First drive: 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack [Review]

VW tries its hand at the off-road wagon.

Americans love utility vehicles, which is a bit of the problem for Volkswagen. While most full-line automakers have several SUVs to choose from, VW has just two; the ancient Tiguan and the expensive Touareg.

New SUVs are on the way for VW — including an all-new Tiguan and a yet-to-be-named three-row crossover — but until those arrive, the automaker is hoping to plug the gap (while simultaneously expanding into a growing niche market) with the Golf-based Alltrack. Come with us as we explore VW's new route off the beaten path.

What is it?First things first; what exactly is an Alltrack? In a nutshell, the Alltrack is an off-road oriented trim level for the Golf SportWagen. In addition to more standard content, the Alltrack includes 4Motion all-wheel drive, a suspension that has been raised by 0.6-inch, revised exterior styling and an "Off-road” driving mode that features a hill decent function and unique traction control settings. Think of the Alltrack as a Subaru Outback on a slightly smaller scale.

The Alltrack can be had in three different trim levels (S, SE and SEL), but all use a singular powerplant — VW's 1.8L turbocharged four-cylinder. Under the hood of the Alltrack that direct-injected engine is good for 170 horsepower and 199 lb-ft of torque, the latter available between 1,600-4,000rpm. We imagine VW was planning an Alltrack TDI model, but Dieselgate has put the kibosh on that.

At launch the Alltrack will be available exclusively with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. VW promises a six-speed manual transmission is coming in early 2017.

Charting the changesChanges to the Alltrack's styling are subtle, but they do make for a tougher exterior. Up front the Alltrack gets a revised bumper with an underbody guard, matte aluminum grille and standard LED daytime running lights. The sides of the Alltrack get wider sills, wheel arch cladding and silver door mirrors. Look up and you'll notice silver roof rails. The rear of the Alltrack has been treated to dark-red taillights, a revised bumper and dual exhaust outlets. Alltrack S and SE models get 17-inch wheels while top-of-the-line SEL models ride on 18-inchers.

The Alltrack comes better equipped than its SportWagen counterpart, with things like leatherette seating surfaces and heated front seats fitted as standard. Opt for an SE or SEL model and VW will throw in a standard panoramic sunroof and keyless access with push button start.

A driver assistance package is available for S and SE models and includes Adaptive Cruise Control, Park Pilot and Park Assist. In addition to those features, the SEL can be fitted with bi-xenon lights and an auto-dimming mirror.

All Alltrack models get a 6.5-inch touchscreen entertainment system, but navigation is an optional upgrade. However, VW's system is Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatible out of the box, so buyers shouldn't feel pressure to spring for the more expensive head unit.

Alltrack, all GolfOff-road intentions aside, the Alltrack still very much feels like a Golf from behind the wheel. The Alltrack's switchgear is laid out in typical VW fashion, with most functions logically arrange with easy-to-use controls. We didn't do a deep dive into the Alltrack's infotainment system, but both the Android Auto and MirrorLink functions worked as they should without much lag. One annoyance we discovered was the noise of the rear-view camera popping out of the VW logo on the tailgate every time the vehicle was shifted into reverse; we'd gladly trade the concealed camera for a fixed unit that didn't make an unpleasant thunk every time the gear lever is put into reverse.

The Alltrack's gauge cluster is simple and easy to read, with two main dials for ground and engine speed and two smaller gauges for engine temp and fuel level. A center LCD screen is used for trip info and the like.

A multi-function steering wheel houses controls for the car's audio, Bluetooth and cruise control functions. The soft leather used on the Alltrack's steering wheel and emergency brake lever feel as though it might have been plucked from the Audi parts bin.

We can't say the same for the Alltrack's leatherette seats, however, as they feel exactly like what they're made out of — vinyl. On the plus side, the Alltrack's vinyl seats should at least be easy to clean.

Materials on the Alltrack's doors and dash are quite good, although we're not huge fans of the fake aluminum trim. Things get a little lower rent the farther you move back, with the Alltrack's rear doors employing hard plastics that aren't as pleasing to the touch.

Space in the front seats of the Alltrack is just fine, but the rear seat is a little tight in terms of shoulder and headroom. Legroom, however, is adequate for those six-foot or a little above. Spring for an SE or SEL model and the Alltrack's cabin feels a lot more airy thanks to a standard panoramic sunshine roof.

