He Said, She Said Comparison Test: Sport Activity Wagons

2017 Subaru Outback vs 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

Suppose you’re one of the folks in-the-know who have realized that station wagons (or “sport wagons” as they’re now known) are making a well-deserved comeback. Maybe you want in on this wagon action, but you’re not sure how you could possibly survive a Canadian winter without some extra ground clearance and all-wheel-drive. Well, we have some good news for you: we’ve assembled two capable, comfortable and commendable wagons for your consideration. But these aren’t your momma’s faux-wood-panelled station wagon; these are sporty – yet rugged – multi-purpose wagons that look cool and should be able to get you anywhere most people need to go.

The two wagons you see here share some fundamentals, like a 4-cylinder engine, a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system and room aboard for you, plus four companions (and all your luggage). Beyond that, these two seem to have more differences than similarities.

The Volkswagen Alltrack, based on its fellow Golf stablemates, is smaller (despite recently winning AJAC’s Best New Large Car for 2017) and puts the power from a contemporary turbocharged engine through a sophisticated dual-clutch automatic transmission. The larger Subaru Outback, on the other hand, gets its start as a mid-size Legacy family sedan, grows a bigger luggage area, and makes do with the brand’s ubiquitous horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder.

After driving both of these practical machines for a week, Allie and I have collected our observations and picked our favourite, finding some very different things to love – and loathe – about these cars, along the way.

How They Look

Allie says:  It’s as if these two were each family cars that attempted to put on some outdoorsy-clothes and go for a hike.  The Volkswagen, shopping at a high end clothing store, is outfitted in brand name yoga pants and some cross trainers, while the Subaru is sporting full-on hiking boots and a 30L backpack, ready for an endurance hike up a mountain.

Jeff says:   Allie’s right about one thing, the Volkswagen does look like it’s trying a bit too hard to be something it’s not (an off-roader), whereas the Subaru, with its considerable ground clearance seems like it could actually get you places off the beaten path. The VW is the stylish choice with its perfect proportions, nicely-finished detail around the lights and trim, and its big wheels, but the Subaru is the car for pragmatists who have more stuff to haul and don’t care if its wheels are unfashionably small.

Much of the Outback’s styling is derivative and uninspired (not done any favours by its Witness Protection Grey paint colour), whereas the sassy red Golf is fresh, contemporary and cleanly styled. Plus, it doesn’t look like it’s jacked-up derriere is presenting for mating the way the Outback’s is.

How They Feel

Jeff says: Inside, it’s much of the same situation. The Alltrack looks – and feels – almost like a proper European luxury car with high quality, soft-touch materials and rich leather covering the well-bolstered seats. By comparison, did you see that silver plastic accent trim in the Outback? Yikes, that would’ve looked too cheap to use on a 1988 Subaru Justy!

Allie says: I thought these were supposed to be practical, family cars? The rear seat of the Volkswagen is cramped compared to the Subaru which offers up more legroom, shoulder room and headroom for those in the backseat. Of course, the VW’s headroom is compromised by the huge panoramic sunroof.

But let’s talk about the cargo capacity, too. The Volkswagen offers up 861 L, while the Subaru provides 1,005 L. Fold down the rear seats and the Outback expands to 2,075 L of capacity compared to the Alltrack’s 1,883 L.

Jeff says: Fair enough, if you’ve got over-sized friends or carry a lot of junk in your trunk, you’d be better off with the Subaru. But if those friends like music, the Volkswagen’s optional Fender-tuned stereo sounds sensational, and the rest of the infotainment system, complete with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto works extremely well. Subaru’s Starlink remains a dated system that proves to lag when trying to access external music sources via Bluetooth or even USB cable.

How They Drive

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

Jeff Says: Along the lines of Allie’s contention that the Subaru is this outdoorsy, rugged character, when driven, it feels more like that embarrassing uncle who wears overalls and big rubber boots to the family picnic. Its tall stance and soft suspension mean that on-road, the Subaru feels over-sized and wallowing compared to the nimble Volkswagen.

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

Allie says: Okay, the Golf may acquit itself better on smooth pavement, but when we took these two down some rough, muddy roads, the little Volkswagen bounced and crashed around on its stiff suspension, while the Subaru soaked up the bumps easily, giving extra confidence even in those poor conditions. And let’s not forget the legendary traction from Subaru’s Symmetrical, full-time all-wheel-drive.

Jeff says: That’s true, the Subaru almost felt like a full-on SUV instead of a sport wagon – for better or for worse.   Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system could not be tripped up either, always distributing the power to the wheel(s) that could best utilize it, even when starting on off-set, mucky holes. To be honest, if Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system is superior on paper, most drivers will never experience a situation in the real world where it’d be noticeable.

