First Drive: 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

VW takes the Sportwagen past where the pavement ends

Hinrich J. Woebcken, the new CEO of Volkswagen’s North American operations, is quick to stress that the company sees the region as vitally important to VW’s future, referring to it as the “third pillar” of success for the brand. So, despite the recent diesel debacle and the substantial impact it has had on the company (both financially and in terms of customer trust), VW has no intentions of abandoning this market. In fact, they’re in the midst of 7 billion dollar investment in the region between now and 2019, which includes ramping up development of their upcoming seven-passenger SUV and updating the tooling for the Chattanooga, Tennessee factory that will build it.

In the meantime new products continue to come down the pipeline, and the Golf Alltrack serves as the latest entry in their portfolio. The Alltrack is part of a larger strategy that’s intended to bring the brand into more of a family-oriented focus, one that will likely translate into more wagons, crossovers and SUVs in the coming months and years.

Volkswagen’s decision to hold the press launch for this new model in Seattle makes their intentions with the Golf Alltrack pretty clear, as the Pacific Northwest is prime Subaru territory in the United States. Its design puts it in competition with both the Crosstrek and the Outback, as the Alltrack’s size lands somewhere in between the two, and VW hopes that aggressive pricing, along with the company’s reputation for refinement and nimble driving dynamics, will lure away some loyalists. We headed out to Bainbridge Island, just across the bay from downtown Seattle, to put the Alltrack through its paces both on and off the tarmac.

The Golf goes off-road

Built on the same MQB modular architecture as the rest of the current generation Golf lineup, the Alltrack’s lineage bodes well for driving dynamics, as models like the GTI and Golf R are among the top of the class in their respective segments. But the Golf doesn’t really have any discernible rally engineering baked into its design, so VW needed to do a few things in order to get the Alltrack on par with the capability provided by the aforementioned Subarus.

2017 VW Golf Alltrack
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

To that end, VW’s fifth generation 4Motion all-wheel drive system is standard on all Alltrack models. It also sits 0.6 inches higher than that standard Sportwagen, and its driving modes now include an Off Road mode and a hill descent feature, both of which tweak the traction control and ABS systems to help provide additional grip in loose terrain. To bolster the Golf’s visual credibility off road, the Alltrack sports fender cladding at all four corners.

Motivating the Alltrack is Volkswagen’s EA-888 1.8-liter turbocharged four cylinder motor, which makes 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque. Both the DSG automatic transmission and a six-speed manual gearbox are available, with those opting to row their own gears saving about $1,100 for their troubles, but the three-pedal option won’t be available until early in 2017.

The rest of the mechanicals and content available in the Alltrack is familiar Golf Sportwagen equipment: Volkswagen’s well-received MIB II infotainment system with a 6.5-inch display is on board regardless of which trim level of the Alltrack is chosen, an optional Driver Assistance Package adds safety features like forward collision warnings and autonomous emergency braking, and the Alltrack offers the same 94.3 cubic feet of passenger volume as the SportWagen, along with 30.4 cubic feet of cargo room behind the rear seats and 66.5 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.

Heading off the beaten path

Despite the additional off road capability, during normal every day the Alltrack behaves very similarly to the standard Sportwagen. The EA-888’s 170 horsepower isn’t much to crow about, but Volkswagen seeks to divert attention to the other output metric – the engine’s 199 lb-ft peak torque output comes in at just 1,600 rpm, or barely off-idle, giving the wagon more off-the-line responsiveness than the numbers might suggest.

170 horsepower quickly starts to feel exactly like 170 horsepower once things get underway.

Still, 170 horsepower quickly starts to feel exactly like 170 horsepower once things get underway. It’s enough grunt to keep the Alltrack from getting in its own way but it doesn’t offer much more than that, and those looking for some thrills may be disappointed to learn that the 1.8 motor is the sole power plant available in the Golf Alltrack. It’s paired well with VW’s DSG automatic, which can be controlled via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters whenever the urge strikes, which can be particularly helpful when overtaking over vehicles at highway speeds. We didn’t get a chance to test the six-speed manual gearbox in the Alltrack as it wasn’t available for testing, but this is a case where the automatic is likely to be a more ideal fit for the configuration – particularly during low speed off-road maneuvering.

Although the Alltrack sits higher than a standard Sportwagen, the suspension tuning makes this difference in ride height almost indiscernible and maintains the taut-yet-compliant manners that have become synonymous with VW cars. That on-road competency makes dirt hill climbs and bombing down gravel roads seem almost outlandish, but the reality is that Alltrack shrugged off inhospitable terrain with little complaint. Ultimately it’s still a car with an elevated ride height – large obstacles are capable of giving it trouble and we had no problem getting a wheel off the ground while negotiating deep ruts during the low-speed off-road sections of our drive – but the Alltrack’s 4Moiton system, along with its unique traction control and ABS tuning, offers surprising overall capability.

Numbers game

In pricing the Golf Alltrack, Volkswagen is taking direct aim at Subaru’s market share. The DSG-equipped Alltrack base S trim will start at $26,950, or about $1,300 more than the larger Outback. Move up the food chain past the mid-range SE to the top-spec Alltrack SEL, which includes 18-inch wheels, premium audio, a panoramic sunroof, and bolstered infotainment system functionality (along with other additional content) and the price climbs up to $32,890. While that undercuts the high end Outback trim levels by more than two thousand dollars, the Alltrack SEL’s lack of an optional uprated power plant means that the Subaru’s 3.6-liter motor far outclasses the Alltrack’s turbocharged 1.8.

2017 VW Golf Alltrack
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

But whether refinement, aesthetics, value or outright capability are the most important attributes in a car like this is highly dependent on one’s driving priorities. Ultimately the Alltrack actually makes the most compelling argument for itself in base S trim, where the inherent strengths of the Golf are paired with a low cost of entry and a solid assortment of standard equipment.

Highs

  • VW refinement
  • Well equipped even in base S trim
  • Nimble handling relative to the competition

Lows

  • 8T is a bit underpowered
  • Not rated for towing
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