Here’s how this happened. Volkswagen (along with every other automaker) makes a big deal about how much more capable its cars are thanks to the addition of four-wheel drive. Specifically, VW has made a big deal about this in reference to its new Golf Alltrack, an AWD wagon with 6.9 inches of ground clearance and some plastic body cladding said to be able to conquer all tracks. My question is, is it writing checks it can’t cash?
At the launch event for this wagon, VW sent a bunch of automotive journalists and also me to an off-road trail to let us test the car’s off-road button. As impressive as the test was, we were on a route specifically selected by VW, so of course, it wouldn’t be exceedingly difficult. We needed another test.
Jeep, as some of you may know, makes a big deal about of how capable its vehicles are, going so far as to bestow upon them “Trail Rated” badges of its own creation. I figured if I could keep up with one of those Jeeps, I could get the Alltrack one of those impressive badges and prove that it’s more than just a transparent piece of PR nonsense. But it couldn’t be just any Jeep, and I didn’t think the Golf would keep up with a Wrangler, so we got our hands on the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk.
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The stage was set. The Golf Alltrack would try its little 1.8-liter heart out to follow the Grand Cherokee as far off the road as possible. To be clear, never did I consider this to be a fair comparison. The Jeep costs nearly twice as much as the Alltrack and with an adjustable ride height that maxes out at a staggering 11 inches, nobody expected the two to be evenly matched. But that was kind of the point. Lining up the cars next to each other pretty much told the whole story. The big American SUV towered over the little German wagon, but there is no joy in life more acute than the joy of punching above your weight. Taking a car where it has no business being is hilarious fun. And who doesn’t like a good David and Goliath story?
ALSO SEE: 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk Review
The first thing I did was walk the path to see what I was up against and check out where the potential turnaround points were so that I could put my tail firmly between my legs and bail if need be. As I did this, I saw deep ruts and tall, undercarriage-tearing rocks. The confidence that had filled me that morning was evaporating, but it was time to begin our experiment.
The Jeep took the lead to blaze a path and I followed, staying far enough back to let its driver get out and lead me safely over or around the bigger obstacles. Almost immediately, we ran into the first obstacle, a worryingly steep downhill turn over some big rocks. Crawling slowly around them, leaning heavily on the hill descent mode, the Alltrack made it through without any trouble, which, honestly, was already farther than either I or the Jeep’s driver (AutoGuide.com’s Road Test Editor Dan Ilika) had expected it to go. Buoyed by this early victory, we trundled down the trail, finding the going pretty easy. The Alltrack drove onto banks to straddle deep ruts or avoid branches, never once spinning its wheels or in any way indicating that it was unhappy with its environs.
Eventually — inevitably — the Alltrack had to stop. The obstacle that stopped its progress was a rock that I know on camera looks tiny, but might as well have been Everest because the Alltrack just wasn’t going to make it over or around. And even if it had, there were even deeper undulating ruts that followed with nary a turnaround in sight. The Jeep, of course, easily made it over. If we’d been willing to risk damage, the Alltrack could have made it farther, but I’m pretty sure that’s the oldest excuse in the woods. So best to just accept defeat graciously, knowing that the car had performed admirably. We knew that height would be the major difficulty for the Alltrack going in, but thanks to its 4Motion AWD system and some pretty good tires, it made it around a shocking number of obstacles with no trouble at all. And even more impressively, it made it back up that steep, snowy, rocky first obstacle without so much as a groan.
The car’s only real issue while off-roading was the 6-speed DSG transmission, which is a little surgy at low speeds, making it a little difficult to crawl over bumps. But with a little practice and some care, I learned how to handle the transmission like a pro, which turned out to be useful on the road, too. And that was kind of the point of this test. I don’t really think that anyone is taking their Alltrack to Moab to hang out with Jeep bros, but when we take cars out of their comfort zone, just like when we take ourselves out of our comfort zone, we improve.
The fact that the Alltrack can go farther off-road than you’d expect means that you’re incredibly unlikely to get stuck during your daily commute or on your way to the lake or cottage. As far as I’m concerned, the Alltrack can cash all the checks it’s written. I don’t think I’ll be petitioning for a “Trail Rated” badge, but with that in mind, I will say that the “Alltrack” badge is well earned.