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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Amarok - V6 Ultimate TDI550

Our Opinion

We like
The best ute driveline bar none, handles and drives better than some luxury SUVs but tackles the unbeaten track like a mountain goat while offering ute versatility, logical dash and instrument layout, effective multimedia system
Room for improvement
A Golf offers better rear space, fitting child seats a two- or three-person job, front seats not suited to shorter people, ride deteriorates on 19-inch alloys, tiny glovebox, lack of safety tech, no rear airbags, cabin still a hard-plastic fest

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Volkswagen logo31 Jan 2017

By HAITHAM RAZAGUI

Price and equipment

AS MENTIONED in the Overview section, the Volkswagen Amarok TDI550 V6 Ultimate costs a hefty $67,990 plus on-roads and that does not include autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning or blind spot monitoring. Nor are their rear curtain airbags.

It is difficult to know when or if this safety tech will be added to the current-generation Amarok, but as GoAuto has recently reported, VW Group Australia is pushing the factory to include it.

Why are we mentioning this up front? Our three-week stint with the Amarok V6 took place over the Christmas and New Year break, so naturally involved a lot of transporting family members and friends, including infants and primary school children.

They would have been safer in a Ford Ranger (still one of the highest-ranked vehicles of any type for crash-test safety by ANCAP) or Holden Colorado. None of our passengers were aware – hence we’re informing you now – or perhaps even cared because their own cars didn’t have much safety gear either.

But if you are going to drop $70K on a new vehicle, it is reasonable to want all the best safety gear money can buy. In the Amarok’s case, not even money can buy it. You don’t get keyless entry and push-button start, either.

Soapbox aside, Amarok V6 Ultimate buyers do get tyre pressure monitoring and multi-collision brake assist, which automatically applies the brakes to reduce speed to 10km/h after an airbag is deployed to help prevent the Amarok from rolling into other obstacles following a crash. There is also an automated parking system.

An equipment highlight for many will be fact the Amarok V6 Ultimate has the only plush Nappa leather upholstery available in the ute segment, with classy contrast stitching plus 14-way electric adjustment and heating on the front seats.

The touchscreen multimedia system is no longer a low-resolution laughing matter with a sat-nav speech impediment but is still quite small at 6.33 inches. Much better satellite navigation plus DAB+ digital radio reception and decent voice recognition are welcome upgrades, while the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integrations got a big thumbs-up from us.

Also accessed via the touchscreen is a reversing camera, with proximity visuals for the front and rear parking sensors. Compared with previously, Bluetooth phone pairing no longer has to be done through the trip computer between the instruments one of the least logical Amarok bugbears has been rectified.

The Amarok also finally has a USB socket, to go with the four 12V power outlets, including one in the tray, and the Ultimate’s new full-colour trip computer is easy on the eye. In front of that is a car-like steering wheel with paddle-shifters and the pedals below are sporty alloy items. Carpet mats are also standard.

Bi-Xenon headlights are supplemented by LED daytime running lights and static front cornering lights. LED perimeter lighting is built into the stainless steel side steps – which had been removed from our test vehicle – and an LED load area work light is also fitted, along with a stainless steel sports bar and grippy Durabed spray-on ute-liner.

New Mojave beige and Iridium grey hues are available on both V6 variants.

Options wise, premium paint costs $590 – Ravenna metallic blue being exclusive to the V6 Ultimate – and dealer-fit 20-inch alloy wheels to replace the standard 19-inch items are also available. VW is growing the range of factory approved Amarok accessories, which currently includes additional underbody protection, roof bars, rolling tonneau covers and canopies.

Interior

We have already mentioned technological and equipment reasons why the Amarok is not an ideal family hauler, and the big VW gets another beating when it comes to interior practicality.

Safety features notwithstanding, being a quiet and refined vehicle offering the lifestyle and versatility advantages of a ute makes the Amarok look like an ideal family car.

This all changes when trying to install a child seat or three.

First, trying to locate the Isofix anchorages had us fumbling around like a virgin during a power outage. They are concealed behind beautifully stitched seams in the leather that, to continue the analogy, visibly lose their virginity once the seat has been removed.

Second, trying to fold the backrest to access the top tether hoops was almost impossible for even a tall male to do single-handedly. Both release straps must be pulled at once, but they are too far apart to make this possible.

We found kneeling on the front central armrest and stretching our arms as wide as they would go to be the only successful method, but the backrest would swing backwards easily and lock in place with infuriating regularity, unless we could somehow swing a thick enough object between the bulkhead and backrest to prevent it. A smaller person was able to fit behind one of the front seats to perform the fitment but then struggled to reach both straps at once.

Third, with a rear-facing infant seat installed, the front seat must be positioned almost at the extent of its forward travel, making it only suitable for very short occupants. Two tall parents with an infant in the back is a literally impossible combination. Because the Amarok’s rear legroom is worse than a Golf and many other small cars, sitting the tall parents in tandem is also problematic.

Fourth, installing more than one child seat is at the very least a two person job because the existing seats make it even harder to fold the backrest forward and access the top tethers, meaning it is even more likely to swing back and lock in place. With two tall males on the case in the middle of summer this both raised a soaking sweat and lowered the mood sufficiently to threaten the friendship. A third helper holding the bench forward would have been ideal, but we are not sure from where they would have accessed it due to the lack of space.

If children are not in the picture, the Amarok is fine so long as you remember that carrying humans at the opposite end of the size spectrum is also effectively ruled out by the poor legroom.

So, the ideal Amarok customer is either tall with no friends or family, or someone with no friends or family members who are of above-average height.

The negative news ends there, for the Amarok’s cabin presentation has improved dramatically, not that it was that bad to begin with.

In keeping with competitors, the dashboard and door caps are hard plastic but the convincing texture and black colour scheme with silver and gloss highlights do a great job of looking premium – especially compared with the light grey hue that went before. It all feels pretty solid, too, with little of the hollowness that can afflict these material choices but all of the wipe-clean toughness advantages for off-road and commercial duties.

Compared with before, the round and rather van-like air-conditioning vents have been replaced with more car-like items, the accessory blanking plugs are thankfully banished and the whole effect is better integrated and more SUV-like.

Both reach and height adjustment for the Amarok’s great-to-grasp, classy multi-function steering wheel is very welcome in the ute segment and the vast extremes available for all 14 directions of front seat adjustment meant an excellent driving position was easily attainable.

But a little ironically considering our conclusions about the ideal height of Amarok customers, the Ultimate-specific and supposedly ergonomically certified front seats were uncomfortable for shorter occupants, especially when driving, due to the adjustable thigh support being around a centimetre too long, even when fully retracted.

On the other hand, average-height and tall occupants found them supremely comfortable, the latter especially so with the thigh supports extended.

Apart from legroom, rear seat comfort levels are high, with the backrest angle not too upright, as can be the case in many other dual-cab utes. There are no air-conditioning vents back there, but rear-seat occupants never complained about lack of airflow during the sweltering Queensland summer conditions of our test. The Amarok’s highly effective window tints helped no end in this respect.

The glovebox is tiny, only big enough for gloves really, but the central armrest conceals a large bin, all four door bins are generous and felt-lined to prevent annoying rattles and the non-slip space in front of the gear selector is perfect for a couple of smartphones. Unfortunately the dash-top tray with handy 12V socket gets too hot and items placed in there cause distracting windscreen reflections. The Ultimate also loses the concealed under-seat storage compartments fitted to lesser Amaroks.

While the standard spray-on ute liner is incredibly tough and certainly has its advantages, it is so grippy that loading items can be difficult because they simply get stuck and refuse to slide along the tray bed. Another gripe is the reversing camera’s position that causes the top and bottom quarters of the view to be bordered by bodywork and bumper.

But the vehicle’s overall visibility is good, save for the need to crank the driver’s seat right up to see over the bluff bonnet for off-roading, and unlike the Ford Ranger that can feel a bit too big on the road, the VW shrinks around the driver somewhat. But its 12.95m turning circle – more than a metre bigger than the even longer HiLux – means it is still pretty difficult to swing into shopping centre parking spaces.

As with previous Amaroks, the V6 impressed us with the levels of on-board quietness and refinement. There is no doubt this updated version takes those qualities a step further, with the silky smooth engine a large contributing factor.

Engine and transmission

The 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel fitted to this Amarok is not the segment’s largest engine. Those bragging rights are reserved for the 3.2-litre five-cylinder used in the Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50.

But the VW offers class-leading power and torque at 165kW/550Nm. That is 18kW more than the Ranger – 33kW if you include the overboost function available for 10 seconds when mashing the accelerator for overtaking – and 50Nm more than a Holden Colorado.

Coupled with a quick-shifting eight-speed automatic and full-time all-wheel drive, it is easy to see why the Amarok is the quickest ute on sale with claimed acceleration figures of 7.9 seconds to 100km/h and punching from 80-120km/h in 5.5s for confident overtaking.

All this translates into a vehicle with fantastic responses, heaps and heaps of low-rev shove and a feeling of effortlessness that extends from bitumen to off-road surfaces. It leaps off the line and with the right pedal pinned, acceleration builds like a breaking wave in a relentless surge that barely pauses for breath with each upshift.

Under more normal driving circumstances, the fact this engine’s full torque being available from just 1500rpm until 2500rpm – compared with the Colorado’s 200rpm-wide peak torque band – means the Amarok gets quickly into seventh and eighth gears when left to its own devices.

For comparison, a HiLux would be chugging away in fourth around suburbia. Even a steep and long climb into the Sunshine Coast hinterland that has most vehicles dropping several ratios, the Amarok cruised up in seventh.

Adding a load barely blunts the performance, the Amarok simply selecting a lower ratio and smoothly getting on with the job.

In any case, the engine is super smooth and revs cleanly – not that visiting the 5000rpm redline achieves anything because peak power is delivered at 4000rpm – with an exhaust bark that is muted from inside but rivals a LandCruiser 70 Series when observed as a bystander.

Most of the time, all that can be heard from the engine is a distant thrum and the occasional turbo whistle under acceleration. There is very little diesel clatter, even from cold. This is a delightful engine by any measure, let alone in the commercial vehicle market. From that standpoint, it’s a game-changer.

Nothing on the market comes close, unless you are one of the minority of Toyota HiLux buyers who goes for the creamy and powerful 4.0-litre petrol V6 that churns out 176kW and 376Nm.

We found one of these needles in the haystack and brought its owner along for a day of driving in the Amarok, including a sandy lap of Bribie Island accessed by a bridge just north of Brisbane. This individual had a sneering disdain for most non-Toyota four-wheel-drive vehicles and endless respect for all off-roaders produced by the Japanese brand.

He came away mighty impressed by the Amarok engine, from the snappy throttle response to the torrential torque and all the refinement and smoothness with which it was delivered.

A seasoned off-road enthusiast, he came prepared with a comprehensive suite of recovery gear and deliberately put the Amarok through a few situations where he expected its lack of low-range gearing, big 19-inch wheels and road-biased tyres to get us stuck but was amazed each time it dragged itself free without fuss.

He also commented on how unstressed the engine was during all this, performed on a searing summer’s day, and the fact it was accomplished “without any hot smells coming from underneath”.

Something we questioned about the original Amarok was its 2.0-litre twin-turbo four-cylinder diesel engine and its ability to remain reliable under the conditions described above, with a heavy load onboard and possibly towing a trailer.

The fact the 7.8 litres per 100km official fuel consumption figure is lower for the V6 than the smaller TDI420 four-cylinder suggests it is working less hard, but just driving the thing is enough to feel its more relaxed gait, something which came into sharp focus on the soft sun-drenched sand of Bribie Island.

During that hardworking day on the sand we averaged a respectable 15.6 litres per 100km, with 9.6L/100km achieved overall across our grueling three-week test that included a lot of short suburban trips and idling to keep the air-conditioning running when parked.

In fact, we chose to turn off the idle-stop system to help keep the cabin cool because it remained active well into mid-30-degree outside temperatures whereas most vehicles will call time on the fuel-saving shutdown at 30 degrees.

No matter which way we looked at it, the V6 engine under the bonnet of this Amarok was by far the vehicle’s crowning glory, and a new benchmark we do not expect to see surpassed any time soon. It changes the character of this vehicle, and the segment it occupies, forever.

Bring on the Mercedes X-Class.

Ride and handling

As we suspected during our launch drive of the Amarok V6, the 17-inch wheels fitted for the purposes of surviving some rocky off-road surfaces also improved the ride quality compared with the standard 19s.

There is much more chassis shudder on poor surfaces with the big rims fitted and the low-speed ride is less settled, so the overall effect is less luxurious than the price and interior appointments would suggest. It is a sacrifice of fashion over function and an irony that the city slicker look undermines urban user-friendliness.

But as we said in the engine and transmission section, we encountered few compromises off-road, at least not on the largely sandy terrain of Bribie Island.

There is good reason VW opted for smaller rims for the rocky roads of the launch program though, and those with the resources to fearlessly take this $70K car off-road will doubtless apply some suitably tough aftermarket gear.

That is not to say the Amarok’s abilities aren’t impressive out of the box – they most certainly are.

We experienced excellent levels of traction, body control and axle travel, the all-wheel-drive system, off-road mode for the various electronics and eight-speed automatic transmission working in harmony to make using the Amarok off-road almost as easy as a trip to the shops.

One articulation and traction test was repeated with the rear diff lock engaged, which simply speeded up the process compared with the short time the electronics spent shuffling drive across axles for maximum traction. Steep, slippery slopes are transformed by the locker, though, and the Amarok simply glides skyward.

Many locking diffs insist on low range being engaged, but as the Amarok doesn’t have it, the diff lock can be used more of the time. We also noticed the lack of a sticker warning us to only use the diff in an emergency, suggesting VW’s unit is tougher than Toyota’s, or the company at least has more faith in it.

The advantages of full-time all-wheel-drive came to the fore on gravel roads interspersed with twisty bitumen sections, which we could just continue driving on without having to disengage four-wheel-drive mode as we would on vehicles with part-time systems.

All-wheel-drive also helped a great deal on fast, twisty country lanes with no load in the tray. Running in rear-drive, most unladen utes can struggle for traction when cornering but the Amarok just hunkers down and its gutsy engine powers away from the apex unhindered. It also feels amazingly neutral and balanced for a ute, with heaps and heaps of grip from the big rubber. We never felt the V6 was heavy over the nose compared with a four-cylinder Amarok.

On this subject, the V6 Amarok can be flung at a curvy road with far more enthusiasm than any ute deserves to be, and more than any competitor, or even many SUVs and passenger cars for that matter. It really does bring a big smile to the face, broadened all the more by the unfeasibility of doing this kind of thing in a truck.

The Amarok steers beautifully, even if it feels a little over-assisted at first. The rack ratio is amazingly car-like for something with outstanding off-road ability. Pedal feel for the big brakes is way better than previous Amaroks we have driven, although they get a bit grabby when used hard.

Bodyroll is superbly suppressed and body control is next-level. It simply recovers instantly from big hits rather than bouncing along for a few metres like many off-roaders do. The result is extra comfort for passengers accompanying a keen driver for the ride. Everyone is happy.

All this is made even better by the presence of a responsive beast of an engine that finally does the chassis justice. We never thought we would say that about a commercial vehicle. It is a match made in heaven for the keen driver who wants or needs a ute.

We had a great time on our dynamic test route and came away both incredulous and more forgiving of the firm urban ride. You’d put up with it in a sportscar, right?

Safety and servicing

The pre-facelift, four-cylinder Amarok was Australia’s first one-tonne ute to be awarded the 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’. However as we have mentioned, the Amarok drew criticism over the omission of curtain airbags to protect second-row passengers.

There are 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 electronic brakeforce distribution. The V6 debuted tyre pressure monitoring and post-collision braking that prevents the vehicle from rolling onwards after an airbag is deployed.

Service intervals are 12 months or 15,000 kilometres, with capped price servicing available for the first six workshop visits. At the time of writing, VW had not published capped-price servicing costs for the Amarok V6. The warranty lasts three years with unlimited kilometres.

Verdict

The Amarok V6 is brilliant to drive, not just for a ute but brilliant full-stop.

But it is not necessarily brilliant to live with. And that disappointed us a great deal because it is so easy to be bowled over by the performance, the handling, the off-road ability, the huge tray capacity and the luxury cabin.

It is several vehicles in one, which goes a long way to justifying the price, but for many people it simply would not be suitable as a family car.

With our observations in mind and your own situation taken into account, by all means consider the Amarok V6 because it’s wonderful in many, many ways and a refreshingly unique proposition in the marketplace.

But don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Rivals

Ford Ranger Wildtrack automatic from $61,790 plus on-road costs
Australians can be proud of this homegrown hero, even if it is made in Thailand. Comes close to the Amarok’s impressive ride, refinement and road manners, has amazing off-road ability the best driver-assistance tech package bar none. But the five-cylinder engine is outclassed in this company and it feels a bit big and unwieldy on the road.

Holden Colorado Z71 automatic from $57,190 plus on-road costs
A recent refresh has transformed this also-ran into a top-three contender that reignites the old Ford versus Holden debate. Not quite as tech-savvy, unstoppable off-road or comfortable as the Ford but overall more usable and less irritating on a daily basis than either the Ford or VW with a strong drivetrain and arguably a nicer cabin as well.

Toyota HiLux SR5+ 4.0 from $56,390 plus on-road costs
The only other V6 option in the segment is a smooth and sonorous but profligate petrol. Compared with the segment’s finest, the HiLux feels a bit agricultural with its so-so dynamics and most buyers go for the disappointingly dreary new diesel engine. However, it is one of the easiest to use round town and has bulletproof resale up its sleeve to go with the enviable reputation for toughness. Go for this V6 and the $11,000 cost saving over an equivalent Amarok pays for a lot of Unleaded.

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