BUYERS GUIDE - UTES & CAB CHASSIS MEDIUM
The much anticipated Volkswagen Amarok ute was released in 2011, albeit only as a crew cab with manual transmission, but it bristled with powertrain and driveline technology. A short-cab version and a much-needed automatic box were released in mid-2012 and futher variants were added in early 2015. A V6 option was released in October 2016.
Although it has the smallest engine capacity in the crew-cab ute class the Amarok has ample grunt and is physically larger inside and in the cargo tray than HiLux and Navara crew-cab utes.
On paper, the VW Amarok’s little two-litre diesel looks like a child on an adult mission, but the peak power of 120kW at 4000rpm is OK and the torque band of 400Nm between a low 1500rpm and 2500rpm is respectable.
VW extracts performance from small engines by utilising its TDI technology that combines two turbochargers and common-rail, high-pressure fuel injection. The four-cylinder engine has a relatively small bore of 81mm and quite a long piston stroke of 95.5mm, which are dimensions designed to increase torque, especially when force-fed by a pair of turbos in series.
This engine is mated to a wide-ratio eight-speed automatic (from 2012) or six-speed manual transmission and low-range transfer case, to provide off-road gearing.
At launch, VW’s Amarok wasn’t a cheapie, ranging in RRP from $43,990 up to $52,990 for selectable-4WD versions and $58,990 for the full-time-4WD model. With the 4WD package came aluminium wheels; push-button 4WD engagement; an electronic rear differential locking function; off-road compatible ABS and anti-skid; and traction and stability control.
Other standard equipment across the range included: hill-holding function, driver and passenger front airbags, side and thorax airbags, remote central locking, three-point belts (height-adjustable front), cargo area light, four cargo tie-down rings, tinted glass, front and rear mudflaps, radio/CD with MP3 double-DIN, climate control air conditioning/heating, folding rear bench seat, height-adjustable driver and front passenger seats and power mirrors and windows.
The Trendline model scored fog lamps, step rear bumper, 16-inch aluminium wheels, four speakers, rear interior light and front map lights, body-coloured bumpers, carpet, trip computer with multifunction display, two additional 12V sockets and cruise control.
The Highline spec’ added: chrome bumper and mirror trim, 18-inch wheels, extended wheel arches, dual-zone aircon, leather wheel rim and gear knob, rear privacy glass, an alarm and six speakers.
The Ultimate equipment list consisted of: stainless-steel side steps and sports bar (optional on other models), 19-inch wheels, rear parking assistance, leather upholstery and trim. Full-time-4WD was also fitted.
In April 2014 the $57-60,000 Amarok Canyon was released, based on the TDI400 and TDI420 Highline models. The Canyon scoreed black gloss sports and side bars, 17-inch Roca Alloy wheels with Pirelli Scorpion AT-R tyres, impact and UV-resistant load area coating in the tray, tinted tail lamps and special ‘Canyon’ rear and side decals.
Inside, the Canyon’s interior had satellite navigation and reversing camera and two-tone Nappa leather interior with orange stitching.
In early 2015 the TDI420 Single Cab 4Motion Automatic model was released, with permanent four-wheel-drive. Standard features in the TDI420 Single Cab 4Motion were cruise control and Bluetooth connectivity, a multifunction steering wheel and a body coloured front bumper. The Amarok TDI420 Single Cab 4MOTION was available in both cab chassis and ute body configurations.
Also in early 2015 VW renamed its entry-level model ‘Core Edition’. This model continued to be available with a TDI400 or TDI420 engine and 4Motion manual or automatic transmissions, and scored body-coloured bumpers, 16-inch ‘Korama’ alloy wheels and Pirelli Scorpion ATR tyres as standard.
All 2015 Trendline vehicles include standard front and rear park distance control and 17-inch alloy wheels. New options for Trendline Amaroks were satellite navigation, rear view camera and lumbar support in the driver and front passenger seats.
The 2015 Highline specification included standard rear view camera, rain sensing wipers and automatic headlamps, and lumbar support in the driver and passenger seats. Bi-Xenon headlights are optional. The Ultimate model received Bi-Xenon headlights and LED daytime running lights.
