The space between working ute and family SUV is getting greyer. Quite literally, when you consider our test cars here.
The hugely popular 4×4 double-cab is getting smarter, safer and more comfortable, but until now, one key area has remained somewhat elusive: power.
Sure, the four- and five-cylinder turbo diesel pick-ups have been predominantly designed for working, which means good, solid, low-end torque for towing and carrying. But outright oomph has remained somewhere at the ‘adequate’ end of the scale.
Volkswagen is looking to rectify this with its new 2017 Volkswagen Amarok V6. This sees the older 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel swapped for a 3.0-litre turbo V6, the same engine as found in the Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne.
It makes sense: give your ute some SUV feel by powering it like one.
But is this enough?
The 2017 Ford Ranger XLT is considered by CarAdvice to be one of the best pick-ups on the market. It also shares its engine with an SUV, the Ford Everest, but unlike the VW, the 3.2-litre five-cylinder started life in the ute.
There’s no class-leading output here, but there is still power in the Ranger’s punch when it comes to equipment and value.
So which one is the better all rounder?
Both our cars are the penultimate specification in their respective ranges.
The Ranger XLT starts from $47,515 (all prices are noted before options and on-road costs) as a rear-wheel drive manual. Our Ingot Silver ($500 option, one of six choices) example is the $57,615 four-wheel drive, automatic version.
It is equipped with the $800 Tech Pack (lane departure warning and steering assist, forward collision warning, driver attention detection system, adaptive cruise control and automatic high-beam headlights) which we consider to be an absolute must-have option to include on your Ranger.
The alloy sports bars, tub liner and tow pack, are all standard equipment, bringing the total retail price of the big Ford to $58,915 (before on-road costs).
Owning your Ranger for three years will cost $1465 under Ford’s capped-price service program, which is roughly 2.5 per cent of the base list price.
Our Indium Grey ($590 option, one of six colours) Amarok V6 starts from $59,990 (before options and on-road costs) and is fitted with the Alcantara-trimmed seats which are heated for the driver and passenger ($1890 option).
Again the sports bars and tub liner are standard, as are the LED running lamps, which make the Ranger’s halogen headlights seem positively prehistoric , but a tow-pack would set you back about $1000 extra, and there is not one fitted to our car.
That brings the Volkswagen to $62,470 (before on-road costs), with three years of capped-price servicing adding a further $1690, or 2.8 per cent of the base list price.
So with a $3555 as-tested saving, a further $225 servicing saving, and that standard tow-pack, the value ball falls firmly in the Ranger’s court.
This comparison isn’t just about value, though. You pay a premium for the Amarok, and in terms of hardware, you get more for your money.
Under the bonnet is a 165kW/550Nm 3.0-litre turbo diesel V6, a big improvement on the 132kW/420Nm output of the older twin-turbo four-cylinder. Power peaks at 4500rpm where that slab of torque is on tap from just 1550rpm.
What’s more, for kick down overtaking, the engine activates an over boost function which increases output to 180kW and 580Nm of torque.
This is all sent through an eight-speed automatic transmission to the constant all-wheel drive ‘4Motion’ system, which allows variable torque split from a standard 40:60 front-to-rear, to an 80 per cent rear bias under acceleration or just 40 per cent for when the going gets tough.
When things get really tough, there’s a locking rear differential and hill descent control system to help get the big VW up, over and down almost anything.
The Ranger’s 147kW/470Nm 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel is much less flashy by comparison. There’s no overboost function or any other buzzword gee-wizardry, but peak power is reached at just 3000rpm and torque from 1750rpm, giving the Ford a very tractable powerband.
There’s a six-speed automatic transmission which drives the rear-wheels, until you select high-range four-wheel drive (on the fly), or the low-range setting while the transmission is in neutral.
Again there is a lockable rear differential for challenging terrain.
For those who spend time under the bonnet, the Ranger relies on a pair of gas struts where the Amarok uses a single, prop-up pole.
We put both utes through a 0-100km/h acceleration test, measured by our GPS VBox, and here the Amarok’s trump card was slapped down as confidently as a Venusaur during a good old-fashioned Pokemon fight.
Over three runs, the V6 VW recorded a best of 8.2 seconds, against the Ford’s more pedestrian 10.7 seconds.
But all that power needs to be reigned in, and in rare form for the segment, the Amarok features four-wheel disc brakes, 330mm at the front and 302mm at the rear. Conversely the Ranger runs the smaller, 302mm brake rotors up front, and drums at the back with a 295mm braking surface diameter.
So again, a no-contest win to the Amarok?
Both cars, over a trio of tests, pulled up in the same time, just 3.4 seconds, but the Ranger managed to stop about half a metre shorter in 44.8m to the Amarok’s 45.5m. The Ford running 265mm wide, 17-inch Dunlop Grandtrek AT rubber, the Volkswagen on 255mm wide, 18-inch Bridgestone Dueler HP Sport tyres.
