VW Amarok

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Words by Andrew Middleton
Keeping up with the neighbours is getting more difficult nowadays, and if Oom Piet from across the valley has just bought one of these to take the sheep to market, you’re all but trumped. The big numbers alone are something to behold: 165kW and 550Nm, a sticker price around R700k, and eight gears. One of our esteemed colleagues touted it as the ‘Bush Lamborghini’, and what a fitting name that is!

All this V6 hoopla comes nine years after the Amarok’s initial launch, and countless ‘Only milk and juice come in 2 litres’ bumper-stickers. The long awaited launch is well timed for trumps; the nearest rival – a Ford Ranger 3.2-litre five-cylinder with 147kW/470Nm – has nearly 20% less power and torque. But that big new engine is only one aspect, and the Amarok impresses from many angles.

Suspension and load

When it comes to load-bin size, bigger is always better; and, because the Amarok is the widest bakkie in its class, you can fit a full-sized pallet in the tray between the wheel arches. The wider track also benefits stability, as does a unique leaf-spring set-up that places the leaf springs on the outside of the chassis members, as opposed to below like all its rivals. What this means is reduced body roll, and space to allow for longer springs, both of which dramatically improve ride quality and make the Amarok a class leader in this department. When compared to the latest Mazda BT 50/Ford Ranger, the Amarok’s rear leaf springs are, at 153cm, around 23cm longer, according to our tape measure. Thanks to the extra flexibility of longer springs, wheel articulation is also improved without too much affecting payload, which stands at 867kg. As an option, a heavy-duty spring pack can be specified, upping the load capacity to 1010kg.

Driver aids

Permanent four-wheel drive is something that you won’t find on any other bakkie, and it contributes to making the Amarok the best-handling double cab on our roads today, in all conditions. The 4WD system uses a Torsen centre differential which sends power to the axle with the most resistance, meaning that wheels with traction always get power. During normal use, there’s a 40/60 front/rear torque split between axles, although this constantly changes to reflect available grip levels and throttle input.

Another safety feature is the extremely advanced traction-control system which has four modes. On-road mode is sensitive to slippage, and uses aggressive ABS to slow the vehicle on sealed surfaces. Trailer Sway programme uses alternate-wheel braking to stop a trailer jack-knifi ng if it begins to sway and rotate the rear of the vehicle. Interestingly, Off -Road mode dramatically alters the behaviour of the ABS brakes, reducing the pulsating eff ect of the system and allowing the wheels to lock momentarily before being released again on unsealed surfaces. Th is momentary locking of the wheels allows small piles of dirt to accumulate in front of the tyres, increasing friction and almost halving the stopping distances on gravel. It’s a surprise that other manufacturers haven’t come up with similar systems, as ABS brakes are generally quite unsafe on gravel roads – a place where most bakkies spend a large portion of their lives.

Off -road mode also increases the sensitivity of the traction-control system at low speeds, rendering the rear diff -lock superfl uous in most conditions, including deep axle-twisters. For extremely technical off -road work, it’s good to know that a rear locker is part of the standard equipment, but on our test, it was never needed – despite my eff orts to get the Amarok completely crossed up.

The final mode is ESP Off mode, and, although it reduces the aggressiveness of the stability control system, it’s still present in the background, and roll-over mitigation remains active.

VW Amarok Gallery

Driveline

Available in South Africa only as the 165kW high-power version for now, (although lower-output units are available in other markets), the Amarok’s V6 turbodiesel is an extremely well-proven unit. First developed by Audi for use in the D3 A8 (2004), the engine has progressed to feature in a wide line-up of Porsche, Audi and VW products. Mated to a seamless eight-speed ZF gearbox as found in other VAG products, the V6 Amarok easily becomes the fastest and smoothest-driving bakkie of the lot. Extra cylinders also mean a more linear torque curve, reducing the cumbersome turbo lag found in smaller capacity, high-output engines.

One thing you’ll need to get your head around is that the gearbox doesn’t feature a dedicated low range. Instead, fi rst gear is a very low ratio of 4.7:1. Compare overtaking the line of trucks nobody else can get past. If you push the throttle past a second click at the bottom of its travel, you’ll get a 10-second burst offering up to 180kW and 580Nm; this is the ‘overboost’ feature.

Impressions

Take what you thought you knew about driving a bakkie, and throw it out the window. Despite there being only subtle touches on both inside and out to differentiate the ‘new’ Amarok from last year’s version, the latest iteration exudes a certain class that other modern bakkies are missing. You really can take the pigs to market on a weekday, and then your soon-to-be mother-in-law to the wedding on Saturday.

A new dashboard-design incorporates VW’s latest infotainment system with App-Connect Bluetooth and an intuitive USB interface − all controlled by the 6.3-inch touchscreen. Leather seats are, of course, standard, and occupants get three 12V connections and a fourth socket in the load bay. Overall, the Amarok’s interior fights Ford’s top-spec Ranger for best-in-class. Here, soft-touch plastics and a general high-quality-feel abound − from the leather-wrapped steering wheel, to the simple, easy-to-use dials for the aircon and radio. Interior space, thanks to the Amarok being the widest in its segment, is commendable, although the standard ‘sit behind yourself ’ test had my just-under 6ft (180cm) frame feeling a bit cramped.

Start it up, and you’re greeted by a smooth hum rather than the diesel clatter usually associated with a bakkie; but then again, this is no ordinary bakkie. Of course, at nearly R700k, you expect something truly special, and you won’t be disappointed with the details, either. These include little things like a torsion spring on the tailgate that makes it easier to lift one-handed, and a sealed 12V connection in the load bay, all of which enhance practicality.

When the VW engineers were arguing in their glass-enclosed office about who their target market would be, a couple of things must have popped up. On the one hand, there was the luxury-SUV camp members who have never been off-road and never will; and on the other, the guys who want ultimate 4×4 capability from their rig. The result is a bit of a mix-up of parts that may seem to contradict each other at first. For instance, the thick steel bash plate, clearly designed to take abuse off-road, hides under a vehicle shod with 19-inch wheels and Pirelli Scorpion Verde tyres speed-rated to 240kmh. (18- and 20-inch wheels are also available.)

There’s a subtle contradiction here, yet somehow, the Amarok manages to acclimatise itself to a surprising variety of terrains, despite rock-crawling not being its strong suit.

If money is no object, and you need a vehicle that does everything, and can tow a large boat while carrying two motorbikes and four passengers across a continent, then there is surely no other vehicle that comes close.

Test data for the VW Amarok

Test data for the VW Amarok

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