Snowpiercer: The Volkswagen Golf Alltrack Is an Unstoppable Winter Car

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

I’m writing this review hunkered down in a house that’s been buried under 26 inches of snow over the past 24 hours. Outside sits a big expensive luxury SUV that isn’t a Volkswagen Golf Alltrack. And right now, I’m wishing I had the Alltrack again. Because the lumbering beast in the driveway looks great and can handle a little snow, but in this white hell, its big wheels and low profile tires make it hopeless.

Last time I saw snow like this, I had the Alltrack, and by God, the thing took to snow like a bobcat — either the animal or the snowmobile, take your pick. For my first five days with it, the Alltrack behaved just like a Golf Sportwagen, Volkswagen’s cool-looking, but ultimately innocuous people mover. It was good looking, comfortable, good on gas, and had a nice interior. It did everything well, but didn’t feel all that different from any other Golf variant. Then the snow started to fly and the ice began to cover the roads, and the Alltrack developed a personality all its own. 

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

And this split personality is just what Volkswagen has been advertising for the Alltrack. Because if you don’t live in a part of the country that gets snow (I’m supremely jealous), winter isn’t all white roads and pastoral snow-covered roofs. It’s a four (well, more like five) month slog with freezes and thaws, drifts and whiteouts. We spend more time ankle deep in freezing slush, mud, and road salt than we do in postcard-ready powder. In many ways, the recent explosion of all-wheel drive cars on the market has made navigating winter’s worst easier than ever. But few drivers need hardcore all-wheel drive all the time. When you need it, you’re sure glad you have it. When you don’t, you tend not to think about it. It’s as much for peace of mind as it is performance.

And the peace of mind offered in this wagon was designed to appeal to buyers at at time when Volkswagen needs it most. We first drove the Alltrack back in September, and said then:

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.

Now that the car has a winter under its belt, the move seems to be paying off. Since its launch in September, the Alltrack has grown to account for 72% of Golf wagon sales volume, making it the fastest-growing model in Volkswagen’s lineup. With the all-new Tiguan crossover and full-size Atlas SUV coming later this year, Volkswagen could find itself in a very different situation by the first snowfall of 2018. If the Alltrack is a preview of Volkswagen’s future all-weather lineup, then it might be enough to make us to eventually forget that the words “diesel” and “gate” ever went together. 

Exterior

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

For the Alltrack, Volkswagen has followed in the footsteps of its corporate cousin Audi in giving the ordinary Golf Sportwagen a butch makeover. Like the A4 Allroad, the Volkswagen is lifted (0.6 inches for a total 6.9 inches of ground clearance), and clad in durable black plastic around the rockers and wheel arches, giving the Alltrack a tough and purposeful look, all while firmly refusing to defect from the station wagon to the crossover camp. That’s fine; in my humble opinion, we need more wagons on the road.

Exterior pros and cons

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ A simpler, cheaper Audi A4 Allroad? Sign me up!

+ That 0.6 inches of lift doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a difference when things get rough.

+Despite being a few years old, Golf Sportwagen design still looks good. And the extra cladding on the Alltrack looks natural.

– For committed SUV drivers, the Alltrack may still be a little too “car-like.”

– It’s a Subaru fighter, but its slotting between the Outback and Crosstrek makes a one-to-one comparison difficult.

– Textured black plastic trim attracts dirt like a magnet.

Powertrain

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Like many a Volkswagen product, the Alltrack is powered by the turbocharged 1.8 liter inline-four. Known internally as the EA888, the mill is available in virtually every car in the VW lineup, and here, it’s good for 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque. Unlike the front-wheel drive Sportwagen, it’s mated to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic borrowed from the Golf R hot hatch. Compared to the CVT units found in most of its competitors, this feels like a revelation.

While you won’t be getting Golf R performance (there’s a 122 horsepower divide between the two cars), the 1.8 and sportier transmission send power through Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system, which prefers the front wheels but can instantly kick up to 50% of the power to the rear axle if needed. Being the ideal winter car it is, the system is unobtrusive, only stepping in when conditions call for it.

Powertrain pros and cons

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Tried-and-true 1.8 turbo gets along great with the dual-clutch automatic.

+ Offers a more refined drive than the competition from Subaru.

– Cool as it is to have the DSG transmission, you can’t hide the fact that the Alltrack isn’t exactly quick. Zero to 60 comes in a leisurely 7.5 seconds.

– Fuel economy isn’t as good as the Sportwagen, returning 22 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway. Luckily, Volkswagen made the Alltrack’s fuel tank 1.3 gallons bigger to compensate.

– Putting the transmission in Sport Mode makes the DSG hold the gears longer. Instead of offering a sportier ride, it just keeps the revs at around 3200 RPM, actually taking away from the driving experience. 

