There’s something about using a wagon for an epic road trip. In the past, wagons used to dot the American landscape as families hot the road to their favorite summer destinations. They have the practicality to haul the family and all their gear to the holiday spot, while they also look and drive like normal cars. However, as SUVs and crossovers have gained ground, wagons have been left out in the cold. Few manufacturers stuck with wagons, apart from Volvo and Volkswagen.
Whether it’s under the Passat nameplate, the Jetta or the Golf, as it currently stands, VW has kept to building wagons, even when their popularity waned. However, wagons seem to be coming back in recent years. Volkswagen moved the “SportWagen” under the Golf nameplate in 2015, and launched the rugged Alltrack variant in 2016. Sporting a six-speed manual, a 1.4-inch lift over a normal SportWagon and VW’s 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system, how well does the Golf Alltrack fare as a road trip car?
Gasping for air: Boulder to Leadville
To find out just how capable our long-term Golf Alltrack is as a bona fide Colorado car, we needed to take it on a road trip. I drove 600 miles round-trip from Boulder to Powerhorn, Colorado for a family reunion this past weekend. Along the way, there are plains and mountains, highways and dirt tracks, long straights and tight curves.
The first stretch of the trip took me past the historic Flatirons, obscured by smoke from recent wildfires in the picture above. The highway heading south out of Boulder saw the Golf Alltrack reigned in by rush hour traffic and two-lane stretches of highway as I headed toward Interstate 70. At each possible opportunity, I seized the chance to overtake slow-moving cars and trucks. Particularly at altitude, the 2018 Golf Alltrack’s 1.8-liter turbocharged engine makes surprisingly good use of its 170 horsepower and 199 lb-ft of torque. When I was stopped in traffic, the standard leatherette seats proved comfortable and supportive.
The updated 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system was intuitive to use, and I particularly liked having Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support to roll through my playlists on the first leg of the trip. The standard stereo system proved punchy enough, but this car lacks the Fender premium audio system available on SEL-trimmed models. On the downside, however, SEL models are only available with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic.
Heading up the Ike
Finally, after clearing the snarls on the way out of Boulder, I reached Interstate 70. Immediately after heading west from Denver, the highway climbs into the Rocky Mountains. While the first hills weren’t too challenging for the Golf Alltrack, the real climb begins 40 miles to the west – the climb up to the Eisenhower Tunnel. At 11,158 feet above sea level, the tunnel’s west portal marks the highest vehicle tunnel in the world. Despite the steep grades and elevation, I didn’t need to downshift past fourth gear to keep to the speed limit.
Past the all-too-familiar venue of TFL’s Ike Gauntlet runs, it was time to turn south off Interstate 70. As soon as I left the highway, I spotted a gas station. Time to fill up? Past the tourist havens of Loveland Pass, Copper Mountain and Vail, there are relatively few places to fill up before I reached my destination 175 miles away. However, there was one problem: regular gasoline was $4.12 a gallon! That may not sound unreasonable where you live, but that’s 30% more than we pay here in Boulder. Fortunately, the 2018 Golf Alltrack was averaging an impressive 34 mpg, so I kept going. Eventually, with few issues on the climb, I reached the highest city in the United States: Leadville, Colorado.
Second Leg: Leadville to Powderhorn
Leadville sits at twice the elevation of our home base here in Boulder. Even as a native Coloradan, I struggled for air, as did the car. While the turbocharged engine makes up for a bit of the power loss from being at altitude, it did feel sluggish up here. However, since it tips the scales at just over 3,300 pounds, the 2018 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack wasn’t feeling too cumbersome, even if it was down on power.
After leaving Leadville, the sun set behind the Collegiate Peaks, some of the highest peaks in the Rockies. As darkness fell, the two-lane highways of central Colorado teem with wildlife, which makes for a potentially dangerous journey. Fortunately, with a simple flick of the stalk, the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack’s high beams provided plenty of light to see the road ahead, even without the SEL’s HID units. Stopping to fill up just outside of Salida, Colorado – where the Alltrack still managed 34 mpg – I headed toward my final destination.
Final charge: Flies in the ointment (and on the Alltrack)
It was cresting the final mountain ranges and canyons where this Golf Alltrack’s biggest flaws got to me. Maybe I was just tired, or maybe I was just getting impatient. But when you’re downshifting up a mountain, engine braking down the other side, or just sitting in stop-and-go traffic, the clutch and transmission are annoying, to say the least.
Look, I love having a manual transmission. I always have, and I always will. That said, the shifter in this car has too much play for a new car – it’s sloppy and imprecise. I kept missing the shift every time I went from sixth to third gear. The clutch is almost completely devoid of feel and it only engages near the high end.
Another point against the 2018 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack was the ride. On smooth roads, the sportier suspension offers up a fun handling experience. On washed out dirt roads, however, it was jarring. The seats did soak up some of the impact, but the last thirty miles of the trip on dirt roads made the compromise between comfort and handling crystal clear.
As I completed my journey in the fly-spattered Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, I felt it was an admirable road trip car, apart from its manual transmission. It did return between 34-35 mpg on the trip – well above the EPA’s estimated 25 mpg combined rating – and it offers a solid ride, if not the most comfortable one. It is a bit smoother if you stick to smooth roads. Mind you, the purpose of the Alltrack, to some extent, is to head off the beaten track. When you do, the ride may be a bit too stiff for most people’s liking.
Particularly for $30,615, this wagon is practical, efficient, and provides most of the features you need in daily driving. Volkswagen’s 4MOTION all-wheel drive system also provides excellent grip on pavement, in the wet and on loose surfaces. If you’re looking at an Alltrack as a family car, go for the six-speed dual-clutch automatic. It costs $1,100 more, but the manual in this car is too imprecise for enthusiasts, and the automatic will give an even smoother experience.
SPECIFICATIONS: 2018 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack SE (Update)
|Price as Tested:
|Engine:||1.8-liter turbocharged I4|
|Drivetrain (Layout):||Transversely mounted front engine, all-wheel drive|
|Horsepower:||170 hp @ 4,500 rpm|
|Torque:||199 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm|
|Suspension:||Front: Strut-type w/ lower control arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers and 22 mm stabilizer bar
Rear: – Multilink, coil springs, telescopic dampers, 19 mm stabilizer bar
|Brakes:||Front: 11.3 x 1.0-in vented front discs
Rear: 10.7 x 0.4-in solid rear discs
|Tires:||Falken Singer P205/55 R17 all-season|
|Fuel capacity:||14.5 gallons|
|Fuel economy (EPA):||22 City/30 Highway/25 Combined MPG
Observed: 34.6 mpg (90% highway driving)
|Turning Circle:||35.8 feet|
|Curb Weight:||3,351 pounds|
Check out the Alltrack against one of its main rivals, the Subaru Outback: