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High-riding hatches, pretend SUVs... whatever you want to call them, the look is taking off around the world. Which of these three is most deserving of your attention?
There’s only one bandwagon to jump on in the car industry right now, of course, and it’s the high-riding one.
So, here we have three small passenger cars that have been given the ‘adventure vehicle’ treatment to cash in on the world’s obsession with SUVs: the Ford Focus Active, Subaru XV and Volkswagen Golf Alltrack.
The Subaru XV follows the same formula the Japanese used in the early 1990s to create the world’s first crossover, the Outback – but, instead of a Liberty wagon being transformed, this time it’s an Impreza hatch that adopts an elevated suspension and tough-looking lower-body protection.
The XV – an abbreviation for crossover if ever we saw one – similarly drops its donor model’s name, after initially being called the Impreza XV (in 2010). The latest model is the third generation, released in 2017.
Volkswagen came to the high-riding-wagon party fairly late. After creating the Passat Alltrack in 2012, it applied the badge to the Golf wagon in 2015 – giving it all-wheel drive as well as the ready-for-the-rough-stuff exterior adornments.
Ford’s is its very first Focus Active, meanwhile, joining the freshly released fourth-generation Focus hatchback range as a variant with “SUV-inspired design”.
Pricing and equipment
The Focus Active, priced from $29,990, lifts the Focus’s ride height by up to 34mm, brings revised bumpers with ‘skid plates’, adds roof rails,while the wheel arches and lower bodywork are adorned with dark grey plastic to complete the ‘rugged’ aesthetic.
Its specification is otherwise closely related to the mid-range Focus hatch, the $28,990 ST-Line. Our test car jumps into the mid-$30K bracket by including all available option packs and metallic paint.
They comprise the $1800 Design Pack that brings 18-inch alloy wheels (over 17s), adaptive LED headlights, auto high beam and privacy glass, an eponymous Panorama Roof Pack for $2000 (which deletes the roof rails), and the $1250 Driver Assistance Pack adding adaptive cruise control and monitoring for blind spots and cross-way traffic when reversing out of a perpendicular parking spot.
Subaru offers four XV trim grades, each mirroring the Impreza hatch line-up.We have the one-from-top 2.0i Premium priced from $32,440 – a $5650 impost over its lower-riding donor car. It features active torque vectoring and an off-road vehicle electronics mode (both gains over the Impreza), and the XV is the only model here standard with a sunroof and adaptive cruise.
However, it’s also the only crossover without any parking sensors, heated side mirrors, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, rain-sensing wipers, or LED daytime running lights. The range-topping 2.0i-S is needed if you want auto high beam, blind spot and rear cross traffic alert, though none of these are available on the Alltrack that also misses out on lane-departure and lane-keeping aids, as well as digital radio.
Ideally, we wanted to feature the entry-level Alltrack here, the $34,490 132TSI, though VW Australia had only the $39,990 132TSI Premium available – with its price further bloated by nearly five-grand’s worth of option packs bringing extras such as digital driver display, larger infotainment touchscreen, fancy audio, 18-inch alloys (instead of 17s), and a panoramic roof.
Pretending we have the base Alltrack, the Golf still has some exclusives in the form of fatigue monitoring, sensors front and rear (Focus has rear only), and LED tail-lights. The Ford is alone in providing wireless phone charging, speed sign notification, and LED (cornering) fog lights.
Interior space, features and quality
Visually, the interiors of each car are virtually identical to their donor small cars – you’re simply sitting a bit higher (or noticeably higher in the case of the XV).
Quality perceptions are also the same as you find in a Focus, Impreza or Golf, so the Ford has closed the presentation gulf to the VW, the Subaru’s cabin looks fairly smart and feels solidly constructed, while the Volkswagen continues to lead the way for the most premium ambience regardless of its spec (and the most techy look with its optional displays).
Nominally, all three cars share (excellent) 8.0-inch touchscreens with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. The Active’s seats, though, aren’t as comfortable as we’ve experienced in other Focus models, with insufficient shoulder support.
