Volkswagen Amarok 2012: Road Test

words - Bruce Newton
Eight-speed auto adds ease and class to Euro ute driving experience

Volkswagen Amarok TDI420 Highline 4MOTION
Road Test

Price Guide (recommended price before statutory & delivery charges):
Options fitted to test car (not included in above price): Metallic Paint $490
Crash rating: Five-star (ANCAP)
Fuel: Diesel
Claimed fuel economy (L/100km): 8.3
CO2 emissions (g/km): 219
Also consider: Ford Ranger XLT (from $53,390); Isuzu D-Max LSU (from $45,550); Mazda BT-50 GT (from $51,140); Nissan Navara ST-X (from $57,290)

To me utes are things with six-cylinder and V8 engines up-front and smoking tyres out-back. The tray is where you sit and watch other people doing donuts.

Load hauling, four-wheel driving, high-riding utilities are something plumbers drive. Give me a Commodore SS over a Colorado any day…

So considering that attitude some misgiving and a general lack of enthusiasm were understandable for the Volkswagen Amarok Highline Dual Cab 4MOTION ute auto… for a start the name was too bloody long!

And yet, having clambered over the badge and into the rather familiar Golf-on-stilts cockpit and keyed the starter, some pleasant surprises emerged.

The new 2.0-litre bi-turbo four-cylinder diesel engine didn’t so much clatter and rattle into life as purr. This thing was petrol-engined passenger car quiet.

Next, slide the shifter into first gear… of eight! Yep eight. This ZF auto has been the preserve of luxury cars until now.

So far so good. Press the throttle, roll out onto the road, turn the leather-trimmed reach and rake adjustable steering wheel and the Amarok’s nose goes, without undue effort, where it’s pointed via well-tuned rack and pinion power-assisted steering.

Hit some bumps and lumps and the ride is quite obviously well contained and pretty comfortable. VW’s undoubted ability to balance ride and handling into a user-friendly package has been transferred from its passenger cars to its first ladder-framed ute.

This is not what was expected.

Amarok arrived in Australia in 2011, but only as a manual five-seat dual cab. In 2012 VW added a single cab and this eight-speed auto, albeit married only with the dual cab and the permanent 4MOTION Torsen centre diff all-wheel drive system.

It also comes standard with the ‘Comfort’ leaf spring rear suspension, which improves the ride but also reduces carrying capacity by 220kg. In the case of the Highline, it drops from 960kg to 740kg. Towing capacity remains unaltered at a substantial (but not class-leading) 3000kg.

The Highline we’re testing is $53,990 (MRLP), making it one of the more expensive Amaroks. Below it is an expanding range of base models and Trendlines. Above it is the Ultimate series, all of them costing more than $60,000 once on the road.

Like all other petrol and diesel Amaroks, the Highline auto is powered by a 2.0-litre engine, but the bi-turbo common rail diesel has been bumped in power by 12kW and 20Nm to 132kW and 420Nm compared to the very similar TDI400 engine. The torque peak is at 1750rpm, rather than 400’s 1500rpm to 2250rpm.

Volkswagen claims an 8.3L/100km fuel consumption average, while our week of relatively light duty driving hovered just below the 10s. Pretty decent for something that weighs 2080kg and has the aerodynamic profile of a, well, truck.

There’s no doubt the auto helps here. Its top two gears are overdrive and it runs a taller final drive ratio than the six-speed manuals. Sport and manual modes (via the lever) aid flexibility and attitude. The transmission also contributes to that engine civility along with – we suspect – pretty extensive sound deadening.

Yes, it does get noisier than a petrol engine when revs rise, but there’s none of the industrial unruliness some diesels deliver. And despite its small capacity, this is a responsive, smooth and fast revver. The only downside is the occasional hesitation when applying the throttle from idle.

However, we never tested the Amarok with a full 700kg or so of stuff in the tray. But with 420Nm the engine should cope okay.

As should the tray itself. The large 2.52 m2 load area is claimed to fit a 1200mm x 800mm Euro pallet sideways. Our primary test was seeing if a large farmed mountain bike would fit with the front wheel still in-place. It does. The tray has a 12v outlet and four tie-down hooks.

