REFINE THE WORKHORSE concept and you have the Amarok. Volkswagen has taken a thorough SWOT analysis to this market sector and decided that you can have sharp looks, a classy interior and a frugal engine without compromising load space and reliability. The Amarok ads promise it’s the smart choice, beating the odds on fuel economy. It has also garnered a four-star NCAP rating, but what else does it have to make its mark?
Styling is a subjective thing, though the Amarok nails all the bases: it’s tall, has those strong bevelled surfaces, wide wheel arches (in plastic which can be replaced easily enough if it takes a knock) and huge spaces under the arches. Alloy wheels (16 inch Taruma style with 245/70 profile Pirelli Scorpion ATR rubber) are part of the package, while the bold grille complemented by massive headlights imparts the necessary meaty look. All local vehicles are specced with the high rider suspension, which means they look good and build the brand, VW can charge a bit more, and owners benefit from more ground clearance, a better ride and the tougher spring package. Kind of a win-win. The load box? It’s wide, deep and long, plenty for tough applications, with tie-down hooks in each of the lower corners, offering a payload of 1354kg. The polyurethane coating on our test units adds to the durability – highly recommended.
A consistent theme inside is quality. The cabin is very wide – almost 2 metres – and the layout is at once simple and pleasing. Textures and fit and finish are way ahead of the game. It all feels well worked out in terms of function and ergonomics. There is plenty of storage space, a deep centre console, wide cupholders and uber sensible thick rubber carpeting that adds to the hose-out workhorse ethos. The dash plastics are hard but have been given the typically thorough VW scratch, dent and stress test, so should take lots of daily abuse. The seats are more comfortable than the rivals, in a hard-wearing finish, with substantial side bolsters to add to the car-like security.
I found the optional CD-radio a little confusing, but the sound quality is right up there and it offers connectivity via USB and a data card slot for MP3 files. Satellite steering controls are not on the workhorse spec list, but as compensation the leather-clad wheel is a pleasure to hold. Cruise control is stalk operated as per the brand, plus there’s climate control, electric windows and mirrors, and a comprehensive multi-function display in the instrument binnacle. Space behind the seats is impressive for a single cab, and readily accessed as both front seats fold forward at the pull of a lever.
Lots of commentators don’t believe a 2.0-litre engine is up to the task, despite it being a newfangled bi-turbo, direct injected, rather sophisticated unit. Key rivals Hilux, Isuzu KB and Ford’s Ranger have 3.0-litre muscle, though on paper much the same outputs. In its favour the BiTDI 120kW with its impressive 400Nm torque peak (from 1500 to 2000rpm) in our test unit also does duty in the T5 range of Volkswagen vehicles, where it’s proven reliable all over the world. It’s a strong argument, but still has some work to do in this platform.
One can say the driving characteristics are different. The clutch is sensitive, taking rather grabbily, and the throttle needs to be finessed on take-off to avoid stalling. A driver living with the vehicle will soon learn to modulate the inputs, but as an ordinary mortal I repeatedly stalled the Amarok when manoeuvring about.
The turbo is also a bit on-off, so too quick a change up through the gears will leave you with….nnn nothing as the turbo comes off boost rapidly below 1000rpm. Again, it requires a change in driving style to get the best from this blown four. Another criticism has to be the gearbox: it’s baulky and, for want of a better description, somewhat crunchy. Hard to find reverse, needing more than a nudge to engage first and second, but much better in the higher gears at speed. The stubby lever is a pleasure to use though.
Getting from stop to stop in town takes some busy changing through the closely spaced ’box, rather like driving a higher-strung petrol rather than a diesel, but at cruising pace a nudge into the car’s rival-eating sixth gear allows the essential refinement of the package to shine through.
At launch we found the 90kW engine (single turbo) rather less perky and a tad gutless on steep hills. Don’t try hasty overtaking actions. None of this applies to the 120kW TDI engine. A 2.0-litre TSI petrol, which is slightly thirstier (but offering 118kW/300Nm) will appear later in the year.
Where the Amarok really impresses is ride quality. It impresses with its smoothness, without the jitters and through-chassis juddering over corrugations that is normally par for the course with a hard-sprung rear. NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) are very well contained: it’s quiet inside the cab at the speed limit, almost car-like. With or without a load, the engine pulls gamely, provided it’s kept in the optimum rev range, often requiring a slightly lower gear than expected. Unexpectedly, steering feel is positive as well, giving feedback at speed but remaining well damped on, for example, a slow, rocky 4×4 route, yet it’s assisted enough to make parking a breeze.
Handling is excellent, true to form, offering subjectively more grip and poise than the rivals, with the added security of a full safety suite. Roll is well contained and the top model can be hustled with some confidence, though of course the slow steering rack is never going to make it a pass charger in the Pike’s Peak mode.
What was amply proven at the launch in the Eastern Cape was the Amarok’s off-road ability. Good over the rocky sections, it’ll take on anything a similarly low-range enabled one-tonner bakkie can handle, offering great ground clearance, lots of underbody protection and a clever 4WD system that is operated by pushing buttons either side of the gear lever. Purists will decry the lack of a positive lever, but the times they are a-changing. The Amarok will clamber up a slope in low range without driver throttle inputs, and the workhorse is fitted with an ABS system calibrated for quicker stopping on gravel, automatically set when the ‘Off-Road’ button is pushed or 4WD engaged. It’s all so easy it almost takes the fun away; even your wife can hit the toughest trails.
Seems workhorses don’t come cheap. This top-of-the-heap Trendline 4Motion vehicle will cost a heady R335 000 (though the basic 90kW workhorse with much of the styling appeal, et al, kicks off at R205 500). That price commands a five-year/90 000km service plan and includes a 3-yr/100k warranty which softens the blow a bit. But what you get is a stylish, economical ute with superb finishes and the kind of comfort and safety gear usually reserved for the passenger sector. The Amarok delivers on driving pleasure, from the high riding position to the planted on-road feel, and once you’re used to the turbo four’s slightly different driving style, it should also reward with well contained running costs.