New Volkswagen Alltrack takes aim at the Outback

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The 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack has clean exterior styling.

Hinrich Woebcken, Volkswagen's new top gun in North America, is pretty candid by automotive executive standards.

Speaking to media wretches at a regional show-and-tell for the newly minted Volkswagen Golf Alltrack crossover arriving in showrooms this month, the CEO underscored the need for "regaining trust and making things right" in the wake of VW's Dieselgate.

He also talked about the automaker's new North American strategy, which includes an emphasis on crossover SUVs and electrics.

The compact Alltrack is the first shove in what Woebcken called "the SUV push." It will be followed by a Chattanooga, Tenn.-built midsize crossover arriving next year, and then the Tiguan LWB (long wheelbase).

The Alltrack is essentially an upmarket Golf SportWagen with all-wheel-drive, more ground clearance, and some SUV styling cues, notably its bumpers and rocker panel cladding. The automaker has it arm wrestling in the marketplace with the Subaru Outback, but that's a marketing sangria made by mixing apples and oranges.

The Subaru is a midsize crossover, while the Alltrack is a compact. The base 2017 Alltrack lists for $26,950 when equipped with an automatic transmission. A comparable 2017 Outback is $1,305 cheaper. The roomier Outback also has better fuel economy, more ground clearance, and a more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system.

The flip side is that the base Alltrack is much better equipped than the Outback, more refined, and more fun to drive. It is also more handsome, inside and out.

The Alltrack was described by Megan Garbis, the Golf family's product manager, as a "ruggedized" SportWagen. In addition to the SUV styling touches, this process included raising the ride height six-tenths of an inch, to 6.1, or to 6.9 with the taller 18-inch wheels and tires. The ruggedization also entails an off-road mode that engages hill descent control.

But like most crossovers, including the Outback, the Alltrack is intended for rather mild off-road duty. Its real role is to enhance traction and control on snowy and icy roads.

The Alltrack enhances on-road pleasure as well as traction. The driving dynamics are as refined and enjoyable as the clean exterior styling and the interior accoutrements. It is composed in the corners and very responsive to throttle and steering inputs. The steering ratio is right on the money and so is the suspension damping.

Happily, the suspension matches its agility with a nice ride - and the cabin matches that ride comfort with a generous serving of quietude.

Quite sufficient motivation for the Alltrack is derived from a mighty-mite 1.8-liter four equipped with a turbocharger and direct injection. It's rated at a modest 170 horsepower, but its nearly 200 pounds of torque get it off its duff smartly enough.

Initially, this power will get to the four wheels via VW's DSG dual-clutch six-speed automatic. That gearbox will be augmented next year by a six-speed manual that will knock $1,100 off the car's price.

The Alltrack will come in three grades: the S model ($26,950 with the automatic); the SE ($30,530), and the SEL ($32,890). The S and SE will be offered with the manual or automatic, the SEL only with the automatic.

I test-drove both the S and SE models. I thought the base S was well-equipped, with everything from heated power seats and mirrors to a cooled glove box and a rear camera. The SEL threw in the automotive answer to everything but the kitchen sink.

alhaasauto@aol.com