If you do regularly carry heavy loads then moving to the Heavy Duty suspension, which adds another leaf to the rear suspension, would be a good idea. The Comfort suspension was impressive with not too many kilos more than a couple of passengers onboard, neither overly prone to bouncy vertical motion or dancing too obviously over rutted surfaces.

On the open road and on dirt the Amarok is a reliable and steady drive, its brakes are well-tuned for gravel, something aided by the off-road mode which also changes the tuning of stability control, electronic differential lock, anti-slip regulation (traction control) and introduces a hill descent control below 30km/h. A mechanical rear diff lock is standard for serious off-road conditions.

There is no low range with this drivetrain. However, VW claims an ultra-short first gear does the job just fine in ultra-tough conditions, our first drive in the Flinders Ranges tended to bear that out.

Around town the Amarok is less at ease. At 5.25 metres it is pretty long, and with a turning circle of 12.96m it needs a lot of room in which to manouevre. While you sit up high, the view out in any direction except forward is at least partially blocked. Several times, head and mirror checks didn’t reveal vehicles in an adjacent freeway lane.

Once, I almost reversed over a car that had pulled up too close behind in a parking lot. I was glad to hand the Amarok back without any dings.

So unquestionably, the lack of a reversing camera is a real issue for the Amarok. At least reversing sensors are standard. In terms of wanting to know where you are going, it would be good if sat-nav was standard at this price too (it's a dealer-fit accessory).

The standard provision of just four airbags (no curtains) when every other ute now has six is another issue.

At least there have been some equipment updates with the introduction of the auto. All 4MOTION Amaroks now come with Bluetooth, cruise control and a multi-function steering wheel, while the Highline adds a stainless steel sports bar and steps to its already chunky appearance.

A five star ANCAP rating was already standard for Amarok dual cab, while the Highline equipment level included front foglights, 17-inch alloys, a six-speaker audio system with MP3 capability, climate control and a trip computer. The spare wheel is full-size.

More equipment makes the sizeable and comfortable interior a nicer place to be. There is a basic VW familiarity to the controls of this car, even down to the wobbly climate control dials. The steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake, the cloth-trimmed front seats are large and supportive and there is adult-friendly space in the rear.

Storage spaces are available for both cups and bottles, there are door pockets front and rear and sliding drawers under both front seats. The rear seat also split-folds and tumbles forward 60:40 to improve in-cabin storage.

Built in Argentina, the Amarok mostly matched expected Volkswagen perceived quality standards, although the surfaces are mostly harder to the touch than usual, and there was a rattle coming from somewhere on the left-side of the cabin.

But that was one of the few annoyances that really grated with Amarok Highline (etc). Okay, it wouldn’t be the first choice for round town transport, but that’s because of its size and clumsiness in tight spaces, not because it is loathsome to drive.

But if you’ve got a bit more space to move in and appreciate a ute with load carrying capacity and refinement, then the Amarok might convince you a tray isn’t just for throwing empty beer cans in..

Read the latest Carsales Network news and reviews on your mobile, iPhone or PDA at the carsales mobile site

Published : Friday, 21 December 2012
In most cases, attends new vehicle launches at the invitation and expense of vehicle manufacturers and/or distributors.

Editorial prices shown are a "price guide" only, based on information provided to us by the manufacturer. Pricing current at the time of writing editorial. Pricing prior to editorial dated 25 May 2009 may refer to RRP. Due to Clarity on Pricing legislation, RRP for those editorials now means "price guide". When purchasing a car, always confirm the single figure price with the seller of an actual vehicle.

^ If the price does not contain the notation that it is "Drive Away No More to Pay", the price may not include additional costs, such as stamp duty and other government charges. Please confirm price and features with the seller of the vehicle.

Opinions expressed with editorial material are those of the writer and not necessarily Ltd. editorial staff and contributors attend overseas and local events as guests of car manufacturers and importers.

Click here for further information about our Terms & Conditions