What IS noticeable all the time is the torque that’s generated from the little 1.8L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine in the VW. With maximum twist available just off idle speed, the Volkswagen feels like it pulls a lot harder than the slightly more powerful 2.5 L normally-aspirated engine in the Subaru Outback, and Volkswagen’s DSG dual-clutch transmission can shift gears unbelievably quickly.

Allie says:  Sure that DSG shifts quickly when you drive it like a race car, but around town – especially pulling away from a stop light or stop sign – the Volkswagen’s transmission is reluctant to get going, making for sluggish starts.  Plus, it’s always nice to have the option of shifting your own gears like you can in the Subaru, even if it does seem a little out of place here.  Volkswagen doesn’t even offer a stick-shift as an option for the Alltrack.

What They Cost

2017 Subaru Outback

Allie Says: Fine, the Volkswagen has the fancy interior and the fancy transmission, but it also costs $6,000 more than this Subaru. That’s a lot of money that could be better spent on outdoor toys that you can actually haul around with the bigger Outback, and enjoy them deeper into the wilderness.

Jeff Says: Sure the Alltrack costs more, but you’re getting so much more car, and not just luxury items like leather seats, navigation and a killer sound system. It’s also chock-full of active safety features like adaptive cruise control with automatic braking and lane-departure assist function, plus automatic high-beam control.

2017 Subaru Outback

Allie Says: And if you want those added gadgets (and luxury, for that matter), the local Subaru dealer will be happy to sell you an Outback 2.5i Premium for pretty well the same price as the optioned up Alltrack; one that features the same luxury as well as Subaru’s respected EyeSight suite of active safety features.

Or you can spend a little more and order an Outback with Subaru’s 3.6 L six-cylinder engine that offers much more power and torque than any Alltrack with its love-it-or-leave it drivetrain choice.

Which One Is the Best?

Jeff Says: Truthfully, there is no best choice in this pairing. Volkswagen’s Golf Alltrack and Subaru’s Outback are fantastic alternatives to the run-of-the-mill 5-passenger mid-size SUV offerings. Each is reasonably spacious and practical, but also more than capable in almost any normal driving scenario, year-round.

And yet, my pick would be neither of these two cars. Instead, I’d save some money and order Volkswagen’s new Golf Sportwagen in mid-level “Comfortline” trim but with the optional 4Motion all-wheel-drive system from the Alltrack here. With Apple Carplay, and a lower ride height, this one should handle on the road even better than the zippy Alltrack, plus at less than $29,000, it undercuts even the value-leader Outback by a few grand. If you want to go play off-road in the big mud holes, buy a Jeep.

Allie Says:  Hey, that’s not fair! This is a comparison test between these two machines, not some third choice.  The obvious winner is the Subaru Outback with its greater passenger space and cargo carrying capacity, plus its wider range of trim levels and drivetrain choices mean that a buyer can order whatever Outback best suits their needs and budget.  They could, if they wished, get all those above mentioned features you argue that make the VW a winner, in their Subaru Outback.  Not to mention, it already has its hiking boots.


In the end, picking either one of these machines is a great move. They’re two surprisingly different interpretations of the modern sport wagon, and each represents a comfortable, capable and spacious alternative to the modern crossover SUV. Picking one of these machines over the other is more a matter of the buyer’s specific need for space versus driving dynamics. With its utility and value, Subaru’s Outback makes more sense to us.

2017 Subaru Outback 2.5i Touring (6M)
Base MSRP: $31,295.00
Options: N/A
Price as tested: $32,970.00
Freight: $1,675.00
Configuration: front engine/full-time AWD
Engine/transmission: 2.5L, horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder/6-speed manual
Power/torque: 175 horsepower/175 lb-ft
City/Hwy fuel economy ratings (L/100 km): 11.0/8.3 L/100 km
Warranties: 3-years/60,000 (basic)

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack 4Motion
Base MSRP: $35,295.00
Options: Driver Assistance Package ($1,310); Light and Sound Package ($1,610)
Price as tested: $39,840.00
Freight: $1,625.00
Configuration: front engine/4Motion full-time AWD
Engine/transmission: 1.8L turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder/6-speed DSG automatic with Tiptronic
Power/torque: 170 horsepower/199 lb-ft
City/Hwy fuel economy ratings (L/100 km): 10.6/8.0 L/100 km
Warranties: 4-years/80,000 (basic)

Related links:
Subaru Canada
Volkswagen Canada

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