2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack first drive: Playing catch-up

September 15, 2016

Deeply embroiled in one of the most complex corporate scandals ever, Volkswagen is at a crossroads—especially in the United States. The brand’s new Golf Alltrack represents a potential way out, at least if history is on VW’s side. 

Flash back to the mid-1990s, and had you been asked to wager on VW versus Subaru, picking the latter was inadvisable. But Subaru bet and won big with its Outback, a Legacy wagon with a lift kit and some rugged styling features. Today, the Outback is an icon—especially in the Northwestern United States, where VW gathered automotive media to launch a car that owes its existence to Subaru.

Follow the leader

The recipe is identical: The Golf Alltrack is a Golf SportWagen with taller springs and some styling add-ons to fit in at the REI parking lot. It’s easy to picture a green Old Town canoe or a pair of Specialized Stumpjumpers strapped to its roof rack. Slap a couple of microbrewery stickers on its bumper and the Alltrack won’t raise an eyebrow in Portland (Oregon or Maine, your pick), Denver, or Boston.

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

What VW brings to the table isn’t just that Teutonic attention to detail that has long made its cars appealing to brand cognoscenti. In this case, it’s packaging. The Alltrack’s footprint (not to mention its price tag) is closer to the Impreza-based Subaru Crosstrek than the Outback, but its cargo area is a lot roomier. In a segment where every inch of gear-hauling capacity counts, the Golf Alltrack scores.

VW quotes 30.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row of seats; that’s about 5 cubes short of the Outback, but more than 8 cubic feet larger than the Crosstrek. Where the Subarus make better use of their space is in the passenger compartment. The VW is noticeably tighter than even the Crosstrek in all five seats—and the Outback clearly reveals itself as a segment-up model, not a direct competitor.

Where the Golf Alltrack leaps ahead is in its interior styling. Plucked from the rest of the Golf lineup, the dash cants slightly toward the driver and flows into a clean center console with a pair of cupholders. The interior differs only from the Golf Sportwagen in some minor trim finishes and the availability of dark brown leatherette seat trim. That's no bad thing; the Golf interior looks and feels bucks up versus its competition.                    

Three Golf Alltrack trims are on offer: S, SE, and SEL. All include a backup camera, heated leatherette seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, 17-inch alloy wheels, and a 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability as standard. SEs have a power moonroof, a Fender audio system, and a proximity key, while SEL adds 18-inch alloy wheels, power seats, navigation, and automatic climate control.

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

An S starts at $26,670, the SE runs $30,250 and the SEL will set you back $33,710—and budget for an extra $1,100 for an automatic transmission on the S and SE (it’s standard on the SEL).

S and SE models offer just one package: $845 for automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and a system that will parallel park the vehicle at the touch of a button. On SELs, that package adds lane departure warning, HID headlamps, and automatic high beams—but its price grows to $1,995.

The drive

And this numbers game continues in the engine room, where a 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-4 sends power to all four wheels via a 6-speed manual or 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmissions. With 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque, the 3,400-pound Golf Alltrack scoots along more than adequately, but it doesn’t quite blow the doors off of the underpowered, 148 horsepower Crosstrek like we expected. The turbo-4 mates well to the 6-speed dual-clutch automatic, rarely hunting through available cogs over hilly terrain.

We didn’t have an opportunity to drive the manual transmission model that goes on sale early next year, but the 6-speed is precise and boasts a light, manageable clutch in the front-wheel drive SportWagen. There’s little reason to think the Alltrack will differ.

For now, VW has only rated the dual-clutch transmission’s fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 30 highway, 25 combined; that’s well off the pace of both the 29 mpg combined Crosstrek and 28 mpg combined Outback.

Underneath, the Golf Alltrack utilizes VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive to distribute between 10 and 50 percent of available power to the rear wheels rather than the fronts. One thing to note: For 2017, VW now offers 4Motion for an extra $2,250 on the base model of its SportWagen. So if it’s just all-wheel drive you’re after, a $24,650 SportWagen S 4Motion will save you some dough.

But what the Alltrack offers is 0.6 inches of additional ground clearance and a drive selector button that cycles between sport, standard, and off road modes for its power steering, traction and stability control, and throttle response. The off road mode changes some traction control parameters and turns on hill descent control.

It looks like VW has done its homework, but there are some glaring errors for those who bounce up a dirt road to a hiking trailhead as part of their routine (the buyers VW is after, in other words). With just 6.9 inches of minimum ground clearance, the Alltrack sits 1.8 inches closer to the ground than the Subarus, which also have more tire sidewall to keep sharp rocks at bay. A proper off-roader, the Alltrack is not, but its traction control reacts quickly to loose terrain and should be sufficient for pavement, gravel, and, perhaps most importantly, snow.

On the road, the Alltrack behaves, well, like a SportWagen—rather anticlimactic, but just as VW intended. Any additional lean into corners created by the taller suspension and revised spring rates is kept in check, revealing one advantage of the short sidewalls. Those tires also contribute to steering that is precise and almost indistinguishable from the SportWagen. A relatively short wheelbase keeps the VW's ride alive on choppy pavement but overall the front strut and rear multi-link suspension is well controlled.

Like the SportWagen, the Alltrack lets in only a hint of road rumble on the highway. We only briefly hit the highway and never sat in traffic, so our day of mixed driving on gentle, rolling roads outside of Seattle resulted in 28 mpg. That’s the same fuel economy we would expect to see out of the SportWagen.

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

If it’s a four seasons wagon you’re after, the SportWagen's new 4Motion option is the frugal and sensible choice at $2,250 less than the Alltrack. On the other hand, the Alltrack is likeable and delivers some refinement upgrades over the Subarus at the cost of value and outright capability.

It probably won’t be the vehicle that turns VW’s fortunes around in North America, but the Golf Alltrack is pleasantly capable—and, if it succeeds, it could spawn a new, lucrative direction for the people’s brand.  

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