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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Amarok - TDI400 Highline 4WD

Our Opinion

We like
Safety, comfort, steering/handling/ride, TDI economy, ample performance, cabin design and execution, premium ambience
Room for improvement
Samey styling, no standard Bluetooth, no auto as yet, no petrol as yet, no factory bull bar, unknown maintenance/servicing/parts costs, no reliability/durability record

17 Jun 2011

ARGENTINA has produced its fair share of revolutionaries.

Albeit in a different way, and although utterly German in every conceivable sense, the Amarok that hails from the great South American nation has the notion to affect real change in the world of pick-up trucks.

Life for the men and women who need a one-tonne 2WD/4WD utility but do not want it to be cheap, crude, uncomfortable or unsafe have a different choice at last. You wouldn’t knowingly choose to compromise your workspace, so why should they?

In the crucial areas of personal security, vehicle access, cabin comfort and drivetrain efficiency the five-star ANCAP scoring, economical and dynamic VW violently blows the current status quo apart. The brand’s passenger car philosophy now applies to its trucks too.

Ford’s upcoming T6 Ranger, its Mazda BT-50 twin and the next Holden Colorado will have plenty of ground to cover thanks to the Amarok.

Our only reservations concern ongoing parts pricing, maintenance costs and component reliability – vital areas where the all the Japanese-engineered competition led by the Nissan D40 Navara, Toyota HiLux and Mitsubishi Triton excel, while the Amarok’s related Transporter sibling has not performed as sterlingly, according to some.

We will be keeping a close eye on ownership costs, VW – especially after the eight-speed automatic gearbox option and 2.0-litre turbo petrol versions come on line later in 2012. Until then, this is an unknown quantity.

What we can tell you right now is how the Amarok in sole four-door five-seater dual-cab TDI diesel manual guise performs in an urban environment.

Ours featured the optional up-spec Highline with 4MOTION selectable 4WD, bringing the price up to $53K.

That’s a lot of money for such a beast, but the VW does include dual front airbags, side head/thorax airbags, front seatbelt tensioners, three-point seatbelts and head restraints for all five occupants, ESC stability control, ABS anti-lock brakes, Hill Descent, Hill Hold, power windows/mirrors, auto air-con, AM/FM/CD audio, one-touch lane-change indicators and 18-inch alloys.

One thing hardly revolutionary, though, is the ‘rok’s appearance. Neat? Sure. But also timid and derivative. It looks like an Identikit portrait of every known modern pick-up – with the company’s own Polo thrown in there for a bit of Wolfsburg seasoning.

Clearly, the revolution is going on inside and underneath the Amarok.

What is immediately obvious from the moment you clamber up (via a handy set of pillar-mounted grab handles) is how VW-generic the interior is.

Except for the leather-clad steering wheel and fur-lined bins in all four doors, the regular softly/feely parts prevalent in the brand’s passenger cars are about 20 per cent coarser for a tougher ambience. That’s OK though – functionality meets quality: we get it.

Take the Highline’s monochromatic (i.e. Melbourne winter grey dull) dash – chunky, symmetrical and quite soberly presented, it looks like a cross between the Tiguan and the Polo’s, with what may as well be the same instrument pod (two chromed-ring dials enclosing speedo and tacho, and a pleasingly comprehensive TFT screen featuring trip computer/digital speedo/fuel gauge/info).

The same car-like detailing applies to the stupendously simple cruise control system, centrally laid out touch-screen audio and push-button semi-auto climate control system below that. It’s all absolutely standard VW fare found in most of the firm’s current offerings. Even the headlining could be out of a Passat or Touareg. Or a Skoda …

Lower down the centre console things begin to get a bit more truck-like – or should that be, truck-lite – yet in a way that helps rather than hinders the job at hand. No fewer than three 12V outlets (including one for a cigarette lighter) are fitted. There is space galore for bits and bobs along a horizontal plane. And ample cabin lighting is provided for all those pre-dawn starts.

Speaking of night-time illumination, an ‘outside light’ for the cargo tray is operated via a dash-mounted switch. Good one, Vee-Dubya.

Basically, collectively, this is all welcome stuff for the thousands of pick-up users who have had to compromise on luxury and/or finesse. And if you’re familiar with a particular Chinese ute you may want to spend the rest of your life hiding high inside an Amarok.

What else? The leather-clad wheel tilts and telescopes. Handy. So are the sunglasses holder, cupholders and dash-top indentation tray that seems just right for a few sandwiches and a tabloid newspaper.

Yet the cloth-trimmed armrests and firmly supportive fronts seats are more Financial Times than Telegraph/Sun, with a comfy no-nonsense fabric that should wear well over time. They elevate a whole lot higher than you might think too, to help you see the road more clearly. Meanwhile a massive pair of exterior mirrors help when you need to look back.

The glovebox lacks space, though, so VW provides hidden drawers beneath both front seats and a sizeable storage facility between the front seats under the armrest. Nice.

See those circular blanks near the (very effective) air vents? They’re for optional cupholders. Not so pretty, they give this Highline a lowly with a capital ‘L’ look.

