Filed under: Autos, New car introductions, Weekly test drives
By John Gilbert
If it looks like a Sportswagen, has the same utility as a Sportswagen, and goes like a Sportswagen, it must BE a Sportswagen, right?
Not necessarily. It might also be an Alltrack. Volkswagen is expanding the array of solid and substantial vehicles under the Golf brand name by adding a new and much more capable wagon-like vehicle named the Alltrack for 2017.
While it certainly resembles the venerable and popular wagon that used to be a Jetta but recently changed over to Golf livery, the Alltrack comes on the same MQB platform, bolstered with undercarriage armor plating, and with standard 4Motion all-wheel drive, at a bargain price. The price of the basic S model starts at $25,850 for the 6-speed stick shift, rising to $26,950 for the upgraded SE model, and $32,890 for a fully loaded SEL.
All Alltrack models come equipped with VW’s slick, high-tech 1.8-liter direct-injected and turbocharged 4-cylinder gasoline-sipping engine. No mention of the lack of availability of any turobdiesels, which, under the circumstances, is not surprising.
The surprise, to me, is that VW is going to continue offering the Golf Sportwagen, which is exactly the same length and, at a glance, has the same look, but lacks the impressive off-road capabilities. In my naivete, it seemed to make sense to plug in a couple versions of the Sportwagen as the entry-level Alltrack, but that won’t be happening. The Sportwagen comes with either base front-wheel drive or the upgraded 4Motion model, the Sportwagen S Sport.
Five waves of automotive journalists converged on Seattle for the introduction of the Alltrack, with the added lure of VW’s annual all-model presentation for 2017. We spent one day cruising across the harbor from Seattle on the Bainbridge Island Ferry, and drove most of the day around the twisty rural roads of Bainbridge Island as well as negotiating a rugged off-road course. Back to the ferry and Seattle, and the next day we drove up to Snoqualmie, where we found the rest of the VW fleet parked at the Mount Si Golf Club for our use.
All of that was an enticing lure to experience the newest VWs, and it also was on all of our minds that at some point, Volkswagen officials would have to give us some explanation of the “elephant in the room” — the problem with the TDi turbodiesel emission scandal, which has rocked the company and diesel fanciers the world over.
To the company’s credit, there was no attempt to duck the issue. In fact, Hinrich J. Woebcken, the president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, led off with his explanation. “We’ve got to regain trust of consumers, and rebuild the brand,” Woebcken began. “We have a crisis with the diesel issue that affects all stakeholders. We’re spending $10 billion to either buy back or modify the TDi vehicles. We’re spending $2.7 billion on a trust fund to cover past and future excesses.
“We are fully committed to the U.S. market, as our new plant in Chattanooga might indicate, and we are adding an engine and planning center in Sacramento, and upgrading our plant in Puebla, Mexico, where we make the Tiguan. We also are strengthening our regional management by making our decision-making more localized.”
By the time Woebcken was finished, discussing a new midsize SUV coming in 2017 as a 7-seater, and long-wheelbase model following the revised Tiguan, we had to be reminded that we had gathered to drive the new Alltrack.
Megan Garbis, manager of product strategy for the Golf family, ticked off the assets of the Alltrack. Leatherette seats, rearview camera, adaptive cruise, forward collision warning and caution, and optional brake assist, lane departure warning, high-beam control, standard foglights, that impressive MQB platform — which will underpin virtually all Volkswagens for the foreseeable future — independent suspension all around, a panoramic sliding sunroof, keyless access and connectivity with touchscreen efficiency.
The only available Alltrack models at launch were equipped with the 6-speed DSG (direct sequential gearbox), which handled the 1.8 smoothly and with ease. It produces 170 horsepower over a range from 4,560 to 6,250 RPMs, and the potency of 199 foot-pounds of torque from 1,600 to 4,400 RPMs.
You don’t have to be a tech wizard to appreciate that the torque thrust comes in barely above idle, at 1,600 revs, and stays constant at that peak up to 4,400, right about where it merges with the horsepower peak. That means you launch as swiftly as you want, and can keep on accelerating beyond reasonable speed limits anywhere in the U.S.
My driving partner and I agreed with the firmly planted feel of stability in the Alltrack, and the razor-sharp handling precision that combines properly firm suspension with quick-reacting steering. The biggest treat was yet to come, however. It was still difficult to separate the Alltrack too far from the old, familiar Sportwagen, and all the talk about off-road capability sounded possibly like flak. Then we turned off-road.
I happened to be driving at the time, and we were waved ahead, into a wooded area that had rocky trails carved into it. This wasn’t a natural area despoiled by off-roading zealots, but the markings indicated it was an area set aside for off-road maneuvering.
I always enjoy these off-road challenges, and I tend to think it’s because of my basic driving learning coming on the sometimes icy hills of Duluth, Minnesota. When going up an icy avenue, you sometimes have to saw the steering wheel in quest of proper traction, and whenever you gain a little momentum, you don’t let it get away easily.