VW Amarok diesels suffer from all the common-rail diesel reliability issues and have another speciality of their own: timing belt failure. There are dozens of reports from all over the world about timing belt failures at mileages below the stipulated 75,000km change-over – a $2000 workshop job. When the timing belt lets go, so does the engine!
In Hannover, in May 2016, VW announced the introduction of a Premium pickup powered by a high-performance V6 turbodiesel, with outputs up to 165kW and 550 Nm of torque.
VW didn’t say if the engine complied with Euro VI emissions standards and, even if the company had said this, who would believe it?
The Amarok Aventura launch model came with a sports bar, 20-inch wheels, bi-xenon headlights and LED daytime running lights. You had to pay plenty and there was no smaller-wheel option, to allow fitment of bush-suitable tyres.
For Australia the V6 came originally only in Highline and Ultimate spec’ levels, on 19- or 20-inch wheels and with the eight-speed auto box and no low-range gearing. Pricing was $60,000 and $68,000.
However, there was a V6 Core model released in late-2018, with more practical wheel and tyre sizes.
Insanely, VW launched the V6 model in Australia with an over-boost function. As if VW diesels aren’t already plagued with excessive carbon buildup in their air inlet plumbing, the over-boost increases standard power from 165kW to 180kW, while torque lifts from 550Nm to 580Nm.
Kicking in at 70 per cent accelerator extension, optimal over-boost is delivered in third or fourth gear from 50km/h and hangs on for 10 seconds. After a five-second off time, over-boost can again be accessed.
We tested the V6 in Ultimate spec’ level, but we couldn’t check it out off road, because it came with low-slung, expensive-looking side steps and street tyres.
Performance was brilliant and economy worked out at 9.0L/100km as a solo vehicle. Had it been fitted with a towbar we’d have done a tow test with it as well.
In February 2017 all four-cylinder Amarok models received Volkswagen’s Multi-Collision Braking system, a Composition Media unit with App-Connect, featuring
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, plus rear-view camera and rear parking sensors (not available on cab/chassis models).
All four-cylinder Amaroks also received a subtly revised front bumper and underbody guard.
The Core Plus model received the most updates, largely replacing the previous Highline specification that was V6-only specification.
The Core Plus model gained carpet, an upgraded cloth seat trim, front parking sensors, additional 12-volt sockets, body-coloured mirrors and door handles, rear grab handles and a post-collision braking system.
The upgraded four-cylinder Amarok range was priced between $41,990 and $50,490.
On and off road
Our first evaluation Amarok was a 2011 Trendline model, fitted with optional 18-inch wheels, VW’s tow bar and tongue and a seven-pin trailer socket. (The factory tow bar kit was an expensive rip-off, we reckon.)
The Amarok bar was rated for a towed load of 2800kg, with a maximum ball weight of 280kg. Payload varied with the number of occupants and the amount of gear, but was a nominal 970kg. The Ultimate was restricted to 710kg.
The Amarok was noticeably larger than most of its then competitors and VW boasted of its ability to accept a pallet in the cargo box.
Inside, there was a big-ute feel and the centre console was quite voluminous. Two back seat occupants had lounging room and three average-sized adults weren’t squeezed.
Height adjustable front seats, infinitely-variable seat back angles and a tilting-telescoping steering column make getting comfortable easy.
Controls were European-style (left-side direction indicators), but once used to the layout we had no problems with them.
Headlight beam height adjustment was standard, as it should be on every vehicle that tows or carries varying loads. Vision was excellent, through the big glass areas and large, convex mirrors.
The six-speed’s stubby stick and heavily-sprung gate took some getting used to and we found the detent springing away from the first-second plane sometimes meant accidentally picking up third gear to lift off – followed by the inevitable stall.
This degree of detent may work in left-hand-drive versions, where the driver is pulling the lever towards the gate, but it’s a tad awkward when the action is push-away, as it is with RHD. Other than that quirk, we had no issues with the shifting action.
Hill-holding worked on a hill-start by retaining hydraulic pressure in the wheel brake circuit for around three seconds after the pedal is released, allowing ample time for the driver’s foot to transfer from brake pedal to accelerator.
