Volkswagen knows it needs to re-establish goodwill with loyalists and everyday car shoppers alike in the wake of its diesel scandal, and it acknowledges that one of the keys is offering new vehicles that rekindle enthusiasm for the brand. In the coming year VW plans several new models, the first of which has already struck a chord with us: the 2017 VW Golf Alltrack.

Based on the standard Golf Sportwagen, consider the Alltrack its more rugged, outdoorsy sibling. The Alltrack comes standard with VW's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, higher ground clearance and ride height, unique body fascias, and a selectable drive-mode with an off-road setting. Like the Sportwagen, it is powered by a vivacious 170-horsepower, turbocharged 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, and will debut with VW's 6-speed DSG transmission. If you're a fan of all-wheel-drive station wagons like the Subaru Outback which the Alltrack sees as its main rival, we've got even better news for you: The Alltrack will be offered later with a manual transmission in something no longer available on the Subaru.

For the majority of buyers who will opt for an automatic, their Alltrack will go on sale in October. VW invited us to the Seattle area for a first impression of the new model and we came away admiring its abilities both on road and off. 

Asphalt athlete

Whether it be highways, winding roads and city streets, the Alltrack is a versatile soul that's dynamic yet compliant. On freeways it's a comfortable and quiet cruiser, in town mild mannered and nimble. On twisty roads it's a feisty and dynamic playmate, especially when switched to sport mode. None of this is exactly a revelation given its mechanicals and chassis mirror those of the respected Golf Sportwagen, a longer and roomier Golf hatchback.

While it has more ground clearance than its sibling -- 6.9 inches on the Alltrack compared to 5.5 for the standard Sportwagen -- it doesn't feel as drastic as, say, the Subaru Outback wagon vs. its Legacy sedan sibling. So while you get a higher seating position and gain ground clearance to better handle off-road and snowy conditions, you don't sacrifice much in the way of handling. The Alltrack feels just as eager to be thrown into corners, with none of the dreaded roll associated with higher-riding vehicles like SUVs and crossovers. 

Steering feel borders on too soft in parking lots, but firms up nicely as you increase speed. For drivers desiring an even firmer feel, that can be had by switching the car to the sport drive mode, while putting the transmission selector in sport mode sharpens throttle response and holds gears longer. Speaking of, the Alltrack's 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is quick, refined and another positive differentiator compared to Subaru's continuously variable automatic (CVT). The flipside of that is less fuel-economy than its rival. The Alltrack is expected to earn 22 mpg city/30 highway ratings, compared to the Outback's 25/32 mpg figures.

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Scrappy off-roader

Here's where this little VW surprised and delighted. On a dirt and gravel road that went on for miles, the Alltrack was an absolute blast. Treated as a rally car, the VW rambled over the road with ease. Its suspension adeptly soaking up ruts and bumps yet remaining stiff in the way only a German-engineered suspension can. Most impressive was the way its Haldex all-wheel-drive system and traction and stability control systems work in concert to keep this off-road wagon sure-footed. Thrown hard into a corner, the car slides just enough to make us yell "yee-haw" until its systems kicks in to stabilize the vehicle and bring it back in line. You can look like a rally driver by simply switching to off-road mode and letting the Alltrack do the hard work.

From there we ventured into the tougher stuff: A legitimate 4x4 course at Elfendahl Pass with sandy terrain, rock obstacles and steeps ascents and descents. It's the kind of terrain that would seem only appropriate for an SUV. And here the Alltrack scampered with success. A scrapper that wouldn't take no for an answer when faced with getting stuck, its off-road hardware and software worked in unison to get out of the rough. Also noteworthy is the hill descent control that eases the car down steep slopes, taking over the brakes so the driver can focus on steering. Unlike the majority of other vehicles with this feature that require user activation, it's built into the off-road mode and automatically activates when the mode is engaged.

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2016

Competitive pricing

The 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack will start at $27,770 including destination for a base S model when it goes on sale next month. An automatic Alltrack SE will begin at $31,350, while the top-line SEL will debut at $33,710. Manual transmission models, set to arrive in early 2017 in S and SE trims, will shave $1,100 off those prices.

An automatic Alltrack starts slightly higher than the Outback, but even a base model is meant to evoke a more premium feel above that as well as the base Golf Sportwagen. The Alltrack, for instance, has faux leather upholstery standard, along with heated front seats and 6.5-inch touch-screen infotainment system that's Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible. A big value at $845 is the Driver Assistance Package that bundles safety and driver-assist features like radar cruise control, forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, front and rear parking aids and more.

As more buyers choose crossover SUVs as an alternative to sedans, the new VW Golf Alltrack wagon is a welcome alternative to both. It offers the fun-to-drive nature of a sporty sedan with the roominess of a wagon and yes, even the off-road chops of a small SUV. 


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