Since it was first introduced back in 2011, the Volkswagen Amarok has enjoyed a wide gamut of reputations. Often spurned for the transfer-case-free automatic gearbox and low capacity two-litre engine, it has also picked up quite a few awards along the way as capable and competent 4WD working vehicle. But at the same time, sales have been easily dwarfed by many of it’s direct competitors.
Volkswagen’s introduction to the growing ute segment was always going to a rocky road. Don’t forget those pretty serious brand scandals with emissions, and remember that ze Germans are going toe-to-toe with somee seriously bedded-in competitors in the dual-cab segment. This part of new car sales is the most lucrative and growing, but the flip-side is that it’s also the most competitive. Winners win big, and losers … they search for answers.
What many manufacturers will tell you is that while it isn’t the biggest market, Australia is the elite test-bed for ute buyers. Per capita, we buy far-and-away more utes than other markets, and we are also the most critical and demanding.
Volkswagen executives will tell you, through gritted teeth sometimes, that on paper the 2 litre, four-cylinder diesel engine matches and indeed outpaces many larger competitors in the ute segment, in many factors. As advanced and as well-performing as it might be, the fact that Australian 4WD buyer love big-capacity engines is as plain as day. Remember when Land Rover was the bees-knees 4WD? It was humbled and defeated by a Toyota LandCruiser, whose main sales point was a bigger, more powerful engine. Lo-and behold, early LandCruisers didn’t have a transfer case either (gasp!). Think about how solemnly people whisper about the old TD42 and 1HD engines, and you get the idea of the Australian mindset.
Now, Volkswagen has an antidote to the two-litre blues: and it comes in at 90 degrees. It’s a V6 turbodiesel engine, originally used in products such as Audi and Porsche SUVs, as well as many other wagons and sedans in the VAG range. The four-cylinder engine is a fine motor, no doubt. It’s got power you wouldn’t think an engine of that size would have, and it’s also quite efficient and well-behaved at the same time. But let’s be honest: how many four-banger Amaroks do you see people lusting over, or plastered heroically on walls?
V6, V6, V6. “It’s all about the engine.” Volkswagen’s marketing manager Nick Reid said. “It’s the engine that the car always deserved”. And he’s not wrong. While the 2 litre motor will still form the majority of the Amarok range, and do a sterling job with Core and Highline models still available, the kind impact that a gutsy V6 donk can have on the rest of the range is indelible.
What I relished hearing was that this engine, the Volkswagen 3 litre V6 tdi, was that it has been adapted quite heavily for use in a 4WD. Coming from things like Audi’s Q7 and Porsche’s Cayenne, the motor probably wasn’t originally designed with proper 4WDing in mind. For the Amarok, the sump was redesigned quite a lot: aluminium was cast aside for a bigger and stronger mild steel for the sump case itself, for strength and better oil performance (lubrications and cooling). A honeycomb structure inside the sump will stop the engine from starving of that precious oil off-road, as well. Impressively, the engine has redesigned pistons and a really advanced bore honing method, which caters for long periods of high engine loads. Important for a 4WD? Absolutely. They even added a dipstick!
What this three-litre diesel V6 is all about is power, and it does lead the segment in this area: 165 kW of power, available between 2,500 and 4,500rpm. And there is a blitzkrieg of torque, as well: 550Nm, from a lowly 1,500rpm, all the way to 2,500rpm. So, it sounds, like two and a half grand is the all-time sweet spot. If you’re lusting for a bit more power, a little something called ‘overboost’ can give you another 15kW for up to ten seconds, as long as you’re over 50km/h, and pegging the pedal over 70%. Perfect for punching past that annoying grey nomad and 22 foot, four-tonne caravan.
Whilst also the most powerful ute available in Australia, the Amarok is also one of the most efficient and emissions-friendly. It has stop-start technology (which can be turned off), as well as BlueMotion (urea exhaust injection) and a cutting-edge diesel injection system.
To drive the V6 Amarok is, in many ways, a very different experience. Gone is just about any clatter of a four-cylinder diesel oiler: this V6 is smoother than a dolphin’s nose. And it’s quiet, too. The interior is up to the standard of a high-end sedan, in terms of noise intrusions. It’s deathly quiet, sometimes. What happened to the days of blistered knees and bleeding eardrums? This place is sonorously quiet.
