Remember the Beetle? I'm going to say the "real Beetle" without any ill intent toward the current namesake. It was a great car—fun, endearing, affordable, and most important to VW, it was successful—massively successful. No other VW, maybe no other car period, has occupied the same space in culture. I'm not going to tell you the 2017 VW Golf Alltrack will fill that spiritual void—it won't sell in the astronomical numbers of the old Beetle, either—but it might very well be the stumbling German giant's first step back on the road to American success.
Volkswagen hosted the launch for the Alltrack in Seattle, which is coincidentally where I earned my fondest memories of air-cooled VWs. My sister owned a shockingly orange and genuinely lovable Beetle coupe with chrome peashooter tailpipes and rubber floor mats. She drove in thick knit mittens in the winter not so much to supplement the heater but to function as the windshield defrosters. In the summer, air conditioning was provided by air flowing through the wing windows and blowing directly in your face. The car struggled up hills and shuttered coasting down them; it was a glorious and adventurous way for a third grader to get to school.
The Alltrack doesn't come in shocking orange, NHTSA has bestowed a five-star safety rating, it doesn't struggle up hills, it's as sure-footed off-road as it is on, it might not make the school run daring, but it might inspire your family to make weekends a bit more adventurous.
Volkswagen has been delivering Golf-based wagons to the U.S. since the days of the MK4. The company was always saddled with the Jetta badge for reasons beyond my comprehension. Now that the Jetta has real differentiation from the Golf, it makes sense to bestow it with the moniker of the best all-around car in the world. We now have a Golf Sportwagen, although mainstream America still doesn't like wagons. It does love crossovers, which explains the slightly lifted—and by slightly we're talking 0.6 inches—and ever-so-rugged-ish-looking wagon...errr...CUV seen here.
Apart from the ride height and plastic cladding, there aren't too many differences between this and the Golf Sportwagen, which is a good thing. The Sportwagen is a fantastic car; see the sidebar at the end of this feature. The interior trim is slightly different in the Alltrack. The 17-inch Valley and 18-inch Canyon wheel designs along with, again just slightly, larger diameter tires are model specific, as is the off-road driving mode. The off-road mode includes decent control and specific programming for VW's four-motion Haldex-5 all-wheel-drive system.
At launch, the Alltrack will only be available with a six-speed DSG transmission, which will be the obvious choice for most shoppers. Enthusiasts may want to wait for early-to-mid calendar year 2017 for the six-speed manual versions to start hitting dealerships. No matter which transmission you choose, the car is equipped with an EA888 Gen 3 turbocharged 1.8L. The slightly smaller relative of the engine found in the GTI is rated at 170 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque, but as we've come to expect from the German manufacturers, these engines are producing far more than rated power and torque.
I wouldn't call the Alltrack fast, but it is more than adequate for the average consumer. The DSG feels slightly smoother in this than it does in my MK7 GTI and feels responsive in either Sport or standard drive mode. The brakes also feel as good as those on the GTI, which can be partially attributed to the extra amount of work the rears are capable of doing given the better weight distribution. That weight distribution, along with the greater polar moment of inertia, taller ride height, bigger tire sidewalls, and probably a few changes in the steering tuning, means the Alltrack doesn't quite have the same reactions as either a standard Golf or even the Sportwagen. The steering feel on-center is a little more vague and steering gain is definitely increased. My guess would be mostly the tires are to blame here. The car is still rock steady at speed; it just doesn't give you the same sense of straight-line precision.
The driving experience is different while still familiar. Driving the Alltrack around Bainbridge Island for the press launch made me long for family vacations. It seems almost unacceptable to drive the car with an unoccupied back seat and an empty roof rack. While the App-Connect system works flawlessly connecting your smartphone to the car, I was unsuccessful at getting Siri to point out construction vehicles and ask for a snack every 12 minutes. Tech can't replace toddlers.
While I am not usually a fan of panoramic sunroofs, or even sunroofs in general, it seems completely appropriate on the Alltrack. If, like me, you have a 4-year-old who can name all the planets in order, you appreciate the wonder of stargazing and the nighttime conversation it brings. If that's not reason enough, it might help keep you from tearing your mountain bikes off the roof when pulling into the garage after a long ride—it happens.