I zipped up and down steep hills, maneuvered delicately around giant boulders, and got to a point with a steep decline and engaged the hill-descent switch, which caused our Alltrack to creep down the extreme slope at 2-5 miles per hour — as long as you step on neither brake or gas.
After completing the course, I suggested my partner should drive, but he complimented me by saying he’d prefer that I drive another lap while he shot video of my work. I agreed heartily, and off we went.
He pointed out afterward that, as he suspected, at one point the Alltrack lifted one front wheel completely off the surface. That was indecipherable inside the cabin, which proved conclusively how stiff the platform was. Usually you can feel the platform flex when it lifts a wheel, but it’s obviously far more stable when it might lift a wheel and you can’t feel any loss of steering or handling control.
This is, for technocrats, the fifth generation of 4Motion, and it includes something called an “electro-hydraulic controlled clutch-pack differential.” I couldn’t resist following our off-road trek by complimenting a VW official: “How very Jeep-like.” It was intended as the ultimate compliment.
Trust me, as impressive as the Alltrack is representing a sports-sedan-wagon on the curving roadways, it is as impressive as some off-roading-specific vehicles whenever you need, or want, to venture off the beaten path onto some unbeaten pathways.
The next day, we escaped the Seattle-area’s freeways and headed for Snoqualmie. At the Mount Si Golf Club, we found our assorment of other 2017 VW models, the Tiguan, Passat, Jetta, GLI, Golf, GTI-R, and the e-Golf. We can deal with most of them more thoroughly at a later time, but while all of them were impressive in their solid stance and peppy performance, the e-Golf and a base model of the Jetta blew me away.
The e-Golf is pure electric, with an 83-mile range before requiring recharging. It has startling acceleration, and it handles twisting roadways with Golf-like precision — all the while remaining silent.
Several Jetta models were available, but one was equipped with a 1.4-liter turbo 4-cylinder and a 5-speed manual transmission. While I have a new favorite in the 1.8 turbo, the smaller 1.4 turbo felt more than adequate for power and acceleration. “And it is an even more modern engine,” said technical spokesman Mark Gillies.
“The 1.8 is from the EA 888 family of 4-cylinders, and the 1.4 is from the EA 211 family of smaller 4-cylinders with the latest in technology.”
As the base engine, it will leave consumers needing to spend less and get more fuel economy, while having the same amount of driving satisfaction. Maybe it’s just the latest gambit by Volkswagen to apologize to potential customers for the ongoing turbodiesel embarrassment. If the new VWs are priced at a discount because of that, we can happily settle for spending less to get almost-diesel-like fuel economy while knowing we’re still getting VW’s legendary German quality.
Filed under: Autos, Features, New car introductions
By John Gilbert
Volvo took a roundabout route to developing its impressive new S90 sedan — first building the XC90 SUV, then making the S90 virtually a sedan-size derivative — and the introduction test drive of the carliterally took us on a roundabout route.
The area we visited, along the Spanish Riviera between Malaga and the resort city of Estepona, would seem to indicate that Spain might lead the world in “roundabouts,” those intersection replacements that turn important roadway interchanges into forced-slowdown circles with various inlets and outlets. In congestion, of course, entering a rotary can be dicey and exiting can be more like an escape.
In southern Spain, it seemed as though nearly every exit from a freeway sent you into a roundabout, which in turn distributed traffic in any and all directions. We weren’t aware of all that when we first arrived in Malaga, then rode a coach bus to our luxurious Kempinski Hotel Bahia in Estepona.
Our wave of auto journalists gathered to leave our for dinner at El Pescadoran, where we learned another Spanish tradition. You sit family style, and waiters bring out large platters or bowls of delectable food. Unwilling to leave any, we ate virtually every morsel, then the waiters took the platters away and replaced them with more platters of different delectable items.
The lengthy menu we had seen, briefly, was impressive, but the reason nobody asked us for our selections was they intended to bring us ALL of the selections. Next morning, we had some discussions, and then we were off on Leg 1 of our 4-Leg test drive. Three of the legs would be in S90 sedans, and the fourth in the V90, a slick and sleek station wagon that seems much longer than the sedan, but actually is 3 inches shorter.
My driving partner was Parks McCant, a tall fellow I’d met at the Malaga, Spain, airport, as we joined forces hoping to form a posse that might locate a person wielding a Volvo sign to direct us to a bus that might convey us to our hotel. We struck a quick and easy relationship, and, because he’s 6-foot-6, I knew he would provide real-world evidence of adequate head and legroom in our test cars.
I got behind the wheel first, and after agreeing on the luxurious comfort enveloping us, and the impressive ergonomics of the controls and other features, we were off.
Our start was so intriguing we decided to repeat it three or four times — involuntarily, of course. Instead of the usual direction book, Volvo installed all the turns for the route into the navigation system, which is a great idea. A pleasant, soothing female voice suggested when to get into the right lane, prepare to turn, and then turn.