The gearbox is quite similar, doing a spectacular job whilst pretending it doesn’t exist. Unless you’re under heavy throttle, gear changes are almost unnoticeable. And when they are, they manage a beautiful balance between smooth and sharp. This would have to be the best automatic gearbox available in a dual-cab ute for smoothness and compliancy. And considering it’s rated to 700Nm, it should also be a long-lived unit. Of course, it doesn’t come with a low-range transfer case, instead using a low 1st gear and trick gearbox and traction management for crawling.
To suit the new Amarok V6 powerplant, the gearbox has also been updated. 1st gear is lower, because the engine can still haul through a higher 2nd gear without complaint. 8th gear is also higher, giving you more efficient and relaxed highway cruising. Considering the bulk of your torque is ready and willing below 2,000rpm, this makes perfect sense.
Similarly, the interior of the V6 Amarok has been quite updated. A sharp, easy to use and intuitive infotainment system sits front-and-centre, giving you plenty of control from the divers and passenger seat. It’s certainly not the biggest around, but the touchscreen is really quite slick to use. The rest of the interior is also very sharp and efficient: there is no gaudy flashes of colourful stitching or embosses. This interior is all about quiet, comfortable efficiency, and it works well. The Amarok is definitely calling in a few favours from VAG stablemates with the interior fitout, which is a plus. If you wanted to be negative about it, you’d maybe call it boring. But I like it: unassuming design, functional controls and practical materials. It is still a ute, after all, so it’s important that it is tough and resistant to wear and tear.
What keeps impressing about the interior is that incredibly replete quietness from inside, regardless of what speed you’re travelling at. This level of refinement overall is ahead of all other manufacturers in this space: it’s bloody impressive. Only suspension cycling on rough dirt and a humming motor makes a muted entrance into the cabin, but even then it’s impressively quiet.
We were driving Ultimate spec Amaroks, with 14-way adjustable seats. These have adjustable lumbar and thigh support, and also have a nice amount of bolstering on the sides. These seats are seriously good: something you’d expect to find in a top-spec saloon costing at least 80 or 90 thousand dollars. As a matter of fact, the only seats I can think of that are better, in terms of comfort and quality, would be in a Range Rover Vogue. And that’s saying something. Lower-spec models have more basic adjustments and cloth trim; our experience with them is that the are still pretty good, but not as salubrious or adjustable overall as these Nappa leather Ultimate seats. Seating in the back, in terms of dimensions, is the same as other Amaroks. Comfort is improved, dependant on your spec and options, and you’ve got a 12V socket for the 2nd row as well. But a big point to note on this Amarok, compared to other dual-cab utes, is the omission of airbags in the second row. Just about everyone else has them these days, except for the Vee-dub.
The main changes in terms of exterior is the front fascia, coming into line with Volkswagen’s current range of vehicles: sharper lines and angles give a more aggressive look, doing a good job of modernising an ageing Amarok design. To help accommodate the new braking system (332mm front and 300mm rear ventilated discs), 18, 19 and 20” wheels come with the V6 Amarok, but the good news four us 4WDers is that 17” wheels still fit, giving you access to a good range of off-road tyres, with plenty of sidewall depth.
The new V6 Amarok still has a 3,000kg towing capacity. What has changed, though, is the GCM. That has gone up from 5,500kg to 6,000kg, meaning you can tow big loads and have a little more space for payload. Like competing utes, your GVM and towing capacity don’t add up to a GCM, so how heavy your trailer is will dictate your overall payload.
The V6 Amaork is a bit of a driver’s car. Sure, the V6 isn’t exactly making your neck hairs stand up on end with throaty exhaust thumps and hair-trigger accelerator response; it’s an impressively refined and silky engine that is more whirring hum than beating drum. The cabin is impressively quiet as well, adding to the overall car-like experience of driving this Amarok. You forget that there’s a loadbed and leaf springs in the back, sometimes. Dynamically, the Amarok is quite rewarding to drive spiritedly. No, it’s not a sportscar… it’s a ute. Remember that, and be impressed, as I am.
Comfort and quietness in this vehicle is a big step forward for the ute segment, this engine seems to kick out a lot less noise compared to it’s inline-cylinder ute competitors. And when it’s under load, it seems a whole lot smoother. This makes a car with already carlike on-road dynamics even more so. We drove vehicles with 260 kilograms in the back (on top of driver and passenger), and then without any load. That amount of weight does have a positive effect on the suspension, keeping it planted much better through turns and over bumps. Unloaded, the Amarok is still dialled in quite nicely, turn-in starts a little vague, but then sharpens up quickly as you elbows bend. Rough tracks will see the rear end start to jitter around a bit when you’re unloaded as well, part of the joy of ute ownership.
