First Drive: 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

Fire up Google Translate. Select from Japanese to German. Type in “Subaru”. Press enter. Bitte schön – it's the new Volkswagen Golf Alltrack. 

Outback, Alltrack – what's next, an all-wheel-drive version of the Golf called the VW Timpreza?

VW makes no bones about their intended target with this lifted, all-wheel-drive Golf Sportwagon. For Gore-Tex's sake, it even rhymes with the Subaru version of this concept. Outback, Alltrack – what's next, an all-wheel-drive version of the Golf called the VW Timpreza?

The reason for drawing a bead on Fuji Heavy Industries is simple: Subaru is absolutely killing it in North America these days, posting year over year sales increases that turn the competition green with envy. Everybody wants to know what the magic formula is, but there's no real secret. People think Subarus are safe, relatively reliable and have good resale. The whole outdoorsy image is a bonus, like the North Face jacket that's tested to survive alpine snowstorms, but which you mostly wear when there's light rain on the way to the grocery store.

So what do people think about Volkswagen? Well, as the border guard asked me on the way down to Seattle, “Think they'll get over that scandal?” There is a large, diesel-y elephant in the room here, but as far as I can tell, it already doesn't seem to matter to every consumer. VW's sales are down overall, but if you factor in product shortages and the fact that they've lost the ability to sell TDI-powered machines, they seem to be weathering the storm.

What's buoying interest in VWs? Golf. GTI. Sportwagon. Just try to get a discount on something like a Golf R: *German accent* “So sorry, zis is not possible.” VW's niche is the small, semi-premium small car that you really don't want to own outside of warranty but boy aren't they fun to drive? The Alltrack expands on this theme. Or rather, it elevates it. By exactly 15mm.

In the U.S. market, the Alltrack will be available as a full model with various feature load-outs. In Canada, it's essentially just the top trim. That means it comes very highly optioned, and with a price tag to match. That might seem a bit of a risk, but VW is betting that the same customers who were ordering every possible option on their TDI Sportwagons will appreciate the simplicity. Further, you might see a less expensive Alltrack by next year, and maybe even a six-speed manual version (the U.S. gets a manual this year).

So, from the outside we have 18” wheels, Audi-esque silver-capped mirrors, new front and rear bumpers and – look, we all know what this is. It's a jacked-up Sportwagen with all-wheel drive and some plastic body trim. The marketing fluff can calm down with all the “distinctive” and “differentiation”.

The thing is, this simplest of ideas turns out to be completely genius. You know what the problem with Subaru is at present? There's a pretty big rift between the way a WRX and a Forester XT behave on tarmac. Because there's no hatchback version of the former (something I will probably be still complaining about on my deathbed), somebody who's outgrowing their sporty sedan has to kiss some of that fun-to-drive feel goodbye when it's time to make a grownup choice.

However, pretty much everything in the VW range drives like a Golf. Tiguan? Golf. Sportwagen? Golf. Golf R? Yes of course, don't be silly. Golf Alltrack? Never mind that 15mm higher suspension, it's nearly completely identical to drive as any other VW product. And this is a very good thing indeed.

However, before we zip down a windy backroad and hit the Tarmac Ends sign, let's take a little look around the Alltrack's interior. On the plus side, the seats are well-bolstered and look and feel great. Subaru's are cushier, but if you like the support of old BMWs and the like, the VW's chairs are firm but comfortable.

How you feel about the rest of the interior is a question of taste. It's very simple in here, minimalist and devoid of much in the way of gadgetry. Without the standard panoramic moonroof to brighten up the cabin, things could be downright dour. The touchscreen interface grows faster year-by-year, and it's easy enough to navigate. VW makes the most of limited screen space with “buttons” that pop up in the bottom of the display as you move your hand towards the screen.

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

While I recall wrestling a couple of car seats into the back of a regular Sportwagon as being a little challenging, the rear seats in the Alltrack were roomy enough for kneeroom. The Outback is much more comfortable here though. It also has a bigger cargo area.

However, the Alltrack comes with a sensible ski pass-through and hidden gems like a sturdy-looking grocery bag hook, rear power outlet and plenty of undertray storage. It should easily be able to handle all the accoutrements of the most lifestyliest of lifestyles.

On that note, let's come back to our Subaru outdoorsy image for a moment. The company can point to full-time all-wheel drive and Jeep-baiting ground clearance for most of their main-line models, but how do people actually use their Subarus in everyday life? Even if you're the kind of person to hike, bike and kayak every weekend, chances are your car sees at least 90 percent tarmac use. 

Think of it like a pair of boots: you've got your tough, heavy, capable hiking boots and your small, nimble, still-capable approach shoe. The Outback is the former, the Alltrack is the latter. 

On serpentine tarmac that slithers in and out of sight of the water, the Alltrack is a charming and nimble machine to drive. The 1.8L turbocharged engine makes 170 hp, which is similar to Outback's 2.5L flat-four, but it's a much lighter vehicle. Further, thanks to forced induction, the stout 199 lb-ft of torque gives you the kind of underfoot shove you need to climb hills and make clean, quick passes.

I would be willing to bet that there'll be a disproportionate number of old WRXs getting traded in on the Alltrack. If you have to get rid of your hood-scoop-equipped tear-around to buy an automatic family-friendly kid-hauler, the Alltrack's six-speed DSG and nimble handling are an easier pill to swallow than a CVT and notable body-roll.

And when you leave the tarmac, the Alltrack proves a little dirt is no big deal. It's less comfortable and composed over the rough stuff than a Subaru would be, especially over washboard, but the Haldex all-wheel-drive system is well-programmed to dole out confident grip.

VW had also scouted out a bit of an off-road course that allowed us to test the Alltrack a little more intensely. Very few owners will likely stretch their lifted Sportwagons to this extent, but the capability was certainly there. If you're headed up a forest service road and come across a sudden washout, the Alltrack won't need to turn back around. There's an off-road setting in the driving modes that automatically kicks on hill descent at low speeds, lets the ABS spin the wheels a little more, and lightens the throttle to make gently doling out power a little easier.

Throw in a tow hitch to haul your bikes around and a couple of crossbars to strap on the kayak or paddle board, and I can't imagine a scenario the Alltrack couldn't deal with.

With a host of new product coming down the pipeline for VW (a new seven-passenger crossover, the redesigned Tiguan), this slightly expensive lifted wagon might well mark a turning point for the company. What they're doing here isn't simply aping a specific Subaru model, but coming to an understanding of what made cars like the Forester and Outback so popular in the first place. 

They're different from the mainstream, an alternative to the standard-issue four-cylinder crossover. With the Outback, the flavour is campfire smoke and fresh pine. With the Alltrack, it's the grin on your face you'll get driving to and from the place where you'll pitch your tent. Volkswagen didn't need to decontent the Jetta to chase sales, they needed a car with a bit of character. Bitte schön: here it is.

Competitors:
Subaru Outback
Audi Allroad

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack
Engine Displacement: 1.8L
Engine Cylinders: 4, turbocharged
Peak Horsepower: 170 hp @ 4,500 rpm
Peak Torque: 199 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
Fuel Economy: 10.6 / 8.0 (L/100km, city/hwy)
Cargo Space: 860 L, 1,880 L seats folded
2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack
Base Price $35,295
Optional Equipment None
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,625
Price as Tested $37,020
Optional Equipment