IAIN ROBERTSON 

To be fair to VW, the 4×4 estate car is not a new concept, writes Iain Robertson, and just as there exists a market for the Subaru Legacy, Volvo Cross-Country and Skoda Octavia Scout, a hiked-up Passat is sure to attract anti-SUV drivers…maybe.

Attending a soiree one evening, around thirty years ago, I had been spotted by the hostess, who could see that I was struggling to juggle a plate of party-type snacks, my glass of wine and a need to shake hands with almost everyone else attending. She very politely gave me a small pronged plastic item, the likes of which I had never seen before, that she so gently slipped over the edge of the quarter-plate and, into which, she hooked the stem of my wineglass. That did it for me! Within days, I had purchased a box of plate-latching glass-holders…none of which I ever used subsequently.

Sustenance is an unintentional theme with my next acquisition, an amazing grill carrying the name of a famous black American boxer. Encouraged to buy one (it was heavily promoted on TV), it was used once, considered too fussy and messy to use regularly, before it sat, in its box, on the lower shelf of a kitchen cabinet for almost fifteen years, prior to disposal.

Then there was the foot spa…given to me, as a Christmas present, the concept of weary feet soothed by essential oils, warm water and an annoyingly buzzy, vibrating foot-pad seemed almost logical. Sadly, size 14 feet do not fit with any comfort in a plastic bucket designed for a maximum of size 10 extremities. Following one abortive attempt to work the device, having spilt fragrant oily water on the lounge carpet, it was re-boxed and parked in the bottom of a fitted wardrobe, ‘lost’ during a recent house move.

Between self-regulating kitty litter trays, living-room cloud projectors and battery-powered, self-stirring hot-chocolate mugs, our world is packed with items that seem so sensible at the time of purchase but which lose their lustre fairly quickly, when reality bites. The 4×4 estate car, while a narrow escapee, could readily slip into the category of non-essential exigence…or could it?

Modern electronics have given us 4x4s that are not, such as the Peugeot 3008, which is all-SUV, apart from the fact that only its front wheels are driven, although all four wheels are monitored for levels of slip, which means that a virtual limited-slip differential is created and, even on quite dicey surfaces, traction is maintained. In some ways, this is the technology that you never thought you needed but apparently you do.

The whole SUV ‘thing’ is, to me, a bit like ‘Brexit’. There exists a raft of people that want it, even though they do question (slightly) whether they need it, or not, while the very people that did not want it, appear to be in charge of an administration that seems hell-bent on getting it. This is not fashion. It is definitely not a fad. Yet, the whole precept of ‘crossover’ is that we are given the pretence of 4×4, even though 4×2 suffices. Brexit = crossover vehicles…maybe.

Volkswagen’s Passat is an undeniably handsome motorcar. Styled crisply, well-equipped, spacious and comfortable, it is impeccably detailed, if verging on being clinically devoid of character. It possesses history too, having been VW’s first front-driven car, following the demise of a host of rear-engined/rear-driven models. It has grown a lot in the past 44 years, en-route to becoming one of the more in-demand business cars in the UK.

Of course, as highlighted earlier, 4×4 estates are fairly commonplace and increasingly so these days. Both BMW and Mercedes-Benz offer all-wheel-drive versions of popular saloons and estate cars, often without fanfare, certainly without the extra body addenda. Audi manages the same situation by adding in the magical word ‘quattro’ but none of them promise the edgier ‘go-anywhere’ capability of the versions with cladding attached…such as the aforementioned Volvo, Skoda and Subaru. The big question is, would you want to tackle anything rougher than a gravel forestry drive in your £35k+ Alltrack, despite its underbody protection, with its long front and rear body overhangs that would be all but guaranteed to get hung-up in the scenery?

Even if you are still feeling drawn to cars of this ilk, then ask a few questions at your local Ambulance Service. Look at the ragged front bumpers and door sills of cars in this class, which are understandably popular with public service transport suppliers. Specialists need the space on offer and the 4×4 system is an added bonus, when mounting kerbs, charging across open expanses of ground and tackling access points off the beaten track…the access-all-areas capability provided more competently by proper, high-riding 4x4s…maybe.

Okay. I am impressed slightly by the safety angle. The Alltrack never feels less than superglued to the road surface, even though its slightly increased ride height does induce a teensy amount of extra body-roll, because the centre of gravity has been raised accordingly. Yet, the lower-riding, front-driven alternative seldom feels less than stable and, even in awful weather conditions, the standard-fit stability and traction control systems ensure that any potential waywardness is monitored and managed to perfection.

As the top model of the Passat range, this Alltrack is powered by the 187bhp version of the Group’s punchy 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine (295lbs ft of torque). There is a lesser 148bhp alternative, driving through a 6-speed manual ’box. It is a unit that is starting to show its age these days, being gruffer at idle and low speeds than most of its rivals. Yet, it is a strong engine and excellent sound-deadening ensures that occupants are seldom troubled by the noises that are more prevalent externally. Mind you, the drone at motorway speeds (65-80mph indicated) can become a little wearing, although it is probably created more by the big, 19-inch wheel and tyre combination on the test car. It drives through a 6-speed DSG (twin-clutch, automated-manual) transmission, with either lever, or paddle-shift options.

Performance is typically good, the car despatching the 0-60mph sprint in around 7.7 seconds, before reaching a maximum speed of 136mph, which is fair for a wagon that tips the scales at 1.7-tonnes. It emits 137g/km CO2 and is rated for BIK tax at 27%, while road tax demands £200 in year one and £140 annually thereafter. Although its Official Combined fuel return is given as 54.3mpg and, let’s face it, VW is not exactly in a position to make these figures unattainable, I was content to record 49.6mpg in regular use, again, not a bad return for such a large car.

The driving experience is a mixed bag really. Floor the throttle and, in typical TDi form, the Alltrack never feels that urgent. However, whisker the accelerator, in the process allowing the torque to do its task, and the car feels invincible. It has a towing capacity of 2.2-tonnes, which makes it eminently suitable for lugging a company trailer, or the family’s caravan. The increased ride height (a marginal +28mm), allied to longer travel dampers and springs means that the ride quality is slightly floaty. There are zero control issues, even though the direct-acting power steering is slightly lifeless in terms of feedback. The brakes are strong, possessing an over-servoed feel on low speed applications but tremendous retardation at higher speeds.

Having suggested that the interior is beautifully bolted together, its tall front seats are not merely accommodating but are so comfortable that they could do fine service in some cars costing a lot more than the Passat. The range of adjustability of both driver’s seat and steering column is such that almost any size and shape of driver can be accommodated and the seat upholstery not only feels durable but looks elegant too. All-round visibility is simply superb, thanks to slim pillars and a glassy cabin. The test car featured an all-digital instrument panel (at extra cost), which can be programmed to provide plenty of on-the-go information. It is supported by the customary VW Group centre console screen for nav, multi-media and rearward view.

I should state that I am a Passat fan, even though I might not see the point of the Alltrack variant, and the car’s dimensions make it one of the biggest in class, which goes some way towards amortising the fairly steep price tag. There is plenty of in-cabin storage and its boot is simply enormous. Ironically, the only car that can beat it is the Skoda Superb…also available in woolly jumper form, if you want to pay the premium.

Conclusion:   If you really must have a car that some people (including me) might call superfluous, then the VW Passat Alltrack will fit the bill. To be fair, it will not be as costly to live with as a conventional SUV but, then, the regular estate car would be markedly less expensive and no less capable, while not attracting as much tax levy as an Alltrack. When it comes to market niche-filling, the German car brands have become more adept at the practice than the Japanese.

 

 

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).