When you’re giving it too much power through corners, the car seems to slowly give way, in a very controlled manner, understeering gradually to let you know you’re pushing the relationship. It’s all quite uneventful, really. A full-time 4X4 and a Torsen centre differential run typically at a 40/60 front-to-rear torque bias. As traction varies between front and rear, trick worm gears and wheels, along with inter-connecting spur gears can instantly jump to 20/80 or 60/40, depending on what which wheels are spinning more than others.
Hard acceleration on this V6 Amarok is a lesson in cutthroat efficiency: revs rise quickly, and gears are dispensed of without fuss, taking you all the way from stopped to 100km/h in just 7.9 seconds. Braking is equally effective: it does it all very quickly, but also without an ounce of anguish.
For someone who’s half-experienced in 4WDing live axle, low-range equipped 4WDs, the Amarok is a different kettle of fish off-road. My way of driving over rough ground and steep pinches is to use as little throttle as possible: only wind on enough to maintain that sweet spot of a little momentum and wheel speed. Driving the Amarok in this similar way yields a bit of a jerky, stop-start kind of progress. To work correctly and work well, you need to actually feed a reasonable amount of throttle into the driveline, so the Torsen centre diff and traction control can do their respective things and transmit drive where it’s needed. Once you’ve got your head around that, the no-low auto Amarok is plenty capable across the rough country. The biggest limiting factor is ground clearance: add a slight suspension lift and slightly taller tyres, and you’ll have a seriously capable rig. Tyres with a strong off-road slant would also be awesome, but I’d loath to get rid of that whisper-quiet on-road experience.
If you’re doing a lot of off-road work, the first problem you’re going to have is ground clearance: the front clip props out and low in a way that puts it first in the line of fire. Similarly, 192mm of ground clearance is good for basic 4WDing, but you’d want to do a basic little suspension lift to make it better. You might forsake on-road dynamics, depending on the mods, but that extra little bump in ground clearance will go a long way.
This is something I was going to be worried about: the way this vehicle drives, sits and hauls screams ‘premium’. And considering all of that, I wouldn’t be surprised if Volkswagen were asking a decent dime from punters. But, that’s not neccesarily the case: At it’s most affordable, the V6 Amarok can be had for a shade under $60,000. In other words, it’s in a similar ballpark figure to a Ranger Wildtrak, or an optioned-up SR5 HiLux or Z71 Colorado. When a manual-spec V6 Amarok comes out, it will be a couple of grand cheaper.
Want to up the ante, once again? Then you’ll be shelling out another $8,000 for plenty of luxury goodies.: Nappa leather, lots of exterior appointments and tech inclusions. This makes the top-spec Amarok the most expensive ute option out there, and there is another even more high end option in the wings as well.
It’s easy to get swept away by the magnificent engine tucked away under the bonnet of this V6 Amarok. You have to remember that the rest of the car needs to be up to standards… an engine can easily be let down by rubbish transmissions, suspension or chassis. The good news here is that the V6 suits this Amarok base down to the ground. Mr Reid was right: this is the engine that the Amarok deserves, and takes it to the next level. Power, torque, comfort and quietness are all, in my opinion, leading in this segment. The interior is right up there as well, with intuitive controls and good ergonomics.
Where this ute isn’t as good as others does come from off-road ground clearance and entry/departure angles. Other utes are better than the Amarok, generally speaking. To be honest, none of the utes out there, aside from a 70 Series LandCruiser these days, is doing a sterling job in this regard, especially if you’re keen on doing some serious off-road work. What’s the remedy? It comes from the aftermarket game: a good quality suspension kit with a slight lift and some slightly taller tyres will make a world of difference. Go up another step with some strong and angle-improving barwork, and you’re going to be pretty well set up for 90% of what Australian 4WD tracks need.
Want some modification inspiration? Check out Pat’s V6 Amarok build video:
The V6 Amarok is a massive step forward for this segment, make no bones about it. Would I own one? Absolutely. I’d have to modify it for my own needs, but having that combination of towing, payload, off-road ability and on-road plushness seems like such a luxury. I’m a traditionalist 4WDer at heart, so will look forward to trying out the low-range equipped six-speed manual version later in 2017.