Road Tests

First Drive: 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

Can it steal sales from the Subaru Outback?

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Washington — Oh, what wonders a little suspension lift and some body cladding do. These treatments can transform a seemingly humdrum car into a burly object of desire, not unlike an uninteresting man growing a bushy beard and buying a flannel to become a woodsman who haunts the dreams of unappreciated housewives. Volkswagen is trying this simple trick with its 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, turning the cult SportWagen into something Americans actually want to buy. Will our market find this high-riding wagon, which is just now going on sale, enigmatically irresistible? Volkswagen sure thinks so.

What America wants.

“This product is really on the spot and in the heart of American tastes,” says Hinrich J. Woebcken, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America. “The Alltrack is very important for us. This brand needs this big American market.” As you no doubt know, our market doesn’t take too kindly to wagons. Why? Beats us, especially since small crossovers have sold extremely well as of late. Perhaps people like sitting slightly higher off the road, or perhaps they don’t like the stigma that comes with driving a station wagon, but the fact remains. However, Americans have historically seemed quite fond of odd soft-roaders like the Alltrack. “Dealers are bullish about this product,” says Woebcken. “They’re waiting for this product.”

What about the Subaru Outback?

There are a lot of big beards and flannels here on Washington’s Bainbridge Island, which is a 20-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. As we walk off the ferry toward our mid-level Alltrack SE, which Volkswagen predicts will be the model’s best-selling trim, a Subaru Outback serendipitously drives off the ferry. It’s impossible to talk about the Alltrack without mentioning the Outback, even though Volkswagen says the two cars “converge a bit…at the customer, but that’s where the similarities end.” There’s really no arguing Alltrack is clearly aimed at Outback and hopes to steal sales away from Subaru, which has long monopolized this automotive estuary. Even though VW says the two cars aren’t very similar, the automaker is quick to tell you the Alltrack has a rear seat pass-through, which the Outback does not, and that the Alltrack’s roof rack height is about six inches lower than the Outback’s. (VW is not as keen to mention that while the Outback is built to tow up to 2,700 lb with a 200-lb trailer tongue weight, the Alltrack can only tow up to 1,500 lb and doing so invalidates the car’s warranty.)

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Setting it apart from the SportWagen.

The Alltrack doesn’t look like it’s perched that high up, which makes sense since its longer springs and longer dampers only add 0.6 inch of ground clearance compared to the SportWagen, but the VW is immediately recognizable as an Alltrack because of its unique bumpers, matte-black body cladding, and aluminum front crossbar and mirror caps. Under the car are composite skid plates, front and rear, and on top of the car is a huge, dual-pane, panoramic sunroof that comes standard on SE and SEL models. All models, including the base S model, get a 6.5-inch touchscreen display, heated front seats, a rearview camera, Bluetooth, cruise control, and a driving mode selector with an off-road function. The SE costs about $3,500 more than the base model and benefits from a Fender audio system and keyless entry and ignition, but not navigation like the SEL has.

It should go without saying that the Alltrack has standard all-wheel drive, sending power through a center differential that can transfer up to half of the car’s power to the rear axle if the regular 10% isn’t cutting it. Every Alltrack has a 199-hp, 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-four engine with 170 lb-ft of torque, and the SE we’re in is equipped with a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, like all other Alltracks you’ll be seeing in the near future; the 6-speed manual transmission won’t launch until early next year, when it will be available only on S and SE models. This is the first time the 1.8-liter four-cylinder and 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission have been bolted together for the American market, and they seem to compliment each other well as we drive away from the dock toward the wilds of Bainbridge.

From two-lanes to two-tracks.

The Alltrack is unsurprisingly cushier than the car its based on, which one reasonably expects from something with stretched-out suspension. The little engine never struggles as the 3,422-lb wagon wafts up and over the hilly roads winding through Bainbridge, but the Alltrack definitely feels as slow as it is, needing almost eight seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph. We set cruise control just north of the speed limit, open the shade for the panoramic sunroof, and settle into our flat-but-supportive driver’s seat as we enjoy the lush scenery all around us. The Alltrack is as composed as it is quiet, drumming up very little noise as it rolls along. One could safely assume that wouldn’t be the case if a couple of kayaks or mountain bikes were strapped to the roof, which will likely be the case for a lot of Alltracks.

Volkswagen made a few thoughtful decisions when creating the adventure-focused Alltrack. Like adding a larger 14.5-gallon fuel tank so you could go further between fill-ups, or making a leatherette-wrapped interior standard across the board because it would be easiest to wipe gunk and grime off of, or adding a 115-volt power outlet to the cargo area, which offers 66.5 cu ft of storage when the seats are folded down. We pull off the street and drive to the head of a public four-by-four trail, stopping to put the Alltrack in off-road mode, which alters braking function, softens accelerator inputs, and activates hill-descent control. 6.9 inches of ground clearance doesn’t seem like a lot, but the Alltrack has no problem climbing over logs and rocks, swaying side-to-side as we slowly crawl along the rutted track. The front tires slip going uphill, and traction control cuts in and out as the all-wheel-drive systems sorts out where to send power. The Alltrack tiptoes through ruts and puddles, never once getting stuck on a trail we would never think to take a SportWagen on.

The Alltrack does what it needs to do.

The 2017 Volkswagen Alltrack seems perfectly suited for its intended purpose, and it should sell very well. Why? Because it’s a competent, reasonably equipped and priced wagon with a bit of machismo that should capture the attention of both single guys living in the Snowbelt and growing families who want ample space without succumbing to the small crossover craze. Isn’t it amazing what a little suspension lift and some body cladding can do?

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2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $26,670/$31,350 (base/as-tested)
Engine: 1.8L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/170 hp @ 4,500 rpm, 199 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic (6-speed manual, early 2017)
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD wagon
EPA Mileage: 22/30 mpg
L x W x H: 180.2 x 70.8 x 59.7 in
Wheelbase: 103.5 in
Weight: 3,422 lb
0-60 MPH: 7.8 secs
Top Speed: 130 mph

Buying Guide
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EPA MPG:

22 City / 32 Hwy

Cargo (Std/Max):

30 / 67 cu. ft.

Seating:

5/5