One sector of the car market that has remained relatively buoyant during the recession, is the SUV, or 4x4, market. In an era of lifestyle vehicles, many of them never tackle any obstacles more daunting than speed bumps, but the tough, outdoor image SUVs project is clearly popular.
Even among us country dwellers, few will challenge their 4x4’s abilities with a full mud-plugging test. The majority of us simply need a car that won’t shy away from unsurfaced farm track, will be able traverse the occasional grassy field and won’t spin to a halt at the first sign of the dreaded white stuff.
That’s where the four-wheel-drive estate car comes into its own. Volkswagen
is not new to this market. They first offered a four-wheel-drive version of the Passat in 2001.
But, probably inspired by the success of other Volkswagen Group offerings like Audi Allroad quattro and the Skoda Octavia Scout, they have now pushed their four-wheel-drive estate into the limelight, with a specific model name and a stronger ‘soft roader’ image, as the Passat Alltrack.
As part of the transformation, the Alltrack comes the ride height raised by 3 cm to give greater ground clearance. The approach and departure angles, for off-road slopes, have also been increased.
Visually there are what Volkswagen call “rugged body enhancements”, such as the wheel arch extensions and underbody protection panels. Although the visible protection panels are mainly cosmetic, there is actually a steel-plate guard under the engine. The Passat Alltrack also has an uprated towing capacity of 2,000 kg – up 200 kg on the equivalent Passat Estate.
The Passat Alltrack is available in the UK with three drivetrain choices – a 140PS 2.0-litre turbo-diesel with a six-speed manual gearbox at £28,580, a 170PS 2.0-litre turbo-diesel with a six-speed DSG automatic transmission at £31,130, or a more powerful 177PS two-litre turbo-diesel DSG at £31,355. It was 170PS DSG version that I had the opportunity to test.
In normal driving the Passat Alltrack puts most of its power to the front wheels, with only 10% going to the rear. However, when any slippage is detected, up to 100% of the power can be switched to the rear wheels to keep the Passat Alltrack mobile.
Like its more off-road orientated Tiguan sibling, there is an off-road driving mode that can be selected by a button in the centre console. This alters the ABS to work better on loose surfaces, activates faster-reacting electronic differential locks to limit wheel spin and activates the hill descent assist, which limits the vehicle’s speed descending slippery slopes, where use of the brakes could be disastrous.
On DSG-equipped models, like my test car, the off-road mode also alters the gearbox shift characteristics, tuning them for off-road use. While that is quite an impressive arsenal of off-road weapons, it is worth quickly reminding ourselves that this is not a full-blown off-roader, but you can tackle forays off the black stuff with some confidence.
The Passat Alltrack is identical to the normal estate car in its dimensions and loadspace is also the same at 523 litres with the seats up and 1641 litres, with the seats folded.
With good space for four, possibly five passengers, plus that generous loadspace this really is a very practical family transport. I found it effortless and refined to drive on a range of city and country journeys over my five days.
With this seventh iteration of the Passat, Volkswagen have paid a great deal of attention to refinement and it shows. Features like thicker glass and greater sound deadening have targeted a reduction in cabin noise. Certainly, the Passat Alltrack is a relaxed and refined cruiser. But it is also remarkably nimble on the side roads, especially considering the higher ride height.
It’s perhaps surprising that there are no steering wheel paddles to control the manual DSG shifts, which makes it not quite so easy to select your own gears – something that is useful on twisty country roads, particularly when entering a corner on a trailing throttle. That said, the gearbox is pretty good at selecting the gears to suit your driving style. Other than that, I could maybe have wished for a little more feedback from the steering.
Acceleration 0-62 mph is quoted at 8.9 seconds – a time that, not so many years ago, would rival many hot hatches. The top speed is listed at 131 mph. Yet fuel economy remains strong, with a combined figure of 47.9 mpg. I found my real-life average hovered around 30 mpg in both city and country driving – a figure that seems quite reasonable for a 4x4 estate car.
With its combination of practicality, comfort and refinement, plus good accommodation the Passat already has strong credentials to offer. Add in the ability to keep going when conditions get tough and the Passat Alltrack makes a pretty convincing case for itself. It deserves the higher profile that Volkswagen are now seeking.