Interior

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Volkswagen has always had a strong interior game, and the Alltrack is no exception. If you’ve spent any time in a Sportwagen, or even base Golf, you’ll feel instantly at home here. The metallic gunmetal-colored dash inserts are a nice relief from the popular aluminum or piano black accents every other automaker seems to use, and the “Marakesh Brown” leatherette interior is both hard-wearing and handsome.

In back, there’s plenty of legroom and space for five adults. There’s 30 cubic feet in behind the rear bench, which is less than the Subaru Outback offers (36 cubic feet), but with the seats down, the Volkswagen can swallow 66.5 cubic feet of stuff.

Interior pros and cons

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ “Marakesh Brown” leatherette is a beautiful color that gives the whole interior a luxurious feel.

+ Good fit-and-finish; all controls are good-looking and well within reach.

+ The standard heated, power-reclining front seats were much appreciated during the winter test.

– With my mid-level SE model ringing up at $32,195 (base price $30,530), I wish that leatherette was real leather.

– While those gunmetal inserts look good, they feel plasticky. 

Tech and safety

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

My biggest issue with the Alltrack came in the tech department. It’s a lot of car for the money, but moving into the mid-$30K range, I found some puzzling omissions. There was satellite radio, but no navigation system. There was a big panoramic sunroof, and premium Fender stereo, but relies on its Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for most infotainment functions. Compromises like that undermine its otherwise upscale feel and feel like cost-cutting measures, which is never something automakers want to convey.

Like Honda, Volkswagen keeps its option packages to a minimum, opting instead for greater differentiation between trim levels. The only option in our SE model tester was the $845 Driver Assistance package, which included adaptive cruise control, park assist, and emergency braking. In the safety department, the Alltrack received a five-star safety rating from NHTSA, and a Top Safety Pick designation from the IIHS, solidifying its family car bona fides.

Tech and safety pros and cons

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Clear, good-looking mix of digital and analog gauges.

+ You won’t hear me complaining that VW hasn’t made the leap to digital radio and HVAC controls yet; analog knobs are simple and easy to use.

+ High-definition backup camera is one of the clearest units we’ve tested.

– Again, for $32,195 we expect a navigation system.

– Some touchscreens collect finger smudges far more than others. This was one of them.

– Simple MID display looks about 10 years old.

The drive

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The Golf, in all its forms, is a very good car. But thanks to the sporty GTI and R models, sometimes you expect a little more from the base cars than they really have. That was my initial problem with the Alltrack. The steering was nicely weighted and responsive, accentuated by its racing-inspired D-shaped steering wheel. The dual-clutch six-speed is still one of the better automatics on the market, and the suspension is great. The Golf is good at feeling like a small car regardless of variant, and the 3,500 pound Alltrack felt no differently than a base 2,900 pound hatchback. Overall, the car felt competent and responsive, but it wasn’t exactly a blast to drive.

Then it started to snow. A little after that, the temperature plummeted, turning the first few inches to ice, with fresh layers piling up on top of that. In New York City, subways and bus service shut down, along with schools. But I had things to do while the city hibernated, and the Alltrack was all too happy to help.

It was buried under nearly two feet of snow, and walled in behind the frozen slush and ice left behind from the snow plows. But after 45 minutes of cleaning the car off, the Alltrack tore at the snow without hesitation. Ice-slicked roads were simple to navigate. Snow-filled potholes and even worse, empty potholes, were no match for the higher ground clearance. And un-plowed side streets? Please. The wagon handled like a much bigger, far more expensive SUV — or rather it didn’t; it was better. In the worst elements, the Alltrack found its element. It felt stable, safe, and finally, fun to drive.

Wrap up and review

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech gripes and foibles aside, the Alltrack offers everything you’d want in a small SUV: big interior space, good fuel economy, and all-weather drivability in a compact package that’s easy to maneuver in and out of any situation. It’s good-looking, feels upscale, and is relatively engaging to drive, all in a way that should appeal to the average car-agnostic buyer, even if they can’t quite put a finger on why. But it isn’t an SUV; it’s a compact, easy-to-drive wagon. It’s also more than enough to put most compact crossovers to shame.

Compared to the average compact crossover, the Alltrack has smaller dimensions (read: easier to park), is better to drive, offers more interior space, and is almost certainly better in the snow. If you live in a place with snowy winters, 340 days of the year the Alltrack is a good family car. For the other 25, it’s a foul weather beast, tackling just about anything you can throw at it. No wonder it’s taking off at Volkswagen dealerships.

Once the Tiguan and Atlas join it, the troubled automaker could reinvent itself as a family-friendly all-wheel drive powerhouse, like Subaru. We wouldn’t have expected that a few years ago, but now that things seem to be going that way, we certainly don’t mind it either. If the Alltrack is this good when the weather is at its worst, then the future looks bright for the German automaker. And Subaru should be afraid.

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