Many automotive pundits looking to the future believe that the four-door sedan is a dying breed – and that the new mainstream choice, the default choice for most consumers, will be crossovers. Their higher seating positions, all-weather capability and handy cargo space give them a compelling advantage over passenger cars.
Volkswagen is looking to take advantage of the trend with a new version of its Golf compact wagon, the Alltrack, which adds all-wheel-drive, a slightly higher ride height and some decorative trim. Think of it as VW's equivalent to the Subaru Outback, albeit in a smaller package.
However, Volkswagen has been quietly making significant progress at its ordinary small sedan, the Jetta. It received mixed reviews when it debuted back in 2011, and has changed little cosmetically since then. But the 2017 Jetta, despite its age, makes a better impression than the new Alltrack. VW has been steadily boosting the car's value quotient and improving its fuel economy, and its composed ride and handling continue to shine.
More attention will be given to the new Alltrack. After all, it's new and it's the vehicle in the hotter market segment. Moreover, Volkswagen's only other non-luxury crossover model, the Tiguan, is even older than the Jetta – and far less competitive, due to a high price and poor crash-test performance. Many shoppers in the VW dealership will definitely be directed toward the Alltrack.
The Alltrack has some strong points, to be clear. Like the Golf on which it's based, it has a peppy engine; pleasant ride and handling; and cleanly styled, high-quality cabin. And its economy-car roots would seem to promise a level of value and fuel economy that conventional crossovers like a Honda CR-V can't match.
But the Alltrack's drawbacks consign it to a fairly small niche.
It's much less roomy than a CR-V or similar crossovers, with a comparatively tight rear seat and cargo hold – the Volkswagen is clearly an alternative to a small sedan, whereas the CR-V is more comparable to a midsize one. You don't get the high seating position of a crossover, either. Moreover, the Alltrack is actually even more expensive, with a lofty base price of $27,770. The tested midlevel SE model is $31,350, without even power seat adjustment or automatic climate control. As a final issue, the EPA fuel economy rating for mixed driving is just 25 mpg – worse than the CR-V and a few other bigger, less expensive crossovers. Even the big Outback is less expensive and more fuel-efficient than the Alltrack.
You can save a bit of money by picking the new Golf Sportwagen 4Motion, which is the same car – including the all-wheel-drive system – without the 1.4-inch higher ride height or cosmetic enhancements. But in general, these VW wagons focus on premium over utility – consider them as an option, especially if extra space and a high seating position feel more bulky than beneficial, but don't buy one without scoping out the CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Mazda CX-5, Subaru Forester and/or Ford Escape.
The Jetta, meanwhile, is a more mainstream product, and it's grown more so in recent years as VW added more standard features. It's competitively priced at a base price of $18,715, and the tested midlevel SE, at $22,815, is loaded with features that include a touchscreen infotainment system; a proximity key with push-button start; blind-spot monitoring; heated faux-leather seats; and a sunroof.
The cabin appointments can feel budget-grade, but the Jetta delivers impressive composure on the road by the standards of an economy car. It lacks the pizzazz of the latest Honda Civic, the zippy fun of a Mazda3 and the user-friendly simplicity of a Hyundai Elantra, but it's a pleasant and practical overall package.
Volkswagen made the Jetta much more competitive for the 2016 model year with a new standard engine: a 1.4-liter with 150 horsepower. It replaced a weak, outmoded engine on the base car and a powerful but comparatively fuel-thirsty 1.8-liter on the SE – the engine still standard in the Golf and Alltrack. With the 1.4-liter, the Jetta's EPA ratings aren't class leading at 32 mpg in mixed driving with an automatic transmission, but they're no longer a liability.
Combined that with the additional standard features, and the Jetta's subdued design aesthetic and pleasant driving experience help it fit a bigger niche than the overpriced Golf Alltrack.