Lately, Toyota has been making an effort to move their lineup higher on the excitement spectrum. Moving from boring but functional to exciting, but still functional. First, they brought the youth-oriented Scion family back under the umbrella, and now they are trying to add sportiness to their mainstream cars.
It’s how you keep your position as one of the bestselling small SUVs in Canada for 20 years. You listen to customers and you design things well. Not just the vocal complaints like the radio knob, but the important items. The shift knob, the seat height, the door openings, the load floor, outward visibility. You pay attention and design those things well and you end up with a really good car. And that’s what Honda has done with the CR-V for 2017.
When I picked up the 2017 Volkswagen Alltrack, it didn’t make any sense to me. Why would anyone want a Golf wagon that was lifted an inch? Why do grey fender flares and mirror caps justify a price hike of $1,500 over a Sportwagen? Sure Subaru’s been doing this formula for years with their various Outback models, but even they gave up and separated the Legacy and Outback models. Then I got out of the Alltrack, and suddenly it all made sense.
The appeal here isn’t the grey trim and the “off road” looks. That’s just part of what you have to do to play in this field. The appeal is that extra 1.4-inches of height. Cars are low to the ground, with fairly small doors. Since I’m not 25 anymore, and neither are most of the people buying cars, getting down into a low car can be difficult. Adding some ride height raises the seat just enough to make the Alltrack massively easier to get in and out of than the Golf. So the question isn’t why did they do it, but rather did they do it in a way that spoils the goodness that is the 7th generation Golf.
The short answer is no, so if you already like the Golf, you can probably stop reading here. Or watch my video of the Golf R. The long answer is a little more complicated.
VW has long proclaimed that if you want a driver’s car that they’re the ones to go to. Mazda might disagree, but having two companies fight over who makes affordable cars that are fun to drive is the best thing that could happen to enthusiasts since the horsepower wars that started around 2002. The Golf is an excellent car to drive. It feels incredibly solid, it’s well planted, and the suspension encourages you to throw it into corners. The seats are well bolstered to keep you in place, and VW’s manual and dual-clutch automated manual transmissions are both a joy. Raising the roof does nothing to hurt that. The Alltrack does roll more than lesser models, but it never wallows or becomes ungainly. The sidewalls are a touch taller, to help with off-road capability, but it takes just the slightest edge off the roadholding. You can tell that it’s a little bit taller, but that shouldn’t cause you hesitation before tossing it into a bend. Hitting just the wrong type of washboard pavement can briefly unsettle the Alltrack, but there was only one particularly bad spot I could find that would cause that. Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel drive is a front based system, but it sends power rearwards quickly. In the snow, the Alltrack was delightfully tail happy. Unfortunately, the stability control can’t be shut off, which dampens the fun considerably as it curtails your perfectly executed slides. It does allow much more sideways that you might expect before it intervenes, though.
The Alltrack is solid in more than just handling. The Golf family generally feels as solid as a bank vault, and this is no different. There are no creaks, groans, or rattles from the interior, even with the 400-watt Fender audio system cranked. There’s long been something about the Golf, and it extends to the Tiguan and Touareg (although, sadly, no longer to the Jetta or Passat). You know as soon as you look at it that you’re in a VW product. Everything looks as Teutonic as it feels. The controls for the ventilation system are close at hand, with clear dials and button that are simple to use. The infotainment system uses a 6.5-inch touch screen that is small by current standards, but it’s fairly responsive and functional. There are screens that coach you to improve your fuel economy and an “off-road” screen that gives you steering angle, compass heading, and altitude.The system also supports Apple CarPlay and Android Autos.
The heated and power adjustable front seats are leather, with heavy bolsters. I found the bolsters to be more of a hindrance than a help because they make for a very narrow gap between the steering wheel and the edge of the bolster. If you’re large of stature, then you may have trouble fitting your legs between the flat-bottomed wheel and the seat cushion. I haven’t experienced this problem in other Golfs, so it may be unique to the positioning of the seat and wheel in the Alltrack. A comfort-entry with power telescoping wheel and automatic sliding back of the seat would do a great deal to help here.
