Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

There we were, off the map, where the squiggly line vanishes into a murky greenish grey.

It was far more rutted and rugged than our usual Ontario gravel roads and even trails to remote cottages and campsites, if not exactly the Rubicon trail. Where did it go? Nowhere. The best kind of road.

It was the perfect demonstration of the differences between the two models we drove from Munich to GTi Treffen at Worthersee. I was at the wheel of the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, our colleagues behind us in the Golf R Variant. These two cars are based on the same MQB platform, lengthened to wagon proportions, all four (well, eight) wheels driven by 2.0L turbo four-cylinder engines hooked up by way of six-speed DSG transmissions, near identical interiors, yet have personalities that couldn’t be any more different when so similar on paper.

The Alltrack is Volkswagen’s ‘Outbackified’ Golf wagon, while the R Variant is the top Golf performance spec in convenient wagon body style. If you’ve ever had the urge to say, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads…” without having a flying car handy, well, the Alltrack is your choice.

So there we were, the onboard navigation drawing a blank, but the suggestion of a path and a sense of adventure, and we just kept on driving up the rutted track that hugged the side of a heavily wooded hill, less travelled than even your typical logging road (like I know what a typical logging road is like from my zero years working in the logging industry). The Golf R Variant was left parked and watching from below. Anyhow, it was far more rutted and rugged than our usual Ontario gravel roads and even trails to remote cottages and campsites, if not exactly the Rubicon trail. Where did it go? Nowhere. The best kind of road.

Head to Head: 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack vs Subaru Outback, By the Numbers

What it did offer in lieu of a destination was a chance to test the Alltrack on exactly the kind of road it was designed to tackle. The height difference between the ruts and various small branches and rocks was easily several inches, with undulations and angles that were just within this car’s ground clearance but without any knee-deep mudpits or tree stumps that would risk damage or a stranded Golf Alltrack and calls to VW roadside assistance.

The Alltrack features an additional Off-road mode for just such an occasion, utilizing the Haldex differential as a longitudinal lock, a four-wheel Electronic Differential Lock (EDL) that uses the stability control braking functions to simulate “the role of electronic transverse locks at both axles”, and the “XDS+ system at the front and rear axles to help with steering response by applying brief braking interventions.” Off-road mode also appeared to reduce the throttle response to a simulated crawl ratio to allow finer control on tricky surfaces, though I’ve yet to find that specified in the VW literature, which is rather sparse at the moment this far in advance of the vehicle’s arrival to market next year. 

Additionally, Alltrack has hill descent control, which also works in reverse. We know that, because the track never opened up wide enough for us to turn the car around, so we had an unplanned testing opportunity to prove the Alltrack’s controlled descent ability. Steering carefully between the rocky outcropping on the left and steep drop off on the right, Alltrack’s hill descent gently backed us up at a constant speed without any pedal work required, just using the steering wheel, back-up camera, rear-view mirrors and the Golf’s still-decent outward visibility (though it sure has shrunk over the years).

Even though the extra 20 mm of ground clearance and hill-descent was explored, the standard 4Motion all-wheel drive was barely challenged in these dry, sunny conditions. A Canadian winter, even in the well-plowed GTA or temperate, rainy Vancouver would be more demanding of this slip-and-grip Haldex system than any conditions we saw on our trip through Germany and into Austria.

As much as the off-roading was a most excellent adventure that we were glad to encounter, the majority of our time behind the wheel was on highways and ordinary secondary roads, where the raised suspension height and medium profile 225/45R18 tires on 18-inch alloys offered excellent ride compliance. Oh, and those wheels – awesome pattern and one I hope will stay with the Alltrack on its transatlantic crossing.

On paved roads, Comfort, Normal, Eco and Sport modes are available to ease or engage the driving experience, offering stiffer steering, sharper throttle and sportier transmission response. No matter the setting, the steering is crisp and linear, though parking lot maneuvers are made easier in Comfort, while Sport gives a more direct response and firmness at higher speeds and sharper throttle response that I feel most comfortable using.

Most highways were pristine, but some secondary roads featured modest imperfections that confirmed the Alltrack’s comfort. Even so, the comfortable ride doesn’t cross the line into sloppiness, and with a bit of body roll the Alltrack can still carry its weight respectably through corners and curves. On public roads, and even in the twisty bits, it kept up with the Golf R Variant that was limited by good sense more than capability. But as with most cars these days, good sense and tires are far more often the limit than a car’s chassis and power.

This, however, was a Euro-spec model, and that 2.0L turbo we mentioned before is Volkswagen’s four-cylinder turbodiesel rated at 182 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, an engine we expect to see swapped out for the 1.8L fuel-injected turbo-four gas engine in our markets. While the 150-hp 2.0L diesel we are familiar with here in Canada would offer increased efficiency and torque (236 lb-ft), the 1.8TFSI is a gem with lovely character, power, sufficient torque and still decent efficiency, so you won’t find any complaints from us. Except, perhaps, that the 1.8TFSI powertrain is available only with the six-speed DSG twin-clutch automatic, so a manual transmission is unlikely to be available in our markets in the Alltrack.

As mentioned, the interior is Golf through and through, with the high grade materials and classy and conservative styling of the latest Volkswagen generation and the big 8.0-inch screen option that will be joining the Golf lineup for 2016 edition and finishes this interior as it deserves, where the smaller 6.5-inch screen just seems a disappointment in an otherwise all-around great interior for this class. This new screen is responsive and clear, with fixed buttons for main menus on the sides making its operation seamless. Steering wheel controls allow access to various of the systems like phone, audio and vehicle information through the smaller but sharp colour display in the gauge cluster. The steering wheel itself is the same we see on our high-trim Golfs, leather lined and shaped perfectly, though some functions are a bit of an awkward reach for thumbs. Oh, the hardship.

The seats in this tester were an appealing cloth fabric with a narrow strip of Alcantara along the bolsters and good support, comfort, and manual adjustability for height, slide, tilt and lumbar. Seating space in both rows is comfortable for up to four adults, with lots of room in the trunk for all of life’s baggage and seats that fold for cargo capacity exceeding many small crossovers.

While we love our sleek and speedy wagons, this variation on the Golf theme makes plenty sense, and that little bit of extra height means getting in and out is just that little bit easier, as is installing child seats and kids. For those sick of every company jumping on the crossover bandwagon by jacking up their hatches and wagons, we’ll call your attention to the Golf Country, a jacked-up Golf with Syncro AWD that VW produced in the early 90s, unfortunately ahead of its time as the masses had yet to cycle through the SUV craze and move on to crossovers.

As this model will only be launching over a year from now (fall 2016) as a 2017 model, feature content and pricing is still a long way from being definite, and even powertrain details aren’t yet confirmed, though all indicators point to the 1.8TFSI as the sole powertrain, and pricing will likely be a slight premium over equivalent Golf Sportwagon trims with its standard AWD. We look forward to revisiting the Golf Alltrack in its final form when it arrives in Canada.