My first dates with Mrs. Payne were on the tennis court. Schooled in tennis from an early age, we were drilled in bending our knees for groundstrokes. A lower base makes for better movement, better balance, better power. Important if you’re 5-feet-5 like my wife, especially so if you’re a 6-foot-5 stork like myself.
Maybe that’s why we see eye-to-eye on family cars. We prefer all-wheel drive to survive Michigan’s brutal winters – and low, nimble station wagons.
So when the time came to buy a new car a few years back, we went hunting for an all-wheel drive wagon. Good luck. The menu was limited. We might have had better luck finding beef lasagna in a sushi bar. We tested the Audi Allroad Quattro and BMW 3-series wagons. Attractive, AWD, agile, yet – at a cost of over $40k – pricey for a luxury compact. Yet mainstream compact wagons like the VW Jetta didn’t offer AWD. Detroit’s shelves were bare.
Which is how we became members of the Subaru cult. I’d shied from Subies because they had a face only a mother could love (remember the 2006 Impreza with the hole in its mug?). Yet for the 2012 model year, the Japanese maker got an Extreme Makeover. Unashamed to be seen driving it in public, the Mrs. and I were won over by the Impreza wagon, a roomy compact with AWD for half – half! – the price of the German lux-o-wagons. Only its moaning, CVT-driven, 148 horsepower mill – unbuffered by a noisy cabin suffering from plasticitis – gave us pause.
It was a small price to pay. The Impreza wagon was the winner of the Paynes’ 2012 Best Value in the Market Award. Sold.
Five years and 100,000 miles later, we are back in a ute-dominated market that is no less hostile to wagons. The bulletproof Subie has served us well. But the driveline moan hasn’t gotten easier to live with, especially when my wife has to shout over the engine to be heard on her Bluetooth phone.
Just in time for our wandering eyes, Volkswagen is offering Golf Alltrack for 2017. With all-wheel drive. For under $30,000. With a dual-clutch automatic transmission.
I went to Seattle last month to test the Alltrack and I was impressed. Begin with the Alltrack’s inherent Golf goodness: Based on the same MQB-platform bones as the 2015 North American Car of the Year, Alltrack is as effortless to drive as its sister hatch. Firm steering. Minimal body roll. Quiet as a mouse.
The Alltrack is a welcome return to product for a company that has taken on more water in the last year than Florida after Hurricane Matthew. Faced with a choice of calling out EPA’s anti-diesel edicts as “tree-hugging nonsense” or cheating to get around them, VW chose the latter. Bad choice. Twelve months later and VW has lower approval ratings than America’s presidential candidates and is scrambling to save its reputation.
An AWD version of your best product is a good place to start.
The Alltrack appears to be a rush job to change the subject from Dieselgate to wheels. With new VW crossovers still a year away from hitting the market, I imagine the conversation in Wolfsburg went something like this:
Hans: What do we have with the utility of a crossover? I know, the Golf SportWagen!
Klaus: Ja, but Americans hate wagons.
Hans: So we jack it up a few millimeters, give it AWD, and call it Alltrack crossover wagon!
Klaus: Brilliant. I buy you a lager, Hans.
Actually, they just jacked it up 0.6 inches and “ruggedized” it (as VW product chief Megan Garbis puts it) with butch styling cues. Whatever. I’m smitten. All-wheel drive for the Alltrack takes the SportWagen to another level. Just to confuse things, SportWagen gets the AWD upgrade, too. For $2,000 less. Hmmm.
My head and heart still beat for Alltrack.
The heart because the wardrobe upgrades are significant. German design – whether VW, Audi or Porsche – is about economy of line. Which means looks that are aerodynamic, clean ... and a bit bland. The VW GTI jazzes the base Golf with sensational signature wheels. The Alltrack sexes up the Sportwagen with cool wheels and a silvery ribbon of lower grille and body highlights. Ausgezeichnet.
My head likes the laundry list of Alltrack S-trim standard options that puts Subie’s Impreza or sister Outback crossover to shame. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, heated leatherette seats, auto-crash braking and so on. All for just $26,670. Higher SE and SEC trims offer accessories like sunroofs and 18-inch tires, but I’ll take the base model, thank you very much. Crossover purists will quibble that a wagon jacked 0.6 inches higher is hardly a sport ute – not to mention that the base price includes a – gasp! – manual transmission.
Give me the lower center of gravity and a manual over CVT any day.
For those who prefer automatics (Mrs. Payne), prepare to lay out a grand more – worthwhile since you’ll be buying a DSG, VW’s double-clutch tranny. Double-clutches in supercars like the 911 offer lighting-quick shifts for breathless, zero-60-in-nothing-flat launch control shots. Compacts prioritize the dually’s fuel efficiency. No launch control here, but speed geeks like myself will get the thrill of sharp, redline shifts that maximize Alltrack’s 170-horse, 1.8-liter turbo mill.
The combination of turbo and DSG makes CVTs feel like dinosaurs.
Some will take the Alltrack off-road. I’ll take it to the racetrack. When I’m racing, Mrs. Payne’s Subaru becomes my designated car for noon-hour lunch rides. But the Subie often panics from the heat stress, triggering its oxygen sensor. Not the V-dub. Like other Golfs, it will lap all day long. That’s my kind of family car.
The idea of Deutschland’s huge, No. 2 in global sales Volkswagen baselining to tiny, niche-maker Subaru is a bit embarrassing. How far the mighty fallen. But recognizing that Subaru outsells VW almost 2-to-1 in the U.S. market is a lesson for VW and a plate of humble pie.
VW is learning U.S. customers want affordable AWD vehicles with utility. And when they get the formula right, the Alltrack is proof that no one does AWD utility better than V-dub. Just don’t call it a wagon.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2017 Volkswagen Alltrack
Front-engine, all-wheel drive five-passenger wagon
1.8-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder
6-speed manual or 7-speed automatic
$26,670 base ($28,615 S manual as tested)
170 horsepower, 199 pound-feet torque
Zero-60: (7.7 seconds, Car and Driver); top speed: 125 mph
EPA 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway
/25 mpg combined
The rare AWD wagon: great handling on and off road
More console storage room, please; pricier than
Grading scale: Excellent★★★★Good★★★Fair★★Poor★