Behind the front seats, space for rear passengers is adequate for two, but three adults are going to become well acquainted if they spend time back there. The seatbacks are 60/40 split folding, and when folded reveal a large cargo area. There is 860L of space behind the rear seats, and 1883L with the seats folded. It’s a lot of space for anything you want to put back there. Alltracks come with a cargo cover to keep your stuff hidden, and there is a 110-volt power outlet in the cargo area.
Pricing and availability for the Alltrack compared with the Sportwagen can be confusing, especially as they are configured very differently between the US and Canada. In the US, the Alltrack comes in three trims, and the only Sportwagen available with 4motion is the base model. In Canada, 4motion can be had on all Sportwagen trims, and the Alltrack comes in just the top trim. That also makes it more difficult to see how much weight the Alltrack has gained, but it appears to be around 80 kg. The Alltrack is rated to get slightly worse economy than the front-drive Sportwagen due to the weight and height changes, and it gets about 3 L more fuel capacity to compensate.My Alltrack was a Canadian car and was equipped with the $1,310 driver assistance package that includes radar cruise control, emergency braking, lane guidance, and park assist, as well as the $1,610 light and sound package that added the Fender premium audio, adaptive bi-xenon headlights, and automatic high beams. That put the sticker at $38,215.
For that, you also get push-button start and proximity keyless entry. The seats are heated, but surprisingly for this price point, the steering wheel isn’t. Look up, and there is a massive panoramic sunroof that opens up most of the way back. The driver assistance package’s park assist will park the car for you, in both perpendicular and parallel spaces, but if you don’t opt for that a back-up camera is standard.
For now, the Alltrack has only one engine and transmission choice. That’s VW’s 1.8L turbo four that generates 170 hp and 199 lb-ft. That torque peak arrives at a positively diesel-like 1,600 RPM (Don’t talk about diesel! -Ed.) and the engine pulls strongly to redline. The power is routed through a six-speed dual-clutch transmission, which shifts shockingly quickly and smoothly in manual or automatic modes. All Alltracks get VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system that routes power front and rear. It also has the GTI-derived electronic differential that uses the brakes to send power side-to-side to improve cornering. A manual transmission has been confirmed for the US in 2017, but has not yet been confirmed for Canada. The 4Motion Sportwagen and the Alltrack get the same 10.6 L/100 km city and 8.0 highway, but the Sportwagen gets the smaller tank, so it would give up some range to the Alltrack. I averaged 9.0 L/100 km. That’s well within the rated economy, but it’s a disappointing number for something this size. For comparison, I averaged 8.3 in similar driving in a slightly larger 2017 CR-V, and in the low 6’s in the Cruze and Civic hatchbacks
The Alltrack has four selectable driving modes that make changes to the power steering effort and throttle response. There is normal, comfort, customizable individual, and off road. Off road softens the throttle response and keeps the car in a lower gear to improve off road performance. It also enables hill descent control that is like cruise control for slow speeds. The mode certainly helps on dirt lanes and roads, but it doesn’t turn the Alltrack into a rock crawler. But really, the rutted road to the cottage is the most off-roading this type of car will ever see anyway.
If you’re looking for a Golf wagon and want one that’s a little easier to get in and out of, then the Alltrack will be right up your alley. At least if you’re looking for one that’s loaded. If you don’t need the extra height, or don’t need every single bell and whistle, then you’d probably be better off with the regular Sportwagen. It mostly sits alone as a small wagon with all-wheel drive. It doesn’t compare with the Subaru Crosstrek, but it’s smaller than the similarly priced Outback. In isolation, this is a great platform with excellent handling, plenty of space, and loaded with features, but in the real world, it is let down by poor fuel economy and a big price tag.
