The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the driest places on the planet. It's also a pretty cool word. Atacama. Say it. Go on. Atacama. It feels good, right? We can only assume it’s that cool factor that made a German brand call its Argentinian-built pick-up truck after the 1000-kilometre expanse of land to the west of the Andes. So yeah, this is the 2016 Volkswagen Amarok Atacama.
The 2016 Volkswagen Amarok Atacama follows in the tyre treads of those vehicles, being limited to just 500 examples, and it builds upon the Highline versions of the dual-cab 4x4 Amarok models in either TDI400 manual or TDI420 automatic guise.
There are plenty of additions – which come at no extra cost over the Highline models – priced at $53,990 (before on-road costs) for the manual and $56,990 (before on-road costs) for the auto.
The new 'bits' that regular Highline models miss out on include 18-inch ‘Durban’ black alloy wheels, and a black sports bar, rear step bumper and side steps. There are 'Atacama' graphics on the body of the car, too. Because Atacama.
There’s a fair amount of extra value on offer then, as a sports bar would add at least a grand, while the xenon lights with LED DRLs were previously a $2400 option (they’re standard on all 2016 Highline versions, though).
Tradies – and parents who use the tray of their lifestyle ute for its intended purpose – will love the spray-on Durabed tub liner, which offers an excellent grippy surface to stop things sliding around as much, and also limit any potential scratches from sharp-edged objects. That’s gotta be a grand’s worth – and potentially more over the life of the vehicle.
The tray is a highlight of the Amarok, namely due to its best-in-class size, measuring 1555mm long and 1620mm wide at the broadest point, while between the wheel arches there is 1222mm of space.
No other utility with a styleside tray can fit a pallet between its wheel arches, and with the tailgate down, in the Amarok, you can fit two in. Securing loads is relatively easy, too, with four hooks in the lower corners of the tray, and its payload – 1000kg – is strong. In the tray there’s a 12-volt outlet for charging stuff, and also a light too.
The TDI400 manual model has a selectable 4Motion four-wheel-drive system, where the TDI420 automatic model tested here has permanent 4Motion all-wheel drive.
The automatic transmission is an eight-speed unit – the only one of its type in this class – and it’s teamed to a bi-turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel engine producing 132kW of power at 4000rpm and, as you can tell by its model name, 420Nm of torque at 1750rpm.
A lot of potential Amarok buyers are put off by the fact the engine is a lot smaller in terms of capacity than the likes of the bulk-selling Toyota HiLux (2.8-litre four-cylinder) and the Mazda BT-50 and Ford Ranger siblings (3.2-litre five-cylinder).
And it’s fair to say that the Amarok isn’t quite as effortless in the way it tows a heavy trailer or hauls a hefty tray-full, but the engine is the most refined of all the vehicles in the class.
It is quieter and smoother revving than some passenger car diesel engines, and the eight-speed automatic does a brilliant job of ensuring that the driver is getting the best out of the powertrain at all times. Hill climbs will see it drop from eighth to seventh or sixth without hesitation, and overtaking moves requiring sudden bursts of speed are a cinch, as it drops a couple of cogs when it senses that’s what’s required.
Around town the gearbox is a little busy and will aim to get to a higher gear to help save fuel, but the shifts are smooth and unobtrusive for the most part. On the topic of fuel, it used 8.7 litres per 100 kilometres over 500km of mixed driving – just a touch higher than its 8.3L/100km claim.
The 2015 Highline version came with 17-inch alloys, but the 2016 version – and this Atacama model – has wider 18-inch wheels with lower profile (255/60/R18) Bridgestone Dueler HT rubber.
There is an impact on the ride comfort, with a slightly more noticeable amount of jittering over small rough bumps, but the Amarok remains among the most impressive utes in the class for ride comfort.
The suspension deals with big jolting bumps, like speed humps, with ease and confidence, and is settled at speed, even with an empty tray.
The Amarok's steering is another highlight, as it is light but still responsive, making for easy work at the wheel after a hard day’s work on the tools. Parking is simple, with a reverse-view camera and front and rear parking sensors all standard on this specification.
The camera feeds to the 5.0-inch media screen that, sadly, isn’t the same version as is seen in the 2016 Volkswagen passenger car range. That means it misses out on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, and the navigation maps are outdated and a little hard to read when compared with rivals like the Ranger and HiLux, which have bigger displays (8.0-inch and 7.0-inch respectively).
It does, however, have the near-mandatory Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, as well as USB and auxiliary inputs, and generally the controls of the system are simple enough – but we hope the updated Amarok, due next year, brings a bigger, better media screen. The current one sends noise to a six-speaker stereo, which has decent, but not brilliant, sound quality.
While the media system doesn't change with the Atacama pack, the limited edition Amarok does get a more luxurious interior. The seats are lined in what Volkswagen call 'Quad', which looks – at a glance – similar to the luxurious quilted leather trim you seen in some of Audi’s most expensive models.
Look a little closer, and feel the fabric, and you figure out that it’s all a ruse. It is a nicer look and feel than plain cloth, though, which is the alternative in the Highline range (you have to step up to the $63,990 Ultimate spec for leather).
There are some niceties such as dual-zone climate control and automatic headlights and wipers, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and plenty of storage for loose items.
There are cup holders between the front and rear seats (the latter on the floor), a storage space for a wallet and/or phone in front of the gearshifter, and big door pockets with bottle holders and flocking front and rear.
The Amarok is the widest ute in the class, and it feels it inside the cabin. In the back there are three proper seats to suit proper-sized adults in comfort. Knee room is a little tight if the front occupants are tall, but there’s heaps of shoulder room and good head room.
The base of the rear seat can be lifted up if you need to store valuable items in the cabin, while the backrest folds down, too, to allow access to the jack.
If you have kids there are two ISOFIX points, too, but – as we made clear in our comparison test between the eight best-selling utes in Australia – the Amarok falls short on the safety front.
It is the only ute in the class without rear-seat airbag protection, which could be a deciding factor for some buyers. It has dual front and front-side protection, and the usual array of electronic nannies such as electronic stability control and hill descent control, and there’s also a locking rear differential.
Ownership requirements for the Amarok include servicing every 12 months or 15,000km, with a capped-price program spanning six years or 90,000km. The average cost per maintenance visit over that period (including brake fluid and pollen filter replacements due every two years) is $628.00. Not overly cheap then, and the three year/unlimited kilometre warranty of the Amarok, is less extensive than some rivals.
The 2016 Volkswagen Amarok Atacama is certainly an impressive ute, one that ticks most of the boxes to appeal to buyers – and thankfully there’s a lot of substance to back up the style of this special-edition model. Plus there's that name... Atacama.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Volkswagen Amarok Atacama images by Brett Sullivan.