The 2159kg Ranger has a 10kg advantage over the 2169kg Amarok, and we were testing both utes unladen, with Paul behind the wheel.
An interesting result, but none the less, the Amarok’s clear and obvious advantage in the grunt stakes sees it take the win here.
Power and value sorted, what are these big machines like on the inside? Both have been widely praised for their SUV-like quality and comfort, not to mention a very easy day-to-day nature.
Where the range-topping Ranger Wildtrak blends function with questionable taste and orange highlights, the XLT is a sea of sensible and drab greys.
It is comfortable, and the materials pleasant enough for a ute, but it isn’t as modern or as welcoming as the Volkswagen.
The manually adjustable cloth seats are quite supportive and cosy and offer a lumbar support function.
Storage is good too, with a phone tray and a pair of USB and 12-volt points in front of the transmission lever, a big glovebox and central storage cubby, as well as a pair of cupholders on the console, a dash-top tray and good-sized door bins.
The 8.0-inch SYNC3 multimedia touchscreen system supports native navigation with traffic mapping, DAB digital radio, voice commands and Apple Carplay and Android Auto projection.
It’s a big improvement on the previous SYNC2 software, and despite looking quite basic, works very well in the Ranger.
As noted, the tech pack includes plenty of assistance goodies which aren’t even available as an option in the Amarok.
The instruments use a central analogue speedometer which is flanked by a pair of colour LCD screens to display audio, navigation and telephony information on the left, a digital tachometer and other driving or assistance data on the right.
The Volkswagen, by contrast, has a slightly more modern and upmarket feeling to the dashboard layout. The switchgear is familiar to other VW products, the steering wheel, in particular, looking as if it was lifted from a Passat. Not a bad thing at all.
The seats are without question, excellent. Bettered only by the upgrade seat option in the Amarok V6 Ultimate variant.
They are terrifically comfortable and offer great support and manual adjustment, and with the reach and rake, adjustable steering column allows you to get into a comfortable driving position.
There’s a handy dash-top tray with a 12-volt outlet, but the glovebox and central console storage bins are quite small, and while there is a phone tray and pair of 12-volt outlets in front of the transmission lever, there is only one USB point.
You get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto projection support on the 6.3-inch touchscreen in the Volkswagen, as well as native navigation and DAB radio, but some of the more advanced functions like traffic alerts are non-functional at this point in time.
Strangely though, despite some other Volkswagen models offering a range of driving data, including off-road incline angles, none of this is present in the Amarok, leaving the system feeling a little light on.
In front of the driver too, is just a single monochrome LCD screen, supported by a pair of traditional analogue dials. It’s a very basic display (the Ultimate grade Amarok scores a colour screen) but shows all the key trip and fuel consumption data.
Both cars offer dual-zone climate control, but neither have vents in the back.
Again, both cars feature front and rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera, the vision on the Amarok is slightly obscured by its placement in the rear step, but it works well regardless.
(Ford Ranger top | Volkswagen Amarok bottom)
The rear compartment in the Ford is very spacious too. The bench itself is comfortable, but really only for two passengers. There’s a central armrest with cupholders, a pair of map pockets, bottle bins in the doors plus a 12-volt and 220-volt accessory power outlet point.
We use this a lot, especially to charge camera and computer gear, and find it a very practical inclusion in a car which serves a multitude of roles.
The back of the Amarok is much tighter to access and to sit in, although you can feel the extra width of the cabin and would comfortably fit three-across, providing they weren’t too tall.
The head room too is excellent, and really highlights the benefits of the square-shaped design of the Amarok.
Like the front, the bench is fantastically comfortable, although there is no centre armrest, and just a pair of flip-out cupholders on the floor. Having had a number of drinks spilt by errant feet in the back of Amaroks over the years, I’m not a big fan of these.
I do like the felt-lined door pockets, though.
Both cars are sold with a five-star ANCAP rating, but the Ford scores a higher 36.72 points (out of a total of 37) against the Volkswagen’s 32.99 points largely due to the fact the VW doesn’t offer full-length curtain airbags or any other rear-passenger airbag system.
This is a crucial point for many buyers, particularly those who plan to regularly cart around small children in the back of the cab.
The Amarok is the only vehicle in its class not to offer this level of occupant protection, which for a vehicle like this from a company like Volkswagen in 2017 is pretty poor form.
There are no other advanced safety assistance features in the Amarok either. But where the Ranger has a pre-collision warning system and a lane-keeping function, there is no blind-spot alert or autonomous emergency braking function on either car.
As nice and comfortable as the Amarok is, the compromise on safety and rear passenger room, as well as the level of equipment gap to the Ranger sees the Ford take the win on the cabin.
Somewhere there is someone wearing a t-shirt proclaiming that they have the biggest tub in class. Until we discover that person, though, the crown stays with the Amarok, which does, in fact, have, the biggest tub in its class.
