We're very happy that Australian correspondent James Stanford agreed to drive the new Volkswagen Amarok on our behalf in Argentina. You may remember James' first drive review of the Holden VE Ute and the Australian Sh-Ute Out that he wrote for us. He's come through once again.
By James Stanford
If you live in the U.S. and would like a midsize pickup with workhorse capability and European refinement, you had better stop reading this.
You will only become jealous of Australians, South Americans, Europeans, South Africans and even Russians who will be able to buy the new Volkswagen Amarok. I’m sorry to say it, but the Amarok won’t be introduced in the U.S. for a very long time, if at all.
I know this ute (Australian slang for pickup) is deserving of the envy, because I’ve just driven near-production prototypes on grueling roads near Cordoba in Argentina.
Volkswagen said it developed the Amarok with the almighty Toyota Hilux firmly in its sights. We’ll have to wait for a proper fully-loaded test drive on familiar roads to make sure, but the early test suggested it could give the Toyota quite a kick in the teeth.
It is set to take the lead in terms of comfort, refinement, safety and the new engines bring a new level of economy to the class too.
The Amarok might be European-designed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s soft. Despite early predictions of a unibody chassis, like the Honda Ridgeline, it’s a conventional body-on-frame workhorse with MacPherson struts at the front and leaf springs at the rear.
It will only be available as a five-seat crew cab when it goes on sale in early 2010, but a regular cab with a longer cargo box will follow about a year later.
Our test trucks, which ran with light camouflage that included black tape and an upside down Mitsubishi badge in a token attempt to hide their identity, were fitted with some ballast in the back to aid the ride and simulate payload.
In the hands of customers, the Amarok will be able to carry 2,300 pounds (1,150kg) in the back and tow a handy 5,600 pounds (2,800kg).
The Amarok looks big to us Aussies, and certainly is longer and wider than the Hilux, but then again we don’t have pick ups like the F-Series and the Ram Down Under.
Without the tape on the nose, the VW appears a bit plain. It doesn’t have the Japanese look of the Hilux or Mitsubishi Triton, which appear either futuristic or just plain weird. The Amarok isn’t all that aggressive either.
It’s a relatively simple exterior design and this flows through into the sizeable cabin. The dash and instrument cluster looks just like what you’d find in a VW passenger car. That is a step up on most of the current competitors. The design is well thought-out and gives an impression of quality and everything is easy to use. The main difference between it and a car interior is the plastics, which are hard rather than soft to the touch.
It’s spacious inside, and is 64 inches wide, which is almost 5 inches more than the Hilux and is easily the widest in the class. There’s ample headroom and more than enough legroom in the back too. You could fit four big blokes in this thing comfortably without having to rub shoulders. Drivers wanting to use the Amarok after work will be happy to know three kids would have enough space in the second row to be comfortable for long distances.
The entry-level Amaroks will be basic rigs with manual window winders, steel rims, etc but VW had us driving the upscale Highline-trimmed trucks, loaded with everything from leather seats to satellite navigation. It’s a nice option to have if you are flush with cash.
More important than comfort features is what sits beneath the hood.
A gasoline direct-injection turbo four-cylinder will come in a year’s time, but for now there are two turbo diesels, both common rail and both 2.0-liters in size.
The base motor has a single variable geometry turbocharger. It is good for 122 horsepower and 250 pounds-feet of torque. Volkswagen left that one at home and only let us try the premium engine, which is essentially the same but has another turbo to help out.
The more powerful TDI engines is rated at 163 hp and a stump-pulling 295 lbs.-ft. of torque at a low 1,500 rpm. It doesn’t seem right that such a small engine can be used to pull such a big ute, but it seemed to do just fine on our test.
There is a nice surge of torque from 1,500 rpm through to 2,800 rpm, which makes the Amarok quite entertaining. It’s a smooth oil burner with linear power delivery. The two turbos work seamlessly together. Only once on the drive did it seem to lose its boost and pause before getting going again. It has ample urge with minimal weight in the back, but the real test will come when it’s towing a serious load.
The engines promise class-leading fuel economy too and, thanks to a 21-gallon tank, VW says the Amarok can go 600 miles between fills.
The Amarok’s six-speed manual transmission is impressive. Six cogs are better than five, which are usually standard for this class. The box is also a pleasure to use with clear gate access and a light clutch.
The automatic? Well, there isn’t actually an automatic at the moment and it looks like we will have to wait up to three years to see one. That is a big blow for the truck in Australia, where a lot of blokes really can’t be bothered changing gears themselves.
The Amarok will be available as a rear-drive or with two different types of four-wheel drive. There’s fulltime all-wheel drive, which VW recommends for slippery tarmac as well as light gravel duties.
If you want to work the Amarok hard off the beaten track there is a part-time four-wheel drive system with a center locking Torsen differential (60/40 rear/front torque split) and low range. Both 4WD systems offer significant traction advantages on loose gravel and a short test that included a run up and down a river bank showed how capable the part time 4WD Amarok is.
All Amaroks have 11 inches of ground clearance, which makes them pretty handy for a trip into the bush.
Its electronic stability control system also lends a hand off road. When you’re driving on low traction surfaces, just hit the Off Road button and the stability system lets the truck move around a bit rather than killing the throttle at the first sign of any slip.
It also modifies the anti-skid braking technique to allow the tires to gather up a block of gravel to help it pull up faster.
There’s also the added benefit of an automatic hill descent control system to help you down the really steep gradients. At speeds under 19 mph, sensors recognize when you’re heading down a big hill and the truck automatically takes over the braking and throttle and clutch input. It can be in gear or in neutral, it doesn’t matter.
The Amarok’s running gear is well suited to tough conditions like the bumpy backroads we drove in Argentina. It’s a comfortable setup, but the Amarok doesn’t wallow around too much either.
VW has done an especially good job with cabin noise suppression. It’s eerily quiet on the tarmac and still pretty serene on gravel too.
What stands out most though is the rigidity of the body. There are none of the vibrations and jiggles you usually feel come through the body of a body on frame workhorse. It feels solid.
The last-stage prototypes we drove stood up quite well. There were a couple of rattles, the engine/clutch calibration was a bit off, so they were easy to stall at low speeds, and the doors felt a bit too light and took a couple of tries to shut.
We’re still waiting to hear about the price, which will be important in the highly competitive global small truck market, but VW has claimed it wants to match the Hilux where it can.
Apart from the lack of an automatic transmission, the Amarok is a convincing package and a brilliant first attempt at a workhorse by Volkswagen.
If only they sold it in the U.S.