We only went a mile or so and were instructed to exit. At the top of the exit ramp we found our first roundabout. The Nav Lady told us to take the third exit from the roundabout, which we did. We should have taken the second, but we didn’t know that, so we trusted the instructions.
The highly efficient Nav Lady, with proper Scandinavian courtesy, didn’t tell us we had fouled up, but merely directed us back on course. So we thought we were merrily on our way, following a sequence of directions to cross a bridge to another roundabout, followed by directions to another roundabout, then a third roundabout. That got us back near our starting position, and because it was all pretty unfamiliar, we sailed off again. We followed the same instructions the second time, and it wasn’t until partway through the third lap around the same sequence of roundabouts that we realized we were repeating our mistake.
Somehow, the wrong instruction trapped in a sequel-with-roundabouts of the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” where the star is destined to repeat everything, day after day, trapped in some cosmic vortex. Read more
Filed under: Autos, Features, New car introductions
By John Gilbert
ESTEPONA, Spain — A year ago Volvo replaced its aging XC90 with an entirely new SUV that ran the table of SUV-of-the-year awards. Bolstered by proper financing from its Chinese owners, plus a new plant in China and a planned one in the U.S., the iconic little Swedish company has grown far beyond its home in Gothenburg.
Only a few months after the consensus proclaimed the XC90 as perhaps the finest SUV ever built, we find ourselves searching for superlatives again, this time about where the all-new S90 plugs in among the hotly contested luxury sedan segment.
Competition includes such luminaries as BMW 5-Series, Audi A6, Mercedes E-Class, Lexus GS or LS, Acura RLX, Infiniti Q70, Jaguar XF or XJ, and Porsche Panamera. After only brief driving stints in the new S90, there seems no question it can compete with all of those established stars in performance, features and spacious comfort, and the new Volvo is unexcelled when it comes to safety, of course, and maybe also to technology.
Despite the acclaim given the XC90, Volvo knows the auto media is filled with cynics, so nothing was left to chance when the time came to introduce its all-new S90 sedan. Volvo summoned selected auto journalists to Spain, and more precisely to the Spanish Riviera. My thought is the cynics must have stayed home, because everybody I talked to was as impressed as I was about the new car.
Volvo designers took the XC90 — their “Swedish Sanctuary” — and lowered it down to sedan size, keeping the new signature grille and nose, but wrapping the same superb platform in a stylish shape with pleasing contours. It looks absolutely nothing like any previous-generation Volvo sedan, but retains a familial appearance with the XC90, while further establishing the corporation’s new direction for style.
Officially, the S90 replaces the outgoing S80 in Volvo’s lineup. A V90 station wagon accompanies the S90, with smooth lines on what is, surprisingly, 3 inches shorter than the sedan. Read more
Filed under: Autos, Features, New car introductions
LAGUNA BEACH, Ca.—The rich memories of my childhood include our family drives, usually on Sunday afternoons, in the rural areas north of Duluth, Minnesota. From the back seat of our black, 1951 DeSoto sedan, my sister and I would join my mom and dad playing word games, usually picking some everyday object and trying to prevent the rest of the family from identifying it. While asking for clues, the common starter was: “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”
There’s no time for family drives anymore, it seems, and our own two sons are adults, growing up before current electronic connectivity, videos and smartphones replaced guessing games. And what the heck is a breadbox, anyway?
Chrysler LLC has done its best to recapture that nostalgic era of family drives and possibly rekindle the demand for the family utility of minivans when it introduced the 2017 Pacifica, a totally renovated version of its once and present — and maybe future — premier family hauler. The Pacifica is Chrysler’s new minivan, a vehicle which might best be described as the automotive version of a breadbox; it stores people the way breadboxes used to store assorted loaves of fresh-baked bread.
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions
By John Gilbert
LAGUNA BEACH, Ca.—What would happen, I hear you ask, if all the slick new styling, interior features and attractions of SUVs and CUVs were combined with the family-friendly spaciousness and efficiency of a contemporary minivan, in one all-new vehicle? The result would be the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica — a brilliantly designed and finished family transportation module that could recapture the popularity once enjoyed by minivans.
A lot of the changes are subtle, and from a distance the Pacifica certainly looks like a minivan. But make no mistake: The Pacifica is entirely new, from its platform on up to its panoramic sunroof, and from its sleekly aerodynamic nose to its bob-tailed magnesium and aluminum liftgate. More than that, it drives brand new — more like a sports sedan than a soccer-mom-mobile, while pampering its occupants in quiet luxury.
The minivan as a U.S. automotive craze apparently ran its course in the three decades since.the sibling Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country created, expanded, and then dominated the segment that once sold about a million units per year. That number has dropped by about 50 percent as consumers become more and more infatuated with sports utility vehicles and now CUVs. But a half-million potential sales are still a lucrative target, and demographics indicating more kids are on the way might foretell a comeback for a vehicle that never really went away. Read more