VW's compact wagon gains top-tier crossover trim for 2017.

- Seattle, Washington

Washington's Bainbridge Island makes a solid stand-in for the stereotypical Canadian rural landscape, and its gravel roads, densely-packed forests with temperate Pacific Northwest weather offered an excellent staging ground for our first stint behind the wheel of the 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack. This unique addition to the Golf SportWagen family takes a page out of rival Subaru's insta-crossover cookbook by boosting the ride height of a popular family vehicle and adding a smidgen of styling attitude to match.

It's an interesting move from an automaker still reeling from the massive sales volume lost from its verboten TDI diesels, which were a favourite in a country where higher fuel prices have long dictated buying habits. Of course, that other great Canadian sales driver - our horrific winter weather - has made the availability of all-wheel drive a must-have for any car company hoping to snag fresh blood (and the Alltrack includes it as standard equipment).

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack
2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

 

If an all-wheel drive wagon is all you are looking for, there's really no need to visit Alltrack country.

That being said, if an all-wheel drive wagon is all you are looking for, there's really no need to visit Alltrack country. In fact, you don't even have to leave the VW showroom: for 2017, the rest of the Golf SportWagen line-up (Trendline, Sportline, and Comfortline) will be available with traction-adding 4Motion technology on the options sheet. A first for the brand, the extra grip offered by Volkswagen's AWD system will no doubt goose sales of the already well-received wagon by a fair margin.

This leaves us circling back to the Alltrack. It didn't take long behind the wheel of the new model to realize that there was very little to dynamically distinguish it from the SportWagen on which it is based, at least from a commuting perspective. This is far from faint praise, as the family-oriented Golf is a pleasant driving companion, with comfortable suspension tuning, a quiet ride, and a relatively frugal turbocharged drivetrain included free of charge.

 

 

Not all 4Motion systems are created equal.

The Volkswagen Golf Alltrack preserves the 1.8-litre, turbocharged 4-cylinder unit that has become the workhorse of the automaker's compact portfolio, and its 170 horsepower and 199 lb-ft of torque are perfectly adequate in both town and country (as long as you don't overload the Alltrack's generous 1,880 litres of cargo space). A six-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox is standard with not just the Alltrack, but every other AWD SportWagen as well - a move intended to maximize production capacity for the vehicle's first year on the market, with plans for a shift-it-yourself version to follow as a 2018 model.

Not all 4Motion systems are created equal, however, and the 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack distinguishes itself from the standard SportWagen by way of its 'off-road' drive mode. Accessible via a button on the center console, a single push activates the vehicle's hill descent control system, which effortlessly guided us down several steep inclines on the short dirt-and-rock course that Volkswagen set up for us deep in the woods of Bainbridge Island. Together with the extra 15 mm of ground clearance made possible by the Alltrack's raised ride height, we had no difficulty dispatching the humps, bumps, and protruding roots that were placed in our way.

Of course, for the vast majority of buyers all-wheel drive is viewed not so much as a tool for adventure but rather a weapon against winter's iced-over highways and city streets. We're happy to report that based on its performance over very long stretch of twisting gravel logging road, the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack demonstrated its bonafides in low-traction situations similar to what one would encounter on a typical February day in Alberta. The 90 percent front / 10 percent rear torque split of the system continually re-adjusted itself to help us claw out of corners and avoid understeering into the ditch.

 

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack
2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack
2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack
2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

 

So what exactly does the extra $1,500 get you when you pop for the Alltrack over the Highline?

The 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack is poised at the top of the SportWagen pyramid, making it the most expensive version of the compact hauler you can buy. Priced at $35,295, the vehicle matches the next-step-down SportWagen Highline note-for-note in terms of equipment, which means you'll benefit from a panoramic sunroof, automatic climate control, the largest version of VW's touchscreen infotainment system (including navigation), keyless entry, leather seats, and a push button starter. Options include a Light and Sound package (louder stereo, xenon HID headlights) and a raft of active safety features under the Driver Assistance package (automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assistance, and parking assistance).

So what exactly does the extra $1,500 get you when you pop for the Alltrack over the Highline? Aside from the gently jacked suspension, a slightly larger fuel tank, and off-road driving mode, it's entirely a question of exterior design, with unique front and rear bumpers and chrome-look sills decorating the Volkswagen's sides. Faux-roader or not, the Alltrack has its own distinct personality, which may prove to be a strong enough lure to pony up the extra cash.

If you're not completely convinced that the Golf Alltrack's new duds are enough to push it firmly into SUV territory, well, all you have to do is wait. Volkswagen is on the cusp of bringing not just a replacement for the aged-out Tiguan compact crossover in 2018, but also a new mid-size sport-utility that will add three rows of seating to the mix. The company has promised us that the next few years will see a shift in focus away from small, economical cars like the Jetta and the Golf in favour of the SUVs that have become the most sought-after models on the market - and the Alltrack is the first brick in the foundation of VW's post-TDI recovery plan.

Competitors:

Subaru Crosstrek
Kia Soul
Honda Fit

Photos: Benjamin Hunting

Volkswagen Golf SportWagen

Engine 1.8-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder
Output 170 hp / 199 lb-ft
Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual
Drive Type AWD
0-100 KPH 7.9 seconds (est.)
Fuel Economy 10.6 L/100 km City / 8.0 L/100 km Highway
Weight 1,552 kilograms (3,422 lbs)
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 1,880 litres (66.5 cubic feet)
Base Price $35,295
As-Tested Price $35,295

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