The Passat Alltrack is the car you need when a regular all-wheel-drive wagon won’t quite do yet an orthodox sports utility seems a step too far.
For: Impressive drivetrain, roomy and sensible cabin, looks smart.
Against: Firm ride, just one USB input, dated sat nav display.
TO give some idea of how much of a sub-niche the Passat Alltrack finds itself in, consider this: The way I see it, just one of its four most obvious rivals available here isn’t a Volkswagen Group product.
This state of affairs reminds that the world’s population of elevated and off-road sorted medium station wagons has never been large. And it certainly doesn’t seem likely to grow any bigger now that most makers have gone to the next step, fully evolved sports utility models.
So if you’re into comparing like with exact like, what stands out as an alternate to a model that presents in just a single specification, driven by a 140kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbodiesel and retailing for $57,990?
I’d suggest there’s the Skoda Octavia Scout that’s on the same platform, has the same powertrain and is $8000 cheaper and the Audi A4 Allroad that, while markedly pricier, is again of similar dimension and ability and also provides a social status template.
That takes care of the sibling rivalry. The non-VW Group model is, of course, the Subaru Outback. And why not? It’s the one that kicked off the craze for elevated, all-terrain enhanced station wagons.
There’s just one small catch: Subaru, itself, would prefer that the latest Outback was considered a sports utility, not a station wagon. In part, it’s a size thing: The new one, being bigger than any previously, is now as large as any medium SUV. But it also reflects that Outback is a true variant in its own right. Whereas the Scout, Allroad and Alltrack are drawn off road-bound wagons, the Outback is not. Subaru no longer makes a Legacy wagon.
The Alltrack also raises interest because it is effectively an option to two existing cars; one being that Passat wagon – which you can buy that with all-wheel-drive, too – and the other being the Tiguan SUV. It performs the same function as the first and presumably is no more, or less, dirt-able than the other. So what’s the point of difference?
VW has an answer to that one. They say it stands ready to serve those who are not into all the SUV hype but prefer a trad wagon that has ability to go pretty much anywhere that a regular lifestyle four-by-four can yet is otherwise is as practical and as polished as a roadcar.
If you’re one of those people with a wardrobe packed with bush shirts and tend to always have at least one set of crampons in your multi-pocketed, zip at the knees trousers then don’t bother with the Alltrack: It’s not quite that kind of off-roader.
Really, though, the styling should have shouted that message. Being based on the eighth-generation Passat Estate means the Alltrack, even with exterior styling changes similar to those adopted by its predecessor, still dresses as smartly as its street-wise donor.
But it does look a tad tougher with those ‘all-terrain’ embellishments. They start with a unique front bumper, which receives a silver plastic scuff plate, black plastic valance panel and integrated foglights, silver and black mirror housings, integrated roof rails, black cladding within the wheelarches and along the sills and a new rear bumper with a black plastic valance panel housing trapezoidal-shaped chromed tailpipes. The final reminder of where it sits on the Grylls scale is a set of bold Alltrack badges and a set of unique alloy wheels.
It’s not just about styling. The Alltrack is also fitted with superior underbody protection and, with new springs and dampers, boasts a ride height of 174mm – 30mm more than that of the standard Passat Variant. Wheels are 18 inch as standard but 19s are optional.
The car’s interior is less altered, though that’s not a bad thing. The Alltrack also offers a level of finish within its interior that shames that of many higher-priced alternatives. Save for those stainless steel sill plates and a set of uniquely upholstered front seats, it’s the same as the regular Passat inside.
That means it’s equally as classy. Signature soft touch plastics are used extensively, so too some upmarket but durable-looking materials, leather and alcantara prominent. Fit and finish is confidence-inspiring.
Just as going outdoorsy doesn’t affect the cabin’s panache, neither does it hurt the practicality. The Passat wagon is a pretty roomy Euro, second (and only just) to the Mondeo in the wagon stakes, with a generous 639 litres of luggage space underneath the cargo blind rising to a useful 1641 litres with the 40-20-40 rear seats folded, a simple job. The tailgate is power-operated. A flexible architecture includes a cargo floor that can be lowered, alloy cargo rails and an adjustable netting divider, plus a floor mat with carpet on one side, heavy duty rubber on the other.
Front passengers will find the car spacious and comfortable, with plenty of head, shoulder and legroom. The rear has space for three adults in reasonable comfort.
VW’s thoughtfulness is reflected in there not only being air vents in both rows but also a separate a/c control for the back seat. Whoever had been in there before me had thought it funny to set the latter at its hottest temp - such a hoot on a hot day. I discovered and sorted this when seeking in vain for a second USB portal, having found the one in the centre console was broken. The handbook suggests there’s one in the back, but if so then it’s harder to find than El Dorado.
Apart from a paucity of ports, the Alltrack is relatively well-kitted with dual-zone, electronic climate control, cruise control, low pressure tyre monitoring equipment and a touch screen with sat-nav and Bluetooth phone preparation. Unlike the Scout, it has a reversing camera. There is some annoyance that some the buttons for the stablility and traction control are still sited for left-hand-drive, so are awkwardly-located on the 'wrong' side of the fear selector.
