Volkswagen Passat Alltrack

Can VW's Alltrack (horsebox optional) convince 4x4 neigh-sayers?

Price: From about £28,500. On sale July
Engine: 1,968cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 140/170bhp
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 123/131mph, 0-62 in 10.9/8.9sec, 49.6/47.9mpg, CO2 150g/155g/km

It's all about All, as in "all-wheel drive" and therefore "able to go on all sorts of road". In essence the VW Passat Alltrack is a Passat estate with an extra 30mm of ride height, some visual toughening-up via plastic cladding for the wheel arches, sills and valances, and four-wheel drive.

But metal-look underbody protection panels front and rear, plus a proper steel sump guard, suggest the Alltrack is more than just a cosmetic 4x4. It's aimed at winter-sports fans, people who might tow a boat or a horsebox, and anyone who thinks four-wheel drive in an estate car could be a useful combination.

VW's particular take on four-wheel drive uses a multi-plate clutch to control the drive to the rear wheels. Automatic variation of the clutch's clamping force allows most of the engine's efforts to go to the front wheels in normal driving, saving fuel by avoiding losses soaked up by the rear wheels' drive system. When slippage is detected at the front wheels, the clutch progressively engages more firmly, ultimately locking it solid so the front and rear wheels theoretically share the driving effort equally. In practice, though, if the front wheels encounter sheet ice and the rears still have grip, all effort is effectively sent rearwards.

Engines for the UK are two 2.0-litre turbodiesels, one of 140bhp driving through a six-speed manual gearbox, the other a 170bhp version with a six-speed double-clutch transmission (DCT), both of them relaxed and refined. Add a smooth ride, precise handling, and – in the 170bhp version – a double-clutch gearbox which works just as these things should with seamless, instant shifts and a properly intuitive automatic mode, and the Alltrack feels remarkably like a regular Passat estate to drive, complete with annoying electric parking brake.

However, there's also the AWD (all-wheel drive) button. This activates a Hill Descent Control, which automatically applies the brakes as required when descending a gradient steeper than 10 per cent at a speed below 6mph. It also inhibits the DCT's upshifts, alters the settings of the anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability systems to suit loose or slippery surfaces, and generally keeps the Alltrack moving. I tried an emergency stop on snow, steering round an "obstacle" in the process, with a horsebox on the optional electrically retracting towbar. The Alltrack impressively stayed pointing in the right direction, as did the horsebox – the latter's composure helped by clever selective braking by the Alltrack's wheels designed to nudge the horsebox in the required direction.

The Audi A4 Allroad is an obvious rival to the new Volkswagen, but it's more expensive and ultimately no better given the Passat's interior is roomier and its quality at least as good. The Volvo XC70 is bigger but dated by comparison; that leaves the imminent, and costlier, Peugeot RXH which is based on a diesel-engined 508 SW but adds the 3008 Hybrid4's electric rear drive. On the basis of value for money, the Alltrack is the pick of this bunch. Lane Assist (which nudges the steering back on course), Side Scan Assist (which monitors blind spots), High Beam Assist (which theoretically does the headlamp dipping for you, although most such systems are hopeless), Park Assist and Automatic Distance Control (a radar cruise control) are all options.

Which all builds up to an honest, straightforward and effective car – the sort you would buy and keep for many years as a useful family companion.