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First Drive: The 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack – The Non Cynical SportWagen

Eric Trytko September 19, 2016 Featured, First Impressions, Reviews 18 Comments

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We’ve gone with this headline for a reason.  It wasn’t just when the Alltrack was revealed that the automotive press said almost in unison, “ahh one of these.”  Yes, it’s a station wagon with a bit more ride height, body cladding, and all wheel drive.  We’ve seen this script before, Subaru Legacy Wagon became the Outback, the Volvo V70 became the V70 Cross Country and most recently the Audi A4 Avant became the allroad.

What is it about the American psyche that won’t let all us as a collective to just enjoy a wagon for what it is?  Why must we pretend to make these have offroad credibility just to sell in any kind of numbers?  The Crossover/SUV is as ubiquitous as the station wagon was 30+ years ago, but for now, those are still cool.

So, on with the program.  During the pre-drive briefing for the VW Alltrack, it’s detailed that the changes to it over the SportWagen, are 0.6 of an inch of additional ground clearance, different shocks and springs, body cladding and the fifth generation 4Motion all-wheel drive system.  On specs, it doesn’t really inspire confidence that it will do much more than the SportWagen, but the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

For 2017 the Alltrack will position itself above the SportWagen in the model lineup with more standard equipment, and a price to go with it.  If you like any variation of the Golf family of vehicles then you will be inclined to like the Alltrack, in that, the interior is the same, the driving dynamics are the same, from the C-pillar forward it’s a Golf, this one just has a larger cargo area.  Like the SportWagen, the Alltrack has 30.6 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats up and 66.5 cubic feet with the seats down, and those seats do fold truly flat.

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Once you are rolling on the road, the Alltrack, on normal surface streets and highways, rides and drives just like a standard Golf.  The 1.8-liter turbo four has 170 horsepower at 4,500 rpm and 199 pound-feet of torque at 1,600 rpm.  It has a different character than other turbo motors to come to market in the last couple years.  Where turbos have been used to boost low-end torque and horsepower of late, this VW mill really comes on above 3,000 rpm.  It’s not slow or sluggish below three grand, it’s that there is a noticeable step in power at that point, if you keep it on the boil, and above three grand in any kind of spirited driving, it feels happier there, and forward thrust is immediate.

Moving off the pavement and onto gravel roads, the Conti Pro Contact tires grip well with the 4Motion system, surprisingly well as a matter of fact.  It would be a gross overstatement to say that it moves on gravel like a rally car, but it is far more composed and competent than you’d anticipate.  Dialing down the traction control leaves you with some safety margin, it allows you to swing out the rear without TC coming on and shutting down the fun early.  Give the throttle some Jandal and the Alltrack accelerates briskly on the loose surface with no weaving about or wasted motion.

When the drive route took us to some light Jeep trails we didn’t have high hopes.  While we knew the Alltrack would make it through, otherwise it would not have been set up for the drive route, how competent it would be was the question.  Lesson one on the first pass was crawling at low speeds worked best, this is not a high-speed Baja runner.  Go too quickly over a rutted surface and you will bottom out, also, there are no skid plates on the under tray to protect the motor or suspension.  Round two through the course at a lower speed and the Alltrack began to shine.  The key to 4Motion on loose surfaces is to keep your foot in the throttle and let the system sort out where to send the power.  That’s not to say we didn’t need to back up once or twice to get a better run at a hill.  Also, because the system uses the vehicle’s brakes to help with wheel speed and traction you may get a whiff of pads getting hot depending on how hard you work the system.  The same system also is used for the hill decent control, engaged in the “Offroad Mode”, which worked fine, though it didn’t feel as smooth in our experience as others we have tested in several trucks and SUV’s.

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The third time through we were looking to grab some photos, and saw a trail that diverted off the marked path.  Going on the idea that if it’s not prohibited, or blocked off, it’s allowed, we headed off on a trail which proved to be far more difficult.  With more ruts, more sharp turns, and far steeper hills, the Alltrack took it in stride.  We showed a few of the photos to other people in our group, and one put it best, “that’s a Land Rover/Range Rover trail!”  So, while we came in thinking if the Alltrack could handle a fire road and that it would be an accomplishment, it turned out it could do much more.  Again, that’s not to say you’re taking it out to run the Baja or King of the Hammers, but if you want to head out into the woods or the desert for camping, adventure, or just to see what you can do, this VW is more than capable.  Toss some decent off-road biased tires on it, and it might be able to do much more.

Understanding that the Alltrack will see far more of the urban trails, comprised of pothole-filled streets, parking lot speed bumps and stop and go traffic, in “S” and “SE” trim packages a Driver Assist package can be added as an option for $845.  It adds Adaptive Cruise Control, Forward Collision Warning and Autonomous Emergency Braking, front, and rear Park Distance Control, and Parking Steering Assistant.  The 2017 Alltrack has been given a 5-star overall safety rating from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and also a Top Safety Pick by IIHS. A Top Safety Pick + rating may be coming but had not been confirmed at the time we drove the car.

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One of the reasons to choose a wagon over a crossover is fuel economy.  The Alltrack with the DSG transmission is EPA rated 22 city and 30 highway, the Alltrack also gets a larger fuel tank than the SportWagen, being bumped from 13.2 gallons to 14.5.

