Volkswagen Magazine


Hot on the trail

The new Passat Alltrack can go where lesser vehicles fear to tread. Which is just as well when it’s in pursuit of a hot-air balloon.

Text Paul Rodger

Photos Paul Henderson-Kelly

The words ‘chase vehicle’ bring certain images to mind. A highway patrol in hot pursuit of an escaping suspect, perhaps. Or a storm chaser rushing to film a twister as it cuts a swathe through American farmland.

But not this. Shadowing a hot-air balloon as it drifts gently over countryside at speeds approaching a breakneck 10km/h is hardly the stuff of a Hollywood action film or the nightly news. And yet it’s an essential part of the sport of hot-air ballooning.

You won’t find a brochure telling you that the Passat Alltrack is ideally suited to owners of hot-air balloons. It’s too niche a pursuit, of course. And the Passat Alltrack? It’s too much of an all-rounder.

This is a vehicle that wears its versatility on its sleeve, a practical wagon as suited to running errands in the inner city as it is laying down some serious kilometres on a long-haul drive. And let’s not forget that this car has the beating heart of a rugged off-roader.

Which is exactly why it has been recruited to assist in a hot-air balloon chase. The key requisite for the role isn’t speed. It’s an ability to go where other vehicles can’t – down country lanes, across cattle grids and through fields. That the Passat Alltrack offers lashings of style and luxury while it goes about its job is a welcome bonus.

Fit for purpose

If you’re into hot-air ballooning in Australia, chances are you’ve taken to the air over the pretty town of Canowindra in the Central Ranges area of New South Wales. Every April, Canowindra reaches ‘peak balloon’ as magnificent men and women in their flying machines descend (literally!) on the town from around the world to compete in the Canowindra Balloon Challenge.

It’s not for nothing that the town is called Australia’s balloon capital. Situated in a valley, Canowindra offers the kind of cool, still air favoured by ballooners. Low ambient temperatures make it easier for balloons to attain lift, which is why they are so often seen taking off in chilly dawn air.

The Passat Alltrack was in town to act as a support to the bright blue balloon of Sydney-based Team Cambo, comprising Steve and his wife Amanda. A veteran of several years of ballooning competition, Steve confesses to having been bitten hard by the ballooning bug while growing up in Canowindra. His childhood passion has since taken him to meets as far afield as Japan and New Mexico. He and Amanda will travel to Metz in France during the northern summer for Europe’s biggest hot-air balloon festival.

A day earlier, the Passat Alltrack was the epitome of refinement as it made its way across the Blue Mountains from Sydney to join the team in Canowindra. The vehicle’s 2.0-litre turbocharged TDI engine (140kW/ 400Nm) is a perfect match with Volkswagen’s 6-speed DSG transmission, both engine and drivetrain working seamlessly to offer a smooth and assured driving experience.

All the usual driver assistance aids abound in the Passat Alltrack, such as Side Assist technology, which advises the driver of vehicles approaching to the left or right, and Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), which helps keep the Passat Alltrack a safe distance from the car in front. Both are enormously helpful when covering large distances. With every generation of vehicle produced by Volkswagen, it seems these driver assistance aids become more an integral part of how driver and car interact.

It was also a surprise to learn just how frugal a car it is. The journey from central Sydney to Canowindra is easily 300 kilometres and yet the fuel gauge still hovered well above the halfway mark by the time the car hit Canowindra’s main drag. Smart technology was in effect here too, with BlueMotion technologies such as Start/Stop technology, Brake Energy Recuperation and the Coasting function working together to maximise fuel usage.

The Passat Alltrack isn’t all about the high-tech. The vehicle’s 639-litre luggage capacity (1769 litres with the seats folded) is a nod to the station wagons of old, which permitted throwing a heap of gear in the back without thinking twice. This vehicle doesn’t know the meaning of the words ‘space-saver’ and yet it never feels bulky or cumbersome.

Up, up and away

Reporting to Canowindra’s main field before dawn, we joined Team Cambo for a briefing on that morning’s round of competition. We learned that the balloons, once inflated, would ascend to a layer of wind that would carry them to the outskirts of town. There they would take part in a challenge to drop a small sandbag on a ‘bullseye’ on the ground. The team dropping their sandbag closest to the target would take away a cash prize for their efforts.

We also found out about the importance of the role played by the chase vehicle. Once the balloon is aloft, that balloon’s support vehicle must track its progress and rendezvous with it when it lands. The support crew ensures that the balloon has the equipment it needs to take to the air again, which usually means replenishing the balloon’s empty gas tanks. Sometimes, teams might change their pilots. Once a flight is over, the support crew is on hand to ensure the balloon is deflated safely and the gear packed away properly.

It was fascinating watching Steve transform his balloon from a mess of canvas and ropes lying on the grass into an upstanding machine capable of flight. And magical watching it in those few seconds after lift-off.

Only just airborne, and with quiet all around, a hot-air balloon with its human cargo onboard seems to be making its mind up. It’s only when the stillness of the morning is broken by the roar of the balloon’s enormous burners that it begins to ascend—slowly but surely. Even for those who fly regularly, it’s a rush that’s hard to beat. 

It was time for the Passat Alltrack to prove its off-road mettle.

In pursuit

With the balloon of Team Cambo aloft, we set off after it as it skimmed over rooftops and trees in the direction of the ‘drop zone challenge’.

Little did we know at that point but the car’s vivid Habanero Orange paintwork had already made it something of a recognisable presence among the Canowindra ballooning fraternity. On more than a couple of occasions prior, locals had sidled up to enquire about the car and compliment it on its purposeful styling.

It’s certainly rugged looking, with its matte-black protective trim and wheel arch extensions. But that ruggedness is more than skin deep. With its raised ground clearance and rough road suspension, the car has been designed to eat up the kind of dirt tracks found around Canowindra. Even with a bit of throttle on surfaces offering limited traction, the Passat Alltrack’s 4MOTION all-wheel drive, with electronically controlled multi-plate clutch, kept the vehicle supremely in control.

The pursuit was the perfect opportunity to activate ‘Off-road Mode’ from the vehicle’s Driving Profile selection. Turning this mode on readies the Passat Alltrack for greater performance on loose and uneven ground by activating Hill Descent Control to moderate the vehicle’s speed on hills, adapting accelerator responsiveness and adjusting the point at which it switches gears.

Incidentally, who knew the Passat Alltrack’s panoramic glass sunroof (part of the optional Luxury package) would come in so handy to allow a skyward view of the balloons as they drifted above? The perfect chase vehicle indeed.

A job well done

The Passat Alltrack combines wagon comfort with SUV versatility and toughness in a way that is ideally suited to Australian conditions. That evening, while enjoying a hearty meal at Canowindra’s Royal Hotel in the middle of town, we discovered just how Australian this part of the country is.

It turns out that the building that once stood on the pub’s grounds was held up for three days by one of the most famous of bushrangers, Ben Hall. This was gold rush country back in the 1860s and there was a fortune to be made in these parts – whether by legitimate means or not.

What might these prospectors and highwaymen of old have thought about the go-anywhere Passat Alltrack and these strange flying machines if they’d laid eyes on them? One can scarcely imagine.