Car reviewers usually determine which cars to compared based on the vehicle ‘segment’ they occupy. Medium SUVs take on medium SUVs, small hatches take on small hatches, and so on…
Yet we know based on buyer data, and personal experience alike, car buyers don’t always think in these terms.
There are a load of other factors beyond mere market segmentation that determine which vehicles may be cross-shopped. And so while the two cars being tested here may not immediately strike you as obvious rivals, there’s a method.
The brand new Honda CR-V arrived in Australia a few months ago to significantly more acclaim than its lukewarm predecessor. The consensus is clear: a fantastic Mazda CX-5 and Hyundai Tucson alternative, within a fast-growing corner of the market.
Another obvious rival is the Volkswagen Tiguan. Yet, we’ve opted for something a little different from the same brand, in the newly facelifted MY17 Golf Alltrack high-riding crossover wagon, which promises to be a ‘thinking person’s’ SUV alternative.
What are the merits of opting for a conventional SUV, versus something that sits somewhere in between this type of car and a conventional passenger wagon? Do you really need a medium SUV, or are you just following the crowd into a hot market segment?
Pricing and specs
Volkswagen Australia is keen to capitalise on our insatiable appetite for crossovers by luring more people into the Golf Alltrack. As part of the recent MY17 update, it introduced the base 132TSI model tested here at $34,490 before on-road costs.
This is $1000 cheaper than the roomier Honda CR-V VTi-S with all-wheel drive (AWD) that comes in at $35,490 – but which can also be had for $33,290 with front-wheel drive.
More: Honda CR-V range review.
Features common to both include: fabric seat trim; Apple CarPlay/Android Auto app connections; cruise control with limiter; climate control; front/rear sensors, rear-view camera; driver fatigue alert; LED daytime running lights and tail lights; and roof rails.
Pictured above: Volkswagen
The Volkswagen has a bigger touchscreen – 8.0-inch compared to 7.0-inch – and has features not on the Honda at this spec level such as autonomous emergency braking and an auto-dipping kerbside mirror to stop wheel scuffs.
You also have various driving modes that adjust the throttle and gearbox calibration from sporty, to eco, to comfort-biased.
The Honda counters by offering proper integrated satellite navigation with SUNA live traffic updates that doesn’t rely on phone data and signal; an electric tailgate with height presets; Honda’s LaneWatch passenger-side blind-spot camera; and 18-inch wheels instead of the VW’s 17s.
Pictured above: Honda
You’d have to give the edge to Honda, though the company needs to make advanced safety assist technologies such as AEB available on all grades, sooner rather than later.
On a side note, if you’re happy to give your Volkswagen dealer a further $1800 for the Driver Assistance package, you’ll get the great 12.3-inch Active Info Display driver instrument, adaptive cruise control, lane assist, and parking assist.
The Golf Alltrack’s cabin is everything we’ve come to expect from Volkswagen. The doors thunk, storage pockets are fabric-lined, touch-points are soft, panel gaps are consistent and the build quality is as solid as a rock.
The update for MY17 brought a new flush touchscreen that swipes like your smartphone, and which serves to modernise an otherwise austere design. The ventilation controls, analogue gauges and digital trip computer (with speedo) are basic, but intuitively designed.
The Golf’s driving position is obviously lower than the CR-V’s, giving you a less commanding road view, as is the hip point. The fabric-and-suede seats with manual adjustment are supportive, and even have sliding storage drawers under them. We’re a sucker for the frameless rear-view mirror as well.
The CR-V’s cabin is a big step up on the old model. There’s a new tablet-style fascia with touchscreen, and the addition of proper satellite navigation alongside CarPlay/Android phone connections is fantastic.
The build quality is typical Honda – in other words, bulletproof – while there are some contrasting bits offsetting all the dour greys and blacks, to heighten the vibe. The Civic-style digital instruments and the small steering wheel are also inviting.
The other area where the Honda scores points is practicality. Obviously the driving position is higher and the ease of entry/egress greater, but there are also more places to put your stuff, such as the massive, configurable centre console that easily swallows a big handbag.
Pictured above: Volkswagen (top) and Honda (bottom)
The Honda also offers a superior experience for back seat passengers. First, the rear doors open almost 90 degrees and have huge apertures to assist entry, or parents loading kids into booster seats/capsules.
There’s also more legroom, shoulder room and headroom, a useable middle seat, and greater levels of outward visibility thanks to the larger side windows. In terms of rear seat comfort, the Honda beats most other like-for-like SUVs, so it’s no surprise it kills the VW here.
Both cars on test bring rear air vents, a flip-down centre armrest, ISOFX and top-tether child seat attachments, door pockets, reading lights and side airbags. But the Honda has USB points for kids to charge their tablets/phones, and seat pitch adjustment.
Pictured above: Volkswagen (top) and Honda (bottom)
In terms of cargo space, the CR-V has a slightly longer cargo area which is also about 6cm wider between the arches, though it’s actually 34 litres smaller than the old model.
Volkswagen claims you can store 605 litres in the Golf Alltrack’s cargo area behind the second-row seats, which is 83L more than the Honda’s claim. Yet it’s the latter with a lower loading lip (despite riding higher) and more useable space.
Both cars have cool levers in the cargo area to flip the second row of seats down, though the CR-V has an electric tailgate with pre-sets for height (for if you have a low garage) and a full-size alloy spare wheel rather than a space-saver.