Measuring 1555mm deep by 1620mm wide, the VW has enough room to fit a standard Aussie pallet (1165mm square) between the arches, and have room to spare. The 1222mm gap between the wheels makes it a hugely practical alternative to a cab-chassis ute if pallets are your thing.
Even if you aren’t needing all that space, the four tie points and 12-volt accessory outlet make the tub highly functional, plus the easy-lift tailgate helps when you’ve simply had a long day and just want to close up shop and head home.
While the Ranger’s tub might be smaller, at 1549mm deep and 1560mm wide, and just 1139mm between the arches, it is far from unusable.
Sure, you can’t fit a pallet, but I’ve never actually needed to. There are six tie points, two more than the VW, a single 12-volt accessory point and a number of circular cut-outs in the tub liner than do a great job of holding your coffee.
Both utes offer over 900kg of payload ability (911kg for the Amarok and 907kg for the Ranger) and share a GCM (gross combination mass) of 6000kg. The Ranger has a 120kg higher GVM (gross vehicle mass) at 3200kg (against 3080kg) and a more meaty tow-rating of 3500kg to the Amarok’s 3000kg.
( Volkswagen Amarok )
That said, in real-world use, we’ve never really needed to tow more than 2.5-tonne, which both these machines will do without breaking a sweat.
So despite the Ranger’s better towing performance in Excel, the win here goes to the Amarok for quite simply, having the biggest tub in its class. That tailgate helps too.
( Ford Ranger )
So how does all this translate to driving manners on and off road?
That VW V6 is a sweet, sweet engine both around town and on the highway. It pulls well from a standstill and cruises very happily, but it’s the midrange response that is the most noticeable.
Squeeze the throttle from 70-80km/h and the Amarok piles on speed smoothly, and feels very much like the SUV that it is, in many ways, trying to be. It’s also efficient, we averaged 8.5L/100km for our mixed testing loop, marginally up on Volkswagen’s claim of 7.8L/100km.
The eight-speed automatic shifts quickly and smoothly, opting for a higher gear as early as possible to help keep consumption down.
The Ford too gets up to speed quickly, and is reasonably efficient, returning 9.2L/100km against a claim of 8.7L/100km, but you notice the lack of midrange punch after driving the Amarok.
It’s not a dire thing, though, just meaning that overtaking or steeper inclines need a more considered approach, and perhaps a bit of extra run up.
The six-speeder of the Ford is again a smooth and intelligent unit. It’s somewhat idiot-proof, just drop it into ‘drive’ and worry no more, with a self-shift ability available from the lever to help manage low-speed control.
In urban environments, the 5.2-metre long utes feel big and dominant, but are virtual pussy cats to live with day-to-day. Vision is good, and the extremities all quite obvious.
While you will take up the best part of any car space, the chunky pick-ups will still fit in most underground parking garages and low-speed manoeuvring is ably aided by the rear-view camera when in a tight spot.
At speed on the highway, you would be hard pressed to tell the cars apart. Both are quiet and refined for what are predominantly working vehicles.
The Ranger’s adaptive cruise and lane-keeping aids are handy, but the VW is an easy car to tour with and the seats seem to become more comfortable the longer you spend in them.
Both pick-ups ride very well considering their load-bearing leaf-spring rear ends, there’s the odd jitter and jump from corrugations and larger imperfections, but even at 80km/h on an unsealed road, each car seems to relish in the journey.
There’s good communication back through the wheel, with the electric steering rack in the Ford making light work of all situations.
The constant four-wheel drive in the Amarok gives it a more predictable nature, especially on dirt. It’s a point and shoot vehicle, the off-road mode only required for especially steep or technical terrain.
It’s far more user-friendly, and just as capable as the more traditional system in the Ranger, which also manages nearly everything in high-range four-wheel drive.
Even on a steep, rutted incline, both vehicles managed to adjust to having a wheel in the air at various points, and effortlessly climb the loose surface, without needing the rear lockers activated.
In terms of blurring the line between working pick-up and family SUV, our grey pair is very much at home in the grey area.
Both provide a refined and pleasant driving experience beyond the expectation set by their harder working forebears. There’s no bad car here.
The V6 engine in the Amarok is a welcome addition to the segment, offering smooth power and usable torque in line with impressive fuel economy, but in terms of the rounded proposition on offer, isn’t quite enough to take the prize in this test.
The Ranger, while more conservative in its output, simply ticks a few extra boxes at almost every step to continue behind an excellent jack-of-all-trades everyday ute. The comfort and capability is on par with the Volkswagen, but the technology and overall value on offer presents a case too good to ignore.
Things may change, however when a lower trim level Amarok V6 arrives, as more basic Rangers miss out on many of the goodies that make the XLT such a winner. When that time comes, we look forward to throwing down the gauntlet once again.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by James Ward.