There is a battle royale on at the moment for the adventurous sporty types and the SUV is clearly winning. We have such an obsession with large ambling SUVs in Australia that a casual cruise by the local school at drop-off time had me lose count of the large vehicles occupying, at best guess, 60 per cent of the local parking spaces. In that time I counted only a handful of station wagons and of those, three were Volkswagen Passats. So, what happened to station wagons?
Station wagons were the choice du jour once upon a time, while SUVs were definitely in the minority while I was growing up. Any surfer worth his salt owned a station wagon of some type. And who can forget the beloved Holden Sandman, which was a ute technically, but also referred to as a panel van and affectionately called a 'shaggin' wagon'. See, even cars that technically weren't station wagons were called wagons, such was their popularity.
In our space constrained times, large SUVs might be on borrowed time as they become less able to deal with the limits of apartment garages and inner city confines (okay, maybe not). But, if that does eventually become the case, we're lucky that car manufacturers have a solution for every problem.
The Volkswagen Passat Alltrack is the perfect accompaniment to the adventure-bound owner with space issues, or who doesn't want an SUV. All-wheel drive wagons like the Passat Alltrack offer a much more comfortable on-road experience while still maintaining some ability when it comes to getting off the tarmac.
They offer far superior on-road performance than most SUVs ever will, leaving you fit and relaxed at the end of a journey. The perfect tourer, a great combination of driveability and capability. And, if we're honest, most of the driving we do is to and from work, or school - that is, around town.
On test here we have the 2018 Volkswagen Passat Alltrack which rolls out of the showroom at $49,990 drive-away until the end of the year. Our test car, however, ticked a couple of option boxes, including metallic paint for $700 and the $3500 Luxury Pack which adds LED headlights with dynamic cornering, LED daytime running lights, a panoramic sunroof, LED ambient interior lighting, park assist, and a luggage net.
Under the bonnet is VW's 2.0-litre, four cylinder turbo diesel putting out 140kW at 3500-4000rpm and 400Nm at a very usable 1750-3000rpm. Mated to the company's six-speed DSG transmission, the Alltrack is a sure-footed wagon, thanks to Volkswagen's 4MOTION all-wheel drive system.
The Passat Alltrack is a good looking vehicle. It's purposeful and spacious with a bold external look that uses clever lines and angles to deliver a car that is equally at home with a driver dressed in a suit attending an inner city theatre, as it is on the open roads heading out into the Never Never with an RM Williams sitting on the accelerator.
If you're looking for a luxury all-wheel drive, the Passat delivers. Once inside, light bathes the spacious cabin via the optional panoramic sunroof. The leather seats, finished with ribbed stitching, combine with an excellent dash and console layout and a combination of materials to create a feeling of luxury and comfort. It's not in your face or shockingly good, but it is clean, smart and pleasing to the eye.
There's also a host of driver aids to make the driving experience sublimely comfortable including park assist, adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist. The driver's seat even comes with a massage function. It's not something I'd really be hanging my hat on when looking at a car like this, though. There are plenty of other more useful inclusions to sink your teeth into.
To the left of the electronically-adjusted driver's seat is a centre console with sliding lid and a console bin. Slide the lid back to reveal two cupholders or simply use it as a place to stash the fob, while the bin will accommodate larger items.
Driver comfort is delivered with a relaxed driving position, excellent visibility and great internal ergonomics with regard to console lid and armrest heights. The steering wheel too, is designed well and features a flattened off lower section which is surprisingly comfortable to use on longer drives. Buttons either side of the centre spokes control all the internal functions of the Alltrack.
A large multi-function display has a host of features but it's not easy to navigate. I didn't get the chance to put on my favourite driving soundtrack, but I did use the satellite navigation and found it a little counter-intuitive, with some functions not the easiest to find. And while the touchscreen looks great when clean, use it a few times and it quickly picks up finger prints and smudges. But then, that's not unique to Volkswagen.
That aside, the interior layout is classy, but not in a pretentious way and it is functional in comparison to its competitive set. But that analogue clock?
Station wagons like the Passat Alltrack are much lower to the ground than most SUVs which means owners will sacrifice some visibility. But, they still have all the space an SUV offers internally with a height that makes them much easier to load up. No lifting heavy items at awkward angles to get them into the back here.
