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Review: 2017 VW Alltrack SE 6MT – Dog-hauler deluxe, enthusiast’s fantasy, not so much

Ross Ballot July 24, 2018 Featured, Reviews, Volkswagen Reviews 8 Comments

When my brother’s Chevy Avalanche looked like it was on its way to the great Car Lot in the Sky, therein lain a decision: what to take its place? His list of wants and needs yielded something seemingly impossible to find. Among those many qualities were: all-wheel-drive, a manual transmission, an interior of good quality, low-to-mid-$20k price point, more speed than the Avalanche didn’t have, and, crucially, space for Macey, the then one-year-old Rottweiler that claims everything located in her peripherals as next in line on the ever-growing list of her friends who will feed her human food when dad isn’t looking. The Avalanche, despite its high entry height and that it was not exactly engaging to drive, proved a solid dog carrier during Macey’s puppyhood. And as the truck exited his life, my brother was desperate for something more entertaining for him but still capable of doing doggy-duty.

As you can imagine, finding a car that would fit his wants/needs list was no easy task. Ultimately it came down to two: the Subaru Crosstrek and the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack. And, as is the case when you care about real-life more than on-paper or on-internet marketing tools, the real life test-drive became the deciding factor, and the Crosstrek’s smaller trunk and utter lack of power gave it disadvantages that were easy for the Alltrack to overcome. Done deal, decision made: VeeDub it was. Make it an SE (the only trim available with the manual), and it was his.

An all-wheel-drive, stick-shift, turbocharged, lifted wagon is a bit of an anomaly, an oddity in the world of electric cars, crossovers and full-size pickups that dominate the streets, the advertisements, and the focus of today’s automakers as a whole. But the car’s purpose was executed well enough on a fundamental level: the Alltrack is tough, capable, comfortable, and a traditional VW in every sense of the Audi-like interior. But while it might be the perfect match for my brother and for Macey, what do I, someone hyper-critical of cars, think of the oddball Alltrack? How does it work for somebody more concerned with inputs and feedback and driving sensations? Is it the unicorn every car enthusiast (and car site commenter) dreamed of and begs for? Read on to find out.

The announcement that Volkswagen was bringing a car with “fun” inclinations– or at least qualifications– to the people was met with, as you would expect, cheers of joy from those pining for the “enthusiast holy grail.” A turbocharged, all-wheel-drive, manual-transmission equipped wagon was just what everybody was clamoring for and, finally, amidst nonstop screaming at Subaru to sell an FA20F-equipped Crosstrek, it was Volkswagen that finally did it. Memories of yore, of days with multiple offerings of the sort come to mind and evoked the semblance of fun inside a practical, do-it-all package that tickles the car lover’s heartstrings and checks the day-to-day boxes alike. And there we were, in a time of Teslas and eighty-thousand-dollar-pickups, oogling the pages of the internet as a reasonably priced VeeDub station wagon made its debut.

And that’s exactly how you sell a car to somebody like my brother. Wagon space for when it’s needed, turbo-meets-stick-shift fun bits for when it’s wanted; the Alltrack was exactly what he was looking for and that’s exactly why he bought one. But from the start, he knew it was lacking in the engine department: With only 170 horsepower and 199 lb-ft. of torque from the 1.8L turbocharged four-cylinder pushing around the better part of 3500 pounds, it was never exactly set to light the speed hunter’s pants on fire, but turbo punch mated to a six-speed manual and sending power through 4MOTION all-wheel-drive made for enough excitement to garner my brother’s attention. He did note early on though that an APR tune would have made for a nice bump in oomph, the car was still good for ~31.5 MPG in his daily use. And while he didn’t love the way the car looked from the factory, it was Golf-enough to be good enough, and the interior full of all the modern tech (Apple Carplay, Bluetooth, heated seats, backup camera, etc etc etc) that he wanted. He was very happy with his purchase, and very happy with the car Volkswagen had built. Plus, it handled the doggie without issue.

