Road Test: Can a Golf Alltrack Keep Up with a Grand Cherokee?

What is it about a foolish quest that inspires us? The number one pick in the all time list of novels (going chronologically) is Don Quixote, whose name literally came to mean exceedingly idealistic and unrealistic. Anyway, I’m not totally sure why I’ve got Don Quixote on my mind as I line up behind a Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk at the mouth of a snowy trail.

So here’s the deal. Volkswagen (along with every other automaker) makes a big deal out of how much more capable its cars are thanks to the addition of a differential sending power to two extra wheels (in this case the back wheels, but it doesn’t really matter). Specifically, VW has made a big deal about this in reference to its new Golf Alltrack, a wagon with 6.9 inches of ground clearance and some plastic cladding said to be able to conquer all tracks. My question is, is it writing checks it can’t cash?

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At the launch event for this handsome ode to the Lee Valley, VW sent a bunch of automotive journalists and also me to an off-road trail and let us test the car’s off-road button. As impressive as the test was, we were on a route specifically selected by the car’s maker. That this car would complete the course was, frankly, a matter of course. We needed another test.

Jeep, as some of you may know, makes a big deal out 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, I could petition Sergio Marchionne to give the Alltrack one of those impressive badges and in the process 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 one of Jeep’s Grandest Cherokees, the excitingly named 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 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?

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The first thing I did was walk the path to see what I was up against and 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. The thing about driving a car your career depends upon not damaging onto a path whose main job is damaging cars, is that it can make you feel real dumb real quick. I immediately started thinking about other ideas for an article and reminiscing about how good the Alltrack had been in Seattle, when I tested it on VW’s off-road course.

But by gum, I had driven an hour out of town to test an off-road button, and I’ll be damned if I’m not dumb enough to follow through on a bad idea. So I went ahead with the plan. 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 (Auto Guide’s 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.

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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. 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.

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The car’s only real difficulty 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.

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 going wherever it’s likely to go. As far as I’m concerned, the Alltrack can cash all the checks it’s written. I don’t think I’ll be petitioning Sergio for one of his “Trail Rated” badges, but with that in mind, I will say that the “Alltrack” badge is well earned.

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