2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack SEL
1.8-liter I4, DOHC, turbocharged (170 horsepower @ 4,500 rpm; 199 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm)
Six-speed dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel drive
22 city / 30 highway / 25 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
10.6 city/ 8.0 highway/ 9.4 combined (NRCan Rating, L/100km)
31.0 mpg [7.6 L/100 km] (Observed)
Base Price: $26,770 (U.S) / $37,020 (Canada)
As Tested: $35,705 (U.S.) / $39,940 (Canada)
Prices include $820 destination charge in the United States and $1,725 for freight, PDI, and A/C tax in Canada.
If only I’d thought ahead.
If only a day earlier I had instructed the Department of Transportation to position cameras across the length and breadth of Nova Scotia and installed a few in-car GoPros, I could have sold footage from our first full day in the 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack to Volkswagen for the prototypical all-wheel-drive commercial.
Bitterly cold temperatures had made the snow-clearing efforts from the Friday before a hit and miss affair. Our 150-minute drive from the Atlantic coast, in Eastern Passage, to the Fundy coast, in Cornwallis, turned into a 200-minute drive because of messy roads throughout the Annapolis Valley.
That was only the beginning. The next low began to pass through just after the noon hour, and by the time our 4 p.m. departure time rolled around, we knew we were in for a long drive home. With the confidence inspiring, brand-new Continental WinterContacts at all four driven wheels, we steeled ourselves for what would become a 270-minute drive home.
Four Cains, fast-falling snow, freakishly heavy traffic: this calls for extra ride height. Just a very little bit of extra ride height.
We managed to stay on the straight and narrow. The Contis may not have the most tenacious winter bite, but they’re fine winter tires and do a noteworthy job of replicating conventional all-seasons in dry conditions. Volkswagen’s Haldex 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is reactive, not always-on as in a Subaru Outback.
Consider this scenario. The roads are covered in unplowed snow. You’re at a stop sign, perched on the side of a hill, intending to turn left, heading farther up a steep slope. As you pull away, that momentary, subtle lapse in front-wheel traction is overcome as power heads rearward. But as you turn left, you dip into the power a little more and suddenly you’re into power oversteer as the Golf attempts to figure out what you’re doing, where you’re going, and where to send power. Another moment later, all is well. Your friend in a front-wheel-drive Rogue on winter tires makes slightly slower progress with less flair, the winter-tired Outback makes similarly quick progress with slightly less drama, the Mustang on all-seasons turns around, the 328i with winter rubber has the most fun.
But last Saturday’s scenario isn’t an everyday occurrence. On a normal day, the Golf Alltrack does a spot-on impression of a Golf SportWagen. The 1.8-liter turbo is not waylaid by the 4Motion’s extra weight. The marginally elevated ride height wouldn’t be noticeable if you could drive the pair back-to-back while blindfolded. The slight elevation does not allow you to sit up high and look down upon Jetta-driving plebes.
There are two key differences. The Alltrack isn’t fitted with the regular front-wheel-drive Golf’s six-speed automatic but rather Volkswagen’s superb dual-clutch gearbox. Shifts are smooth enough to be imperceptible yet quick enough to impress. Second, the Alltrack’s increased height isn’t noticeable until you exit the car, which is low enough to require a climb up and out but high enough for a step over and down. It was the biggest complaint Mrs. Cain, a lifelong Volkswagen fan, had with the Alltrack.
In all other accounts, however, this is little more than a typical wagonized Golf. Engaging handling, quick steering, torquey turbo, exceptional ride quality, a quiet cabin, comfortable front seats, high perceived levels of build quality — all present and accounted for.
Tight rear legroom, diesely engine sounds, too many signs of yestertech, jarring price tag? Also glaringly obvious.
Not only does Volkswagen’s infotainment cluster (which can be overridden by plugging in for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto) appear graphically ancient and operate like the phone you had before your first smartphone, it hardly worked in this test car. I’ve driven a large number of Volkswagens with these unfortunately antiquated touchscreens, but at least they always worked.
