“We are focused on making things right.” So says Dr. Hendrik Muth, Vice President of Product Marketing and Strategy for Volkswagen of America. As he stands poised to subject the 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack to a room of auto writers—many of whom have spent the last year crucifying VW for lying to, well, everybody—it’s clear that this statement has more than just one purpose.
In fact, the media launch of the new Golf Alltrack comes almost exactly one year after the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice notified VW of an investigation related to “certain emissions compliance matters.” The last 12 months have been a whirlwind of scandal, lawsuits, fines and embarrassment for the world’s largest automaker.
So when VW says that they are focused on making things right, not only do they mean that they need to make things right for the customers whose trust they violated, they also mean that they need to make great products for the American market. They literally need to make things right, or, more appropriately, make them correctly. That onslaught includes cars Americans finally want to buy, like a new seven-seat SUV, an all-new Jetta, and down the line, more electrics and hybrids.
But for now, in order to help potential customers forget the past, Volkswagen needs to give the world a compelling reason to visit showrooms again.
With the launch of the 2017 Golf Alltrack, Volkswagen may have done just that.
(Full disclosure: Volkswagen needed me to drive the Golf Alltrack so badly that they flew me across the country to Seattle, gave me three nights at the Palladian Hotel, and fed me every time that I turned around.)
At first glance, the Golf Alltrack doesn’t seem that dissimilar to the Golf Sportwagen. They’re roughly the same size, the same shape, and the same profile. It’s a small car on the new MQB platform with the same engine and transmissions, too.
However, it’s in the details where the Alltrack differs, and also where it shines. Visually, the Alltrack sports a new, more aggressively styled front bumper, as well as side cladding on the wheel wells and the sills. It’s difficult not to see cues from the car that Volkswagen mentioned time and time again as the Alltrack’s main competition: the Subaru Outback. See, Volkswagen has seen that America has a crack-like addiction to buying Subarus, and it wants in on some of that action.
The Alltrack rides a scant 0.6 inches higher than the SportWagen, but the increased height and ground clearance speak to its increased off-roading capability. 4Motion all-wheel drive is standard on all Alltrack trim levels, as is “Off Road Mode.” This new drive mode includes hill descent control and intelligent traction control, allowing the wheels to spin as needed to gain footing in off-road conditions.
As the Alltrack is being marketed as an “adventure car,” Volkswagen ferried me across from Seattle to Bainbridge Island for a day of adventure, including kayaking (no, thanks), volleyball (not in these Allen Edmonds boots), and a tennis-like game called “pickleball” (still no).
In between these not-so compelling activities, I was given the chance to drive the Alltrack around the island. Volkswagen provided examples of each of the three available trim levels: S, SE, and SEL. For the first half of the day, I opted for an S in a gorgeous Silk Blue exterior color, matched neatly with an Alltrack-exclusive Marrakech Brown V-Tex leatherette interior.
The S starts out at $26,950 when outfitted with a six-speed, DSG dual-clutch transmission. Since this is Jalopnik, I will reduce any anxiety you, the reader, may be experiencing, and let you know that, yes, there will be a six-speed manual transmission version available early next year. Unfortunately, VW did not have manuals available for testing during the event, but I was assured that they are on the way. And if you opt to row your own, VW will give you a bit of a price break for doing so, taking the S price down to $25,850.
However, as I drove the Little Wagon That Could, I couldn’t help but think that the DSG was just fine, especially when mated to the TSI powerplant. The 1.8-liter direct-injected turbo four-cylinder EA888 engine that’s omnipresent throughout Volkswagen’s lineup powers the Alltrack. And while the 170 horsepower and 199 lb-ft of torque the TSI generates won’t help the 3,422 pound Veedub win any drag races, it does come on nearly instantly, as the entire grunt is available starting at 1600 RPM.
