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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Amarok - Dark Label

Our Opinion

We like
SUV-like road manners and dynamics, strong, frugal engine, slick eight-speed transmission, effortless off-road talent
Room for improvement
Ride suffers on 18-inch wheels, no USB socket, dated infotainment, limited rear legroom

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Volkswagen logo7 Jan 2016

Price and equipment$59,990 plus on-road costs is a lot of money for a car with a cabin made from hard plastics, little in the way of engine sound deadening at low speed and tight rear legroom. A Mercedes-Benz C200 is only about $1000 more expensive while being far quieter, with a more comfortable, spacious and luxurious cabin.

But while the Benz is a brilliant vehicle, it is not as versatile as an Amarok, which can serve as family transport, workhorse and off-road fun machine. About $20K for each purpose.

Even compared with a posh Mercedes, the Amarok Dark Label tested here also has exclusivity on its side with Australian allocation limited to 300 units.

Apart from slightly tacky decals on its flanks, the Dark Label is identified by matte-black exterior additions comprising 18-inch alloy wheels, sports bar, side steps, rear bumper, door mirrors and door/tailgate handles. The tail-lights have also been smoked while the headlights are bi-Xenon units with LED daytime running lights.

Inside are Dark Label branded carpet mats plus a combination of suede-like and mock carbon-fibre seat upholstery.

Otherwise it is specified like the Highline on which it is based (eight-speed automatic TDI420 engine trim in this case) with five-inch touchscreen providing satellite navigation, a 30GB hard drive, Bluetooth connectivity, reversing camera, leather-clad steering wheel and gear knob and dual-zone air-conditioning.

Being an automatic, our test vehicle also had full-time four-wheel-drive and a 20Nm gruntier 132kW/420Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel engine force-fed by two turbos.

Interior

Few one-tonne utes will win any awards for cabin luxury or space but at least the Amarok’s looks good and is logically laid out. Unlike VW passenger cars this is a soft-touch surface free zone, apart from the padded armrests in the doors, which were too low for our elbows to enjoy.

The faux suede seat upholstery really lifts the ambience but also raises eyebrows when considering the damage it could sustain from vomiting, chocolate-spilling children if used as a family car. Fabric protection offered as an up-sell by dealerships starts to sound like a good idea.

A couple of 12-volt power sockets up front are a nod to connectivity but there is no USB socket and we found the Bluetooth system would sometimes forget we had paired a smartphone. Thankfully the pairing procedure was pretty painless – once we got our heads around the fact the instrument cluster multi-function display likes to pull rank over the central touchscreen when it comes to all things Bluetooth.

We found the touchscreen system a constant source of amusement, firstly for its dated graphics but mostly due to the comedy navigation voice prompt stutters “turn l...left” and vague instructions such as “continue straight ahead for a long time”. Despite these foibles it functioned well and was easy to use. We just wish VW would include USB sockets on its vehicles.

The tiny, narrow glovebox is supplemented by a large-looking but deceptively small cubby beneath the central armrest, a shallow tray on the dash-top and a space in front of the gear selector. Thirsty workers are well catered for though, with plenty of generously sized cupholders scattered about the cabin in addition to door pockets designed to secure bottles.

In the back seats there is slightly less legroom than a Golf, but at least the backrest is not too vertical compared with other dual-cab utes. The bench folds upwards to create a flat load area and the backrest tilts forward to provide access to the three child seat top tethers and tools for changing tyres.

Apart from the slabby, precipitous bonnet making it difficult to ascertain where the Amarok’s front corners are, visibility is good for a ute. The reversing camera comes in handy but is prone to being obscured by dirt or water.

It’s a big truck but compared with the Ranger and BT-50 it does not feel too big on the road – until you have to find a supermarket parking space.

Considering VW’s reputation for interior quality, we were disappointed by the flimsy feeling front seat height adjusters and rotary backrest and lumbar support controls that felt as though they were installed at the wrong angle.

Kudos to VW for providing reach adjustable steering though.

Seat adjusters aside, the Amarok interior purveyed an overall feeling of construction solidity and longevity while providing admirable levels of insulation from unwanted engine, wind and road noise.

Our test vehicle was fitted with a plastic Volkswagen branded tray liner, which did not rattle as badly as some we have experienced, while the tray’s 12V outlet was great for operating a tyre pump when off-roading and the dashboard-activated work light proved handy for loading and unloading in the hours of darkness.

Engine and transmission

Where most competitors use engines of up to 3.2 litres to deliver the grunt required to shift more than two tonnes of vehicle plus whatever they are carrying and towing, Volkswagen has used a highly strung 2.0L unit with two turbos.

It develops 132kW at 4000rpm and 420Nm at 1750rpm from a whole litre less displacement than, for example, an Isuzu D-Max that produces 130kW and 380Nm.

The only ute that comes close on specific output is the Nissan NP300 Navara (140kW and 450Nm from 2.3 litres).

Volkswagen’s engine does a great job and apart from obvious diesel giveaway sounds at idle and low revs, is impressively quiet and refined. While this is great for urban tradies and school-run use, we wonder whether a larger, less stressed engine would be a better long-term option for traversing the Australian outback, a task the fuel-efficient, comfortable and highly off-road capable Amarok would be otherwise an ideal choice for.

