Volkswagen is one of the world’s best-selling automakers, but in America, the VW brand has long been the official car of misfits and nonconformists.
From Dead Heads in micro-buses following Uncle John’s Band to Disney daydreamers who believed a magic Beetle could outrace the world’s great sport cars, VW was the brand for likable eccentrics. The brand’s attempts to appeal to mainstream American buyers have consistently fizzled.
Most recently, VW staked its counter-intuitive appeal on the idea that its “clean” diesels offered a performance-oriented alternative to hybrids.
When that strategy went up in smoke, VW was at something of a loss about how to appeal to the quixotic group most inclined to buy its cars.
The 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack station wagon (I give it three out of four stars) is a good start, an appealing alternative to the compact SUVs proliferating in other automakers’ lineups.
The Alltrack is a slightly raised version of the all-wheel drive Golf station wagon, with a few cosmetic touches and an AWD mode controller to suggest off-road ability.
Otherwise, the Alltrack is mechanically very similar to the AWD Golf Sportwagen 4Motion, which starts about $900 less than the Alltrack.
Alltrack prices start at $25,850. All models come with AWD, a turbocharged 170-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission. The top Alltrack is the SEL model, which starts at $32,890. All prices exclude destination charges.
I tested a well-equipped Alltrack SEL with Bluetooth compatibility, touch screen, navigation, 18-inch alloy wheels, backup camera, lane departure assist, front-collision warning and autonomous braking, adaptive cruise control, Apple CarPlay and more.
It stickered at $34,885. All prices exclude destination charges.
In addition to the Golf Sportwagen, alternatives to the Alltrack consist of compact SUVs like the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Compass, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4. It’s a hot segment full of good vehicles, which will get more crowded as new versions of the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain and Mazda CX-5 go on sale shortly.
Golf Alltrack prices are competitive with those vehicles.
The Alltrack stands out from the crowd visually, thanks to the long, low proportions of a station wagon and an attractive character line running along its sides just above the wheel wells.
The 1.8-liter turbo engine revs freely and delivers good acceleration, thanks largely to a hefty 199 pound-feet of torque delivered from just 1,600 rpm. The engine’s horsepower ties the Rogue and Forester for lowest in the segment, but peak torque tops similarly priced competitors save the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport’s 260-horsepower 2.0-liter.
The Alltrack uses regular fuel, a pleasant change from the days when VW’s turbocharged engines needed premium. Its EPA fuel economy rating of 22 mpg in the city, 30 on the highway and 25 combined trails the CR-V, Rogue and Forester and matches the RAV4 and Compass.
The dual-clutch engine shifts quickly, but holds some high gears too long at low rpm, a fuel-saving trick that leads to extra noise and vibration.
The Alltrack shares Volkswagen’s capable MQB architecture with cars like the Audi A3 and Golf GTI, so it’s no surprise the wagon’s handling is responsive and enjoyable. The steering is direct, with good feedback on on-center performance. The Alltrack drives like a sporty compact car, thanks to height and center of gravity that are considerably lower than the high-boy SUVs it competes with.
Those SUVs offer better sightlines, because of their higher seating position, but the Alltrack’s big windows provide such good visibility that I almost didn’t notice its lack of blind-spot alert, a feature common on similarly priced competitors.
The front seat provides plenty of head, leg and shoulder room. The rear seat is also comfortable. The cargo area is smaller than all competitors but the new Compass.
The interior is attractive, with clear gauges and simple controls. VW’s adoption of a touch screen for navigation, phone, and more is a welcome change, as it the Alltrack’s use of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for smartphones.
Adding popular features like that to VW’s traditional ability to offer something different from mainstream brands makes the Golf Alltrack a welcome alternative for buyers who want to zig as the herd zags into the SUVs flooding the market.