The Hyundai Veloster is a strange car that, much like the young drivers it is aimed at, seems to have trouble deciding exactly what it wants to be. It’s a coupe, but it has a hatch. It’s a two door, except that one side has an extra door. It’s supposed to be sporty, but it doesn’t deliver sporty handling or performance. It’s an economy car, but my test car stickers for $28,699
So what is the Veloster? It’s a car for someone who wants the looks of a coupe, the rear seat versatility of a sedan, and the cargo space of a hatchback. Someone who wants big wheels, a bold centre exit exhaust, and sporty looks, but not the sharper handling of a similarly priced Toyota 86, Subaru BRZ, or even its own stablemate Genesis coupe.
Enough about what it is or what it wants to be, how does it do as a car? Well, in that respect it does a great job of showing how far Hyundai has come in just one generation. I recently drove the new Elantra sedan and the difference between this Veloster turbo and the new Elantra are startling. The Veloster was introduced for 2011 and is starting to show that age. The interior, not a Hyundai strong suit when it was new, now gives up a great deal to the newly redesigned Civic coupe, Golf hatchback, or its brother the Elantra. The materials are hard, and while they are put together well, they look low budget. Something that is quickly becoming unacceptable in a low budget car.
The Turbo Veloster comes with a seven-speed dual clutch transmission. The dual-clutch transmission is taking over the performance market right now and is even replacing the manual gearbox in Ferraris. Porsche uses them, Lamborghini uses them, and pretty much every new serious performance car comes with a DCT. The advantage is that they can shift more quickly than the best driver in a manual while delivering better performance and economy than a conventional automatic. Unfortunately, the Veloster’s DCT is slow. Downshifts, even with the paddles, are sluggish. Upshifts can take several seconds. Especially when moving from a low gear to a high one. A 3-7 shift can take four or five seconds, during which time the car is not able to accelerate. On top of that, the dual clutch box slips the clutches quite a bit from a stop, making for a sluggish and somewhat jerky takeoff from intersections.
Despite the gearbox, the engine is a bright point for the Veloster Turbo. It pulls well, even from low RPM, there is the surge toward redline that is typical of turbocharged engines, and it makes the noises that a good turbo should make. It’s not fast, but it is adequate, and there is enough torque that pulling away with any vigor will lead to squealing tires. The exhaust noise is a little bit intrusive, but for the target of this car, that’s probably a feature, not a problem. The 1.6L turbocharged four-cylinder makes 201 hp with a broad torque band. With the seven-speed dual-clutch box I averaged 8.5 L/100 km. That falls within the estimated 8.9/7.1 rating but is still a disappointment compared with the best in class. Especially since most of my driving was in suburban and rural areas with little traffic.
The interior, while looking its age, is well laid out. The heated steering wheel is a plus, and unusual in this class. The navigation works well, and is responsive, as is the infotainment system. There is no Apple Carplay or Android Auto, but the connectivity works well via USB and Bluetooth. The large sunroof doesn’t buffet at speed when it’s open, and the heavily bolstered leather seats are comfortable and supportive. The big, two-tone, embroidered bolsters don’t let you forget that you’ve picked the turbo model either.
Rear seat room is tight for a full-size adult, and an impossible fit for me, but with the extra rear door, getting back there is easy. A rear-facing car seat would be a tight fit, but getting it back there wouldn’t be the impossibility it would be in a coupe. Cargo space is good despite the heavily sloping roofline, and the rear seats fold down most of the way, but not completely flat. Something to watch out for, especially here in rainy Halifax, is that when you open the hatch, the water on there likes to run down and onto the rear seat area. That experience is not fun for anybody sitting back there.
The suspension in this car is tuned stiffly. It implies performance, but the damping doesn’t follow through on that. The stiffness makes it bouncy over bumps, and it can be twitchy on the highway. The lack of feel or communication from the steering doesn’t help, and I found myself constantly making back and forth corrections to stay in my lane. It was quickly tiring with any stretch of highway driving. Combined with the noisy and stiff 18-inch wheel and tire pairing and this isn’t a car you’re going to want to spend a whole day in. The steering has three variable assistance modes, but any difference between sport, normal, and comfort was nearly impossible to notice.