Our automatic Amarok missed out on a dual-range transfer case too, something VW claims the extra ratios of the eight-speed torque-converter transmission make up for, but it comes standard with a rear diff-lock and an off-road mode for the safety electronics.

While we have managed to prove the efficacy of the diff-lock on steep ascents, for descents we would prefer a proper low range crawler gear to the off-road mode’s jerky and sometimes over-zealous hill descent control.

On sand with the transmission in automatic sport mode, we sometimes felt the Amarok losing momentum from being in too high a gear, but a small flex of the right ankle was enough to prompt a down-change quick enough to avoid further momentum loss. In that respect, this eight-speed transmission is a winner. And there’s always the manual mode accessed by slotting the selector to the left.

The Amarok’s small engine has the benefit of low fuel consumption and we achieved an average of 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres (the official figure is 8.3L/100km) with road use, increasing to 9.9L/100km overall once we had explored the Great Sandy National Park north of Noosa in Queensland.

Ride and handling

Considering this is Volkswagen’s first off-road capable one-tonne ute, they have knocked the ball out of the park when it comes to addressing the effects of uneven weight distribution, high centre of gravity and separate-chassis construction on ride and handling.

The ride on uneven bitumen does suffer a little due to the Dark Label’s 18-inch alloy wheels and we detected some chassis shudder when driving unladen, but it does not take much load in the tray to considerably tame the Amarok’s firm but impressively compliant ride, which provides great isolation from potholes and speed bumps and irons out rippled surfaces.

Well-weighted, accurate steering makes the Amarok easy to drive quickly along twisty roads – putting many medium and large SUVs to shame – and the level of body control in these circumstances really shines. Where some utes pitch about, the VW is Amarok-solid.

Only the mushy, slow-returning brake pedal really disappointed. We’d want more feel and confidence with a big load in the tray or towing a large trailer.

The Dark Label rewards a measured approach to off-roading if tyre pressures are kept at road spec. Corrugations are dealt with well if taken at high enough speeds but beyond that, it is more comfortable to crawl along carefully. As with the on-road ride, we suspect smaller wheel rims and chunkier tyre sidewalls would help.

We tried tackling sandy terrain without dropping the tyre pressures and the Amarok sailed through. It was clear that losing some air would have eased progress in many cased but only fairly extreme terrain would necessitate it, or use of the Maxtrax we packed (that happen to fit perfectly between the wheel wells in the tray).

Safety and servicing

The Amarok was the first one-tonne ute to receive a maximum five-star ANCAP crash-test rating. It scored 32.99 out of 37 overall, with 13.99 out of 16 in the frontal offset test, 16 out of 16 in the side impact test and 2 out of 2 in the pole test. Whiplash protection was deemed ‘good’ and pedestrian protection ‘marginal’.

Dual front airbags plus side chest and head protecting airbags are standard, as are rollover mitigation and trailer sway control, along with electronic stability and traction control plus anti-lock brakes with off-road mode and electronic brakeforce distribution.

However VW has been criticised from omitting curtain airbags to protect second-row passengers on the Amarok range.

Service intervals are 12 months or 15,000 kilometres, with capped price servicing available for the first six workshop visits, each of which costs between $484 and $608. The warranty lasts three years with unlimited kilometres.

Verdict

2015 might have been the year of the ute, with new and updated versions of the Mitsubishi Triton, Nissan Navara, Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50 and Toyota HiLux all arriving within months of each other, but the Amarok has managed to remain competitive because it set the bar so high in the first place.

With the Dark Label edition squarely aimed at the image-conscious city slicker, we were pleased to discover the Amarok has lost little of its all-round ability in lieu of exclusivity and style.

It has all the standard equipment most people would desire from their dual-cab plus some funky design touches that make an already handsome vehicle stand out from the crowd.

Even for those who read this long after the Dark Label has sold out, by we would not be surprised if its existence informed a few aftermarket or dealer-fit customisations.

VW has priced this vehicle significantly higher than all but the top-spec Ford Ranger Wildtrak and its own Amarok Ultimate variant.

For the money we’d like to see more upholstered or soft-touch interior surfaces because the Dark Label hides its commercial vehicle origins so well and its fancy seats, steering wheel and gear selector knob look a little out of place against all the hard plastic.

Apart from that, the Dark Label is a compelling addition to the already impressive Amarok range.

Rivals

Toyota HiLux SR5+ automatic from $57,990 plus on-road costs
Learning a thing or two from the Amarok about ride quality and refinement, the all-new HiLux is not only the newest kid on a block full of new kids but now a bang up-to-date daddy of the one-tonne ute class. In SR5+ trim it is both less expensive and better equipped than the Amarok Dark Label while having bulletproof resale to go with its reputation for toughness.

Ford Ranger Wildtrack automatic from $60,090 plus on-road costs
Once Australian car manufacturing is gone, the locally designed and engineered Ranger will be as true blue as it gets. We can be proud of this home-grown hero, even if prices are almost Amarok ambitious. Building on the pre-facelift Ranger’s impressive ride, refinement and road manners, the updated version now also boasts one of the segment’s classiest cabins. More expensive than the HiLux and Amarok Dark Label, the Wildtrak still undercuts the top-tier Amarok Ultimate. It just feels a bit big on the road, which could be a deal-breaker for some.

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