Volkswagen traveled to the 1989 edition of the Geneva Motor Show to unveil a concept car called Golf Montana. Possibly inspired by the infamous AMC Eagle, the show car looked like a second-generation Golf with a lift kit and it was largely designed to showcase the potential of the brand’s Syncro four-wheel drive system.
Company sources indicate the Golf Montana was presented as merely a design study that was not seriously considered for mass production, but the overwhelmingly positive public response it generated in Geneva (and later that year at the Frankfurt Motor Show) convinced Volkswagen’s top brass to give it the green light for production.
Building the Golf on steroids in Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg, Germany, factory was quickly written off as too expensive so Volkswagen chose to outsource production to Steyr-Puch. Volkswagen plucked finished five-door Golf CL Syncros from the assembly line in Wolfsburg and shipped them to Puch’s workshop in Graz, Austria, where the body was dropped on a steel ladder frame and a taller suspension setup was installed. The off-road-ready look was complemented by a large bull bar with twin fog lights, mud flaps, skid plates on both ends and a spare tire mounted on the hatch. Five-spoke alloy wheels mounted on all-season tires came standard.
The interior was standard Golf CL fare, meaning the Country boasted a typically Germanic dashboard with easy-to-read analog gauges and a four-spoke steering wheel. A discreet “Syncro” emblem on the glove box door hinted at what lurked under the skin, and – like all Syncros – the Country had a higher trunk floor in order to clear up space for the rear axle.
The base country was powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that send 96-horsepower and 105 lb-ft. of torque to all four wheels via a five-speed manual transmission and a stock Syncro all-wheel drive system. The car’s capabilities off the beaten path were somewhat reduced by the fact that the Syncro system did not feature a locking rear differential, but period road tests indicate it remained a fairly capable off-roader.
The Golf Country cost 33,225 marks when it was introduced in 1990. This made it significantly more expensive than a stock Golf CL so sales were limited, and Volkswagen responded by quickly launching a stripped-down version of the car dubbed Country Allround. Priced at 31,825 marks, the Allround was nearly identical to the regular Country but it rode on steel wheels and featured vinyl-upholstered seats. Additionally, the Allround was only offered in a dark shade of green called Waldgrün.
One of the most sought-after versions of the Syncro is a limited-edition model powered by a GTI-sourced 1.6-liter engine rated at 107-horsepower and 114 lb-ft. of torque. The 50 examples of the Country GTI that Volkswagen built were exclusively sold to employees of the automaker’s Wolfsburg assembly plant, and how many remain today is a mystery.
Volkswagen had built 7,735 units of the Golf Country by the time production ended in December of 1991. The automaker initially planned on selling 5,000 examples a year so the car was considered a flop, but in many ways the Country prefigured the car-based SUVs and crossovers that sell like hot cakes today in the United States and in Europe.