I, however, am a bit tougher with my criticisms. The medium amount of experience I’ve had in jumping from car to car and from driving everything I can get my hands/feet on has given me at least enough exposure to be somewhat critical of a car I had extremely high hopes for. VW had really promised a lot with this one, and it was time for me to experience the “holy grail” for myself. So, how’d they do?

On the outside, things are as you’d expect. The Alltrack’s traditional SportWagen-derived (the car it shares much of its existence with) longroof proportions work well, and the Golf details lend well to the shape. What’s not good are the near offensively bland wheels; the car would benefit greatly from a set of sportier wheels– or, better yet, better wheels and more aggressive, meatier tires– but aside from that it’s hard to argue a lot of greenhouse, a lot of roof, and a size that’s just right. It’s a good looking package, especially with the higher-grade SEL trim bits (and wheels!), only held back by some bland-ish Golf styling elements. VW differentiates it from the SportWagen by lifting it a bit, throwing some plastic cladding on the rockers and fenders, and offering more compelling feature alongside the all-wheel-drive/6-speed-manual combo. Otherwise, deciding between the two really only comes down to if you need the extra two wheels worth of grip, the extra ground clearance, and how nice you want the interior to be. Speaking of…

On the inside, it’s…yup…it’s as you’d expect: it’s definitely a VW in here. Forget that you’re a few inches higher off the ground and you’ll be hard pressed to think you’re not in a Golf because, well, you basically are. Which is a generally good thing: materials are solid, ergonomics are ease-of-use friendly, and the engineers have made good use of the given space. Macey certainly liked the space and the airiness of the cabin…and by that, I mean that she liked the sunroof and ease of access to sticking her head out the windows. On the tech front, VW packed the car with gadgets and other toys to keep the driver happy, entertained, and out of trouble when pushing the car in the off-pavement situations the company wants you to think you can handle. Keyless start, heated seats, touchscreen, voice-to-text, CarPlay, Off Road mode, and so on; it’s all there.

It’s a reasonably attractive interior and the seats are good and comfortable, but, just as I did in the GTI, I have trouble with the proportions of the infotainment screen and its smallness in relation to the swath of black surrounding it. It looks like a small, low-trim screen absorbed by the bigger center stack meant to house the up-level screen available on a higher trim…but it isn’t; that’s just the size of the screen. I also don’t like the layout of the screen itself, but that’s more in my preference than in my inner designer’s eye (Note: I am not a designer). Visibility, as in all Golfs, is great, and the panoramic sunroof is spectacular, opening up the already air cabin even more. Without actually being so, it feels about as spacious inside as any modern vehicle I’ve been in, something truly impressive for a small/midsize car, which says a lot about the greenhouse and use of light that allowed to get into the cabin, ultimately making a small car feel big. And, of course, the wagon roofline makes for plenty of space for your things, like luggage for a few days away, a dog cage and…a dog. All the things you need to go away for a weekend and take your pupper with you will fit in the Alltrack.

So how’s it drive? To be blunt: not quite as well as I hoped, especially given how close it is to the GTI and Golf R in the VW lineup and in the automotive world as a whole. Where the GTI shines is in its neutrality, in its balance; and on that front, the Alltrack matches the GTI in terms of being balanced. But that balance is at a much lower tier of feedback: the steering wheel transmits absolutely zero of the road’s information to your hands/fingertips, regardless of drive mode. Sport mode, though it doesn’t change the feedback whatsoever, increases heft and force with which you have to exert to turn the steering wheel to a concerning weight; it’s so heavy that it unbalances the matched-nature entirely, especially since the suspension doesn’t stiffen up to match it or anything more intricate like that. Like the steering, the shifter feel and that of the clutch are totally vague, desperate for somebody to tighten things up by use of GTI/Golf R bits or those from any of the thousands of companies that make aftermarket parts for those– or even the base Golf– cars.

