Repowering the Vanagon

by Hobert Kennedy

When Volkswagen's Vanagon first came on the market, magazine writers referred to them as the best handling, best riding and most utilitarian of all the available vans. Many owners have stated they love the vehicle. The lack of adequate power was the only real complaint. Since then, owners have added the complaint of poor engine reliability and cost of engine repairs. Common expense is two thousand to three thousand dollars to rebuild a VW waterboxer and that is largely due to the high price of parts. Good used VW engines are scarce because the vehicles outlast the engines. After a couple short lived engine rebuilds, most owners give up having them repaired. I have seen almost as many undamaged Vanagons in wrecking years as on the street.

The Subaru engine has proved to be an excellent choice because it fits the compartment like it belongs there and it provides a good increase in horsepower. The Subaru Legacy 2.2 liter displacement is only slightly larger than the waterboxer but it has most of the modern high performance technology including a counterbalanced crank, four - valve design, port injection and a hot wire air flow meter. We have driven our Subaru Vanagon over 18,000 miles during the last two years and have had no failure with the adaptation.

Two disadvantages of this adaptation are the labor to wire up the computer and ground clearance. We have tried to reduce the first problem by writing detailed step by step wiring instructions for 1990 through 1994. Exhaust ground clearance is corrected by using our exhaust piping. Oil pan ground clearance is only a problem if you go off-road. (Note: The Subaru oil pan hangs almost 4" lower than the VW oil sump, but that is not the lowest point on the VW since the regular Vanagon exhaust hangs a couple inches below the sump. I shortened the Subaru oil pan and pickup tube almost 2" for appearance reasons but this does require checking the oil level more often.)

Your modified Vanagon can now be taken to a local smog station instead of the state referee. The California Air Resources Board has issued Executive Order #d-428-1 allowing the installation of the 130 horsepower Subaru 2.2 engine into 1980 - 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon. It requires that the Subaru engine be used complete, from its air flow meter to its oxygen sensor (except for exhaust manifold piping and optional section of the intake air duct). The Subaru ECU and wiring are retained but modified per KEP instructions. A check engine light must be installed in - on the dash. The Vanagon charcoal canister is retained.

The CARB Executive order refers to a complete kit and are to be sold this way, not as individual components. Kits will include copies of the Executive Order and a self adhesive label to be attached to the body in the engine compartment. Individual pricing of the parts is available for out of state applications or for use on other model or year Volkswagens that do not intend to be CARB exempt.

This has required two years of testing. Seven catalytic converters and about a dozen mufflers were tried before a satisfactory combination of clean exhaust, quiet sound and low backpressure were attained.

Subaru Legacy engines are economical to replace. If you can do the wiring and bolting then the initial cost is comparable to the price for having a rebuilt VW waterboxer installed. The average wrecking yard price for a low mileage Subaru Legacy engine is about one thousand dollars, which depends on what state you are in. After you ask the yard to add the computer, ALL the wiring, relays, etc. and maybe even the Subaru wheel covers, you can expect the price to jump about three hundred more.

I visited Hobert during one of our Winter Breaks and got to drive his 1984 Vanagon with the Subaru Legacy 2.2 engine. Wow! Was I impressed. I have been lusting for one ever since.


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