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First drive: VW hits home run with Amarok

Set to make a splash: The VW Amarok ute prototype - disguised with upside-down Mitsubishi badges - is tested by GoAuto in Argentina.

Volkswagen’s classy new ute set to put cat among workhorse pigeons

8 Dec 2009

VOLKSWAGEN appears to have nailed its first attempt at a workhorse one-tonner ute.

That was the distinct impression after a drive in a pre-production Amarok prototype, just two months out from introduction, in Argentina.

There was only one model, we didn’t carry any big loads and VW put some ballast over the rear axle to improve handling, but it was still clear that the company is about to set a new standard in the class.

Only time will tell if the Amarok is tough enough to withstand the kind of abuse that has made the Toyota HiLux the deserved king of the segment, but the VW raises the bar in a range of areas.

Crucially, it is a far more comfortable vehicle to operate than any other workhorse ute on the market today and also introduces new safety features to the class.

Its smaller and more efficient diesel engine is also a highlight.

Our drive ran from the town of Cordoba in central Argentina to the nearby hills along a series of tarmac and rough dirt stretches including a section used in the Dakar Rally.

What surprised me was how civilised the Amarok is.

3 center imageIt is extremely quiet in the cabin, with limited road and tyre noise. We will have to wait and see how it performs on the coarse chip tarmac that is so common in Australia, but it did well on the rough bitumen and dirt roads here.

The Amarok is a full separate chassis ute, but doesn’t feel like one.

Drivers of existing workhorses have probably noticed the flex that comes through the body. You can feel a slight jiggling over bumps and ruts and it is easy to pick over corrugations. All of the workhorse utes I have driven do this.

The Amarok does not. Its body feels extremely strong. If the VW engineers on the trip had told me it was actually a monocoque (like a car body) I would have believed them because that’s what it feels like, even over some of the nastiest bumps you could imagine.

The suspension in our 4x4 test utes seemed quite soft and there was a lot of vertical movement.

It still maintained good control and cushioned the occupants from the worst of the bumps.

The ballast over the rear axle probably helped to settle the rear, so it will be interesting to see how it performs with no load.

The Amarok handles well enough around town too. It’s no sportscar, but is easy to control. The steering is light, but with adequate feedback.

This is important because the Amarok is a big, wide, vehicle so it’s nice to be able to keep it in the lane without too much work.

There are different suspension settings depending on the model and it is likely the 4x2 vehicle will have firmer suspension less focussed on off-road capability.

The interior is another area in which the Amarok excels. Like the VW commercial vans, the Amarok’s interior looks like it could belong in a VW passenger car. It is practical, but not cheap.

Unlike the interior plastics of a car, however, those in the Amarok are hard. There were some rattles in the cabin, but given this is a pre-production car, that is no surprise.

The cabin is extremely spacious you instantly notice how wide it is.

There is ample legroom and headroom in the rear for tall adults and it could carry three kids across the back.

One thing missing is a rear vent for the heating/cooling system, normally located at the back of the centre stack. This was not a problem on our drive, it was about 30 degrees, but I’m not so sure about how the rear passengers would fare on a really hot day.

VW has come up with some good ideas to make the life of the driver a bit easier.

It has added another 12-volt power outlet on the top of the dashboard in case the driver wants to use an after-market satellite navigation unit. This avoids having a power cord dangling down in front of the radio/climate controls.

VW has also come up with multi-function apertures halfway up the dashboard that can be used to mount extra cupholders or a mobile phone holder that will be available as an accessory.

That’s handy, but more important is what lies beneath the bonnet.

We only drove the premium bi-turbo diesel engine, as no single turbo models available.

A full litre smaller than the HiLux’s 3.0-litre diesel engine, the Amarok engine’s lack of capacity could put off some customers, especially those planning to haul big loads.

But at 400Nm, the Amarok’s 2.0-litre unit actually generates more torque than the single-turbo Toyota engine, which peaks at 360Nm.

Even the single-turbo version of the VW diesel is said to thump out 340Nm – just 20Nm shy of the bigger HiLux engine.

Torque is plentiful from low down in the rev range and is especially strong from around 1500rpm to 2800rpm.

How this translates into load lugging is hard to say, as our utes were effectively empty, but undeniably, the bi-turbo is a strong powerplant.

And quieter. While it is not as chilled as a premium passenger car diesel, it emits less clatter than most, if not all, other workhorse ute diesels.

Being smaller, both versions of the Amarok diesel are naturally more fuel efficient than the HiLux version. Figures quoted by VW – while not official Australian test data – range from a combined reading of 7.6L/100km for the single turbo to 7.8L/100km for the twin turbo. The HiLux uses 8.9L/100km, according to official test figures.

The six-speed manual gearbox makes life easier and allows for fewer revs when cruising.

Stalling the prototype at low speeds in first gear was all too easy, at least for me. The answer was to slip the clutch a bit, which mechanical sympathy makes me try to avoid. Hopefully the engine or clutch calibration will be tweaked before the production car is released.

The bi-turbo engine would be terrific with an automatic. Not offering one is likely to cost a lot of sales in Australia.

The lack of a petrol engine at launch might mean fewer less sales, but will not have a big impact.

We didn’t drive the rear-drive Amarok, but we were able to sample both the constant 4WD and part-time 4WD system.

Unless you need to do some serious mud-plugging, the constant 4WD system is capable enough.

We drove through a river and down a steep bank without problem. The ground clearance of 280mm is crucial here.

The part-time 4WD system uses a low-range gear to allow the vehicle to crawl up and down extreme terrain.

Both systems have an off-road function that automatically enables a down-hill assist control that adjusts both the anti-skid braking system and electronic stability control.

This means the ESC system will not simply cut the engine power as soon as the vehicle starts to move around a bit on dirt, and also allows the brakes to build up some dirt in front of the tyres before unlocking the wheels to enable better stopping on loose surfaces.

VW says the Amarok will be available with a locally-made flat tray, but the cars on the launch were all had the traditional tub.

There are four tie-down points on the tray. More tie-down points will be available as an option using a system that allows for several different points to run a rope through. None of these were on display in Argentina.

The tray size is extensive for a crew cab and the extra width is sure to come in handy.

Styling wise, the Amarok is perhaps a little plain, but has clean and crisp design – a look that sets it apart from the quirky Japanese designs of the HiLux and Mitsubishi Triton, but is also more subtle than the monster truck aggression of the Nissan Navara.

The lack of an automatic will hurt the Amarok in Australia at first, along with the fact that only a crew cab will available at launch, but the ute is still likely to win a lot of new customers and challenge the HiLux as the king of workhorse utes.

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