The 2016 Veloster does a great job of showcasing how far Hyundai advances with every generation. Parked next to the 2017 Elantra, interior of this car, and the suspension tuning, seem almost prehistoric. I hope that there is a new generation Veloster, because if it is as good as the new Elantra, Hyundai should have a real hit. As it sits, though, the Veloster is one of those cars where if you like the look of it, you’ll probably like everything else. If you like the styling, you’ll appreciate the usability of the extra-door layout. If you don’t like the styling, you won’t care. The owners I talked to liked the stiff ride, saying that it felt sporty. The same with the gearbox because it had paddles. Primarily, though, they loved the unique, aggressive styling. If you like that styling, then the Veloster is worth a look. If you don’t like the shape, then you won’t care about the rest and the Veloster Turbo is not for you.
There is a coffee shop, about a 10-minute drive from my home, where I like to work whenever I can. It’s a neat little place, built inside an old train station. There are lots of little booths, it’s quiet, the WiFi is good, and most importantly, coffee refills are cheap. It was my second day with the Highlander and I was already resigned to what I was sure would be a boring week ending with a review full of soccer mom and dad-mobile jokes. A short drive to the bus stop that morning had already revealed numb steering, and a CVT that was slow to react. Made more irritating by the power/Eco dial which swung madly in the place where a tachometer should be, along with slow throttle response from the “Eco” mode. But I wanted to go work at the coffee shop, so I took the Highlander.
The road to the shop is a good way to quickly figure out a car. There are some windy parts, a few good hills, some smooth pavement, and some bumps that will shake your fillings out. There is also a very sharp turn. It is signed for 15 mph on a 50mph road, and it starts with a downhill left, then levels out, cuts very sharply right, and heads steeply back uphill. Lesser cars will roll over and play dead. As soon as the road starts back uphill, you can feel the outside front tire give up and roll over, spoiling the fun. But the Highlander doesn’t do that. I barely even braked for the corner. Ok, I think, that had to have been a fluke. It’s fine, the corner is just as bad on the way back, so I’ll throw it in harder next time. A couple of minutes later I’m about to signal for the coffee shop parking lot, but I’m still thinking about that turn. If I keep going, the road I’m on spends the next 30 minutes winding along the coast. It’s a beautiful road, but I know I should probably get some work done. Screw it. I actually said that out loud. I kept going. The road got twisty but the Highlander just kept going. I pushed harder, not slowing down for the big yellow speed signs, and the Highlander kept going. I started to grin. I was actually having fun hurling a 5000lb SUV into corners. An SUV based on a Camry, no less. But I didn’t care. I opened the massive sunroof, cranked the JBL 12 speaker stereo and let the music blast. However fast I was going the Highlander just wouldn’t roll over. The snow tires wouldn’t squeal, and as soon as you were back on the gas it would rotate if it needed to and pull you hard out of the corner.
I drive a lot. I average somewhere near 50k miles per year, most of it a horrible highway slog, back and forth from home to my old office. When you do that many miles, you lose a lot of the enjoyment of driving. Sure the occasional autocross or lapping day helps with that, but street driving is boring after a certain point. Most of the time it’s just getting me where I need to go. But in the Highlander, that day, I just kept driving. There is a traffic circle where I had planned on turning around, but I ended up doing a full lap of the circle and kept heading down the coast. I catch up with a slow car and wait for a dotted line so I can pass. They’re few and far between on this road, and when you find one it’s usually short. People around here love to accelerate when they get to them to stop your pass. So when I see the first one my right foot goes down. The CVT takes a moment to respond but the electric motors don’t. I’m suddenly moving around the slow car in a rush of torque. I’m still not a fan of the CVT in general, but the best help it can get is two big electric motors putting out up to 350 lb-ft. The smooth V6 helps, sounding great when you hear it but lurking quietly when you don’t. It doesn’t drone, and the acceleration is quick enough that the CVT doesn’t need to linger at high revs for long. I end up getting to the coffee shop more than an hour late.
