Volkswagen Amarok 2011

Volkswagen Amarok off-road review

Rating: 8.0
$24,490 Mrlp
  • Fuel Economy
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This is definitely the Uber Ute
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Tested by Dakar. That's the line Volkswagen uses to tout its Amarok's off-road credentials.

Well, if sand and rocks are fodder for the Amarok, then how about mud, gravel and clay? That's exactly what we threw at the Volkswagen Amarok to see if it could really cope with the worst conditions imaginable.

The test was based in Perth, just out of the city in a well-known four-wheel drive area called The Powerline Track. It is so named because the track follows powerlines from just out of Mundaring and heads east through the Darling Scarp.

The weekend in question was preceded by rain. Lots and lots of rain. Consequently, any chance of it remaining in the same condition as when we tested the Range Rover Vogue here was quite literally washed away. This gave us the best opportunity to really put the Amarok through its paces and see if that Dakar testing has paid off.

On any serious off-road expedition, you'd be stupid to not take a few cars and recovery gear. We managed to rustle up ten modified four-wheel drives, with such diverse additions as lift-kits, bigger wheels and tyres, and locking differentials. Then there was our test car - one completely standard Volkswagen Amarok Trendline.

Thankfully, we had the selectable 4MOTION system, which gives you the choice of rear-wheel drive, four-wheel drive and four-wheel drive low-range, enabling you to choose the best mode for the conditions. Selecting a mode was as simple as pushing a button on the right of the gear lever, and leaving the car in neutral. Our car also had a locking rear differential giving us the best traction possible when wheels were off the ground, but more on that later.

Heading up Greenmount Hill, you notice how flexible the twin-turbocharged, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder diesel engine is. Sitting at 80km/h up a fairly steep gradient, the VW was happy in fifth gear, trundling along at just over 1500rpm, with overtaking as simple as flexing your right foot - all that torque comes in thick and strong.

Further along Great Eastern Highway, the speed limit increases to 110km/h and when slotted into sixth gear, the Amarok was doing 2000rpm and riding with ridiculous comfort. The suspension (despite the rear being leaf springs) was remarkable in its bump absorption. At times, you can feel the rear bounce a little, however the front rides with aplomb - for a work ute - and with soft yet supportive seats, the Amarok is by far the most comfortable of all of the dual-cab utes on sale today.

The Amarok's steering is also sublime, as is the gear change. Unlike some utes whose gearboxes seem to be made of marshmallow, the Amarok's direct shift feels fantastic and is never overly notchy nor does it baulk at quick changes, both up or down.

So far, this is looking very good. But we haven't ventured off road yet, so it still could all come undone.

A right-hand exit off Great Eastern Highway and we head south on Flynn Road, following it for a few hundred metres. It's then a left turn as soon as you see the powerlines. This is the second and much more challenging section of the track. Tyre pressures were dropped to 20psi to enable the tyres to have some flex - the last thing you want is a sharp rock busting a sidewall open while you're trying to climb an incline.

It doesn't take long before we reach our first challenge. A water crossing followed by a rutted out hill climb. The water isn't an issue; it's only around 500mm deep, and the Amarok sits very tall, so it just cruises through without an issue. The first part of the climb, however, is laden with thick, slimy goo which some people would call mud - others would call it bricklayer's cement.

It's as we come up against the first part that we realise the tyres have turned to slicks, with the mud caking the tread seconds after exiting the water. A good test for the Amarok's traction and stability control, then.

The car climbed up slowly, spinning the wheels, and then the ESC jumps in, realising what's going on. You can feel the engine being braked at each wheel, with different corners clicking away and stopping the slide. The vehicle lurches forward, then slightly sideways and then more braking from the sides as it arrests the yaw, with more shunting forward. Lots of clicking from underneath as the ESC does its thing and finally we climb up and out. The first test is passed.

It's when we get to the next slippery slope that the depth of some of the ruts prevents the traction control from fully sorting out the lack of grip. No matter: to the left of the gear stick is a differential lock button. Press it and everything switches off - ESC, ABS, all driver aids. But the drivetrain locks solid and you can feel all wheels turning as one. This is extremely helpful as some wheels jump into the air, and as you inch forward, other wheels do the same while the rest touch down. No matter which wheels are down, there's drive going to them.

The 2.0-litre, turbo-diesel four gets that drive to the wheels with a minimum of fuss. With 400Nm available from just 1500rpm, tractable is too weak a word to describe it. While climbing and dealing with lack of traction, the revs were going up and down dependent on grip at the time. At one stage, it dropped as far as 900rpm, but never bogged down or shuddered. It just revs cleanly and quickly, so much so my passenger was shaking his head, never imagining a diesel could be this good. But it is.

Of course, having an automatic would be so much better, but as a manual, this transmission is very good. In fact, of the current crop of dual-cab utes, it's by far the best shift action and easiest and most progressive clutch. As far as a drivetrain goes, the Amarok is superb.

So is the suspension. Yes, you'll feel the bumps and lumps and everything going on underneath, but it's never jarring or jittery. Having leaf springs in the back doesn't make it any less comfy off road and there's enough travel to ensure grip is at a premium.

But grip isn't purely dependent on suspension. Once the wheels spin against the surface, more comes into play. We learned that if you just keep your foot buried if in slippery conditions, unlike other four-wheel drives which brake against the revs and slow the engine while the stability control does its thing, the Amarok's ESC tends to let the engine work more.

It's as if it's more suited to sandy conditions (Dakar, anyone?), where revs and wheelspin are crucial. If you want the ESC to help you out, it's best to keep the revs between 1000-2000rpm and you'll find the ESC works a lot more effectively, cutting in a lot earlier.

What's especially amazing is these were highway tyres. They're not designed to cope with the slime we had to contend with. They caked up, yet the ESC managed to gather what little grip there was, and provide forward momentum. Calibrated correctly? Most definitely. And if you're in ridiculously boggy sand, it can be completely switched off.

With it's brilliant ESC and locking differential, no matter what the conditions, traction is not an issue. Ground clearance could be considered a problem, as despite how tall the Amarok is, a little more clearance would be helpful so the sills don't drag, but we're talking extreme off-roading here. Taller tyres will help this; a simple aftermarket modification. An extra inch or two is all it needs to keep up with ridiculously jacked up Hiluxes and Prados. Indeed, the Amarok showed up quite a few vehicles on the day.

Not once did we have to get towed out. Not once did we get grounded. We did slip off a ridge and pop off the front flare section on the bumper, more due to driver error than the car. But despite the superficial damage, the Amarok conquered the Powerline Track.

Here's the rub: Compared with dedicated four-wheel drives, the Amarok holds its own. But compared with its competition, with stock dual-cab utes, the Amarok beats them all, hands down. I don't care which one you name, Toyota Hilux, Nissan Navara, Holden Colorado, Isuzu D-Max, Mitsubishi Triton - the Amarok is better.

It rides better, sounds better, looks better and is built better. The Volkswagen Amarok may have been "tested by Dakar" but right here it's been tested by Australia.

This is definitely the Uber Ute.