WHILE SUVS RULE, THE SUBARU OUTBACK AND VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT ALLTRACK TAKE A DIFFERENT PATH.
For both manufacturers, that path is fraught with danger given that $50,000 wagons don’t typically sell well in this market. But don’t tell Subaru; its Outback has made its own niche, and is a quiet sales success for the Japanese marque here.
The Volkswagen Passat however, is on a tougher road to acceptance. But, for family buyers, each of these cars has a good story to tell.
Y’see, the tested Outback 2.0D Premium and single-specification Passat Alltrack aim to combine car-like performance and handling, with SUV-like space and light offroad ability. On paper it sounds like the best of both worlds.
But, while the purchasing pitch is similar for each, they go about things in quite different ways. Time, then, to take these ‘jacked-up wagons’ from the urban centre to the middle of nowhere and find which one presents the more convincing path...
Subaru Outback 2.0D Premium - $44,990 (plus on-road costs)
Volkswagen Passat Alltrack - $49,290 (plus on-road costs)
Both competitors include 18-inch alloys, foglights, an electric tailgate, leather seats with front heating, satellite navigation, modern connectivity options, plus autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitor and adaptive cruise control.
However the 2.0D Premium boasts electrically adjustable front seats, electrically foldable door mirrors, LED headlights and a sunroof. In the Alltrack, the latter three features form part of a $3500 Luxury Package, although it also includes automatic park assistance and swivelling lights not available at any cost on its rival.
The Volkswagen continues to counter with standard rear side airbags (both get dual-front, front-side and full-length curtain protection), lane-keep assistance (which keeps drivers in the centre of the freeway lane), tri-zone climate control and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with eight speakers (versus 7.0-inch/six respectively).
It really is a case of tit-for-tat even before we’ve turned a key, and servicing costs can’t split the duo either: Subaru demands inferior six month or 12,500km servicing at a cost of $2444 over three years or 75,000km; Volkswagen requests annual or 15,000km checks at a cost of $1664 if three years comes up first or a hefty $3437 if 75,000km arrives first.
Step inside each high-riding wagon and note firstly that the emphasis is certainly on ‘high’ in the Subaru. Its driving position is loftier than the lower-set Passat and the glasshouse feels airier and with a better view over a flatter bonnet.
However, look more closely around the cabin and the Alltrack scores.
Firstly its lush leather-ribbed front seats are more comfortable and supportive. Its plastics and trim textures also have a more ‘up-market’ feel than its bread-and-butter rival, and its touchscreen is larger.
Both touchscreens are excellent in terms of ergonomic intuition and high-resolution graphics, though.
Subaru’s voice control system is as brilliant as the Volkswagen’s isn’t, but its infotainment system includes only Pandora internet radio app integration.
Its rival gets Pandora as well as Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity that ‘mirrors’ your smartphone apps on its screen when connected via a USB port.
The Outback, for the price of the Alltrack, can be purchased in 3.6R specification that further adds an 11-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, however the gusty but thirsty petrol six-cylinder engine is then the only option. The 2.0D Premium loses out for speaker quality here.
Further rearward and it’s a battle between space and luxury between these wagons.
If three people are regularly seated across the rear seat, then the Subaru wins. It offers both more legroom, thanks to a less intrusive centre console and transmission tunnel, and extra shoulder room (due to a wider body).
For passengers in the outboard rear seats, however, the Volkswagen has depth and support that is missing from the flat and slippery leather bench of its rival.
The tables turn when it comes to luggage space, with the boot volume of the Alltrack (693 litres) trumping the Outback (512 litres). The latter is affected by a noticeably higher floor. In short, it’s harder to lift heavier items (such as prams) in and out.
The Volkswagen also gets a 40:20:40 split-fold rear backrest, handy for feeding longer items (such as snowboards or flat-pack Ikea furniture) through the centre of the cabin while remaining a proper four seater.
The Subaru’s 60:40 split-fold rear backrest means squishing two occupants side-by-side in a similar scenario.
ON THE ROAD
Both wagons stretch around 4.8 metres from front grille to rear tailgate (give or take a centimetre or two). Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also tip the scales within 12 kilograms of each other – 1671kg Alltrack versus 1683kg 2.0D Premium.
From the outset, the heavier but less powerful 110kW/350Nm Subaru has its work cut out attempting to match the potent 140kW/400Nm Volkswagen.
Indeed, the respective 0-100km/h manufacturer claims of 9.9 seconds to 100km/h (the Subaru) and 8.0 seconds (the Passat) highlight the performance gap difference even before their 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engines are turned.
