Volkswagen held the press preview for the new Golf Alltrak in Seattle, Washington, a city which is crawling with Subaru Outbacks. In the inimitable words of Michael Jackson, no message could have been any clearer: The Outback is the car in the Alltrak’s crosshairs.
As it’s been well over twenty years, some may have forgotten the Outback’s humble beginnings. Subaru didn’t have anything to sell in the burgeoning SUV segment, so they took their all-wheel-drive Legacy wagon, raised the ride height, tacked on some aggressive body trim, and set it loose on the general public. Not only was the Outback a success, but it also started a whole new segment of vehicles, which morphed into the “crossovers” (SUVs that use car-based construction) that rule the market today.
The Golf Alltrack applies the Outback methodology to the Golf Sportwagen: It gets 4Motion all-wheel-drive (AWD), a raised suspension, and unique body trim, including gray fender surrounds, silver-colored rocker panels that bear a resemblance to metal rock rails, and unique front and rear bumpers that hint of non-existent skid plates underneath. Silver-painted roof rack rails and mirror caps finish off the exterior adornment.
Raising the suspension by 0.6” has done nothing to affect the way the car drives; it goes down the road and through the curves much like the Golf Sportwagen. The steering is a bit lighter and less precise on-center than I expected, but this may not affect all models: On the regular Sportwagen, models with bigger wheels and lower-profile tires steer more precisely. Unfortunately, I only got to sample the base-model Alltrak S on our press preview, as a group of marauding Canadian journalists made off with all the mid-level and high-end cars. (These are the dangers one faces in my job.)
Volkswagen has made one other significant change: In addition to Sport, Normal and Custom driving modes, the Alltrak has an off-road mode that fine-tunes the AWD and stability control systems so that the car can scramble over loose ground, plus it provides a hill-descent function. Volkswagen had us drive the Alltrak over vasome fairly rough terrain, and provided you mind its 5.5 inch ground clearance, it does a pretty decent job on the rough stuff, though its all-wheel-drive system lacks the sophistication of those from Acura and Mitsubishi. In situations where an MDX or an Outlander might carefully distribute traction and pick its way forward, the Golf Alltrak will simply stop and spin its wheels. The fix is simple: Pop it into reverse, back up a bit, then go forward again, and this timegive it the beans. (As any good hacker will tell you, a brute force attack is sometimes the most effective.) As for the hill descent control system, it does a decent enough job provided you can get its attention, which isn’t always easy.
Volkswagen did prove the point they were trying to make: The Alltrak will traverse much more difficult terrain than most SUV (or Outback) owners are likely to try, especially if, unlike us journalists, they actually own the cars they are driving. Chances are most Alltraks will stay on the pavement, and there the car does a very credible job.
With the diesel fiasco ruling out any TDI models, the Golf Alltrak offers just one engine: The 170 horsepower 1.8 liter turbocharged four-cylinder found in other Golf, Jetta and Passat models. This is Volkswagen’s go-to powerplant and I’ve come to love and respect it: It delivers a smooth, even flow of power and returns decent fuel economy in day-to-day driving. Volkswagen will offer the Alltrak with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. The former is notable because all-wheel-drive SUVs (or SUV-like cars) with manual transmissions are a rarity. The latter is notable because VW fits its six-speed DSG twin-clutch transmission with a performance-oriented automatic that delivers quick shifts, prompt power delivery, and good fuel economy—22 MPG city and 30 MPG highway, though these numbers are off quite a bit from the regular Sportwagen (25/34).
During our press preview through the back roads near Seattle, Washington, Volkswagen emphasized the suitability for an “active lifestyle” by strapping a bright-green kayak to a bright-red Alltrak and then having it follow us wherever we went. Every time we stopped, the red-and-green combo pulled up soon after, to the point that I began to wonder if I was having some sort of hallucination. The point was well taken, but if VW is serious about the “active lifestyle”, they should take other cues from Subaru, like the burly all-weather trunk mat that comes standard on the Outback. The Alltrak has a nicely-finished cargo bay with lots of space—30.4 cubic feet with the rear seats in place and 66.5 cubic feet if you fold them down—but who would want to risk getting that lovely carpet all muddy? One good trick that the Alltrak does have: Not only do the rear seats split and fold, but they also have a pass-through for skis; most SUVs have one or the other, but not both. And low-end models feature V-Tex upholstery, Volkswagen’s hard-wearing and durable leather substitute.
The basic Golf Alltrak model, called the S, lists for $26,670 (including an $820 destination fee), and an automatic transmission adds $1,100 The SE model. This adds automatic headlights and wipers, a big panoramic sunroof, and keyless ignition, takes a big leap to $30,260 ($31,360 with an automatic transmission). The top-of-the-line SEL, available only with an automatic transmission, adds an upgraded stereo, dual-zone climate control, and other goodies, and lists for $3,710. S and SE models can be had with an $845 Driver Assistance Package, which adds adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with automatic braking, parking sensors and a semi-automated parking feature. SELs offer a $1,995 package with all of the above plus fancier headlights (bi-xenons that turn with the wheels), automatic high beams, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
Back in third grade, I was told that the word “interesting” is anything but, and I should avoid it at all costs. I’ll make an exception because the Golf Alltrak is an interesting addition to the Volkswagen lineup, a worthy competitor to the Subaru Outback that offers less space but more driver involvement. Volkswagen also told us that the Golf Alltrak is essentially a baton-twirler for an upcoming SUV push, which will include an all-new three-row SUV due in the not-too-distant future. Whatever its purpose, I think the 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrak is a neat little car, one that delivers lots of useful space, an enjoyable driving experience, and the ability to go just a little farther off the beaten path. I like it!
Photo Credit: © 2016 Volkswagen