Pricing* for the Alltrack is as follows:

  • Alltrack S
    • $25,850 with manual transmission (availability Q1 2017)
    • $26,950 with DSG
  • Alltrack SE
    • $29,430 with manual transmission (availability Q1 2017)
    • $30,530 with DSG
  • Alltrack SEL
    • $32,890 with DSG

*add $820 for destination.

We came into this first drive cynical at what Volkswagen was doing.  Sure, they need any win they can get right now in light of the TDI scandal that still dominates any story about the brand.  In the current environment where consumers are ditching sedans, hatchbacks and wagons for crossovers and SUV’s, even if all those crossover and SUV’s are nothing more than the same body style on a platform sitting two to five inches higher, Volkswagen is very short in that product category at this moment in time.  They have the Tiguan and the Touareg, but those have never sold in any real volume.  There is a three-row crossover based on the Passat coming down the line in the not too distant future, but again, VW needs to do something now, and the riff on the SportWagen makes business sense.  That it turns out to be far more capable than anticipated is a bonus.

What struck us is, in the presentation before we drove the Alltrack, the VW communications team said, not in so many words, that they were benchmarking what Subaru had done in the U.S. market.  If even five years ago would you have thought that VW would be benchmarking Subaru?  Then again Subaru is well on track to sell north of 500,000 cars in the U.S. in calendar year 2016, VW will be closer to 350,000, consider that for a moment.

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Can the Alltrack turn around the fortunes of VW?  On its own, no.  As part of a larger strategy, perhaps.  What it will come down to is retail and transactional pricing for the end consumer.  While we mentioned the MSRP’s before, more and more consumers are turning to leasing, and if VW wants to make a splash again in the U.S. market they need to be very aggressive with their lease pricing.  VW admits they have to work hard to regain the trust of the consumers, and it will take a great deal of work to get those consumers into the doors of their local dealership.  While not an ideal situation, low lease pricing with low to no acquisition costs may be the key to getting more people in the door.

If you’ve gotten to this point you have asked yourself why should I by the Alltrack over something like the Subaru Outback.  To be frank, Outback’s have become common, and the Alltrack is something different.  The Outback has also become a much larger vehicle over the last generation or two, while the Golf feels and drives “right sized, yet its cargo capacity is within five and seven cubic feet of space.  Fuel economy for the Alltrack is better and the VW motor feels more refined that the Subaru’s.

Ultimately you will have to go test drive one to make and make the decision for yourself. Our take though, is that it will be well worth your time to do so. The Alltrack turned out to be a fun vehicle that for the day that we drove it, the Alltrack exceeded our expectations, and in today’s market vehicles rarely do that.

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  • Wayne Moyer

    I don’t see how that three legged stance is any worse then a 2016 Ferrari F1 car really.

  • Sjalabais

    Excellent photos, and a well-balanced text. But what is 4Motion? As a lazy member of the commentariat I am by style prohibited to google stuff myself, guessing it is a Haldex-system though?

    • Yes, 90/10 front bias can go to 50/50 in the correct situations.

      • Ross Ballot

        Ugh. That would be the nail in the coffin for me…perfect for most drivers but not how I want my AWD system to work.

  • jeepjeff

    But can you get it with a diesel engine?

  • Wind Advisory

    DSG? If you plan on keeping this wagon once it is out of warranty option it with the manual transmission.

    TRUST ME.

    How did you enjoy Bainbridge?

    To eco Sjalabais. Awesome review and photography.

  • dead_elvis, inc.

    Remind me again of the name of the reviewed car?

  • campodf

    Why oh why did you say “allroad” so many times. That’s an Audi. This is an Alltrack.

  • Hank

    Are you sure those rear seats fold FLAT? The last couple years of the Sportwagen haven’t. Which drives me nuts. A pointless “trade-off” to not have to raise the bottom part of the seat. The true-flat cargo area is as hard to give up as the mileage on my 2013 TDI.

    • mfbseth

      I’ve got a mk7 tdi sportwagen and the rear seats do actually fold within a half inch of flat. Especially once you put stuff down on them 🙂

  • Van_Sarockin

    Thirty Grand Stretch Golf? Golf Clap. Pass the penicillin, or the depreciation.

  • Hendo337

    Who’d a thunk all those years folks asked to nicely for a TDI(or increased power GTD euro 170hp version in my case)JSW with a stick and awd…the reason was because the rear tires not spinning on a dyno was how they tricked the sniffer. What a shame. 🙁

  • outback_ute

    In Australia they quote 20mm (0.8″) extra ground clearance but still 175mm (6.9″) overall – not much really, and the suspension travel doesn’t look that impressive. Much less clearance than Subaru, the CX5 or Volvos – on the other hand at least it is more than a Mini Countryman! I’m sure it drives well but not what I would chose.

  • Rick Furnival

    As I Tweeted to Jeff, I bought an Alltrack to replace my TDI Passat, last month. I’ve begun to realize that my grumbling about my missing rear seat room (the main feature of the Passat) was more than offset by the improved handling dynamics of the Golf MQB platform. Since I live in a rural area, the mild off-roadability of the Alltrack makes way more sense, as compared to my sport-sprung B7. The best thing about the Alltrack when cross shopping it with the regular GSW is the GTI-themed interior. This car is nicer than many costing $10k more. The seats are great, and the trim looks way better than the base GSW (or my Passat for that matter).

    I do admit that the off-road stance is going to take some getting used to. I can’t seem to resist what must be in the standard DNA of a VW owner – the urge to minimize wheel gap.

    Thanks for the advice, Jeff!