The Alltrack’s seats are the most supportive, if not far ahead of the XV’s pews for outright comfort. It’s cloth upholstery and manual seat adjustment all round (ignoring our Alltrack Premium’s electric driver’s seat).
Alltrack wins the storage battle. It has the biggest door bins front and rear, while its second-row accommodation features two seatback pockets and, like the XV, an armrest with cupholders. TheVW is also the only vehicle to provide rear passengers with air vents.
While there’s good space in the back of the Alltrack, the car with the longest wheelbase, the XV, offers a touchmore room.
The Focus’s rear-seat legroom is decent, though the optional sunroof squeezes headroom, and there’s no armrest.
If a practical boot should be a key requisite for any SUV-style vehicle, Subaru’s XV misses the mark with its shallow, 310-litre luggage compartment that’s actually smaller than the Impreza’s – mainly because it provides a full-size spare wheel rather than a spacesaver (as with the Focus and Golf).
The Focus’s 375-litre boot is usefully wide and deep, though the Ford’s cargo-stashing capabilities are weakened by the huge stepped floor when lowering the rear seats.
It’s a no-contest when lifting the tailgate of the Alltrack wagon,which makes use of its long rear overhang to provide a 605-litre boot that is about a metre wide and more than a metre long. Capacity expands to 1620 litres when using the only seatback release levers in the group.
On the road (and gravel)
There’s a key difference between the driving experiences of the regular Focus hatch and Active, though it has less to do with the latter’s so-called High Ride suspension.
The Focus Active joins the Focus ST-Line wagon in using a more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension and also proves to provide a smoother urban/suburban ride than the fussier torsion-beam set-ups of the regular hatch models.
It’s still a firm ride relative to the XV and Alltrack, and on country roads it’s more prone to picking up bumps and introducing tyre noise to the cabin. Yet the twistier such roads are, the more enjoyment you’ll derive from the Focus Active that offers the keenest handling and the most involving steering of our trio.
Sitting closer to 1.4 tonnes in kerb weight where its competitors are nearer 1.5 tonnes, it feels the lightest to steer, too.
The view out is just barely any higher than that of a regular Focus, while the front seats don’t provide perfect comfort with a surprising lack of shoulder support.
The XV, too, offers a ride-quality advantage over its small-hatch foundation, though on this occasion it is the crossover’s longer-travel suspension that helps it to be more relaxing than the Impreza’s.
With a suspension that soaks up smaller nasties at lower speeds and offers expertly controlled damping at higher speeds, the Subaru excels at comfortable progress on any road.
The Subaru just prefers a more sedate approach to corners, especially as its back end wobbles over mid-corner bumps. There’s also more body roll for a vehicle that very much feels like an Impreza on stilts, though the offset is the most SUV-like commanding driving position here – from a vehicle that shares its 220mm ground clearance with its bigger cousin, the Forester.
The XV’s steering is better, though. Although the electric rack has a slight notchiness around the straight-ahead, it’s just as pleasantly light yet has more consistent weighting than found in Subaru’s purpose-built SUV.
The Alltrack’s raised suspension does nothing to spoil the refined and mature driving experience we’ve come to appreciate from the seventh-generation Golf. The steering is silky smooth, the handling utterly predictable and composed, and the ride especially supple above 60km/h.
Our Alltrack’s optional 18-inch, thin-profile tyres just didn’t take the edge off sharper bumps as well as the XV, though, while also generating more noise on coarser surfaces.
For buyers considering taking to rougher surfaces such as trails on a regular basis, the XV makes the strongest case with its permanent all-wheel-drive system that offers the most consistent traction from its four wheels, generous ground clearance, an X-mode that modifies the vehicle’s electronic driver aids, and that back-up full-size spare.
The Alltrack’s 4Motion is an on-demand system that is still fairly effective, while also including an Off-Road function that includes a hill descent control system like the XV.
Ford has equipped the front-wheel-drive Focus Active with Slippery and Trail modes,which aim to help the hatch generate or maintain momentum on mud, snow or sand. The Active’s front wheels are predictably susceptible to spinning, though, and small trail rocks make a disconcerting racket beneath the car where they’re barely noticeable in the XV or Alltrack.
