There’s grand irony that the best part about the now locally launched 2016 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, the small wagon so obviously aping sport utility vehicle appeal, is that it’s not at all like an SUV. At least, that is, on the balance of the user experience.
It’s the risk you run when you ‘crossover’ multiple themes in a single vehicle: one theme may dominate the other. And in engineering what Volkswagen Australia calls the “appeal of SUV attributes” blended with “wagon body style practicality”, the Alltrack couldn’t escape its small-estate roots.
The 20mm ride height hike, the plastic exterior garnish, the underbody bash guards, the 4Motion all-wheel drive with dedicated off-road drive mode trickery – few stones were left unturned trying to make a Golf as SUV-like as possible. But as backhanded failures go, it’s turned out to be a stunning win.
Not only does that Alltrack drive, handle and ride better than most small SUVs, it’s as utilitarian in moving families as many medium SUVs, especially when swallowing cargo.
There’s a lot to love, even though that, at $37,990, it’s a pricey Golf – supplanting the 2.0-litre 110TDI Highline by $1000 as the most expensive small VW wagon you can buy short of the mega-performance R Wolfsburg Edition flagship.
Suitably, then, the goodness starts under the bonnet, the newly introduced EA888 1.8-litre turbo petrol four which, at 132kW, is the most powerful engine fitted to a non-performance Golf. With peak power arriving at just 4500rpm, and its dual (port and direct) injection conspiring to a maximum 280Nm torque spread that clocks on at 1350rpm and holds steady until 4500rpm, its characteristically diesel-like in delivery, but sans the terrible rattle the afflicts most four-cylinder oilers. Very car-like, then.
The six-speed dual-clutch is a surprisingly silken operator, too. There was minimal low-speed grumpiness or hesitation during the test road loops at the Alltrack’s Australian launch, though there was little in the way of urban stop-start driving for a conclusive appraisal.
There was plenty of highway cruising and grand touring, though, and from the get-go the Alltrack clearly retains that well-resolved, all-round goodness that’s a hallmark of the Mk7 Golf breed. There’s lightness, clarity and innate connection with the road at play that, again, you’ll rarely find in a dedicated SUV. Or rival crossover for that matter.
If there’s a markdown, it’s tyre noise over coarse-chip surfaces, even on narrow economy-friendly 205mm Michelin Primacy 3s. And the tyre roar is exacerbated because the rest of the package is impressively quiet in operation, from engine note to noise penetration from outside environmental sounds.
Don’t be fooled by that modest two-centimetre ride height stretch: the single-mode non-adjustable suspension is deftly tuned for on road and benefits from supple, disciplined damping. Now, while finely sorted ride quality isn’t that unusual for a soft-roader, the surprisingly adept ride and handling balance the Alltrack strikes most certainly does. There are no hot hatch pretensions at play, but the impressive balance and grip in sealed corners is an eye-raiser, particularly when sat on 225mm-wide 18s as is bundled in with the $2500 optional Sport Luxury package (which also adds paddleshifters, privacy glass and an electric panoramic glass roof).
Switching between Eco, Normal and Sport drive modes doesn’t dramatically affect the Alltrack’s on-road character – it essentially only alters the powertrain calibration in three degrees, and the electric steering power resistance in two (Normal and Sport) tunings.
The fourth Off-Road mode, though, does quite a lot: a deftly tuned hill descent control, a modified accelerator map, anti-slip wheel regulation and dedicated ABS calibration. To demonstrate the mode’s effectiveness, VW Oz chose a selection of loose gravel dirt roads around Canberra, together with the daunting Mineshaft rally stage and its cliff-like descent that’s claimed many a rally car over the years.
Turns out that Alltrack is more capable across a quite beaten path than one might rightly expect. It’ll negotiate deep ruts without beaching itself, suffer corrugations without a squeak, and dance across slippery corners with poise and predictability. It is, though, at the mercy of the modest broken surface grip of its road rubber, and takes some gravel real estate to pull up during a full-ABS stop.
Predominantly a front driver, the part-time all-wheel-drive system is reasonably handy on broken surfaces, the Haldex 5 centre differential able to feed a maximum of 50 per cent of available torque to the rear axle while XDL (selective braking) regulates the traction of each wheel. Providing driving inputs are precise and measured, the Alltrack can get a handy head of steam cutting a line through a forest, even in Normal or Sport drive modes.
The gutsy, torquey nature of the 1.8 turbo petrol works a treat off-road, but the Alltrack is hardly a rocketship, mustering up a mere 7.8 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint. Dial up the cruise control, though, at its claimed to achieve an impressive fuel consumption average of 6.7L/100km.
The cabin is neither richer in materials or more lavishly styled than middle-of-the-road Golf stock – neither a blessing nor a curse, then. Curiously, the multifunction wheel is semi-flat-bottom design and the dash and door trims are festooned with fake carbonfibre, which looks out of kilter with the Alltrack’s upmarket soft-roader theme.
The front seats are quite torso-hugging without sports seat pretensions, and are supportive in the crucial places, thought the quality of the trim work of their leather-appointed surfaces, as well as the stitching holding them together, is a little low rent in places.
In terms of accommodation, all the hallmarks of the regular Golf Wagon ring true for the Alltrack. The driving position is comfortable for long hauls, all-round visibility is excellent and the cabin is roomy by small car measures – particularly in headroom and second row kneeroom. And while it might lack some cabin width and shoulder room, at least compared with dedicated small SUV alternatives, it’s the perfect foil for moving four adults or small families.
Then there’s its famously cavernous boot: a generous 605 litres with the 60:40 split-fold rear seats in play, and a whopping 1620L of cargo-swallowing stowage once converted to the two-seater. Neat, too, is the addition of a retractable partition net and the dazzlingly bright LED reading lights.
Specification wise, the Alltrack manages to tick off most of the essentials you need but omits a lot of equipment that you might likely want and expect for its $37,990 price point. For example, parking distance sensors and a reverse-view camera are standard – as fitted on a huge array of more-affordable small car alternatives – but stepping to niceties such as adaptive cruise control, front assist with City Emergency Brake, Park Assist (both bay and parallel parking) and Proactive Occupant Protection – a suite of active and passive pre-crash safeguards – ask for a (rather modest) $1300 premium.
The infotainment, too, is the workmanlike Discover Media 6.5-inch touchscreen format, rather than the upmarket Pro 8.0-inch system available in Europe, though a cursory play with the Apple CarPlay section of the App-Connect functionality - which also facilitates Android Auto and MirrorLink - proved easy and fuss-free in use.
The big disappointment is that the Alltrack isn’t available in diesel form – or, specifically, with the more powerful (135kW) and vastly more torquey (380Nm) 2.0-litre diesel that sold in this model in overseas markets. It's a combination that Mike reviewed with much positivity at Alltrack’s international launch earlier this year and that VW Australia doesn’t believe there’s currently enough customer interest for.
The Czechoslovakian elephant in the room here is Skoda’s Octavia Scout: same semi-soft-roader-SUV vibe, same 132kW petrol powertrain, a $600 premium ask but even larger interior space. And it’s available in a choice of 110kW and 132kW diesels. I can’t help feeling that a 132TDI-spec high-riding Golf could well be the best the Alltrack could be.
For now, the impressive Octavia Scout 1.8 132TSI 4x4 is the Alltrack’s closest direct rival. And like its Czech cousin, the German achieves the similarly sweet blend of SUV-like appeal, excellent practicality, reasonable light-duty off-road capability, and the kind of everyday on-road friendliness and driveability that makes ‘normal’ small SUVs feel awkward and cumbersome.
An alternative rather than an SUV substitute, then.