The first sign of trouble in this Alltrack came when the system froze up but continued to play SiriusXM’s NHL Network. The touchscreen wouldn’t work; the tuning knob and volume knob and quick access buttons didn’t work. The screen continued to display and play but was unresponsive for roughly five minutes. It then turned off on its own and, after a delay, booted up of its own accord. Slowly.
Then came the buggy navigation system. “Checking navigation data … ” the Alltrack’s nav screen said. It was still checking half an hour later and has not stopped checking since. Fortunately, other menus were working during this unnavigable period. Sort of. The screen kept turning off, taking audio with it, and turning back on a couple of minutes later to MSNBC. Okay, I’ll confess to some Morning Joe fondness. But ‘tis the season for Holiday Classics and Country Christmas, no?
Paging Puebla, warning Wolfsburg: this is one cruel pre-Christmas hoax.
(I took the Golf Alltrack to our local Volkswagen dealer for what would hopefully be a quick fix. A return to factory settings initially seemed hopeful, but the system couldn’t actually remain healthy long enough for factory settings to be restored. Exhaustive threads at VWVortex, VWGolf.net.au, Piston Heads, and GolfMK7.com make very clear the frequency with which similar problems appear in MIB II systems.)
A malfunctioning infotainment unit would be an embarrassment to a Volkswagen sales consultant during a test drive, but it’s more likely to be the kind of situation not discovered until after an Alltrack owner takes possession. This specific Alltrack has around 6,000 miles under its belt.
More obvious to the prospective Golf Alltrack buyer ahead of the purchasing decision will be the obvious comparison with the larger but similarly priced Subaru Outback, a tall wagon that’s generated record U.S. monthly sales output since the Golf Alltrack’s arrival in America.
17-percent more cargo capacity behind the rear seats, 10-percent more with the seats folded, 11-percent more passenger volume, 2.5 additional inches of rear legroom, and 3.4 additional inches of rear shoulder room set the Outback apart, particularly since the real-world space gap feels larger in every aspect than the specs suggest. The Outback’s truly SUV-like 8.7 inches of ground clearance allows the Subaru to stand head and shoulders above the Alltrack, too, which Volkswagen says provides 6.9 inches of clearance.
Maxed out with Alltrack SEL-matching equipment — leather, sunroof, navigation, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise, auto high beams — the $36,870 Outback 2.5i Touring also adds a power tailgate, a heated steering wheel, and heated rear seats.
Of course, size and features aren’t the only factors.
The Golf Alltrack is the kind of car that urges you to drive faster, that constantly showcases its ability to hustle down a twisty road, that possesses a transmission and a Sport mode seemingly designed to egg you on.
The Outback is the bigger car, sure, but it’s far more comfort-oriented, far less engaging to drive, significantly less eager off the line, and distinctly less nimble.
Jacked-up wagons with all-wheel drive and cladding, they both may be. But these two vehicles represent strikingly different approaches. The fact one finds nearly 14,000 American buyers per month while the other, still slowly ramping up, has yet to top four digits in a given month does not mean you have to follow the masses.
The masses may prefer to spend less than $35,705 on a compact wagon. And they can. Golf Alltrack pricing starts below $28,000. All-wheel-drive Golf SportWagens, also new for 2017, start at $25,750. Next year’s availability of a manual transmission will lower both MSRPs. (Don’t look forward to a TDI.)
As features are added, however, Volkswagen’s high opinion of itself becomes more obvious and the Golf’s compact dimensions are less easily counterbalanced by its exemplary on-road behavior. And when those features, such as a navigation system that doesn’t navigate, are rendered useless; and when one rear-facing Graco Snugride and one front-facing Diono Radian push two front occupants forward, the thrill of driving quickly evaporates.
Then you’re just spending a couple of extra hours driving in the snow with the steering wheel too close to your chest, intermittently listening to Tamron Hall instead of Deck The Halls.
[Images: © Timothy Cain/The Truth About Cars]