Subaru alternative. Subaru has done a brisk business selling lifted station wagons to the hipster-woodsy crowd, and it seems Volkswagen took notice. Starting with their Golf SportWagen, they've added cladding and some additional ground clearance to create the Golf Alltrack, a wagon that's ready to compete with Outbacks for trailhead parking spaces. If nothing else, the 2019 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack is an offbeat choice if the selection at the local Subaru dealer leaves you cold.

European roadability. The Golf family has found resounding success since it first debuted in 1975, and much of that stems from its overall refinement and sophistication. This grown-up demeanor comes through unfiltered in the Alltrack thanks to the impressive hardware that hides behind the cladding.

The 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that provides motivation feels powerful for what it is. Don't expect it to keep pace with Golf GTIs and Golf Rs, but the 168-horsepower engine is surprisingly punchy and delivers plenty of thrust. It does so with an unflappable smoothness that's characteristic of cars with Germanic origins.

Enthusiasts will appreciate that a manual gearbox – which is becoming critically endangered these days – remains the standard transmission. The six-cog affair is easy and effortless to operate while giving drivers full control over the modest power. A pleasant and quick-shifting six-speed dual-clutch automatic is an $1,100 option, but the simple goodness of the manual – along with the disappearing joy of operating three pedals – makes it hard to recommend.

Being derived from the Golf family, we're not surprised that the Alltrack is planted and composed when being hustled through turns. The chassis displays all the polish the Golf is known for, and while the GTI and R remain the real thrillers, those who enjoy spirited driving will find the Alltrack sharp-witted and willing to play. Even the extra 1.4 inches of ground clearance over an all-wheel-drive Golf SportWagen hardly seems to hamper its handling prowess.

Small but spacious. Wagons are inherently practical. There are no rooflines rushing into trunk lids or hatches sloping precipitously to cut into cargo space. The Alltrack is no exception and offers oodles of space compared to anything else in the compact class.

It doesn't, however, outdo its arch nemesis, the Subaru Outback. The 30.5 cubic inches found in the Alltrack's cargo hold pale against the Subie's 35.5 cubes. Drop the rear seats and the Alltrack delivers 66.5 cubic feet of space, while the Outback offers up a shade over 73 cubic feet. Credit the difference not so much to the Subaru's space efficiency as to its extra 10 inches of length over the Alltrack.

And that's the thing with the Alltrack – it finds itself in the unique position of being sized as a compact but competing in both price and philosophy against the bigger and more value-driven Subaru. On paper, the VW is doomed to lose this comparison every time.

This doesn't mean the Alltrack isn't spacious or capable. On the contrary, it's an enticing choice for those who hanker for a station wagon but don't need or want the excess dimensions of the Subaru. The case for the longroof VW is also buoyed by the fact that no other compact sold in America offers a station wagon variant.

In terms of what can go up against the Alltrack tit-for-tat, sneak a glance over to the small crossover segment. Mazda's CX-5, for instance, casts the same-length shadow and holds the same amount of stuff behind the rear seats. That's the best way to look at the Alltrack: not as a direct competitor to the Outback, but as an alternative to similarly-sized crossovers that have done their best to permanently put the station wagon out to pasture.

Few features, nice interior. The Alltrack isn't eager to wow its passengers. The innards are efficient and ergonomic; in the typical German fashion they eschew whimsy for practicality. High quality materials adorn most of the stoic interior and comfortable seats won't leave passengers dialing their chiropractors after long highway rides.

Base cars get a 6.5-inch screen with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality. Higher trim cars get a larger 8-inch touchscreen, but we prefer the smaller unit for its physical buttons and clearer screen. The glassy surface of the 8-incher might look pretty in the showroom, but expect it to quickly accumulate fingerprints with constant use. Its capacitive buttons are also a major annoyance. Can't the engineers of these systems understand that real buttons just work?

Beyond the infotainment system, the Alltrack is rather wanting for features. Yes, there's heated seats and leatherette upholstery as standard, not to mention the usual active-safety stuff that includes automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. But navigation is only available on the top-spec SEL, and the same is true with automatic climate control and full power seats. Leather is unavailable at any price. Considering the SEL costs $35,000 before options or a delivery charge, the Alltrack can hardly be called a value on the features front.


Audi e-Tron

Final thoughts. By not being built off the larger Jetta or Passat, the 2019 VW Golf Alltrack has found a rare thing in today's market: an otherwise-unoccupied niche. This might only suggest that the small wagon is going the way of the dodo in light of crossover mania. But the Alltrack seems willing and ready to put up the good fight, though it's a fairly sure bet that the brand's own Tiguan, taller but not much larger, will outsell this practical little longroof.

While it could certainly use more features, the Alltrack offers buyers refined performance, an unexpected modicum of handling, and plenty of space for things and folks. There's also a good old fashioned stick shift poking out from between the seats; this alone deserves praise. Mix it all together and there's nothing out there quite like this humble VW.

This is ultimately what makes it so compelling. For anyone left cold by either popular crossovers or ubiquitous Outbacks, the Alltrack stands out as a unique alternative to mainstream tastes.

Check prices for the 2019 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack »