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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Amarok - TDI400 Highline 4WD

Launch Story

17 Jun 2011

IT IS not every day that an all-new vehicle arrives in one of the most competitive vehicle segments, let alone one that promises so much, so it was with high expectations that we drove the long-anticipated Volkswagen Amarok on Tasmanian roads and bush tracks for the first time this week.

With a stylish appearance, a one-tonne-plus payload, 2800kg towing capacity and 400Nm of torque on offer, the double-cab diesel Amarok has what should be needed to make an impact on the popular one-tonne utes from the established US and Japanese manufacturers.

The Amarok presents a stylish exterior that is close to its major competitors in size. If anything, it is wider than the likes of Toyota’s top-selling HiLux, Nissan’s Navara and the Mitsubishi Triton, as well as being slightly taller than these competitors.

Part of this comes from the added ground clearance which at a quoted 265mm is up to 60mm higher than the main rivals – a vital statistic when it comes to driving off-road.

Our first drive was in the $47,990 Amarok Trendline, the second of the four spec levels, with part-time 4WD, 17-inch alloy wheels and body-coloured mirrors that give it a premium appearance.

The cargo bed is deep and wide, with VW claiming class-leading dimensions that will accommodate a standard size pallet.

A couple of clever features included in the tray are a 12-volt accessory power outlet for running items like a vehicle fridge and a cargo area light incorporated into the high-mounted brake light that can be switched on from the cabin only when the engine is turned off.

The stylish and practical theme continues inside, where the dash is well laid out with large controls that are easy to find and operate. Despite a Volkswagen spokesperson’s assurance before we drove the vehicle that the Amarok would have a more passenger car-like interior than other utes, the dash and trims are still hard - unlike those of VW passenger cars.

Standard equipment on the Trendline includes a CD player/radio, one-touch power windows all round, power locks and mirrors, air-conditioning, cloth seat trim, lap-sash belts and head restraints for all five seats, a multi-function trip computer and cruise control.

Notably missing are Bluetooth telephone functionality and an auxiliary input for the audio system, but these are available as extra cost options – at $650 and $395 respectively.

The front seats offer plenty of fore and aft adjustment for various sized drivers, height adjustment for both driver and passenger and more supportive side bolsters than many of the Amarok’s rivals.

By bulging the chassis rails outwards in the area where the cabin is mounted, VW was able to create a wider cab and while three adults seated across the rear seat will still rub shoulders, they fare better than they would in other vehicles in this class.

The rear seatback is angled sufficiently to be comfortable, although not as much as in Mitsubishi’s Triton which remains the best in class in this regard. The split rear seat base cleverly folds up out of the way when not needed, giving usable floor space for carrying items such as tools or large boxes.

A big problem many potential buyers will have with the Amarok is being convinced that a 2.0-litre diesel engine, even one that makes 400Nm, is up to the task of hauling a two-tonne ute around - let alone one with a tonne in the tray or 2800kg on the towbar.

The Tassie test drive was in unladen vehicles, so we can’t comment on how it handles a load, but with two people on board it was hard to fault. Peak torque of 400Nm is more than the HiLux, Holden Colorado, Isuzu D-Max or Triton make from their bigger turbo-diesel engines, and is topped only by Navara’s 450Nm TD4 and 550Nm TDV6 engines.

The sequential twin-turbo system allows the engine to generate its peak torque as low as 1500rpm and it carries the full 400Nm through to 2500rpm on its way to a relatively high 5000rpm redline.

Peak power of 120kW comes in at 4000rpm. The engine gets a bit harsh and noisy beyond that, but there’s really no reward in taking it so high as it does its best work down low.

The high torque at low revs gives an abundance of grunt for getting off the line, climbing steep grades or during low-speed, off-road driving. It lopes along at low revs in high gears and happily pulls from as low at 1400rpm.

An indicator in the gauge panel displays the gear selected and suggests when to shift up or down to get the best out of the engine.

This works on engine load and throttle position, and to get the best economy it recommends you shift to a higher gear earlier than you would feel is possible, but the engine works so well down low that it is pleasantly surprising.

VW claims the Amarok Trendline achieves 7.9L/100km on the combined cycle, but on our drive, the trip computer showed 8.9L/100km off road and 8.1L/100km on road.

Amarok’s six-speed manual gearbox offers plenty of ratios to keep the engine in its sweet spot. Both fifth and sixth gears are overdriven and the ute is happy to lope along in top at highway speeds.

The gearshifter is fitted with a device that isolates the lever from the gearbox to remove driveline vibration and torque twist on the lever, but it is easy to get lost in the gates when looking for a gear.

Shifting between 2WD and 4WD in the Selectable 4Motion system can be done on the move at the simple push of a button on the console, although low range will not engage until the vehicle is stopped.

A rear differential lock is standard on Amarok Trendline, Highline and Ultimate models and this is activated by a switch on the console.

The performance of Amarok’s chassis is a standout for this class of vehicle. The VW ute is unfussed by conditions, be it on or off road. On road, it belies its light truck underpinnings by delivering a composed ride, sharp turn-in and stable handling – with refinement and noise levels that set a new benchmark in the class.

Without driving it back to back against the competition we would say it also delivers class leading dynamics on twisting mountain roads without compromising comfort.

Rutted gravel tracks do little to upset the chassis either, but with all that torque going to the back wheels, 4WD needs to be selected as soon as the road surface gets slippery or the back-end will go sideways – at least until the electronic stability control system (standard in all models, unlike any other ute range) throws out the anchors.

There is a bit of wheel hop from the leaf-sprung live rear axle when accelerating over corrugations but again the Amarok is better in this department than the previous best model in the class.

Volkswagen has taken the unique step of offering a comfort rear spring set for the Amarok as a no-cost option.

The standard heavy-duty rear packs are a 3+2 leaf set-up and this gives the ute a 3040kg GVM or upwards of a 1000kg payload - more than the HiLux, Navara or Triton.

Owners wanting a slightly softer ride at the expense of load capacity can opt for ‘comfort’ rear suspension with a 2+1 leaf pack that reduces the GVM to 2820kg, which still betters HiLux’s 2780kg GVM.

The comfort suspension option is available on all grades, however, it is the only suspension option in the Amarok Ultimate with permanent 4Motion.

The Ultimate is the only variant offered with the full-time system. To have heavy-duty suspension in the top-spec Ultimate you must opt for part-time 4WD.

This is the one major disappointment on the Amarok. A single 4WD system that offers full-time 4WD with low range like that in the first generation Touareg would have been ideal but is not offered in the VW ute.

Full-time 4WD gives a huge safety benefit on all roads, particularly when wet or in icy conditions. VW representatives at the launch could not give exact reasons for this situation, except to say that different markets demand different things from the vehicle so it believes that offering the two different systems is the best option.

Part-time 4WD offers rear-wheel drive, locked 4WD high range and locked 4WD low range. As both 4WD modes have the centre differential locked, driving the vehicle on sealed roads isn’t possible without risking damage to the driveline.

4WD is for loose surfaces or off-road use only in this vehicle. Volkswagen is calling this part-time system selectable 4Motion. The Amarok Ultimate offers full-time 4WD that can be driven on any road surface, however, this system does not come with low range gears. VW call this system permanent 4Motion.

A drive of the Amarok Ultimate with permanent 4Motion on the highway did not reveal any significant difference in dynamics, although this should be a different story on gravel roads, where the variable full-time system should have an advantage.

That said, even though VW states the same average fuel consumption for both 4Motion systems, the switchable 4Motion system is likely to return better real-world fuel economy on the road in rear-drive mode, which with the benefit of an ESC safety blanket is just as confidence-inspiring to drive as the permanent 4Motion system.

The standard ESC system is fast-acting and effective, making the most of the available grip. If this isn’t enough there’s the rear differential lock to keep the Amarok on the move and out of the toughest situations.

The part-time 4WD system has no disadvantages off-road, and the Amarok continues to excel when the going gets tough, with wheel travel that is similar to other vehicles in this segment.

The softer comfort springs were slightly more noticeable on undulations in the road, and the Ultimate’s leather seating gives the vehicle a most upmarket feel, especially considering this is a commercial vehicle.

The off-road button on the console changes the calibration of the ESC, ABS and throttle pedal to better suit the conditions, and also activates the high-tech hill descent control and hill start assist functions.

The latter is particularly useful as it is only available with a manual gearbox and the clutch action is a bit grabby. Hill start assist holds the brake pressure on for a few seconds after releasing the brake pedal to hold the vehicle and allow you to get the clutch and throttle right for a smooth take off even on the steepest hills.

Hill descent control is engaged when in low range or when off-road mode is selected. It keeps the vehicle at the braked entry speed from the start of the hill at speeds up to 30km/h. It can be overridden by light application of the throttle and this is great for the time it isn’t needed. It is useful for the Ultimate model, which does not include low-range gearing with its permanent 4WD system.

A solid metal underbody guard at the front to protect the engine and bottom of the radiator was tested to the max on one section of heavily rutted muddy track, which had the Amarok scraping its belly along the rocky crown between the tyre ruts but didn’t stop it ploughing forward without hesitation and coming away unscathed.

With its class-leading dynamics, safety and cabin size and refinement, Volkswagen’s Amarok undoubtedly raises the bar in the one-tonne ute segment, but it will be a tough market to crack.

The limited – for now – model range will restrict buyers to double-cabs and diesel-manuals only. Many potential buyers will be put off by the small-capacity engine despite the torque it makes and they won’t get past this without driving it for themselves, after which they should be sold.

Then there’s the perceived high quality, difference in service costs and access to dealerships of the market-leading HiLux that are huge bonuses for Toyota and part of the reason it does so well with fleet buyers.

Amarok raises the stakes in its class and while it won’t challenge the likes of HiLux or Navara in terms of outright sales, it will dent their numbers and seriously infringe on other players such as Mitsubishi, Holden, Isuzu, Mazda and Ford.

For the latter two manufacturers, the new BT-50 and Ranger models cannot come quick enough this year.

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