I first met this well-proven drivetrain in the Scout and it’s just as appealing in the Alltrack. Though a little gruff at start-up and idle, the 2.0-litre is nonetheless a nice mill to sit behind. It’s not only fairly alert at kick off – with 0-100kmh in just under nine seconds - but also delivers big meaty wave of mid-range torque, generated from very low revs (and peaking at just 1750rpm), that bodes well for both long-distance cruising – where it truly sips, with a claimed 5.4 litres per 100km – or slogging through impetus-sapping sludge. Marriage to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox is happy; there are steering wheel paddle controls to hurry things along but they are rarely needed. Left to its own devices this box works with speedy unobtrusiveness.
Volkswagen’s all-wheel drive system is the trademark 4Motion that uses an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch. Primarily driving the front axle, the clutch is able to engage at a moment’s notice to begin delivering torque to the rear axle.
Expectation with cars such as this is that the additional spring travel brought on by the increase in ride height (a 30mm enhancement in this instance) usually allows for a greater degree of suspension compliance than comes with the donor road model: That’s how it always went with the Outback and Legacy wagon.
I’m glad, then, that VW thoughtfully also provided a road-tuned all-wheel-drive Passat 4Motion wagon for comparison because that exercise undid that theory completely.
The latter was in the sporty R specification, so I knew it would be firm – and it was. But perhaps no firmer than the Alltrack’s; which was surprisingly firm indeed, even in the Normal mode that supposedly delivers most compliance.
I guess that’s a result of it maintaining conventional steel coil springs instead of air springs; perhaps, too, there’s also contribution from the tyres.
Alltrack uses Continental ContiSeal Mobility tyres that feature an interstitial viscous layer that is able to retard intrusions from things like nails and stones. Continental claims that the use of its viscous seal technology can prevent up to 85 percent of flat tyres. That’s clever stuff but if they require stiff sidewalls, as run-flat tyres do, then there’s an effect on the ride.
The car does have a lot of tyre noise and also enough surface-sensitivity that you can feel when it strikes coarse chip. But whether that’s the rubber, the suspension tune or a combo of both is hard to tell.
Though it is taut, there is benefit to the dynamic. The sportiness means it remains well contained when you push hard over winding back roads. There is, ultimately, more body roll here than with the donor car, but it never builds to the same level you get in the Tiguan or Touareg and, indeed, it always feels far more precise than either of those.
On tarmac, too just 10 percent of the engine’s power usually goes to the rear wheels – just as occurs in any other 4Motion – another aspect that enforces a strong sense of general commonality in respect to driving feel. I guess that will suit those owners who spend most of their time on road but, as I say, it might surprise others who have transferred from a certain other fare.
The Alltrack drivetrain is more coherently affected by whichever of the driving modes you choose. The Eco, Normal and Sport settings are preset to alter the characteristics of the steering, throttle and gearbox (but not the springs/dampers) – if none feels quite right, then there’s an Individual setting that allows the driver to find a better combo.
That’s all for the road. Hit the dirt and you’ll likely try Off-Road, the setting that actually applies a greater semblance of difference; it automatically recalibrates the settings of the standard electronically controlled traction and stability control systems as well as the hill holder, hill decent system and the dual-clutch gearbox’s shift points, all for added ability in off-road conditions.
The Alltrack doesn’t transform into a Land Rover, but it re-tailors sufficiently to be the antithesis of how it goes on the road. You’ll find a whole new character to the car than when it is in its Sports mode; the most pleasing setting for on-seal open road driving.
The diesel engine also comes into its own when tackling tougher terrain than you might encounter on any shopping mission; there’s a decent dollop of low-pace torque always on hand. It’s a great engine for the car in all its potential driving situations, really. True, it’s not a performance powerhouse by any means, yet the Alltrack would be all the poorer without a powerplant offering such flexibility and strong character.
The diesel also promises to offer excellent towing ability, with a maximum braked towing capacity of 2200kg and good traction: Points that there were brilliantly highlighted in the television ad that was pulled off-air because a couple of viewers complained about it also showing one of the occupants slipping over. It seems ironic that a promo that highlighted a vehicle’s ability to overcome low traction through its technology should be undone by a concern about safety.
But, then, the Alltrack does seem to do it tough in respect to our towing regs. One function that doesn’t come is an optional trailer assist function that provides the driver with guidance via a rear-view camera, which projects images and steering angles onto the infotainment monitor. But not here; the system is flummoxed by our requirement for a retainer chain.
The customer base chasing an elevated car with the extra traction of four-wheel drive, either for towing or venturing into terrain that would upset a normal all-wheel-drive road car, but don’t want the bulk and perhaps the image that comes with a full sports utility might be a small and select group, but the ongoing support for the Outback especially suggests that there is a good following.
It's a car I felt at home in. But that's no surprise - it's why my daily drive is Subaru's equivalent-that-isn't.