Volkswagen is hoping a benchmark-setting eight-speed automatic transmission on board its Volkswagen Amarok dual-cab ute will help it grab a greater slice of Australia's ute market.
By adding an eight-speed auto transmission to the dual-cab line-up, along with an all-new single-cab to the range, the number of Amarok variants has jumped from six to 24.
The Volkswagen Amarok has so far struggled to gain critical volume against such formidable competition as the Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50, Toyota Hilux, Nissan Navara and Mitsubishi Triton, as well as the recently released Holden Colorado and Isuzu D-Max, all of which offered greater range in the ute segment – until now.
The broadened Amarok line-up includes cab-chassis versions of both dual-cab and single-cab bodies that fleet and trade buyers can customise with their own trays or with Volkswagen’s own locally sourced unit, which features an innovative locking mechanism, for around $2000.
But that still leaves Amarok without a space-cab body – a popular choice for buyers requiring more passenger space, and one offered by most other manufacturers in the segment.
Although Volkswagen Australia’s director of commercial vehicles, Philip Clark, has ruled out a space-cab version for now, he told CarAdvice the Amarok range would continue to offer new products each year.
“We don’t have plans for an Amarok space-cab, so I can pretty much rule that out for now," Clark said. "But what we can promise are fresh products joining the Volkswagen Amarok range each year, at least for the next few years."
By introducing the latest eight-speed automatic gearbox from respected German driveline experts ZF, the Volkswagen Amarok has not only leapfrogged the competition that makes do with four-, five- and six-speed automatic transmissions, but it has also set a new standard in the segment.
The innovation has paid off. If we thought the Amarok set the ‘Gold Standard’ in ride, handling and comfort in the ute segment when it was first launched in February 2011, the all-new automatic version elevates that to a whole new level.
Driving the new dual-cab Amarok is now nothing less than a car-like experience, at least across South Australia’s spectacular Flinders Ranges – the launch venue for these new Amarok versions.
What we got from the Volkswagen Amarok TDI420 Trendline was un-paralleled refinement with imperceptible shifts and perfectly spaced ratios from the transmission after several hundred kilometres behind the wheel.
Not only are the shifts seamless up and down the ratio range, but they’re also fast – 200 milliseconds to be precise, similar to the speed of Volkswagen’s DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) unit.
It’s also superbly mated to a more powerful version of the Amarok’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel engine that generates 132kW and 420Nm (up from 120kW and 400Nm).
With all 420 Newton-metres coming on-song as low as 1500rpm and the turbochargers virtually eliminating the effects of turbo-lag, there’s always plenty of punch from anywhere in the rev range.
Despite significantly less displacement than most of the competition, the 2.0-litre engine in the Amarok never seems laboured. Our average speed across the Flinders was just over 100km/h, which showed an engine speed of around 1750rpm in eighth gear.
Maximum speed is achieved in seventh gear, however, while eighth is configured for overdrive with reduced engine speeds for fuel-efficient freeway cruising.
High-speed overtaking manoeuvres are also stress-free in the new Amarok auto, with the transmission seamlessly dropping back a few gears in concert with the dual-stage turbo-charging providing the necessary boost to acceleration.
Accelerator response is precise and sensitive to gentle throttle inputs on and off the bitumen.
It’s quiet too. The additional gear ratios have not only reduced the workload of the 2.0-litre engine, but noise effects have been further silenced. Even under heavy throttle loads diesel clatter is kept at hush levels.
The same benefits enjoyed while driving Amarok with the new eight-speed auto are equally relevant in off-road conditions – especially in the soft sand.
All Volkswagen Amaroks fitted with the new automatic transmission are paired with the permanent 4Motion all-wheel drive with a torsion differential as opposed to the 4Motion system with selectable four-wheel drive.
It’s a more than capable system, as our dual-cab Highline auto model demonstrated in the Flinders sand dunes. With the standard mechanical rear differential lock engaged and the traction control turned off, the Amarok made it feel all too easy.
First gear acts primarily as a low-range gear so there’s no problem moving the 2080kg Amarok from a standing start up a soft sand dune.
There’s a sequential manual mode available for particularly steep ascents or descents (there’s also a hill-descent control function), but we found automatic mode to be more than capable of handling most off-road situations and surprisingly proficient in moderately difficult off-road terrain.
The same goes for the soft muddy clay prevalent in these parts: leave the Amarok in auto and you won’t even need the rear diff-lock, provided you don’t mind the odd tail-happy slide. Engaging the mechanical differential lock and turning traction control off will prevent the wheels from spinning and ensure steady forward progress in the slipperiest of conditions.
For those customers opting for the six-speed manual transmission and TDI400 4WD cab-chassis configuration, there’s slightly more engine noise making its way into the cabin – but it’s marginal - and that was with a 200kg load in the tray of our test vehicle.
The ride comfort on board the Volkswagen Amarok with the standard-fit heavy-duty suspension package is mostly well sorted, although our dual-cab 4Motion Trendline model (without load) displayed some rear-end fidgetiness over sections of uneven bitumen, but without upsetting the vehicle’s excellent on-road balance.
For those Amarok customers not requiring the full payload capacity of up to 1197kg, there’s always the no-charge option of the ‘comfort suspension’ package as fitted to the Volkswagen Amarok TDI420 4WD Highline auto we also covered on the launch program.
It’s a system that effectively reduces the number of leaf springs from three to two, and the difference in general ride comfort cannot be overstated.
The downside is that in this guise the Volkswagen Amarok’s payload is reduced to 960kg (from 1014kg), but the ride quality is close to car-like. All manner of bumps and blemishes are absorbed by the suspension making for exceptionally pleasant long-range cruising.
It’s a similar story off-road, too. The Amarok equipped with comfort suspension made light work of nasty potholes and corrugated roads.
Equally impressive is the Volkswagen Amarok’s superior handling. Body roll on turn-in is completely contained and there’s ample feedback through the steering wheel to let drivers know what the front wheels are doing.
It also sits well on the road. At an average speed of 90km/h across curvy and undulating terrain, the Amarok felt extraordinarily composed and balanced, perhaps even class-leading in this regard.
We drove the same route in our Volkswagen Amarok single-cab chassis with 200kg load in place and can attest to similar levels of composure and balance, even during cornering.
At times it was easy to forget we had a reasonably bulky load in the tray, such was the Amarok’s wonderfully balanced on-road behaviour.
Despite the absence of a space-cab body with the useful addition of a couple of Dickie seats in the rear cab, there’s actually quite a lot of luggage space behind the driver and front passenger seats of the single-cab version - enough for four overnight bags or plenty of tools and a set of golf clubs.
The key benefit of the single-cab Amarok though, is its extended-length (an increase of 650mm over the dual-cab). It’s enough to handle two Euro-size pallets (1200 x 800mm – per pallet) sideways and has a payload capacity of 1.19 tonnes, exceeding its main rivals by as much as 27 per cent, according to Volkswagen.
The Volkswagen Amarok already had a lot going for it: standout styling, exceptional ride and handling, class-leading interior and a five-star ANCAP safety rating.
But by adding what is clearly the most capable and refined automatic transmission in the segment, along with a raft of new 2WD and 4WD configurations in both dual-cab and single-cab bodies, the Amarok presents an outstanding package within a competitive price range.