So you want to negotiate terrain more challenging than the driveway but can't cop being seen in an SUV? Despair not.
Volkswagen has toughened up its Passat wagon so that it goes nose-to-nose with the Subaru Outback as well as its siblings from Skoda and Audi. It's called, with only slight hubris, the Alltrack.
At $47,790 the all-wheel-drive Alltrack is $1800 price hike over the front-drive Passat 125TDI. That's $1000 over the diesel Outback Premium, but the VW brings a standard six speed DSG auto to Subaru's manual sole transmission choice
Other standard kit includes chrome roof rails, leather trim, dual-zone climate control with rear-seat vents, a reach and rake adjustable leather-wrapped steering wheel with sound system and phone controls, Bluetooth phone and audio link, a hard-drive equipped satnav and sound system with USB input and a powered tailgate. It rides on 17-inch alloys with self-sealing tyres and a space-saver spare.
Options include pearl-effect paint ($700), sunroof ($2000) and parking assistance system ($900). The two option packs look decent value. The $3300 driver assistance and visibility Package adds intelligent bi-xenon lights, lane departure warning and blind spot warning.
For $2800, the Sport package gets 18s a multi-function leather steering wheel with gearshifter paddles, Nappa full-grain leather trim and heavier rear window tint. The adaptive cruise control, that includes the auto-braking accident warning and avoidance system, is a $2000 option and the adaptive damper suspension option (with either 17in or 18in alloy wheels) is $1650.
The Alltrack uses the 2.0-litre common-rail direct-injection turbodiesel four. It's a proven unit with 125kW/350Nm and a thirst of 6.3l/100km barely more than the 150kg lighter standard Passat. Electric stability aids are disabled by a button's push while the off-road system also quickens the reaction time of the electronic differential locks to prevent wheel spin, automatically activates hill descent control to a higher engine speed and if the manual shift mode is employed, the gear will be held and not over-ridden by the gearbox computer. The 4Motion drivetrain feeds only 10 per cent of power to the rear axle until the electro-hydraulic system sees a need for more.
The staid squared-off conservative look of the Passat wagon has been beefed up with wheelarch trim and added bits on the front and rear bumpers. More importantly, the Alltrack's ground clearance has risen to 165mm. That's down on the Outback's 213mm, the VW's bootspace is at 588 litre almost 100 litres greaters than the Soobs. It's a clever and flexible space too, with luggage net and remote release for the seat backs.
The Passat scores five stars under the NCAP. A notable feature in this edition is an "extended" electronic diff lock and four-wheel drive. The driver gets an auto-dimming rearvision centre and driver's side mirror, tyre pressure monitoring and some underbody protection.
First impressions of the Alltrack are not surprisingly Passat with hiking boots and a bit more swagger. The six-speed auto plays well with the turbo diesel, humming swiftly along at freeway speeds and providing more than enough punch for overtaking. The ride is on the firm side and a little jittery in the Sport package; I'd be inclined to stick with the standard wheel/tyre package.
Winding back roads are not going to trip the Alltrack that height increase is not significant enough to make it lean drastically. The downside to that is 165mm of ground clearance is going to mean you'll test the model-specific underbody protection a little more than you would in a Subaru Outback once you're off the bitumen.
The loose-surface dirt road is easily traversed as well, with the all-wheel drive system and driver aids working together to prevent too much wandering. The front-drive biased all-wheel drive system is not my personal preference - the more even split engaged by Subaru or the VW's cousins at Audi are better balanced. The Off Road mode brings in a clever hill descent control system that has its speed set by the driver's right foot, but given the low clearance you won't be stepping over big rocks and ruts.
If you value a German badge over a Japanese one, the Alltrack is a family wagon that can complete a broad range of modern SUV tasks from fire trails to the school run.
Volkswagen Passat Alltrack
Price: from $47,790
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Resale: 50 per cent (Source: Glass's Guide)
Service interval: 15,000km/12 months
Safety rating: five star
Spare: space saver
Engine: 2.0-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder, 125kW/350Nm
Transmission: 6-speed twin-clutch automated manual; 4WD
Body: 4.9m (L); 1.8m (w); 1.6m (h)
Thirst: 6.31/100km, tank 70 litres; 166g/km CO2