The Alltrack's boot space is impressive too, so parents with prams, as well as those looking to fit a bunch of outdoor gear in the back like me, are well covered with over 1700 litres of space with the rear seats folded flat using the remote seat release. I could even fit a mattress in the back, and easily.
With the rear seats in play, passengers have generous leg-room and there is still a claimed 639 litres of space behind them. There's also a cargo cover and mesh divider for the boot space, which neatly store away below the boot floor when not in use.
Powering our tester is the aforementioned oiler and there is a definite focus towards on-road comfort, rather than all out performance. It's a relaxed driving experience, and even taking off from a standing start feels more like a purposeful rise towards the speed limit in Normal mode.
In and around town, the DSG transmission can be a bit indecisive – think stop/start Sydney traffic snarls – but it really comes into its own once you hit open road. That sleepy feeling disappears and the car feels very sporty at speeds upwards of 80km/h.
The stiff suspension and lower stance of the wagon, combine to deliver a fun drive and compared to an SUV, you would call it exhilarating. And if you're looking for even more fun , flick the drive selector into Sport Mode which turns off the stop/start function and seems to hold gears longer. Or, you can opt for Individual mode and tailor your own specific settings. There's also an Eco mode, but really, why would you?
That punchy diesel engine also makes this car a capable tow vehicle. The Passat Alltrack has a braked towing capacity of 2200kg which is considerably more than some rivals. The down-ball weight though is a lowly 90kg, which is somewhat lower than the 8-10 per cent of Aggregate Trailer Mass (trailer and load combined) you'd expect most cars be able to carry on the ball.
Heading off the tarmac and onto dirt roads is the Alltrack's real bread and butter, though. Drive is directed always to the front wheels with the 4 MOTION all-wheel-drive system engaging the rear wheels automatically when needed, depending on the driving conditions.
For example, when the car senses traction is being lost to the front wheels it will react immediately and increase drive to the rear wheels. The Alltrack also comes with an Electronic Stabilisation Programme which senses when the car is starting to skid and will correct it via applying braking to individual wheels and adjusting the engine's output.
The system is also effective at maintaining drive in situations where traction can be a little tricky. On steep, slippery hills, for example, I could feel traction slipping and I could also feel drive being directed to the other wheels, ensuring forward motion at all times. It is quite effective and I was surprised at the gradient of hill we were able to climb.
Off Road mode, if selected, brings into play Hill Descent which automatically engages when the car feels a downhill gradient. It will apply a combination of gearing and braking to maintain a steady pace down a hill, leaving the driver to focus on steering. It engages quickly, well before the car has a chance to run away from the driver, no bad thing.
If you're serious about tackling some more challenging terrain, the Alltrack's Manoeuvre Braking Assist is something to be aware of. Volkswagen claims this will apply the brakes at speeds less than 10km/h if it senses a potential collision when parking. But, while I was driving at very low speeds across a grassy paddock, it engaged several times when the sensors detected a tall tuft of grass in front of the car. Annoying, in this instance, but I can see when parking at the local supermarket, plenty of drivers could do with such a function.
Given the ability of the car in all modes, including Off Road, the most disappointing thing for me is the lack of ground clearance. At 174mm it's much lower than I would expect of an all-wheel drive wagon and works against the obvious capabilities of the car. With even just 40mm more clearance I'd be comfortable on more than just dirt and gravel roads. But then, you'd be nudging SUV territory, which brings us back to my opening argument.
The Passat Alltrack comes with Volkswagen's three-year/unlimited kilometre warrant, including three years' free roadside assistance. Volkswagen also offers a capped-price servicing program over five years which will cost a total of $3066 over that period. Services are due every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever occurs first.
The Alltrack also has a five-star ANCAP rating, achieved in 2015, and is equipped with nine airbags, including front driver and passenger, side front and rear, curtain front and rear and driver’s knee airbag.
While it does have limitations off-road, it is the combination of more accessible space and a drive experience that gets you to your destination feeling rejuvenated rather than like you've just wrestled the whole trip that win it for me. Sure, you could buy an SUV, but really they're just getting harder and harder to find space for. The Passat Alltrack fits the same amount of equipment, plus it looks and drives better doing it.
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