Both of these cars come with small turbocharged petrol engines, though buyers keen on towing or doing high-kilometres might be interested to know that only the Golf Alltrack can be had with a diesel option – albeit in higher-grade guise at $40,990.
The Golf Alltrack 132TSI’s engine is a 1.8-litre unit with 132kW of power between 4500 and 6200rpm and 280Nm of torque between 1350 and 4500rpm.
By comparison, the Honda CR-V comes standard with a new 1.5-litre unit that has 300cc less displacement than the German, more power (140kW at 5600rpm) but less torque (240Nm between 2000 and 5000rpm).
The Golf’s engine uses a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox (DSG), while the CR-V uses a CVT auto with artificially-programmed ratios to mimic stepped gear changes, aimed at people familiar with a conventional lock-up torque converter.
The Alltrack’s fuel economy claim of 6.8L/100km on the combined cycle is eight per cent better than the heavier Honda’s, but the latter happily drinks 91 RON fuel rather than the 95 RON premium favoured by the VW.
The fact the VW has more torque, accesses its peak power earlier, has a twin-clutch DSG as opposed to a CVT and weighs about 100kg less, means it’s obviously a faster car, with better punch off the line, and stronger mid-range response. Zero to 100km/h in 7.8sec is hardly hanging about…
The Honda’s CVT is not bad as far as these ‘boxes go, but elicits a keening drone from the engine under heavy load, at the point where the Volkswagen is still surfing a giant wave of torque. The drivetrain in the Alltrack is an absolute cracker. The Honda’s? It’s just fine.
Both cars tested here also use on-demand AWD systems that apportion torque to the rear axle when sensors on board detect slippage at the front. The good thing is, these sensors take only milliseconds to do this.
The Honda’s system can send up to 40 per cent of engine torque to the rear when called on to do so. The CR-V can also take-off from idle in AWD guise to minimise slip off the line.
Volkswagen’s 4Motion setup has an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch directing torque to the axle with the best traction from zero and above, contingent largely on the engine torque demanded by the driver. A system within the all-wheel drive control unit also evaluates parameters such as wheel speeds and steering angle.
The Honda has marginally greater ground clearance than the Volkswagen, which counters with an off-road mode built into its onboard software, that alters the throttle response, gearbox tune and ESC parameters when on low-grip surfaces.
Both are more than capable of negotiating a rutted track, light mud, loose gravel, slippery grass or mild snowy trails – those rear wheels get moving in less time than it takes you to blink.
Ride and handling
The CR-V is not a corner-carver like a Tiguan or CX-5, but its ride quality is first rate despite the 18-inch wheels on thin rubber, and the body control/handling is safe and predictable.
The new model has increased front and rear track widths, refined front MacPherson strut and rear multi-link suspension, a new electric power steering system, and more noise-deadening insulation/gap sealing.
There’s also an Active Noise Control system, kind of like noise-cancelling headphones that keeps out road and wind noise.
Over a mixture of urban and regional winding country roads, plus the odd gravel trail, the CR-V showed controlled body roll through corners, but also generally good ride compliance and good big-bump control that only turns into body wallow near the limits of traction.
Suppression of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) is good for the class, while the steering has a very fast action. There’s now only 2.2 turns lock-to-lock (down a full revolution), meaning less arm-waving in town and quicker responses at speed.
But, by contrast, the car-like Volkswagen utilises its lower centre-of-gravity with aplomb, offering greater agility and more pep – and though its sharper ride causes the body to fall into bigger ruts, the car irons out the road better when it’s not rutted.
In terms of steering resistance, turn-in, body response against lateral inputs and exiting corners, the Volkswagen is a few rungs above the Honda. Find a twisting, snaking piece of road and it rewards you with hatch-like responses that no $35k SUV can touch.
It’s also quiet and imparts a feeling of stability and solidity matched by nothing at the price point that we can think of.
The downside of the Alltrack is that lower driving position, since most SUV buyers aren’t after a sporty feel as much as they are after a commanding view. Still, it’s objectively better to drive – not because the very pleasant Honda is bad, simply because it’s so well-sorted.
Volkswagen Australia has a three-year and unlimited kilometre warranty.
There’s a capped-price servicing which at current levels – at intervals of 12 months or 15,000km – charges $369, $559, $593, $1133 and $369 over the first five visits.
The Honda comes with the company’s recently introduced five-year and unlimited kilometre warranty up from three years/100,000km previously).
Honda Tailored Servicing caps the price at present at $295 per dealer visit, at intervals of 10,000km (or 12 months). Every two years you’ll need to fork out $65 for new dust and pollen filters, and $48 for new rear diff fluid.
The real question we wanted to answer here was: do you really need a conventional mid-sized SUV, or does something left-field such as the Golf Alltrack tick enough boxes? And if it does, do its other winning attributes actually make it a sensible choice?
Clearly, the Golf is the more spirited driver’s car, with outstanding ride and handling balance, potent and frugal engine, premium cabin feel with modern tech, and acceptable off-road nous.
Yet the Honda more than justifies its $1000 premium from most angles, given its more flexible cabin, slightly superior feature list (arguable, we admit), comfortable ride, commanding road view and cheaper running costs.
The Volkswagen Golf Alltrack is a great vehicle, but it’s understandable the CR-V appeals to a wider audience. It fills its brief brilliantly, particularly in VTi-S guise.