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There s a new wagon in town
Volkswagen Passat Allroad. Supplied picture

While sexy SUVs are winning hearts aplenty, the poor old station wagon has become a wallflower. It's the family-style imagery that's done it in.

We'll happily buy an SUV for carting about the kids but rarely a station wagon or, heaven forbid, a designated people mover.

But if buyers were prepared to be a bit more objective, they'd at least ask a wagon for a dance.

Tested against a similar-price SUV, they might be blown away by the station wagon's driving dynamics.

That applies to a car I tested this week, Volkswagen's Passat Alltrack, one of a handful of raised all-wheel-drive wagons on the market.

About $45,000 gets buyers into a Subaru Outback, $50,000 the Alltrack and $70,000 the A4 Allroad, from VW's more up-market sister brand, Audi.

Typically, such models have extra ground clearance, rugged styling touches and under-body protection plates.

Apart from being terrific on the tarmac, they handle moderate off-roading and are in their element cruising on gravel.

Rarely have I felt so safe on loose surfaces as I did this week on some winding, tree-lined Barossa Valley tracks that were topped with ochre-coloured ball bearings.

The Alltrack's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system monitors the traction of individual wheels and apportions power accordingly.

Cornering on uncertain surfaces is enhanced by the diff lock's tempering influence on the inside front wheel.

When venturing off-road, a press of a button puts the anti-lock braking (ABS) and stability control (ESP) into delayed-activation mode.

This allows the wheels to get under the gravel to firmer footing before the ABS does its magic.

Volkswagen Passat Allroad. Supplied picture

The ESP delay allows the car to move about on the gravel without grabbing unnecessarily.

The off-road mode also makes the throttle response soggier, which gives surer control on rough surfaces.

The Alltrack, which comes in a single $47,790 spec, has all the usual VW features such as a superbly crafted interior and superlative drivetrain.

The latter comprises a 125kW 2.0-litre diesel, six-speed dual-clutch auto, 4Motion all-wheel-drive system and fuel-saving stop-start technology.

The package delivers a quiet cabin, spirited response and 6.3L/100km thirst, of which a camel would be proud.

Safety highlights are technology that detects driver fatigue and eight airbags, which is my latest hobbyhorse.

The two extra bags protect rear occupants, typically kids in such cars, in side impacts. Also standard are leather seats, an eight-speaker audio, excellent satellite navigation, a reversing camera and 17-inch alloys.

Options include autonomous city-speed braking, a sunroof and sporty accoutrements. There's even nifty technology that can help steer you away from an unwise lane-changing manoeuvre.

The perfect fit for this car is someone who gets on the loose stuff quite a bit.

But it has broader appeal, being a classy, agile and practical car around town.

If seeking a five-seater SUV for around $50,000, at least put this smart wagon on your dance card.

LOWDOWN


Model Volkswagen Passat Alltrack
Price $47,790
Engine 125kW 2.0-litre turbo-diesel
Gearbox 6-speed DSG, all-wheel-drive
Thirst 6.3L/100km
Rivals Subaru Outback, 110kW 2.0-litre diesel $40,990; Skoda Octavia Scout, 103kW 2.0-litre diesel $43,990; Audi A4 Allroad, 130kW 2.0-litre diesel $69,990