Under the bonnet Biggest capacity means little in these modern days of turbo-charging, and so it proves with the smallest engine, the Focus’s boosted 1.5-litre three-cylinder, producing the most power (134kW) while the Subaru’s 2.0-litre non-turbo four-cylinder offers 115kW.
The Alltrack’s 1.8-litre turbo four-cylinder isn’t far behind with 132kW and joins the Ford in offering a healthy amount of mid-range torque. They leave the XV on the back foot for performance.
Producing only 196Nm of maximum torque and not until 4000rpm, the Subaru engine’s lack of flexibility is compounded by a CVT auto that further sucks life out of throttle response.
To be fair, the XV feels quite lively around town,where its sharp initial getaway is helpful when traffic lights go green or junctions become clear. It also performs three-point turns and parking manoeuvres more easily than the Ford or Volkswagen.
But trying to keep up with traffic or maintaining momentum on a country road or highway can be hard work for your right foot. Not much splits the excellent Ford and Volkswagen drivetrains.
The Active’s three-cylinder, as in other Focus models, is an enjoyable lively and endearing engine with a distinctive thrum and a good spread of performance throughout the rev range.
It also propels a Ford that is 70-87kg lighter than its rivals. The eight-speed torque converter auto isn’t quite as consistently smooth at swapping gears as the Golf’s ‘DSG’ dual-clutch auto,which has improved low-speed behaviour. There’s some mild turbo lag with the Alltrack’s engine, though there’s the option to select the response-sharpening Sport mode – which is particularly effective on winding roads.
The Golf’s four-cylinder sounds the most civilised engine here, including at high revs where it even hints at sportiness with a mild growl. And the Alltrack is the only Golf besides the performance R variant to feature all-wheel drive. (For buyers planning regular long trips and a bit more budget, there’s a 135TDI diesel Alltrack with a noticeable chunk of extra torque – 380Nm.)
After mixed driving, the trip computers suggested a reverse order to the cars’ official consumption figures.
The Focus was thirstiest at 8.2L/100km (versus 6.4L/100km official), XV the most frugal at 7.8L/100km (7.0L/100km), and the Golf in the middle again, with 8.1L/100km (6.8L/100km).
The XV extends its potential to offer extra range with the largest fuel tank – 13 litres bigger than the Impreza’s at 63 litres. The Subaru will also run on regular unleaded where its rivals require premium fuel.
All three models come with five-year warranties, but servicing costs vary. The Focus Active is cheapest at $897/$1546 for a three- or five-year period, the XV sits in the (lower) middle at $1288.81/$2407.64, with the Golf Alltrack significantly pricier at $1675/$3261.
The Subaru’s yearly mileage limit is 12,500km v 15,000km for the Ford and VW. If you have the budget for a prepaid service plan, however, the Alltrack’s costs can be reduced to $1211 for three years or $2012 for five years.
For buyers simply looking for the crossover with the highest driving position and highest ground clearance, the Subaru XV is the obvious choice.
And that ride height mixed with a wonderfully loping ride, enlarged fuel tank and full-size spare certainly make it a sensible choice in the country. Its shallow boot limits practicality for families, however, while the frustratingly lethargic drivetrain is out of its depth against turbocharged rivals with better gearboxes.
It’s also debatable whether the XV justifies its $5690 premium over the equivalent Impreza hatch.
Ford’s Focus Active is a strange one. As an attempt at cross-breeding a hatchback and SUV, it’s a token effort: small increase in ride height, no all-wheel drive. Yet thanks to its multi-link rear suspension, it’s also the set-up that should be offered in the rest of the Focus hatch range by virtue of its superior ride comfort – while remaining one of the most fun sub-$30K small cars to drive.
Volkswagen’s Golf Alltrack could offer more standard gear for its higher price tag, even if it can claim to offer ‘more car’. Its servicing costs are also too high for those who can’t afford the savings of VW’s pre-paid plans. The rest of the package is hard to fault, though.
If you’re after the crossover with the classiest-looking interior, the most passenger-friendly back seat, the biggest cargo capacity and the most premium driving experience, the Golf Alltrack is the high-riding wagon to jump into.