VW Amarok vs Hilux vs Navara vs Isuzu

THE MOST SIGNIFICANT vehicle to arrive on the South African market this year isn’t a 500kW supercar. It isn’t an earth-saving EV (electric vehicle) or even an ingenious crossover, it’s a bakkie! Yes, after nine months of waiting we finally get to put Volkswagen’s new Amarok through its paces, rather than just smudge up against its windows on the display floor.

It’s significant because it marks the first time any German manufacturer has entered the 1-tonner light commercial market with a proper assault on the Hilux’s crown. Volkswagen sidled into the commercial market with the T5-based Transporter in single-cab and later double-cab guise. Its soft, drop-down load body walls and van-like demeanour never attracted much interest from either the lifestyle or the hardcore 4×4 set and today the Hilux still enjoys a healthy 42% market share, way over its nearest rivals – the Isuzu KB (11%) and the Nissan Hardbody/Nissan Navara (11% combined).

Although single-cab workhorses still account for the lion’s share of the LCV market, growth in this sector is in double-cabs which now account for almost 40% of total sales. Deterred by the inflated costs of capable SUVs, more South Africans are finding the practical double-cab suits both family needs and their outdoor lifestyles.

Diesel powertrains dominate this market (73%), while 4×4 derivatives have grown market share from 23% in 2003 to 29% last year. So no surprise VWSA has opted to debut the Amarok range in high-spec double-cab 4×4 (or 4Motion) guise. Once you add Volkswagen’s brand equity and domestic popularity to the Amarok’s chances, you understand why the Japanese manufacturers are understandably nervous about the newcomer.

Sheet metal

Volkswagen’s decision to lead with the top-end diesel 4×4 double-cab underlines its emphasis on the consumer-oriented lifestyle market, over the hallowed business and commercial ground ruled by the likes of Isuzu and Hilux. That said, it’s not a soft looker. The Amarok’s proportions are confident and strong, making the biggest visual impression of the four vehicles here. Big VW badges feature prominently on the tailgate and grille, with the horizontal lines of its front face echoing the parent company’s design DNA. The generous wheel arches conceal the standard 17-inch road-biased (compared to that of the Hilux and Isuzu) standard tyres on our Highline test unit. The lower-spec Trendline will be fitted with 16-inch wheels when it arrives, although both model lines have either 18- or 19-inch wheel designs on the options list, in line with passenger car trends. While a wider profile off-road tyre would add capability off the tar, the Amarok’s attractive demeanour is based more around its all-round functionality. In the bakkie market that’s no bad thing as it means greater thought has gone into practical aspects of the vehicle’s design. For example, the Amarok’s two-part rear bumper enables lower positioning of the step plate and easier access to the load bed. The tailgate is also able to swing down 90 degrees, making a wide and flat load area. Tailgate braai, anyone? The rear tail lights also do not extend into the tailgate, which protects them from damage and makes it possible to drive with an open tailgate when transporting extra long cargo.

Load bins are vital to bakkie utility, and the Amarok’s 2.52 square metre tray is the longest (1555mm), widest (1620mm) and deepest (508mm) in its class, exceeding that of some competitors by as much as 25%. It’ll take a full Euro pallet (1200x800mm) sideways between wheel wells which are separated to the tune of 1222mm – also unique to class. Where the Japanese have traditionally mounted the rear leaf springs beneath their ladder frame chassis, the Germans have opted for a unique side mounting design with the Amarok. This allows for a lower centre of gravity and cuts overall height, while maintaining a high 249mm ground clearance. Cleverly it makes for tall side walls (hence deeper load box) and a low load sill height of 780mm.

By comparison, the Navara has the biggest overall wheelbase (3200mm) and height (1907mm) of the quartet and also enjoys a strong on-road presence. Its brawny overhangs and bling sidesteps are pretty much in your face though and if the Navara were a hot hatch, it would have 20-inch chrome spinners, a boot spoiler and a CD hanging from the rear-view mirror.

The Isuzu is the polar opposite of the Navara’s Fast and Furious, poser-rich appeal. Although conservative, it emanates a hardness and a bulletproof quality. But park it alongside the Amarok and it looks decidedly dated.

When the latest Hilux was initially launched, most were disappointed by its design as much of its rounded form appears to be a poorly executed spin-off from Toyota’s IMV platform – of which much of the initial pen work centred around the interior and exterior design needs of the Fortuner. Subsequent facelifts, including the latest Legend 40 version, have helped strengthen its posture, but they remain cosmetic highlights to what is a fundamentally soft, compromised design. Even the majority of current Hilux owners would agree that the previous generation Hilux was a better looker. While this is a subjective point, we doubt whether the Hilux’s appearance is its biggest selling point in this market. Its virtues are under the skin.