On the short trip home I play around with some more of the features. First I try out the EV mode button that locks it into electric drive. But it only works up to 25 mph, so forget that. I mash the gas, and the Highlander pulls away strongly. The steering wheel squirms in my hands. Left and then right, pulling strongly the whole time. I haven’t felt that much torque steer in a long time. The Hybrid all-wheel drive doesn’t have a center drive shaft, so all the power from the engine and the larger of the two electric motors goes through the front wheels. That’s what’s jerking the wheel from my hands. The rotation and pull out of corners? There’s torque vectoring built into the system, so the SUV is using the rear motor to help me corner faster. I like when a hybrid improves the driving experience. Which may be the first time anyone has ever said that.
The next weekend I have a 700-mile round trip to go visit my parents. Normally I would take my own car. Because even though the Highlander has been showing me 29 mpg, my own car gets over 40, and gas is expensive. But the mountain passes on the way are long and that power is nice. And these heated and ventilated seats are some of the most comfortable I’ve sat in in a while. And my wife and I are taking one whole carry-on sized suitcase, so we could use the cargo space. Fine, let’s take the Highlander. It was one of the least memorable times I’ve done that drive, and that’s a very good thing. The Highlander was planted, smooth and quiet on the highway, making a 5-hour drive feel… not like nothing at all, but definitely more pleasant. If you get bored of the nav screen, you can watch the power routing. Watching the electricity and horsepower flow around to the different systems is entertaining for a while. As is feathering the gas pedal trying to light up the “EV” light, which tells you that you’re not using any gasoline at all. At least for the time being.
Now a lot of that makes it sound like I’m in love with the Highlander, but I’m not. For starters, in Limited trim at least, it basically only seats four. Lower trims have a middle bench, so might comfortably seat five. The back seat is tiny, and even with the middle row slid forward there isn’t much room back there. My shoe would fit sideways in the footwell, but not with my foot in it. The radar cruise control is great on a back road, but the following distance is hard to judge and seemingly random. I never did get the hang of when I needed to move to the left lane to pass smoothly on the highway. Worse yet, I had to open the rather thick manual to figure out how to turn it to “normal” mode and the radar defaults back on every time you turn on the cruise control. Once I got onto a 70 mph limit highway, the near 30 mpg turned into near 25 mpg in a hurry as well. Plus as much as I loved the handling, it’s still a very large vehicle, and while it will corner hard you can’t really toss it around. If you do manage to throw it in too hard, the understeer can’t be cured if you can’t get back on the throttle. It’s a lot of fun, but don’t forget about physics.
The Limited Platinum trim Highlander Hybrid I had is $50,048 (mine was Canadian, so actually stickered at $55,160 Canadian), and at that price it’s a bit of a hard sell. I love the way it drives, the fuel economy is good for something this size, but with only four real seats why wouldn’t I get a Lexus RX instead? The RX hybrid is only $2,000 more and is better equipped. Assuming you can get around the looks. The Lexus gives you that badge and the Lexus service reputation. Or even a Volvo XC90 for less? The Volvo is so much more stylish, and really it’s nicer. Up North, the approximately $5,500 Hybrid option is available on all trims, and that seems to make more sense. A $44,000 XLE trim Hybrid would be much more competitive, and if you really want the gadgets, the RX is always there.
Originally on twoautocents.com
I’ve heard many people question the existence of Buick since 2008. The reply is always “well, they’re big in China, so GM needs them”. Which has always seemed to be a bit of a disservice to Buick. Buick sells more cars than Audi, Acura, and Infiniti, and comes surprisingly close to beating VW. They aren’t doing too badly here. I also hear “Buick doesn’t know what they want to be.” Well, after spending 5 weeks in a 2015 Verano, I’m going to have to disagree. I would say that Buick knows exactly what they are, and they do a pretty good job of being Buick.