That’s a small hiccup, though, for things improve again with the rear bench, which is particularly accommodating for a pick-up truck. The backrest is angled a little more than we expected for extended-journey relaxation.

You won’t need a tape measure to realise there’s more room back there than in most other rivals, while thoughtful touches abound: VW provides useful space for toes beneath the front seats – even when they’re enclosed in bulky boots the rear windows drop all the way down and full-sized headrests are provided for the outboard passengers – along with overhead grab handles, door bins and retractable drink holders.

Helpfully the split/folding seat bases flip up to create extra storage space if needed.

However, the lack of map pockets is a bit of an oversight while a rear window that rattled but only with four people on board and just for a brief period at around 70km/h had us baffled. Weird.

Beyond that the Amarok totally turns into a truck – but one that drives much like a car.

Drop that 250kg-rated tailgate, and you are faced with a flat bed measuring in at a class-leading 1555mm long, 1620mm wide and 1222mm between the arches. Besides the aforementioned light there are four cargo hooks and an exterior 12V outlet.

Our Amarok came fitted with the no-cost option ‘Comfort’ suspension option with 3+1 leaf springs for heavier loads the standard heavy-duty set-up carries 3+2 leaf springs, for a GVM of 3040kg and payload of almost 1200kg. Towing capacity is 2800kg with a 280kg towball down-weight rating.

Unladen the 120kW/400Nm 2.0-litre common-rail twin-turbo diesel – hence TDI400 – feels completely up to the job of hauling the big VW ute about.

Unsurprisingly cold starts reveal an engine that is clattery, but a quick warm-up ensures a smoother and quieter operation.

Aided by a light ‘n’ easy six-speed manual gearbox and an effortless clutch action, acceleration off the mark is eager for such a small four-pot diesel, and just keeps getting stronger as the revs (red lined at 5500rpm) rise. From 2000rpm to 3500rpm the Amarok is riding on a hefty slug of torque so there’s ample oomph for overtaking.

Furthermore, the two blowers and a sensible spread of ratios result in unexpectedly rapid performance once past the 100km/h mark, casting away doubts that the engine does not have the capacity to keep things ticking along here.

At freeway speeds, the VW is virtually car-like in its refinement and stability, pushing a hole through the air without raising a sweat. Only the droning of the 18-inch wheels and the inevitable wind noise associated with the exposed tray betray this vehicle’s truck origins.

Our average fuel consumption figure was in the low 11s, further galvanising our respect for the TDI400 powerplant as this included some hard driving stages. Combined with low emissions, it is clear that VW’s downsizing strategy is working in the company’s commercial vehicle department too. Well done.

We drove around the inner ‘burbs mostly, taking advantage of the Amarok’s impressively tight turning circle, and appreciated the Comfort Setting suspension that made light work of soaking up most bumps.

Most of all, however, we were taken by the steering – again a car-like application due to its progressive weighting and sufficient responsiveness. We’re not talking razor sharpness or unfettered feedback, but there is a high degree of handling finesse and body control for folk who have never driven a truck before to feel confident and in charge.

Even without a load out back, the tail through tighter turns stayed put on damp roads (and firmly glued to the tarmac in the dry due to the copious grip coming from the 255/60R18 tyres), while typically effective VW brakes further enhanced the Amarok’s driving appeal.

The fun continues on dirt roads, where the VW’s advanced electronic sensors (which include a unique off-road ESC stability control system and off-road ABS brakes with a hill-hold assist and hill-descent devices) allow for some sideways hi-jinx before the traction intervention kicks-in gradually. It isn’t totally all about work only.

Conversely the Amarok is utterly in control, easy to place and highly stable at speed on loose gravel as well as on the blacktop.

We suspect that suddenly HiLux and co. might seem quite agriculturally by comparison.

Switching from rear drive to 4WD High (possible at any speed) and 4WD Low modes is possible through the pressing of a couple of buttons, with the latter allowing for a 100 per cent front/rear axle lock and ultra low 2.72:1 crawler gear ratio.

Plus, the VW offers 230mm of ground clearance, 28-degree approach angle, 23.6-degree departure angle, 21.4-degree ramp-over angle, 500mm of fording depth and incline and decline ratings of 45 and 49.7 degrees respectively.

We never strayed from the beaten track, but our previous experience at the Amarok’s national launch drive in rural Tasmania revealed extremely competitive off-road capabilities.

So … with potentially brilliant off-road, exemplary on-road, and a level of driveability, safety, comfort and refinement hitherto unheard of in a one-tonne truck, the Amarok is riding high in more ways than one.

After a week behind the wheel of the Highline, we were sad to see its unremarkable tail-lights fade off into the distance.

Yes, it is not cheap, but no rival comes close in the areas where the Amarok is nothing short of a revolution, closing the gap even more between trucks and cars without compromising on its workhorse capabilities. Toyota ought to be terrified.

And we should be grateful VW chose not to call its Argentinean-built gamechanger Che!

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