Cabin view

Judging the merits of a bakkie’s interior are equally subjective. On the one hand the Hilux and Isuzu offer basic (read low-rent), easy-to-clean materials. On the other, these surfaces are utilitarian. The Amarok’s interior succeeds in delivering both posh and practical, elevating the market standard by using higher quality materials and finishes that are as easy to keep clean as they are to look at. Those looking for more protection from beach sand, mud and dirt can opt for rubber floor mats at an additional R529. Dash-side, Volkswagen has opted for a simple centre stack for HVAC and audio and a driver’s instrument cluster offering detailed vehicle information such as average fuel consumption, range, exterior temperature etc, while push-button controls for the 4Motion (4×4) system are located around the gearlever.

Call us old-fashioned, but there is still something reassuring about engaging low range mechanically, via a second transfer lever. In this instance the Hilux trumps the others which have all opted for electromechanical engagement and the shift-on-the-fly functionality of a button (or rotary knob in the case of the Navara) to engage low range. When the Hilux’s low-range is selected, you know it is engaged. The Navara was probably the least consistent when engaging and disengaging low and high range, while its rear differential lock would only engage when the front wheels were straight and driveline pressure off.

The Amarok also edges out the Nissan for top spot in terms of front-side interior space and exterior visibility, though the Nissan scores on rear legroom. The Hilux follows in third while the Isuzu lags with a cramped rear and seats that could do with more padding.

Volkswagen also applied their minds to small practical ideas that improve the experience behind the wheel. Features like height adjustable front seats and reach and rake adjustable steering column weren’t available in this segment previously and give Amarok drivers greater comfort when commuting or cruising. They’ve also included as standard features like dual zone climate control, oversize door bins (which can hold 1.5-litre bottles in the front and 1-litre bottles in the rear), 12v power outlets behind the gearlever, in the load box and in a convenient GPS-friendly bin atop the dashboard (so there should be no dangling wires cluttering the cabin and inhibiting gearshifts). Like the Navara, the Amarok’s rear folding bench seats can also be folded upwards to optimise vertical storage when loading the likes of mountain bikes or drafting boards, adding to its convenience and practicality count.

Mountain track

To judge the off-road merits of the Amarok, we needed a challenging course where our testers could drive each vehicle over identical terrain. We found the ideal spot an hour and a half’s drive outside Cape Town, on the steeply rutted ascents and descents of the Babylonstoren 4×4 route. Based around a huge granite outcrop overlooking the Malmesbury winelands and the mountains of Riebeek Kasteel, the 14km Grade 4 route is pretty technical in places. The trail winds its way up challenging rocky mountain tracks which combine hairpin bends and loose rock and clay soils which prove very tricky after rain.

Amarok (which means wolf in Inuit and ‘he loves stones’ in Romanian) lived up to its name over the cross axle tracks and drop-offs of Babylonstoren, surprising us with its competence. With its 28 degree approach, 23 degree breakover and 23.5 departure angles, the Amarok matched the Hilux and Isuzu step for step in this environment, clearing every obstacle we placed in front of it. The Navara was the most disappointing, as its chin and rear fouled steep rocks and drop offs, as did its sidebars. The Isuzu and Hilux, by comparison, never grazed or bruised their sidebars during the exercise and they are likely to offer better protection when things get seriously rough.

The Amarok also introduces Hill Descent Assist to the bakkie segment for the first time, together with a Hill Hold Assist function which prevents rolling backwards when the brakes are released on an incline.

Where the Amarok did seem a bit thin was in terms of torque delivery on steep inclines. While it reached the top of each climb, we found ourselves using more throttle more of the time to get there. By comparison the Isuzu and the Hilux seemed to trundle up the same inclines with a greater degree of ‘meat’ underfoot at lower rpms.

On paper, the Amarok’s twin-turbo diesel offers greater claimed torque (400Nm) and the same power (120kW) as the Hilux and Isuzu, though under load the smaller capacity mill seems to work harder more of the time to achieve the same results. It’ll get you there no doubt about it, but you can’t help feeling there’s still no replacement for displacement in the rough stuff.

While only a fraction of customers are likely to drive to these extremes, there’s a solid reassurance to both the Hilux and Isuzu that isn’t present with the Navara. It seemed to scrabble for grip on every incline and although our test unit was new, it already felt fairly loose compared to the structural rigidity of the other trio. One tester also noticed the low, rather vulnerable position of the Nissan’s radiator and intercooler in comparison to its rivals, one that could be remedied with the additional cost of an ARB or similar quality aftermarket bumper.