The rear cargo area in the Alltrack is spacious, but it's not as generous as similar utility vehicles on the market. Still, its 30.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats up (66.5 cubic feet with the seats stowed) should be more than enough for the average adventurer.

On-road and offGiven that the Golf Alltrack shares a few strands of DNA with the Golf GTI, it should come as no surprise that the soft-roader is a competent handler. The Alltrack's suspension is perfectly tuned, returning a ride that is comfortable yet still sporty. Moreover, the Alltrack's raised suspension doesn't add any perceivable lean into the wagon's handling characteristics. Steering is precise with decent weight.

The drivetrain in the Alltrack is just fine, but not really exemplary in any way. The 1.8L offers good grunt off the line, but it's not a speed demon that will leave the Outback 2.5i for dead. Using the 2.0L from the Golf GTI might have made for a more interesting package, especially considering the Outback is available with a 3.6L flat-six.

Likewise, fuel economy is a bit disappointing with EPA ratings of 22mpg city and 30mpg. In comparison, the larger Outback is rated at 25mpg city and 32mpg highway.

The Alltrack has a few different settings for on-road driving, including a normal mode and a sport mode. Unfortunately, those modes are kind of like the story of Goldilocks and the Two Bears; normal mode didn't offer enough responsiveness and sport was a little too aggressive in holding gears. We'd like to see something in the middle that's just right.

Road noise isn't a glaring problem in the Alltrack, but there's more there than we expected. We'd gladly trade the panoramic sunroof for a little more sound deadening.

Although most of our time behind the wheel of the Alltrack was spent on paved roads, we did get a chance to point it down some gravel roads as well as a short off-road course. Not surprisingly the Alltrack handled the gravel road section with aplomb, with its revised suspension more than up to the task of soaking up medium- to larger-size bumps and dips. But out on the off-road course, the Alltrack didn't feel particularly at home, despite its unique off-road drive setting.

With a modest suspension lift of just 0.6-inches compared to the normal SportWagen, the Alltrack doesn't offer a whole lot in terms of articulation. On one stretch of moguls that fact came into play when two wheels were lifted off the ground, leaving us without enough traction to keep moving forward. On a positive note, we never bottomed out the Alltrack's suspension.

The Alltrack's 4Motion all-wheel drive is based on an on-road system, so the wagon defaults to front-wheel drive under most driving conditions. If slippage is detected, the system can send up to 50 percent of the engine's power to the rear wheels. The Alltrack's all-wheel drive system can also act laterally by applying brake force to a wheel that is slipping.

A hill decent function is a welcome feature of the Alltrack's off-road mode, but it could still use some fine tuning. Unlike similar system offered in other vehicles, we found the Alltack's hill descent system to be jerky. On a downslope it would allow the vehicle to accelerate freely to a couple of miles per hour before slamming on the brakes, bringing the car almost to a complete stop. The cycle would then start again. Put another way, the hill decent in the Alltrack acts like an on/off switch rather than a dimmer switch with several options in between.

German engineering, at a premiumVW has traditionally placed a premium on its German engineering, and that holds true for the latest Alltrack. The cheapest version you'll be able to buy until the manual comes along next year is the base Alltrack S with a starting price of $26,950, or $1,305 more than the bigger and more fuel efficient Subaru Outback 2.5i. That price disparity holds true for the other trims in the Alltrack lineup, too. In fact, our mid-level Alltrack SE tester ($32,195) was just about the same price as an Outback 2.5i Premium.

It's completely possible that buyers will willingly fork over that kind of cash for the Alltrack, but VW's pricing seems high by about 5-10 percent to us.

Leftlane's bottom lineVolkswagen is banking on the Alltrack to drag it out of its U.S. woes, but that's a lot to ask from a wagon that isn't even rated to tow.

The Alltrack is a competent vehicle for sure, but few Americans will ever even consider a wagon. Moreover, a sizable chunk of those that might buy a wagon were burned by VW's diesel fiasco. The Alltrack's premium pricing structure doesn't help, either.

The VW Alltrack is worth a look if you're shopping for a small utility vehicle, but we suspect most potential buyers will gravitate toward the Subaru Outback or more traditional crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, $26,950-$32,890. Destination, $820.

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