On the bright side, the ride quality is pretty decent. It’s reasonably plush, credit where credit is due to the extra height of the suspension and good amount of sidewall. The Alltrack changes direction quickly and with true confidence, and on a tight back-road it moves well, getting around a turn better than a CUV ever will and certainly transmitting more of the “car” side of its chassis to your senses than do the other vehicles that have comparable ground clearance. It leans a little under cornering and gives you no indication of a breaking point or where the limits are, but that’s good because there’s not a lot of power to play with to get to those limits in the first place.

Speaking of, the power is pretty lacking; the softness of the suspension and general quietness of the engine and cabin make it seem painfully slow, until you look down and realize you’re going much quicker than you expected. Gas mileage appears to be fantastic, especially for something with this much ground clearance and forced induction and four driven wheels. But the Alltrack is desperate for at least the GTI motor, if not the Golf R drivetrain as a whole. The resulting Frankenstein of a wagon would be a snow and fire road monster (Note that though we never had it off road, it is nearly unstoppable in the snow with good winter tires and made easy work of the unpaved, unmaintained roads we take to hiking trail access points).

If it sounds like I’m being a little overly harsh then, well…yeah, I’m being a little overly harsh. In reality the Alltrack is a completely, totally, wholly good vehicle that just isn’t perfect for the enthusiast who needs to see every ounce of performance and capability out to the Nth degree. That said, a few modifications would go a long way: short shifter, stiffer sway bars, good tires, and maybe even a stiffer steering dampener– anything to tighten up the inputs and loosen slop between man and road. If it sounds like I’m ragging on the Alltrack, it should be taken with a grain of salt; in a vaccuum the Alltrack is a genuinely compelling car, and I’m only comparing the “inputs” (steering feel, shifter feel, clutch feel, etc.) to the likes of the GTI, a car I wish the Alltrack shared even more with.

But none of this really matters. The Alltrack isn’t about the wannabe performance credentials, and it never was. This isn’t a car for us, the enthusiasts: Volkswagen set out to build a car to do all, not a car to please all. The Alltrack boasts near-Audi refinement, cargo space of a much larger vehicle, luxury car amenities, tried-and-true all-wheel-drive, and go-anywhere-within-reason-in-any-weather-condition traction. But it’s more of an AWD Golf SportWagen on stilts than either of VW’s true hot hatches; it’s a Golf with extra capability, not a GTI or Golf R with extra carrying volume. And, though it was never meant to be so, that’s a shame.

Wagons simply afford an experience that a CUV– and, likewise, an honest sedan– cannot: a car-like driving experience with the space and storage capacity of their larger brethren. A slightly “lifted” all-wheel-drive wagon with a six-speed manual transmission and a turbocharged engine is a combination that can’t be found in a crossover and if it sounds like the perfect middleground between all-wheel-drive sedan and CUV, that’s because in many way it is. The Alltrack dances in a way a crossover can’t, and has clearance and traction in a way a (stock) Golf or GTI never will. Cargo space is cavernous and the livability is absolutely fantastic, with ingress/egress as easy as it gets and the maneuverability and size of a car lending well to parking and to commuting. But examining closer reveals shortcomings that only a hardcore enthusiast will notice, and that cannot go without mentioning on a site like Hooniverse. So while I dwelled largely on the fact that the Alltrack isn’t as fun to drive as I hoped, and have accepted that for what it is…I can’t help but wonder what a modified AWD/6MT SportWagen would be like or, conversely, what a modified Alltrack would be like, and if it would be closer to the Golf R-powered Alltrack of my dreams.

Ultimately, the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack SE is not the end-all, be-all answer for enthusiasts looking for a fun all-weather-excitement-forcer-meets-daily-runabout like we hoped it might be. Its need to accomplish a bit of everything inherently compromises it on the fronts that those most intrigued by it will see as barriers to entry: steering feel, shifter feel, and speed. That’s not to say it’s a bad car, because it absolutely isn’t: the Alltrack is in fact a very good car. It’s just not as good as it could have been. Or perhaps I’m just being a bit too harsh.


