW Type 2, but can actually handle itself on virtually any road surface. This is a 1987 Land Rover Defender 110, and it is unbeatable. It has a diesel engine, can seat 10, has the steering wheel on the wrong side (which is a positive) and is a convertible. And that's in addition to its brutal good looks and go-anywhere abilities.

My, my. So sure of himself, that Turkus. Indeed, while perhaps nobody on the Autoblog staff has as much love for Land Rover as Brandon, I myself am a fan, particularly of the Defender. I have no interest in pretending he's made a poor choice for an off-road vehicle.

Korzeniewski: I don't have much that's really all that bad to say about the Defender, except that sitting on the wrong side of the car is anything but a positive.

Instead of tearing down your choice, I'll build mine up. There could hardly be a better shape from which to build a do-it-all vehicle than the Vanagon; it has oodles of space inside (about as much as a fullsize van in the US) with a tall roof, boasts what is perhaps the greatest closed-top visibility possible and yet still manages to fit into an almost impossibly small footprint. Engineering brilliance the likes of which hasn't come out of Britain since the original Mini.

Know what else it has? Four-wheel independent suspension. Locking differentials? Check. Ground clearance? Approach and departure angles? Check, check and check. So, while you might, and I mean *might* be able to convince me that your Defender is as capable off road as my Syncro, here's where I easily trump you with my vehicle choice: Comfort. I'll have some. You won't. We'll both get to wherever it is we're going, I'll just be feeling nice and refreshed when I get there.

Time to play dirty. Turkus responds to my Syncro like a Ford Fan responds to a Bowtie.

Turkus: While I appreciate your noble decision not to attack my Land Rover, I won't be observing any such courtesies. How can you argue over space when I can remove the roof and have seating for ten people? Oh, it gets better. Those rear benches can be retracted, at which point my Defender basically becomes a pickup truck. Sure, your vehicle is comfortable, but you and I both know there's something to be said for lack of comfort being an asset. My Defender will deliver a far more elemental, visceral and most importantly, entertaining driving experience.

My Defender will deliver a far more elemental, visceral and most importantly, entertaining driving experience. – BT

Moreover, your Syncro's cabin can't stand up to anywhere near as much abuse as my Defender. How long do you figure that blue carpet will stay clean? On my Defender, there isn't really trim to speak of, and the seats have been freshly reupholstered in "all-weather" material, which I think means they're waterproof. Either way, I'd have no qualms about climbing into the Defender while wearing muddy Wellingtons and hosing out the cabin afterwards.

How long will my blue carpet stay clean? We're already going there, huh? But wait, there's more.

Turkus: You want to talk about off-road tech, let's talk about what your all-wheel-drive Syncro doesn't have – a two-speed transfer case. My four-wheel-drive Defender has a low-range gearbox, as well as a locking center differential, which is what you really need off road. And unlike your VW, the Land Rover has some proper tires, while the Wolf wheels are as classic as can be.

And what do you mean approach and departure angles? Look at all the sheetmetal ahead of the front axle and behind the rear axle on your Syncro. The shorter wheelbase might be great, but my Defender's body is simply better suited as an off-roader. Also, it comes with a tire on the hood. Tires on the hood trump all.

Yes, the Defender does indeed have a tire on its hood. I simply cannot argue with that kind of logic.

Oh, wait. Yes I can.

That Fabled British Build Quality

Korzeniewski: Well of course the Land Rover has been freshly upholstered in "all-weather" material, it simply has to have it. The mere suggestion of a rain drop will leave the Defender sopping wet. Have fun with your 10 soaking wet mil-spec friends, me and my brood will play a game of cards under our perfectly waterproof roof.

We can play a friendly little game of "Anything you can do, I can do better." You have seating for 10 people, military style, which means 10 persons sitting on each other's laps, basically. I have an entire fullsize van worth of space. If you want to put 10 people inside, sure, go ahead. They won't all have seatbelts, but neither do yours. Dirty boots? No problem – I'll bring a little tarp and bungee it up top. You do see that massive flat space on top of the Syncro, right?

Tires? I can't believe I'm talking about tires. It's almost as if my opponent has nothing better to point fingers at, right?

Korzeniewski: As far as a two-speed transfer case, perhaps you're not aware of one of the Syncro's excellent party tricks: a low-range gear added to the standard four-speed manual transmission. Coupled with the locking differentials, if you've gotten yourself stuck, it's your own dang fault.

The Syncro is simply a smarter machine, and the compromises it asks you to make are notably less severe than those of the Land Rover. – JK

You don't like the BF Goodrich All Terrain T/A tires on my chosen Syncro? Well, I think you probably don't know what you're saying, but fine; I've got well over $2,000 to play with under the price of the Defender you've priced yourself into, so I can always get myself a set of ridiculo-treads if really needed, which they aren't.

And since tires on the hood trump all, I suppose that a full set of extra treads strapped to the roof would make my Syncro otherworldly.

Besides missing my chance to point out that the Defender doesn't have locking front or rear differentials, I've adequately pointed out the fallacy of mocking my BFGs using the time-honored "I have money left over" card. More than $2,000 worth, at the current asking prices, in fact. But it's not the price difference Turkus takes issue with. Instead, he counter attacks my pointed attack on British build quality.

Turkus: You're worried about rain, I'll pack a rain coat. Not that I think I'll need one, because that roof really does look tight as a drum. Ten people sitting on each other's laps? You might want to look again, because those benches easily accommodate four aside plus the two people up front, and as you can see, there are seatbelts for at least four people on those benches. I'm wagering there are actually eight back there, but they simply aren't in the shot.

As for your van's "party trick," do you honestly expect me to believe that single gear will be as durable and capable as my Defender's entire low-range gearbox? I don't think so.

Your vehicle is compromised. It has a compromise for a low-range gearbox and it has a compromised driving environment that favors comfort over the elemental experience of off roading. You even prove my point, by arguing that you need the money saved from your purchase for upgrades. The Defender does not need upgrades. It comes, turn-key ready, to tackle any trail you set your sights on. It does not compromise, and that's why it wins.

Hey now, Turkus. I never said I needed the money I saved for upgrades, I simply pointed out the money I'd have left. As for your conclusion that the Syncro is compromised, well...

Korzeniewski: I'll agree with you that your Land Rover will be as tight as a drum, just so long as that drum has been left out in a field for 30 years and is therefore anything but "drum tight." Cold, drafty and miserable is what all those not-so-safely belted-in friends of yours will be.

I'm not sure you understand the word "compromised." Your Land Rover is full of them. It has compromised safety, compromised comfort, compromised efficiency, compromised performance and compromised value. You can argue that it's uncompromising in its ability to tackle rough terrain, and that's fine, but life and automobiles are all about compromises – you just have to be smart when choosing what compromises you're willing to live with.

And that, Brandon, is why the VW Syncro is a better choice than the military-spec Land Rover Defender. The Syncro is simply a smarter machine, and the compromises it asks you to make are notably less severe than those of the Land Rover.

So there you have it. Turkus and I have made our arguments, and we both think we've picked a winner. But in the end, it's up to you, readers, to decide for us. Which of our off-road-ready vehicles gets your vote?

Which off-road-ready machine do you prefer?

By Jeremy Korzeniewski

See also: VW Chattanooga plant very close to UAW representation, Jaguar opens new engine plant in the UK, Jaguar Land Rover opens first overseas factory in China.