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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Passat - Alltrack

Our Opinion

We like
Ride comfort and composure on all surfaces, refinement, interior comfort and quality, value for money
Room for improvement
Over-zealous optional lane-keeping assistance, driver’s seat too high for the tall

26 Oct 2012

DRIVING along a gravel road in South Australia’s Barossa Valley wine region marvelling at the comfort, composure and refinement of the Passat Alltrack in this environment, we glanced at the digital speed readout that read somewhere north of 100km/h, yet the Alltrack’s warped sensation of speed made it feel like 60km/h or less.

The slightly jacked-up ride-height probably had something to do with it, along with the suppression of engine and road noise that only permits the occasional tell-tale tumble of gravel around the wheelarches to penetrate the cabin.

Compared with the conventional top-heavy SUV, the Alltrack’s low centre of gravity adds an extra layer of confidence – or perhaps a false sense of security – to proceedings, as does the off-road button on the centre console that re-tunes the stability, traction and brake systems for loose surfaces.

The button also causes the transmission to hold onto each ratio longer and alters the accelerator pedal response, making the delicate adjustments necessary for low-grip driving easier – but with this mode selected the Alltrack’s typically European touchy brake pedal seems somewhat out of sync. A hill-descent control feature is also activated, but our drive route did not give it cause to kick in.

With its sharp $47,790 (plus on-road costs) price point and long equipment list, the Alltrack is obviously pitched to dethrone the segment-establishing Subaru Outback, which is equipped with a slightly less powerful diesel engine and no automatic transmission (at least until the new year) and costs $46,990.

The Passat’s showroom appeal is high, with the usual Volkswagen high-quality feel to the logically laid out, leather-upholstered cabin, plenty of thoughtful storage spaces and places to put drinks – and none of the hollow-feeling plastics that blight the Subaru.

VW has also fitted a powered tailgate to the Alltrack that shames the Subaru’s manual slammer, behind which is an Outback-bashing 588 litres of cargo capacity and levers to easily fold down the rear seats, liberating a total of 1716 litres (versus 526 and 1677 litres for the Subaru).

The Alltrack has 165mm of ground clearance to the Outback’s 213mm, meaning the Subaru will be more capable of tackling rutted tracks and able to go that bit further when the going gets rough.

We were impressed with the levels of comfort in the Alltrack, our only complaint being a driver’s seat set a little too high for taller drivers, causing the interior mirror and, on vehicles so equipped, the large plastic cover for the lane-departure warning camera to obscure some of the view out.

The ride is commendably compliant, soaking up bumps and even large potholes, but the raised ride has not resulted in much extra body-roll over the standard wagon.

This lack of lean, combined with impressive traction and grip levels, mean the Alltrack handles twisty bitumen with ease, if not excitement.

While the steering feels natural and direct, it does not offer much feel.

We have already mentioned the composure and refinement when the going gets gravelly, and the Alltrack hangs on well in this environment, too, which is just as well given the low sensation of speed and false sense of security this can engender.

A steady dirt or gravel track cornering line can be maintained under throttle as the all-wheel-drive system and electronic differential locks automatically distribute drive to the most appropriate wheels, and the electronics permit a bit of safe fun when deliberately getting the car out of shape.

Volkswagen’s 125kW/350Nm engine is quiet, smooth and refined, and provides plenty of grunt (after a short turbo-lag delay), dispatching hills and overtakes with ease while consuming fuel at the rate of 7.8 litres per 100 kilometres on our test route (compared with the official figure of 6.3L/100km).

The standard six-speed dual-clutch automatic gets on with the job in the background, providing slick, quick shifts, and the extra interactivity of paddle-shifters for those opting for the Sport package that also brings 18-inch alloy wheels, sports seats with premium Nappa leather and rear privacy glass.

As far as we could tell, the step up from 17-inch alloys had no effect on the Alltrack’s ride quality, but we detected a little extra road rumble on coarse-chip surfaces.

Another option pack adds safety technologies like blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping assistance, but the car we drove with this pack unfortunately had a hyperactive lane-keeping system.

The gadget is designed to nudge the steering wheel to alert the driver and keep the car from unintentionally drifting into the next lane, but we suspect the system in the car we drove either had a dodgy sensor or was being confused by textures on the road surface as we and our co-driver both experienced the unnerving feeling of the steering twitching about in our hands on several occasions.

Nevertheless, it speaks volumes that what we suspect to be a one-off fault and the high driver’s seat were all we could really find to complain about on the Passat Alltrack.

This is a capable, composed and comfortable vehicle with plentiful standard equipment and on-board luxuries, plus the bonus of knowing it can be taken a little way off the beaten track if necessary.

Cars like this are the thinking man’s alternative to an SUV – and on first impressions the Alltrack is an intelligent choice.

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