The net result? Well, this Golf…it drives like a Golf. When I put my foot down, things happened, which is always a plus. The steering feel is as nimble and responsive as you’ll find in the Alltrack’s hatchback counterpart. It’s an adept handler for a small all-wheel drive car, reasonably fun, and feels like it’s more expensive than it really is.
In fact, unless I turned my head to look into the spacious interior of the Alltrack, I found it difficult to remember that I was driving a wagon. Of course, I didn’t have the opportunity to load it up with four passengers and a boot full of adventure gear.
Did I say “adventure” again? Shit, sorry. Volkswagen mentioned the term “adventure vehicle” so many times that I began to suspect I was being Manchurian Candidate-d. The first step on our drive was to a seaside location, where the Alltrack was not-so-subtly posed with a kayak affixed to its roof rack. They’ve even increased the size of the gas tank over a gallon, just so you can extend your adventurous adventures even further.
VW wanted me to see just how adventurous the Alltrack can be, so after I switched into a silver SE model at the halfway point, they sent me to test the wagon’s off-road cred. Endless fields of tree stumps flew past my window as the roads turned from pavement to gravel. The 4Motion system deftly handled the change in surface, sending appropriate amounts of power to the rear wheels as needed.
But it was when we moved from gravel to straight-up rocks that the VW went from merely competent to downright impressive. My driving record is more Laguna Seca than Rubicon Trail, but even I was able to navigate some rocky terrain, thanks to the Off-Road mode.
Obviously that 0.6 inches of ground clearance won’t transform a wagon into a Wrangler—Volkswagen positioned some helpers along the way to direct me away from some of the more challenging sections of the trail.
Nevertheless, the Alltrack navigated itself through the course with much more proficiency than I expected. Hill descent control comes on instantly with even the slightest degree of incline, slowing the wagon to an appropriate speed for the plunge
The Off-Road mode was so confidence inspiring that I got a little cocky in one of the more challenging sections of the course. As a result, I over-throttled my way into a bit of a sticky situation. To be exact, I got stuck. Never fear—a quick reverse and a second attempt later, and the Alltrack was on its merry way again. Off-Road mode allows the Alltrack to spin the wheels as needed to gain the necessary traction for forward motion, but it took me a moment to get accustomed to the fact that continuing to apply throttle was actually helping me get going instead of digging a deeper hole.
It’s this increased off-road capability that makes the Golf Alltrack a legitimate Subaru challenger; not Subaru-killer, mind you, but certainly a contender. While VW made a point of comparing the Alltrack heads-up with the Outback, it’s a segment smaller than the Outback is, which means that it’s somewhat in a class of its own. But that doesn’t mean that shoppers won’t compare the two.
And in that comparison, the Golf Alltrack holds its own. Consumers will undoubtedly appreciate the manual and DSG transmission options offered by Volkswagen, as the Outback is CVT-only.
The Alltrack matches up nicely from a power perspective, offering more torque in a lower powerband than the 2.5-liter boxer motor found in the Outback. While the Subaru can be had with a larger, more powerful 3.6-liter flat-six engine, that also means a price bump up to nearly $35,000.
The Alltrack can be pushed north of $30,000, too, in SE and SEL trim, but there’s really no reason to buy anything but the S. With standard leatherette, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and Off-Road mode all standard, the base model is the way to go.
In addition, Subaru dealers sell pretty much every single Outback that grace their lots, so they have no reason to discount, whereas Volkswagen dealers are, shall I say… currently motivated to hit difficult sales targets.
The question that really must be asked is this: is the Golf Alltrack enough to convince the public to wander back into Volkswagen showrooms? Is it enough to make things right?
Well, the Golf Alltrack is a reason for potential Subaru customers to visit a VW dealer. That’s a start.
Mark “Bark M.” Baruth has multiple endurance racing and SCCA National Solo and Pro Solo trophies to his credit, and has tracked everything from a Fiesta ST to a 991 GT3 on dozens of circuits across America. His writing can be found at The Truth About Cars, Road & Track and Jalopnik. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.