Gravel and tar

On the open road, the picture changes. Here the Amarok offers ample urge, power and in-gear acceleration in relation to the Hilux and Isuzu, but none of the three could compete with the straight-line speed of the Navara. Volkswagen claims its twin-turbo TDI will only consume 7.9ℓ/100km on the combined cycle, travel from Cape Town to Bloemfontein (more than 1000km) on a single tank and emit just 208g/km of CO2 – which represents a considerable tax saving (around R6000 less) and lower running costs than its bigger capacity competitors. And while the powerplant is Euro 5 compliant abroad, it’s Euro 3 rated in SA. This is because VWSA was forced to leave out the particulate filter to enable the engine to cope with our poor quality standard 500ppm diesel fuel. VWSA claims it will run on higher sulphur diesel without a problem, but for extended periods it’s not ideal.

From Babylonstoren we ventured toward the asphalt mountain passes of Ceres and the dirt roads around Lamberts Bay, before returning to Cape Town via the N7. On badly corrugated gravel, the Amarok felt seriously solid, a by-product, we presume, of its 8 million test kilometres in four different continents (imagine that fuel bill). Its ride is well damped and the best here over all surfaces, although the slightly firmer Hilux and Isuzu should also be commended for their unyielding dispositions. The Amarok’s chassis feels strongly built and typically German, with no audible squeaks or suspension creaks, unlike some of its older rivals.

The Volkswagen also holds a few electronic aces up its sleeve. The Highline derivative comes standard with ESP (Electronic Stability Program) for greater traction and stability on loose surfaces and has off-road calibrated ABS braking, which adjusts cadence braking intervals to build up small wedges of material ahead of each wheel. Volkswagen claims this ABS system offers 30% more efficiency than conventional ABS off the beaten path. The ESP function also works in conjunction with a trailer stabilisation program and is designed to inhibit swaying when towing by varying braking force in an alternating sequence across the front wheels.

Our VW test unit had been fitted with a standard 2+1 rear trapezoidal (leaf) spring set-up offering a payload of 862kg, comparable to the competition. Commercial customers have the no-cost option of a heavy-duty package, using a high load 3+2 spring pack with a 1047kg payload – best in this class.

The crunch

How does each vehicle fare when it comes to the crunch? Nissan’s Navara is the most expensive and likely to be the quickest of the quartet if you’re looking to travel from A to B over long distances. Its chassis, ride and build quality never feel as durable or as capable off-road though and it struggles to match the character, value and class of the Amarok in almost all areas. The game has shifted and the Navara and the other lifestyle bakkies in the LCV market (think Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50 and Mitsubishi Triton) are most likely to lose sales to the Amarok.

Next comes the solid and capable Isuzu. Although its chassis is probably the best here, the Isuzu should also be concerned at the Amarok’s well-rounded appeal, due to its dated and cramped interior. It remains a solid meat and potatoes workhorse, whose replacement we anticipate toward the end of next year.

That leaves the age-old Toyota versus Volkswagen decision. Let us state, up front, that both are incredibly competent machines and you wouldn’t go wrong with either. City slickers are likely to jump at the Amarok, while it may take longer to convince Hilux diehards.

The Toyota is tried, tested and trusted. It doesn’t have the looks, the features, or the styling flair of the Amarok, but until the Volkswagen has built up the confidence and respect of the local market, the Hilux is still the vehicle you would want beneath you as you head beyond our borders. Further testimony to its build and reliability is that our Toyota test unit had come straight from of a testing trip through the dunes and deserts of Namibia. It was hastily washed, filled and delivered and felt just as reassuringly solid and steadfast by the time we returned from our evaluation. The next day it was off to the Klipbokkop 4×4 route near Worcester to take part in Toyota’s Enviro Outreach programme. Enough said.

The better value Volkswagen is hugely impressive. Not for its electronic features, its styling or its interior ingenuity and space, but for how its chassis and suspension held their own in a wide range of conditions. Should current sales trends continue, the Amarok will represent the new template for the future of the LCV segment. Volkswagen’s service levels are inconsistent in South Africa though and its heavy chest of electronics might be a slight concern for some in darkest Africa, considering its dealer network is less widespread than that of Toyota’s.

In a spot poll between testers, the Hilux proved the more popular choice in a close split decision – though we all felt it wouldn’t be long before the Amarok is enjoying its own sizeable piece of the LCV pie.