What do you buy if you want a practical and affordable wagon that can take you slightly off the beaten path, but not a conventional medium SUV like everybody else?
But the latter's parent company, Volkswagen, has for some time offered a viable alternative in the form of its Golf Alltrack, little brother to the larger Passat Alltrack (the more conventional Outback rival).
The concept is simple: take a passenger wagon, change the suspension, add some body cladding and an on-demand all-wheel drive (AWD) system, and price-up accordingly
The news here is that as part the launch of its updated 'Mk 7.5' Golf range, Volkswagen has expanded the Alltrack component significantly, introducing new base and flagship variants.
By doubling down on its crossover strategy, Volkswagen hopes to offer a few compelling counterpoints to conventional offerings, including its own Tiguan.
While attention is being given to the newly introduced $34,490 (plus on-road costs) Golf Alltrack 132TSI variant that undercuts the old entry price by about $4000, here we're looking at the other end of the scale.
The car you see here is called the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack Premium 135TDI (turbo-diesel), which retails for $40,990 – $2500 more than the equivalent petrol-powered 132TSI in Premium spec.
By introducing diesel power to the Alltrack range, Volkswagen will broaden its appeal to regional buyers, high-milers and those who just prefer the driving experience of 'oil-burners' – a misleading adage in this era, we'd add.
For context, the $40,990 price point puts it about on a par with a diesel-powered Hyundai Tucson Elite, Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport or Volkswagen Tiguan 110 TDI Comfortline. It's also only $2500 more expensive than the Golf Highline 110TDI front-wheel drive wagon.
Dimensionally the comparison between the Alltrack and these SUVs is apt. The Golf spinoff is 110mm longer than the Tiguan and offers almost identical cargo space (605 litres to 1620L). It's also slightly narrower and about 160mm lower, though ground clearance is a handy 175mm.
The Golf Alltrack's cabin is familiar but benefits from the same changes as the rest of the Mk7.5 range, headlined by that slick new flush 8.0-inch 'Discover Media' swiping screen with satellite navigation.
The regular Golf hallmarks of flawless build quality, tactile surfaces, thunking doors and various closing storage cubbies (including sliding drawers under the front seats) remain.
Standard equipment on the Alltrack Premium includes leather seats with heating for front occupants, LED headlights with cornering function, dual-zone climate control, keyless access, driving profile selection with off-road mode, LED cabin lighting, 17-inch alloy wheels, front/rear parking sensors, rear-view camera, auto headlights and rain-sensing wipers.
There are also seven airbags, a driver fatigue detection system, multi-collision braking, brake torque-vectoring and autonomous emergency braking. Having no blind-spot monitoring is a shame though, even taking the excellent outward visibility into account.
Volkswagen also has a few options packs that it wants to tempt you with, led by the Driver Assistance Package ($1800) that adds the VW Group's Active Info Display configurable digital dash as seen in the images, adaptive cruise control, lane assist, park, assist and a proactive occupant protection system.
Then there's the Sport Luxury Package ($2900) that adds 18-inch alloys, paddle-shifters, a panoramic glass sunroof, electric-seat lumbar and memory adjustment, power-folding door mirrors and dark-tinted rear and rear-side windows.
Finally there's the Infotainment Package ($2300) with Active Info Display, a Discover Pro 9.2-inch satellite navigation system with novel gesture control and voice control, and an uprated Dynaudio Excite 400W premium audio system with 10-channel amp. Alltrack Premium owners can combine Infotainment and Driver Assistance packages for $3400.
The back seats of the Alltrack lack a few things that you'd get in a Tiguan, namely the hip point is lower and they don't have the same breadth of adjustments. But they're comfortable and legroom is fine for two average adults. The side windows are large and give an airy feel.
Cargo space is good in typical Golf wagon style at 605 litres, expanding to more than 1600L when the back seats are down (flipped via levers in the boot area). With the back seats down you get a loading area that's 1.8m long, about one-metre wide between the arches and 900mm high.
Behind the wheel the Alltrack unsurprisingly feels more car-like than many SUVs, and not just because of the lower seating position.
The front and rear suspension (MacPherson struts and four-link respectively) has been modified and toughened for rougher surfaces and the body is jacked-up to give 175mm of clearance.
The Alltrack's ride over bumpy country bitumen and corrugated gravel tracks is absolutely faultless, while the body control is kept in check through corners by a slightly firmer feel at low speeds. Never jarring, but not cushy either.
General suppression of wind noise is also outstanding, while tyre roar pervading into the cabin is okay.
The light steering can be given extra resistance via the sports setting in the driver mode select menu, which also alters the throttle mapping and the transmission's shift points.
Sending torque to the wheels is Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel drive (AWD) system, which has a front bias but can transfer engine output to the rear on demand, when front-wheel slip is detected by the onboard sensors.
While in the driver select menu's Off-Road Mode, you get a hill-descent control system (a sort of descending off-road cruise control), while this piece of tech also adjusts the throttle mapping and ABS braking configuration to suit slippery surfaces.
We navigated some muddy trails easily. This author has driven a European Alltrack on a fairly hard 4x4 park before, with an image or two attached to this review's gallery that shows how capable this is for a soft-roader.
Put simply, the Alltrack will negotiate any surfaces that your run-of-the-mill medium SUV will.
But the real star of the show is the new engine. The 132TSI petrol has always been fine, but this new 2.0-litre turbo-diesel is a ripper, with a Tiguan 110TDI-mashing 135kW of power at 4000rpm and 380Nm of torque at 1750rpm.
It has outstanding response off the line, a surging torque-laden character past 3500rpm for a strong mid-range/rolling response, and there's enough firewall insulation and deadening to keep the cabin hushed and vibration-free.
The dual-clutch automatic gearbox (DSG) is a seven-speed unit that's generally fuss-free at low speeds once you learn not to simply mash the throttle, and is brisk and sharp under more dynamic driving. Hill-hold assist stops you rolling when off-road.
You'll jot from 0-100km/h in 7.8sec, while across 650km of mixed-condition driving we averaged 5.9L/100km diesel consumption, on a single tank. Braked towing capacity is listed at 2000kg.
Is the diesel worth the $2500 premium over the 132kW/280Nm 1.8-litre turbo-petrol derivative? If you do mostly urban driving then no, but if you do long trips, venture off-road or tow, then yes.
From an ownership perspective Volkswagen offers a three-year/100,000km warranty and servicing intervals of 12 months/15,000km, currently costed at $304, $493, $537, $610 and $304 for the first five visits ($2248 total). Unusually, the 132TSI is pricier to service at $3023 over five years/75,000km.
All told the upgraded Volkswagen Golf Alltrack remains an underrated star, and a car that any prospective SUV buyer might be wise to consider if they don't mind losing a little ride height to gain extra dynamic nous, and without harming practicality.
That said, while the Alltrack Premium 135TDI is a good bet even at about $45k when optioned-up with the good extra stuff, it's that aforementioned new $34,490 range-opening Alltrack 132TSI without the Premium's extras that looks to be the real steal.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser and Mike Costello
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