More than any other automaker, Volkswagen has a lot to figure out about its future. Still reckoning with the aftereffects of Dieselgate, struggles with its dealership network, and lacking a competitive crossover/SUV lineup to satisfy America’s seemingly insatiable appetite for them, you’d be forgiven for thinking the company is in dire straits. But here’s the reality: Sales are down (though not as down as you might think), and things are already starting to look up. Even if you can’t see it yet, Volkswagen has begun its next chapter.
The past year has seen a flurry of concepts and announcements from the German automaker as it outlines its post-scandal direction. There’s been the GTC line of concepts, which range from sleek, near-Audi sedans to a family of good-looking crossovers and SUVs. There’s also been a growing, vocal commitment to hybrids and EVs, including the Microbus-channeling Budd-E and an all-electric Tesla Model S-fighter. And on top of paying $2 billion toward developing infrastructure for electric cars (part of the Dieselgate settlement), it announced that in coming years, it could develop as many as 12 new electric models on its versatile MQB vehicle platform.
A full line of crossovers and EVs is likely the best way to right the ship after weathering the biggest scandal in automotive history, but best case scenario, that’s a few years off. So what will it do in the meantime? Well, it looks like Volkswagen will go after one of the fastest growing brands in America: Subaru.
And it makes a lot of sense. Subaru currently has 4.0% of the American market cornered, compared to the entire Volkswagen Group’s (VW, Audi, Porsche, Bentley, and Lamborghini combined) 3.6%. It’s done this by selling rugged, affordable, all-wheel drive crossovers and wagons that can handle snowy climates and light off-roading, while holding their resale value better than the competition. But as successful as Subaru has been (and excluding the WRX and BRZ here), its models aren’t particularly good-looking, you couldn’t call them fun to drive, and their powertrains generally leave something to be desired. Volkswagen has its share of problems, but they aren’t any of those. So for 2017, the Golf Alltrack is here to take on Subaru models like the Outback and the Crosstrek, and after driving several through Washington state, we’re convinced it’s better than they are.
By the time you read this, the first Alltracks will be arriving at Volkswagen dealerships, just in time for winter. Based on the popular Golf SportWagen, the Alltrack looks familiar, albeit with a 0.6 inch lift, bigger wheels, and some black plastic cladding over the fenders and rockers. That said, it’s enough to give it a purposeful look, like a baby Audi A4 Allroad. But Subaru is the target here, and the VW outperforms the Subbies in almost every category. The Outback has a naturally-aspirated boxer four that puts out 175 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque that’s mated to a frustrating CVT gearbox. The Alltrack uses Volkswagen’s versatile 1.8 liter turbo four, making 170 horses, but 199 pound-feet of torque, and is available with either a standard six-speed manual, or dual-clutch automatic. Heated leatherette seats come standard, as does a premium Fender sound system, panoramic sunroof, and a host of electronic safety features.
Like the standard SportWagen, there’s plenty of room inside for five adults, and the seats are comfortable and supportive. The Outback has it beat in cargo volume — 36 to 30 cubic feet — but with the rear seats down, volume is increased to 66.5 cubic feet, putting it on par with most compact crossovers on the market. And even with the slight lift, the VW is still a little shorter than the Subaru (4-foot-11 to 5-foot-6), giving it a more car-like feel. It’s bigger than the Crosstrek, but a little smaller than the Outback.
Its size helps make the Alltrack a joy to drive. On highways, it’s quiet and smooth, with plenty of power, a nice exhaust note, and excellent interior fit-and-finish. On twisty roads, the competent suspension and rigidity of its MQB platform makes it game for spirited driving. And off-road (yes, we took it off-road), the wagon’s 6.9 inches of ground clearance, Off-Road drive mode, and 4Motion all-wheel drive work to send as much as 50% of power to the rear axles in case you get into a jam. We wouldn’t recommend crossing Greenland in January in one, but we put it through its paces on a fairly rugged off-road course, and for the majority of Americans who have to deal with nasty winter weather, we’re convinced the Alltrack can likely handle anything you could throw at it.
We drove two models, the mid-range SE and loaded SEL. Both had the six-speed DSG automatic (manual cars won’t arrive until the first quarter of 2017), but the SEL stood out thanks to its big 18-inch wheels and touchscreen navigation system. At $27,770 for the base S model, it has a slightly higher buy-in than the Outback (starting at $25,845), but SELs undercut Subaru’s range-topping 3.6R Limited by over $500; in our opinion, it’s a better car for less money. Plus, if the Alltrack is out of your price range, Volkswagen is now offering the standard SportWagen with 4Motion all-wheel drive. It doesn’t have the unique fascias, cladding, or lift of the Alltrack, but it grows the brand’s footprint in the segment, and together, the cars could begin to threaten Subaru’s all-wheel drive hegemony.
Plus, Volkswagen has always punched above its weight in interiors and standard features, and the Alltrack is no exception. You won’t mistake it for an Audi Allroad, but it’s nicer than any competitor in its price range. It certainly feels more comfortable and refined than either of its Subaru-built competitors, and sits nicely in the middle ground between those cars and more upscale all-wheel drive wagons from Audi, Volvo, and Mercedes.
Over the past few years, demand for affordable, all-wheel drive station wagons has skyrocketed, and until very recently, Subaru was the only option on the market. We don’t expect Volkswagen to swoop in and take over, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the Alltrack caught on quickly with buyers looking for something that was rugged, good in the snow, and genuinely fun to drive. Time will tell if we’ll end up seeing a full line of new Volkswagen SUVs and EVs, but until then, focusing on the red-hot all-wheel drive market seems like a great way for it to get back on track.