Want to elevate the image of your station wagon? Just jack it up and give it a bold, outdoorsy name.
That’s what Subaru did when it created the Outback so many years ago. Volvo the Cross Country. Audi the Allroad. Each was a hit and brought its brand a much-needed boost. Volkswagen can use one of those in the U.S. right now, so the Golf Alltrack was almost inevitable.
Based on the Golf Sportwagen, the Alltrack features the body cladding, all-wheel-drive system and increase in ground clearance that the formula calls for. Not a sky-high increase, just an extra six-tenths of an inch for a grand total of 6.9 inches. You’ll still have to brake for most garden gnomes.
At a base price of $26,670, the Alltrack also comes with adventuresome roof racks and a six-speed manual transmission that’s on the verge of extinction and needs your support — or you can pay $1,100 more for an automatic if you’re not a stick shift conservationist. All Alltracks are powered by the Golf’s wonderful 170 hp 1.8-liter turbocharged four cylinder, which has a deep and convincing grumble, thanks to VW’s “soundaktor” engine noise enhancement technology. (Don’t worry, it doesn’t affect the emissions!)
The Alltrack isn’t the roomiest compact for rear passengers, but its cargo area is crossover-class. Fold-down seatbacks with a ski pass-through in the armrest make it a versatile hauler that can carry more stuff than a VW Tiguan.
The Alltrack’s slightly raised ride height is the same as the Tiguan’s and gives it a rut-friendlier ride without sacrificing the Golf’s high level of on-road refinement. Along with not-too-snowy streets, it’ll handle most gravel trails just fine. It even has an off-road mode that doesn’t quite turn it into a dune buggy, but optimizes the all-wheel-drive and anti-lock braking systems for slippery surfaces and engages hill descent control, just in case the outdoor music festival is at the bottom of a canyon this year.
The infotainment system is equipped with an inclinometer to tell you how steep that hill is, and a compass to lead the way if you don’t want to spring for the optional navigation system. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration come standard, but the touchscreen can be disappointingly slow.
Not so the Alltrack, which is lively little backpack. The torquey engine has lots of grunt, and its handling is entertaining in a way that taller utility vehicles can’t be. The Sport mode setting cranks up the fun to a point that’s almost too aggressive, as it stubbornly holds on to low gears at high speeds. Even with this edgy vibe, one of my passengers commented on how smooth the ride was, and she was right.
I can’t say that she was a fan of the way the Alltrack’s signature "Marrakesh Brown" seats clashed with the otherwise black interior, but other colors are offered and they’re all upholstered in easy-clean leatherette. There shall be mud, after all.
Though it seems a little out of place in a car ostensibly built for doers, the Alltrack can be equipped with a self-parking feature that sniffs out spots and autonomously steers into them. But the radar cruise control and automatic emergency braking systems that come with it are potential lifesavers after a long, tiring day at the Spartan Race.
The Alltrack has already breathed life into VW’s sales, and it is leaving the Sportwagen in the dust. It probably won’t catch up to the similarly priced and larger Outback or the smaller, more hatchback-like Subaru Crosstrek, but anyone looking for a small crossover alternative with a big name should enjoy the ride.
2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack
Base price: $26,670
As tested: $32,195
Type: 5-passenger, 4-door wagon
Engine: 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 170 hp, 199 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 22 city/30 hwy
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.