And what did Macey think? Let’s ask her.

“DAD’S CAR HAS BIG WINDOWS. I LIKE THE BIG WINDOWS BECAUSE I CAN STICK MY HEAD OUT THEM AND BARK HI TO ALL MY FRIENDS. AND I LIKE THE BACK SEATS, THEY’RE COMFY AND I CAN SLEEP ON THEM AND SOMETIMES I SLEEP BETWEEN THEM BUT MOSTLY I SIT ON THEM AND LOOK AT ALL MY FRIENDS WHEN WE DRIVE BY THEM ON THE WAY TO WORK. I THINK DAD LIKES THIS CAR BECAUSE HE DOES THIS THING WITH HIS HAND THAT MAKES THE CAR GO FASTER AND BECAUSE IT GETS US EVERYWHERE EVEN WHEN THERE’S COLD WHITE STUFF COMING FROM THE SKY AND I LIKE IT BECAUSE IT HAS BIG WINDOWS AND A BIG SUNROOF AND BECAUSE DAD LIKES IT AND BECAUSE THERE’S A LOT OF SPACE FOR AIR TO MOVE AROUND WHEN I FART AND OH LOOK MY FRIENDS!

ALSO I DON’T REALLY LIKE MY UNCLE’S 4RUNNER, WHICH YOU CAN TELL BY THE LOOK ON MY FACE IN EXHIBIT A: THE PICTURE BELOW.”

-Macey

  • P161911

    As a former Rottie owner, I think he should have tried to find something with vinyl seats. Mainly because of the copious amounts of drool. Also, for whatever reason my Rottweiler never understood overpasses. Every time she rode under a bridge she went nuts for a couple of seconds. The sunroof could be a problem there. Also, that’s a lot of glass to clean drool off of.

    • Scott W.

      Someone may prove me wrong on this, but the Alltrack SE comes with V-Tex seats, which is basically vinyl, right?

  • John C

    The best part of the Alltrack is that everything you dislike can be fixed. All of the parts from a Golf R can bolt right on. Same with aftermarket. Currently a friend has one that goes 11.9@114 in the 1/4 and a 4motion sportwagen has gone 11.4@119. Suspension and brakes swap over as well.

    • outback_ute

      I wonder how much of the steering feel is being used to 19″ wheels and very low profile tyres versus 17’s and 55 series, as opposed to anything in the steering mechanism – does the GTi have special parts there? Similarly for the shifter – what benefit can there be by having it more vague than the GTi? That is a strange move by VW.

      VW sport modes are pretty strange. The Golf hire car I had a couple of years back with the twin-charged engine & DSG seemed like it was trying to keep the revs as close as possible to 1000 in normal mode and 3000 in sport mode, even at a steady speed. Very frustrating, because on a mountain pass road it was not very responsive in normal mode, but the unnecessary high revs in sport mode were annoying.

      It would be interesting to see a firmer suspension setup, and a wider track to compensate for the higher ride height (and use those ‘flared’ arches).

  • Ray

    Burger Tuning JB1/4 piggyback chip adds a little more fun too it for ~$500 and can be taken off easy for VW service without any warranty issues … try it!

    • outback_ute

      I’d doubt that a modern ECU wouldn’t notice/record something that would give the game away, they do track the number of times they have been flashed for example.

      • Ray

        Do some reading on it with this generation of Golf and then let me know what you think. There are plenty user results on VW forums and the Burger Motorsport staff is also very accessible for questions on the forums and via email.

        The difference is quite noticible during driving, and I realize this every time I remove/reinstall it for routine oil changes at the dealer. Maybe for some cars/motors, a similar upgrade would not work well or cause issues with codes, but for this generation of Golf it works and is a great upgrade.

        • outback_ute

          Fair enough, just making a point about how sophisticated ECU’s are now. Another point is there is no problem while there are no problems.