What does that mean? I’m going to tell you something, and maybe it’s going to hurt a little bit, but most drivers aren’t like you and me. We’re enthusiasts. We look down on automatics, turn our nose at CVT’s and drown our tears in laments over the lack of brown diesel wagons with manual transmissions. We relish a stiff suspension, decry body roll, and 30mm sway bars? Yes please!
Most people aren’t like that. Most people want a car that’s comfortable, nice, good on gas, and reliable. The 2015 Buick Verano ticks those boxes. Sure it’s just a slightly nicer Cruze, but that’s like saying an A6 is just a slightly nicer Passat. Sure it’s true, but it does both vehicles a disservice.
I’ll start with the interior. The seats are big, plush, leather trimmed. Comfortable. A 6 hour drive left me feeling better than six hours on my couch. The steering wheel is cheap and hard feeling plastic, but it’s the only surface that is. The rest of the plastics are soft, there’s some leather and fabric around, and blue LED lighting in the cup holder. The gauges are written in a clear, attractive font, and at night the needles shine a tiny spotlight onto your indicated speed. A nice detail in a car of this class. There’s also lots of room inside. This 6′-3″ writer can sit behind himself and be comfortable. An upright roofline has some benefits here. The trunk is what you’d expect from a domestic sedan, which is to say it’s massive. If the Verano doesn’t have enough room, you probably need a minivan.
Where the interior is let down is the digital displays. The small one in the gauge cluster and the larger display for the radio. Both have the same font as a low-end microwave and seem completely out of place in any car made since about 2005. They are both large and easy to read, which was probably the design brief, but they are not appealing. This car is also very hard to see out of. The a-pillar is big enough to hide a Versa in the next lane, which means you need to be very conscious of pedestrians. The view out the back isn’t any better. Yes, some of this is due to safety standards, but it is much worse here than the average sedan.
There were a few small issues with the infotainment system, mostly that when starting the car, the radio wouldn’t always go back to the same setting. It seemed to want to default to AUX-in, regardless of whether an iPod or FM were playing when the car was shut off. It will also allow you to set both AM and FM pre-sets in the same set, which is unusual. Probably useful for those who want a mix of talk and music on their commute.
The powertrain is not the most refined but was quiet and responsive, only becoming noisy above 4500rpm. I don’t imagine it will spend much time north of there, and under 4500rpm, the 2.4L direct injected 4-cylinder moves the car along nicely with 180 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque. It is quiet enough that I didn’t realize it was direct-injected until I was looking up the power figures. That’s impressive for any DI engine. The 6-speed automatic would hold a lower gear on climbs, and even downshifted on long descents under braking. In manumatic mode, it will hold gears until you tell it to upshift. Even when bouncing off the 7500rpm rev limiter (about 400rpm above redline). I did notice some surging from the cruise control on descents, but since I haven’t experienced this on Cruzes and haven’t heard complaints from other owners, I’m going to chalk that up to an issue with this specific car. It’s something you might want to look for if you’re test driving.
The suspension is what really makes a Buick a Buick, and that’s where this car shines. It reminds me of all of the best features of the Centuries Dad owned when I was learning to drive. Soft and compliant. Our roads aren’t getting any better, and cars keep getting stiffer. Not Buicks. The Verano rode very well over the worst pavement, but was never floaty, never boat like (and didn’t suffer from the horrible rear axle hop that almost put Dad’s first Century backwards into a ditch). It cornered well, and never gave up in the bends. Even with snow tires in July.
The most shocking thing to me about the 2015 Verano is how quiet it is. Passing oncoming pick-ups at 100 km/h was unnoticeable. Tractor trailers barely registered. I never turned the radio above 1/4, because there was no need. Coming from a Honda this was shocking, but it’s definitely quieter than the rest of class.
Is this car just a fancy Cruze? Sure. But if you give it a chance, it’s more than that. It’s the kind of car that’s getting harder to find. A car that rides well, is very comfortable, and gets surprisingly good gas mileage (I averaged 7.1L/100km). If I had to sum it up, it would be “it’s a Buick”. And there’s nothing wrong with that.