It seems there’s no stopping the surge of SUV sales, but if you’re among the minority of buyers who wants a higher-riding vehicle that looks more like a car there’s a new option: the Volkswagen Passat Alltrack.
The first part of the model name tells you which vehicle this new variant is based on; the second implies this is a Passat that can cope with roads that aren’t just constructed of bitumen.
The Volkswagen Passat Alltrack adopts a formula already used by the Subaru Outback, Volvo XC70 and Audi A4 and A6 Allroads: elevated ground clearance, more rugged styling (with seemingly pre-requisite black plastic lower body cladding) and all-wheel drive.
The Passat Alltrack’s ride height is increased by 30mm to 165mm, but the front and rear bumpers have also been revised to slightly increase the regular Passat wagon’s approach, departure and ramp-over angles so it can tackle trickier terrain.
There are also steel underbody panels to better protect important mechanicals, and the Passat Alltrack also becomes the first Volkswagen passenger car to employ an Off-road system.
Borrowed from the Volkswagen Tiguan compact SUV, the Off-road mode brings hill descent control, anti-lock brakes calibrated for loose/slippery surfaces, and faster-acting electronic differentials for preventing wheelspin.
The Haldex all-wheel-drive system sends only 10 per cent of engine power to the rear wheels in normal driving to help save fuel, but can put 100 per cent to the rear wheels if necessary.
Volkswagen is honest enough to admit the Passat Alltrack isn’t a proper off-road vehicle, but the all-wheel-drive wagon proved its traction capabilities on a choppy and partly slushy snowfield at the car’s launch in the Austrian Alps.
As we worked our way around a bumpy and rutted track, the Passat Alltrack maintained momentum with ease as the AWD system and e-diffs collaborated to nip any potential wheelspin quickly in the bud and keep the black hoops rolling.
The Off-road mode’s ABS system was also effective at slowing the car on snow when we tried a braking test from 40km/h.
In terms of driving on the road, it’s a familiar Passat experience: a reasonably sporty drive if the adaptive dampers are in their firmest mode and a particularly comfortable ride if the softer set-up is selected.
And again the steering is sufficiently accurate and well weighted if lacking for feedback. We’d also recommend switching off the Lane Keep Assist on winding roads, because even if you track perfectly between the side of the road and dividing lines the system can interfere with the driver’s inputs.
The Volkswagen Passat Alltrack is offered with five engines in Europe, including a 1.8-litre turbo petrol four-cylinder that, bizarrely, is a front-wheel-drive only model.
Sensibly, Volkswagen Australia is focusing on ‘4Motion’ AWD for the Passat Alltrack’s arrival at the end of 2012 – though it seems set to offer only the 125TDI 2.0-litre turbo diesel.
Already familiar from the Passat sedan, wagon and CC range, the 125kW/350Nm 125TDI engine is a little gem, providing acceleration that won’t quite push you back into your seat on kickdown (VW quotes 8.9 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint) but is generous enough with its performance and is always civilised.
Overtaking isn’t a difficult task whether you’re accelerating from a 110km/h cruise (or much faster if you’re in Europe!) or from lower speeds on country roads.
The diesel is also paired effectively to a six-speed dual-clutch auto that is perfectly adept at picking appropriate gears, and makes those changes with the now trademark swiftness.
Selecting S(port) via the gearlever brings even better response from the throttle pedal, though turbo lag is still minimal when the transmission is left in D.
Over several hundred kilometres working our way from the Austrian Alps to the Swiss Alps, combining some freeways with winding alpine roads, we averaged 7.1 litres of diesel per 100km against the official consumption rate of 5.9L/100km.
There were still plenty opportunities to use the standard engine stop-start system, which coughs back into life quickly enough.
Volkswagen says the majority of customers, at least in Europe, will equip their Passat Alltracks with towing kits, and the high-riding VW wagon has a towing capacity of 2000kg in 125TDI form.
The long-legged nature of the engine is suitably matched by the optional ribbed-leather front seats of our test car, which provide ample comfort for long legs with their long, angled cushions, as well as good side bolstering to keep you in place for windier roads.
Volkswagen has included a token ‘Alltrack’ badge on the centre console (as well as embossing ‘Alltrack’ onto the door sills), but otherwise from the driver’s seat this feels pretty much just like a Passat wagon.
So again, there’s a tidy and conservative design that doesn’t differ greatly from the previous-generation Passat (a proper all-new Passat is expected within a couple of years). And again a greater percentage of softer materials might be expected for the interior of what is Volkswagen’s largest passenger car in Australia.
There’s plenty of space for passengers in the rear seat and a 588-litre boot comfortably swallows multiple travel bags. Drop the rear seatbacks and cargo capacity increases to 1716 litres.
Volkswagen says the Alltrack’s equipment line-up is the equivalent of the Comfortline trim in the regular Passat range.
Standard gear includes 17-inch alloy wheels (with optional 18s), climate control, fabric seats with part electric adjustment, and leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearlever, though VW Australia has yet to determine final specification ahead of the Passat Alltrack’s local release in late 2012.
Same goes for pricing, though there will be some form of premium over the (front-drive) Passat wagon 125TDI that starts from $45,990.
That will still make it more affordable than the Volvo XC70 that starts at $62,450, though more expensive that a diesel-powered (but manual only) Subaru Outback.
Wagons still don't have anywhere near the kind of popularity in Australia as they do Europe, let alone SUVs, but the Alltrack is a worthy addition to the refined Passat range. And it's a slightly more adventurous version of what continues to be a somewhat conservative vehicle.