The ferry from Seattle's waterfront to Bainbridge Island, located just a few miles off the coast of the Northwest's most populous metropolis, offers a unique viewpoint on the city's changing waterfront. Construction cranes jockey for vertical real estate with the already-built luxury apartment buildings that stand up straight and tall behind Pike's Market, bolstering the landmark with their promise of ever larger numbers of hungry souls seeking the freshest seafood and produce in the city.
The all-new 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack sitting at the very rear of the ferry's lower deck embodies a similar renewal. As we pull farther away from the shore, the Alltrack's bulging fenders and roof rack are framed by a skyline that's shifting almost as quickly as VW's lineup in response to the sea-change in what Canadians are seeking in a family vehicle.
SUVs have been crowned king, and if you have any doubt simply take a snapshot of the sales charts that have seen large and midsize sedans fade from view as their taller-riding counterparts siphon off much of the industry's new business. After years of building a brand around small, entry-level cars, and determined to rebuild in the face of the devastating diesel scandal that has sliced inventory in half, Volkswagen has turned an SUV-friendly face towards the future ― and the Golf Alltrack is its first olive branch.
I know what you're thinking: The Alltrack isn't really an SUV. That matched my first impression as well as I left the ferry port behind to venture out on the tree-lined roads that dominate Bainbridge Island's infrastructure. From the driver's seat, the Alltrack does nothing to separate itself from the solid and comfortable driving dynamics of the standard Golf Sportwagon, or even the somewhat lighter Golf hatchback.
Rather than market the Golf Alltrack on the basis of its oily bits, Volkswagen has taken another tack and centered the story on the car's character. Yes, for the most part, this is a Sportwagon that's hit the gym and protein supplements hard enough to grow fender flares, bulging bumpers, and rock-deflecting side sills, but it's also one that rides higher off the ground (+15 mm) and looks more aggressive than the mom-and-pop-mobile standard Golf.
It's a smart decision to sell lifestyle over engineering, especially since it lets VW slip a small crossover into showrooms quickly and with very little development cost while it prepares the next-generation Tiguan and an even larger 3-row hauler for release as 2018 models. It also gives the German brand its first real head-to-head competitor with Subaru, a company that's seen its foundation of uber-useful AWD vehicles fuel incredible growth over the past five years.
Bainbridge is definitely Subaru country, with Foresters, Outbacks, and Crosstreks beyond count roaming the streets of the coastal towns that serve as my guideposts on the day's single lap around the island. The 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack fits in perfectly as I pull into the Olympic Outdoor Center in the town of Port Gamble, Washington, tucked just behind the Port Gamble General Store and facing a beautiful, flat expanse of placid water. It's been 15 years, at least, since I've sunk down inside the cockpit of a kayak like the one mounted on the roof rack of the Alltrack parked just up the beach, but knifing through the bay until the shore is a thin line on the horizon serves up an inner peace broken only by the call of distant cormorants harassing fishing boats at the mouth of the harbour.
Kayaks give way to Suquamish native territory as I move further across the island's periphery, and finally the pavement disappears altogether to reveal 25 kilometres of narrow, twisting gravel road. The woods on either side are dark and lush, with fallen logs, moss, and thick rain forest tree trunks recalling a time when history was passed down as an oral tradition. As the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack blasts past logging cuts and dense foliage that scatters the sunlight on the road ahead like coins glinting on the tarmac, I'm impressed by how quickly the 4Motion system is able to break free from its front-wheel drive bias and send torque to the rear axle every time I ask it to help me steer out of a corner that I may have entered just a touch too fast.
With 170 horsepower and 199 lb-ft of torque on tap from a turbocharged 1.8L 4-cylinder engine, my forward progress is spirited and altogether manageable. For reasons only VW product planners know, Canadian buyers can't take advantage of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters like those offered on their American cousins down south, but the 6-speed dual-clutch transmission does an admirable job of selecting the correct cog for the duration of our time together. Fuel efficiency takes a hit with AWD, of course (roughly 20% poorer than a front-wheel drive Sportwagon), but the Golf Alltrack boasts a small footprint and remains a frugal alternative to a traditional SUV, which is less likely to offer the same handling competence or ease of parking.
Just before boarding the ferry for the return trip to Seattle's urban charms, I'm given the opportunity to shepherd the 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack through a hilly off-road course, one designed to demonstrate the vehicle's hill descent control system and unique “off-road” mode not available on other Sportwagons. I carefully clamber over loose rocks and hardened soil, conscious at all times of the slightly taller but still modest ground clearance afforded by the Golf platform, emerging at the end unscathed and reluctant to leave Bainbridge behind.
It's something very, very few VW owners will ever do, of course ― the wagon's all-wheel drive system is destined to spend more time dealing with snowy pavement than remote forest trails ― but the fact remains that should the need arise, so will the Alltrack. In a way, it's a microcosm of the challenges Volkswagen is facing as it attempts to reclaim its foothold with Canadian car buyers, sans TDI, and currently lacking a compelling crop of almighty SUVs. It might not get there the way we all expect it to, but some day ― soon ― Volkswagen will claw its way to the end of that trail, dust itself off, and hit the road running once again.