This feature means there’s no need to fiddle around synchronising handbrake release with clutch take-up – handy around town and very handy in steep off-road conditions.
The engine belied its compression-ignition design, with very little noise at idle and through the rev range. Most drivers will inadvertently use too many revs when driving the Amarok, because it’s difficult to believe that a little two-litre can have much poke down low, but trust us, this engine does.
With 600kg in the tray and 1500kg of trailer bobbing behind we found that the Amarok could be driven all the time with no more than 2500rpm showing on the rev counter; including when shifting gears.
Cruising at 100km/h in sixth gear saw the engine lolling at 1800rpm and it pulled happily from revs as low as 800rpm, with never a hint of engine stress, clutch shudder or transmission ‘growl’.
Solo vehicle fuel consumption worked out around 8.4L/100km in conditions that included stop-start, hill climbing and freeway driving.
Loaded and pulling a trailer, at legal maximum speeds where possible, the Amarok averaged 13.5L/100km.
With the trailer uncoupled we headed to our favourite bush tracks for some off-road testing. Before venturing onto fire trails we selected 4WD and then low range, with simple button presses that had instant results – other 4WD makers please take note! It was the same when we selected rear diff lock operation, to handle a very steep, rocky section of track: instant lock engagement. Excellent.
The VW engine loved off-road conditions, where its low-speed torque worked without provoking wheelspin much of the time; just as well, because the Amarok doesn’t have class-leading wheelspin control. While we’re making some criticisms the standard shock absorbers are woeful, seeming to lack any bump damping at all.
The parabolic leaf springs VW uses at the back end of the Amarok have no interleaf friction, in the interests of a supple ride, so they need powerful shock absorbers to control a heavy live rear axle.
On corrugated and potholed surfaces the Amarok danced around irritatingly.
Another problem we encountered was restricted ground clearance of only 192mm, thanks to a heavy protective bash plate under the engine, transmission and front diff.
Although VW Australia adopted a slogan suggesting the Amarok was ‘the complete package’ it was far from that.
The main missing links in the Amarok lineup at launch were an extended-cab model and a single-cab. There’s still no extended-cab Amarok, but the single cab has some space behind the seats that will swallow valuables that don’t belong in the cargo area.
Like its dual-cab stable mates the single-cab Amarok has excellent load space; able to handle two pallets in the ute cargo tub. Both variants have a low tub floor height of only 508mm, thanks to outboard-mounted, not underframe, rear spring hangers.
Automatic transmission models boast an additional 12kW/20Nm of power/torque and a class-leading, ZF8HP eight-speed box that does away with the need for a conventional two-speed transfer case.
A single-speed transfer at the back of the box incorporates a Torsen, torque-proportioning centre differential, giving full-time 4WD. A price penalty of $3000 is very reasonable for the new auto box and full-time-4WD package.
Manual-transmission, 4MOTION Amaroks retain a low-range transfer case and part-time 4WD.
The engine that powers 4MOTION Selectable 4WD and Permanent 4WD models is a twin-turbo, series-charged, two-litre four. The manual-transmission couples to the engine in a 120kW/400Nm state of tune and a gruntier 132kW/420Nm version couples to the automatic transmission.
The more powerful engine is only available with automatic transmission and Permanent 4WD. All Amarok diesels are Euro 5 emissions-rated and employ diesel particulate filters. Fuel tank capacity is 80 litres on all variants and each has a 95AH starting battery.
Base models have steel 16-inch wheels; Trendlines and Highlines have 16- or 17-inch aluminium wheels and Ultimates have 19s.
As with most of today’s utes, brakes are ventilated discs up front and drums at the rear. A hill-hold function on manuals allows easy hill starts, without the need to pull on the handbrake.
All Amaroks have ABS/ASR with brake assist, electronic stability control and electronically-locked differential action. A mechanical rear-axle differential lock is standard. There’s an ESC-cancel switch for deep sand or mud driving and an Off-Road switch that modifies the response of ABS/ASR, as well as initiating hill descent control on downgrades.