The slower wagon however, is also the quieter wagon, with a distant yet zingy and willing engine note that is curiously charming.
The Outback’s automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) is also immediate and intuitive in its responses, raising revs independent of throttle movement when it detects hills or more enthusiastic pace.
The Passat’s six-speed dual-clutch automatic (DSG) is hesitant initially but comes to the fore with a similarly intelligent selection of ratios whether in normal or especially S (for Sport) mode.
Although the Alltrack’s engine is a bit louder, it is hardly unrefined and the surplus grunt means there’s less need for foot-to-the-floor driving. On the highway, the Passat has the effortless and rapid feel of a long distance tourer.
That more effortless nature shines through in the economy rankings, with the German wagon’s on-test 9.8 litres per 100 kilometres eclipsing the Japanese model’s 10.5 l/100km, against claimed combined cycle consumption claims of 6.3 l/100km (Subaru) versus 5.4 l/100km (Volkswagen).
It’s worth noting, however, that this test wasn’t exactly a ‘combined cycle’ because some steep and rocky offroad terrain will always get engines drinking more heavily.
Speaking of which, the Outback’s 60-litre tank won’t deliver the range of the Passat’s 70-litre tank. Nor can the former’s 1700kg maximum tow capacity match the latter’s 2200kg maximum, so if you want to tow effortlessly for a greater distance, the choice is already clear.
Perhaps the Subaru is thirstier not only because its engine is working harder but also because its all-wheel-drive system typically portions torque at 60 percent to the front wheels, with 40 percent to the rear.
The Volkswagen ‘on demand’ system usually prioritises front-wheel-drive – which is more economical – but it can quickly (in milliseconds) send up to 100 percent of drive to the rear wheels when a loss of traction is detected.
In light-to-medium off-roading we found little difference between the performance of the two. Throttled from standstill on loose dirt with some steering lock applied, each immediately delivered traction to the front and rear wheels.
Likewise when climbing up a rocky hillclimb at low speed, the Outback’s X-Mode and Passat’s Offroad setting proved seamless in juggling engine response and finding grip.
The major difference comes with ground clearance. Where the Subaru will comfortably clear any rock or mound below 213mm in height, the Volkswagen will scrape its belly on anything protruding 174mm above its tyre contact patch. Frankly, 40mm (or 4cm) could be the difference between a holed oil sump and an intact one.
The Bridgestone Dueller tyres of the 2.0D Premium are more bush-friendly than the Continental ContiSport Contacts of the Alltrack, and the former model has the marginally more compliant dirt-road ride.
That isn’t to say the German model acts like a bewildered tourist on Australian red stuff.
Despite its slight extra firmness, the Alltrack arguably delivers the greater ride and handling balance of these two cars. Its steering is tighter and more precise, as are dynamics that lean to a sporty feel.
The Japanese wagon feels rubbery and remote through bitumen corners, by contrast, with light and distant steering ensuring the driver feels uninvolved in proceedings. It’s good dynamically, but far better (ahem) when ‘out back’.
TMR VERDICT | Who wins the ‘Offroad Wagon showdown’?
Ultimately, these are both really compelling wagons – both capable and appealing but in quite different ways. Which is the winner for you will depend upon your personal priorities.
The Passat Alltrack is more expensive than its rival, but it feels far richer inside and is more potent on the road.
Its towing capacity is impressive as is its dynamism on bitumen. And its all-wheel-drive system proved its worth on the gnarly dirt trails we put it over (that we suspect few owners will trek through).
However, if pounding over corrugations and picking over rocks is a regular part of the family activities, then the higher-stepping Outback 2.0D Premium is more the specialist here.
We’d also pick the Subaru over the Volkswagen if we were planning to keep the car beyond the three-year warranty period. This Japanese brand is renowned for durability and the Outback has a hard-won reputation for its ability to withstand the rigours of a dual-purpose life.
So, quite different cars, one the more dynamic and luxurious, the other the more solid toiler.
It becomes hard not to sit on the fence here, but, when push comes to shove, we’d choose the Passat Alltrack. It is quite a beautiful car to drive, and certainly has the classier interior.
But you will be well-satisfied with the robustly-engineered and capable Outback, should you lean that way. It is also quite a bit cheaper than the svelte Volkswagen.
- Subaru Outback 2.0D Premium – 4.0 stars
- Volkswagen Passat Alltrack – 4.0 stars
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