Funnily enough, in light of dieselgate, Volkswagen is one of the few brands (along with Volvo and Subaru) to preserve the notion that you don’t need a fuel-sucking SUV to meet your life-carrying needs. And, yes, VW’s history of addressing off-road desires with all-wheel-drive dates to the mid-1980s with the Quantum Syncro (a.k.a. Passat) and Golf Country – the latter, sadly, never came stateside.
The latest offering toward this effort is the 2017 Volkswagen Alltrack. What’s an Alltrack? It’s a slightly lifted, cladded, and butched-out version of the Golf Sportwagen (yes, formerly known as a Jetta). Not to steal Alltrack’s thunder, but starting in 2017 you can also get the standard Sportwagen with 4Motion AWD, which is basically the same running gear for less money. The Alltrack starts at $26,950; the 4Motion Sportwagen starts at $24,930, both with the dual-clutch automatic available at launch.
Any discussion of tall wagons brings Subaru immediately to mind, both with the Outback and the Impreza-based Crosstrek. The Volkswagen Alltrack sits between the two in size at 180.2 inches long – 5 more than the Crosstrek and 9.4 inches shorter than the Outback. The 2017 Subaru Outback starts at $25,645, and VW’s comparisons focus on the Outback, which is understandable given the similar starting price. A bare-bones Crosstrek starts at $22,245, but quickly gets into Golf price overlap.
A key to the “Volkswagen-ness” of the Alltrack experience that makes it more fun than the Subarus is the suspension and steering feel. VW lifted the Alltrack 0.6 inches, to offer 6.9 inches of ground clearance. This is nowhere near the 8.7 inches of the Outback, although nearly identical to the 7 inches of a Nissan Pathfinder. With the modest lift the Volkswagen retains on-center steering feel and excellent cornering. Although it’s not a GTI (obviously), the Alltrack’s on-pavement behavior is more planted and quick in turn-to-turn transitions than any SUV remotely within this price realm. And although not as fast as the new Volvo V60 Cross Country, it’s equally refined in ride quality and handling poise – and considerably more affordable.
Mechanically the Alltrack and 4Motion Sportwagen are almost identical. The only slight difference is 10.7-inch solid rear discs, vs. the 10-inch rears on the 4Motion model. But the Alltrack also gets both a Sport setting to the transmission (which holds gear changes longer but doesn’t seem to affect the aggressiveness of throttle tip-in) and an off-road mode that automates hill-descent control at under five mph, loosens ABS interference to allow more wheel spin, and slightly deadens the throttle to allow easier modulation of gas and brake when you’re tiptoeing over rough terrain.
Gripes? Here’s the primary one. If you are indeed cross-shopping the Outback, that wagon’s 35.5 cubic feet of stowage aft of the rear seats and 73.3 cu. ft. with them folded smokes the VW’s 30.4/66.5 cubic feet. The Alltrack looks yet worse against true crossovers like the Honda CR-V (37.2/70.9 cubic feet). Chalk up a win against the Subaru Crosstrek, though, which only has 22.3 and 51.9 cubic feet. “Only” being relative here, as 20 cubic feet is huge for a sedan trunk.
This likely isn’t a deal breaker. Hendrik Muth, Volkswagen of America’s vice of president of product marketing and strategy, says the Alltrack is targeted at a younger buyer who wants a car that’s more nimble than the Outback. He also cites the lower roofline that enables loading bikes, kayaks, and other outdoor sports equipment more easily than rival off-road-focused SUVs.
Still, probably the biggest edge for the Alltrack against the Outback is really aggressive pricing. It also looks great, comes in sharp colors, and of course presents an alternative to would-be Subaru buyers who don’t have either Audi or Volvo money. Look for VW to keep up that kind of bargain strategy going well into the future, because one way to help shorten the memory of a wary consumer is to offer them a great deal on a car that does a lot of things better than more expensive alternatives.