Standard rear suspension is a heavy duty three-leaf-plus-two helper leaf pack that sets gross vehicle mass at 3040kg. An optional two-leaf-plus-one helper leaf Comfort option drops GVM to 2820kg. Towing capacity is 3000kg, with a maximum 300kg towball load.
Warranty is three years, with unlimited kilometres and roadside assistance, and rust perforation of six years.
On and off-road
VW put on an excellent drive program for the introduction of the 2012 Amarok crew-cab models, with a combination of highway and secondary-road bitumen, gravel roads and stony off-road tracks. However, a l ow-pressure weather system cloudburst ensured plenty of muddy patches.
Before testing the new variants we spent a half-day behind the wheel of a Trendline TDI 400 Selectable-4WD 4MOTION, manual-transmission, dual-cab ute with heavy duty rear suspension – a virtual carry-over model.
This vehicle brought back to us the good and not-so-good characteristics of the Amarok.
The good parts were the excellent driving position, thanks to tilt-telescope steering column and multi-adjustable seat; great vision through the screen and large mirrors; steering wheel audio and cruise control buttons; low mechanical and road-noise intrusion; and precise steering.
In the not-so-good department were: the manual transmission’s shift action, with its propensity to have the driver choose third instead of first on occasions; the lack of low-engine-speed torque; dim headlights and the impossibility of following the Bluetooth phone pairing instructions.
Our first 2012 test mount was an automatic-transmission, Highline 4MOTION Permanent, full-time-4WD dual-cab with Comfort Suspension.
When we first drove the Amarok we suggested that its driveability would be transformed by fitment of a torque-converter automatic box.
The eight-speed automatic transmission is just the ticket. Where the manual struggled for momentum at low engine revs the auto version’s fluid coupling let the engine spin up freely to the point where the twin turbos were stuffing air into the little engine at a fine old rate.
Few transmission makers know as much about multi-speed automatics as does ZF, which leads the world in heavy truck transmission technology.
If you can dial up a smooth-shifting 16-speed B-Double truck box, a light-truck eight-speed must be a doddle.
On the open road the ZF transmission shifted almost imperceptibly and, when cruising, kept engine revs in the very economical 1500-2100rpm band. At 100km/h the engine was running at a casual 1750rpm. The double-overdrive box (0.839:1 seventh cog and 0.667:1 eighth) has measured only 3-4 percent higher fuel consumption at 8.3L/100km than the six-speed manual in VW’s testing and we’d gladly pay the fuel cost penalty for much improved driveability.
The big question we had was the box’s on-site and off-road credentials, given that it comes without a low-range auxiliary. Our initial testing of lightly-loaded vehicles, on muddy tracks, made almost impassable by concentrated, heavy rain and on steep rocky slopes indicated that the eight-speed should have no serious performance issues in comparison with the manual and its low-range gearing – in these conditions.
Although the overall mechanical reduction of the auto’s gearset can’t match the manual’s, when the torque converter stall ratio is taken in to account there’s not much in it and the auto has the advantage of a fluid coupling, not an engine-stalling friction-clutch.
However, on soft, deep beach sand, during summer testing of a customer’s vehicle in 2015 the transmission showed its Achilles’ Heel: it didn’t like the combination of a full load of camping gear, high ambient temperature, radiated heat from the sand and the lack of true low-range gearing. On several occasions it just refused to go anywhere – even with the tyres down to 16psi – until the box cooled down.
Our advice is: don’t buy an auto if you plan lots of beach work or need to tow a heavy camper or caravan.
The Comfort Suspension is a good choice for buyers who don’t need maximum payload and generous cabin space behind the seats in the new single-cab model makes an extra-cab variant almost unnecessary.
Volkswagen made a front wheel drive Caddy ute, based on Golf mechanicals and also marketed the HiLux with a VW badge in Europe in the 1980s, but as far as we know none of these vehicles came to Australia.
The Amarok needs more ground clearance and better quality shock absorbers, so an after-market suspension kit is necessary for serious bush travel.
The standard traction control isn’t very effective, so front and rear diff locks would be handy.
After-market canopies, snorkels and bar work are available.
The following video was filmed before our disappointing experience with the auto Amarok on beach sand.