Speaking of roof stowage, loading anything on top of the Alltrack is a breeze when compared to trying to lift it above an SUV, anywhere from 8 inches to a full foot higher. The wagon-based VW isn't giving up any interior room to comparable SUVs offering either with 30.4 cubic feet of cargo space; for reference, the taller, longer, wider, and let's not forget startlingly more expensive BMW X3 has roughly 3 cubic feet less cargo space than the Alltrack. If the back seats are folded down, I am confident I could fit my standard-sized refrigerator back there and might have enough room left over for a week's worth of groceries.
It's likely VW's upcoming three-row SUV will outsell the Alltrack, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be more successful. Volkswagen dealers have been clamoring for this car since the category appeared a decade ago. This is a vehicle that VW has desperately needed, but never had the ability to build cost effectively. Adding the capability to build all-wheel-drive vehicles in the Puebla, Mexico, plant seemed like a no-brainer years ago, but it never happened. This is the first result in what will presumably be a very good business decision. It's the vehicle that really brings VW back to the young and active customer who was forced to look elsewhere. It will not only bring new customers to Volkswagen, but it will allow those who love the brand to bring it back into the family.
The New Cult Classic
2017 Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen S 4motion
All right all you Internet automotive enthusiasts, it's time to put your money where your incendiary comments are. VW is answering the constant "Save the manuals!" "Give us fast wagons!" "We need cloth interiors!" battle cries. Although the big news for 2017 is the Golf Alltrack, and later the new mid-sized three row SUV, the insider news is the base Golf Sportwagen with 4motion and a six-speed manual. This will be the cult classic—the Time Bandits of the car world; fun for the whole family and it'll hold up for years.
The Sportwagen S four-motion is the enthusiast's dream, an affordable, all-wheel-drive, turbocharged, manual-transmission wagon with three pedals. When I say affordable—it will sticker less than 25 grand. Right out of the box, the car is reasonably quick with a rated 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, but we all know those numbers are underrated. The real story, however, is how easy it is to make this thing faster. With just an ECU flash, you can take the EA888 1.8TSI to more than 250 hp and nearly 300 lb-ft of torque. Add a downpipe to that and you're looking at 260 hp and just over 300 lb-ft. But for the ultimate, find a friend who's upgraded his GTI to the IS38 turbo and give him a couple hundred bucks for the IS20 he took off and suddenly your little sleeper Sportwagen can have 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. The Golf R is rated at 292 hp and 280 lb-ft from the factory.
They might also give you a great deal on the factory GTI 18-inch wheels to replace the 16-inch wheels that come on the Golf S models. I might me tempted to find some understated, lightweight, 17-inch wheels.
You will need to look to the aftermarket for suspension upgrades, as the extra weight in the back of the wagon won't allow you to use either GTI or Golf R take-off parts. I would try to find some options that don't lower the car that much, to keep the stealth appearance and ride quality. Everyone slams wagons on the ground; be original. For brakes, unless you plan on track days, I would upgrade the pads and call it a day, although again, some GTI Performance Package parts would be tempting.
I spent two hours driving this car around the twisty roads between Seattle and Snoqualmie, Washington. At one point, I had to choose between time in a Golf R and this Sportwagen. I went with the wagon. I didn't think I'd ever turn down time in a Golf R, but there is something new and refreshing about the Sportwagen. It just disappears into traffic. In typical VW fashion, the chassis dynamics are sorted to a level that most buyers will never appreciate. This takes me back to cars that made me love VW in the first place. If I had the money, I would own a MK7 Golf R. I would go buy one today! However, for the money, a car like this is going to be tough to pass up, especially if VW lease deals are as attractive as they are right now.
There's nothing that proves your car-guy cred like driving a high-performance car that doesn't advertise its abilities. While the trendy masses buy the lowest spec powertrain and the highest spec appearance package, those of us who drive cars for ourselves want the opposite. We want to be able to slice up the road, without drawing attention from either the boy racers or the boys in blue. The 2017 Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen S with four-motion is going to fit that bill exactly. If you go full-boat with GTI IS20 turbo, some decent tires, and a couple of suspension mods, you will be looking at a car in the mid-4-second range 0-60 mph, it'll trap a little over 100 mph in the quarter-mile, and the handling will be pretty close to that Golf R as well. We just need to keep this fairly quiet; as much as I want to say this is the affordable Golf R Wagon the U.S. will never get, I want to keep dealerships from gouging customer with Golf R markups.