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When I attended the original launch of the Volkswagen Amarok in Australia, I had high hopes for a European dual-cab that would completely redefine the segment and shift the goalposts way beyond what we’d come to accept from the segment.
It didn’t quite do that, but it did certainly change our expectations of what a dual-cab 4WD should deliver, something that is reinforced by how competitive the Amarok remains in 2017, despite having been around since 2010.
The 2017 Volkswagen Amarok TDI420 Core – certainly with its incredibly competitive pricing – is perhaps the smartest way to get into what immediately became the benchmark dual-cab 4WD following its release.
We’ve said it before, but it’s worth restating a certain fact here. Overall, the Amarok can’t win our comparisons when we’re testing vehicles at the high end of the pricing spectrum. Ford’s Ranger edges the Amarok out at XLT and Wildtrak specification for one simple reason – safety.
Try as we might, we haven’t been able to bludgeon VW into adding second-row airbags and active safety items such as lane keeping assist, rear cross-traffic alert and the like to the Amarok’s otherwise impressive portfolio of standard features.
What that means is buyers who use their dual cab as a default family vehicle to drive the kids around would be remiss not to consider other options first. Ultimately, the lack of standard safety kit sullies what is otherwise the best double-cab in the segment with a large chunk of daylight second.
The good news for Volkswagen is this mid-grade battle is an area where you could argue it is more about workhorse ability and less about family duties, and that gives the Amarok a chance to shine. The recent release of the V6 Amarok affects only the top end of town, so the entry level models like the Core TDI420 tested here, still get the twin-turbo four-cylinder oiler – and incredibly sharp pricing as a result.
As tested, the Core is priced from $43,490 (plus on-road costs) for the six-speed manual TDI400, while the eight-speed automatic TDI420 here is priced from $46,490. You can see that you get an extra 20Nm of torque with the auto, as well as two extra ratios, which will help both off-road and in terms of fuel efficiency. At the time of writing this review, Volkswagen was running out previous versions of the Core manual for only $39,990 drive-away, with the auto available for the same outlay.
At this model grade level, the only name-brand dual-cab 4WDs that list for less than the Core are the Mitsubishi Triton and Toyota HiLux Workmate – so don’t write the Amarok off as unaffordable just because it has a European badge. In the event that you can’t talk your dealer into selling you the automatic for the same price as the manual, there’s no doubt it’s worth stumping up the extra cash for the excellent eight-speed ZF though, so keep that in mind.
Outside, the Amarok doesn’t look as ‘tough truck’ as some – think Ranger or D-Max – but it does look stylish and hides its broad proportions somewhat. There’s an unfussy simplicity to the Amarok’s styling, too, with no unnecessary accoutrements just for the sake of it. Features like alloy wheels are standard, where this price point may once have delivered only steel wheels like the aforementioned Toyota HiLux Workmate.
Inside the cabin, the Amarok delivers a killer blow to all other combatants in the segment if you take the lack of airbags out of the equation. The cabin is insulated, quiet, comfortable and more premium than anything else in the segment, and now gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto through a crystal clear 7.0-inch screen.
There’s a beautiful simplicity to the layout of the controls and switchgear, the seats are excellent, and the fit and finish exemplary. While the cabin ambience can’t match the high-end feel of a Touareg for example, it’s easily the best executed in the dual-cab sector.
Further, it’s the broadest cab by some measure, so it can easily accommodate three blokes across the second row, but there isn’t as much knee room as we’d like for taller passengers. Shoulder room is commodious, but longer-legged occupants will find their knees up against the backrest of the front seats.
There are no rear armrests to speak of, as well as no rear air vents, but the driver gets a steering wheel that is adjustable for both tilt and reach. We love the carpet lined door storage bins, which prevent items from moving around and making noise every time you so much as you look at a rut in the road. Auto up and down on all four windows is a clever and premium addition, too.
While the screen itself and the way it transmits your smartphone information is excellent, the rear-view camera is a little low rent and doesn’t transmit the clearest image. Likewise the virtual digital guidelines, that direct you when you’re reversing into a parking space or lining up a trailer; they could be better. Aside from those two gripes, it’s a premium infotainment system though, that’s for sure.
The only reason you’d complain about the 132kW/420Nm 2.0-litre twin-turbo engine is if you’d stepped straight out of a powerhouse like the V6 Amarok. While more power is always welcome, the four-cylinder is more than capable of tackling daily work duties. The fact it’s so effortless on the open road is a bonus, not to mention the safety and sure-footedness of full-time 4WD.
Unladen, the Amarok’s steering is excellent, and the general ride compliance and bump absorption is right at the top of the class. There’s an argument that the coil spring rear of the Navara is better unladen around town, but it won’t handle a heavy load as well as the Amarok, so there’s a counter argument there, too. The brake pedal can get a little long when hauling heft, but it still pulls up true.
The Amarok handles 750kg in the tray easily, its tie-down points are sturdy and the extra weight does nothing to unsettle the ride and handling competency. Likewise, the extra weight doesn’t lighten the steering to the point where it feels floaty or uncertain. Behind the wheel, the Amarok feels as solid and well bolted together as the cabin fit and finish would lead you to believe.
Country B-roads provide little to challenge the Amarok. The feeling of solidity remains and the steering assistance is perfectly weighted. It’s a little heavier at low speed than we’d like, but once moving, its a beautifully tuned system.
It’s hard to fault a suspension tune that can so easily carry 750kg, but then work effectively at ironing out mid-corner ruts on coarse chip country roads without jiggling into the adjacent lane. You can hook the Amarok into a twisty road faster than you think and it remains composed.
Its when the going gets properly tough that the Amarok surprises most and provides me with an opportunity to once again annoy all the hardcore off-road enthusiasts.
See, I reckon the full-time 4WD Amarok (which therefore has no low-range transfer case) is the way of the future and points to a time when low-range will go the way of the dodo. First, there’s the multi-speed gearbox, then there’s the unbelievably clever electronics, and finally the rear diff lock, which all combine to hint to low range redundancy. Don’t worry, the off-road dinosaurs once thought automatics were for pretenders too, but many now criticise vehicles like Toyota’s 70-Series for not being available with an auto.
All you need to do is switch the Amarok into off-road mode to experience what I’m talking about. It does numerous things under the skin, not the least of which is changing the calibration of the throttle and the behaviour of the gearbox. The millisecond the Amarok detects any slip, that wheel stops spinning, and drive is delivered to those wheels with grip.
It prevents the Amarok from digging itself into a hole, and makes the most efficient use of available drive and grip. The gearbox – with its eight ratios to choose from – can stay in any gear you desire, and if you shift it across to manual, you can crawl down a steep slope in first as you once would have done in low range.
Think of it this way: the Amarok has an eight-speed auto. Electronics being as clever as they are – not to mention where they will head in the future – you could lock out first and second for serious, low speed off-road hill climbing and descent – in other words, to function like low range does.
Likewise you could lock out seventh and eighth for any speed above 90-100km/h where fuel efficiency is the goal. That leaves you third, fourth, fifth and sixth for daily driving duties around town, with the gearbox smart enough to know it should start off in third when not in off-road mode. It wasn’t so long ago that a four-speed auto was common equipment and in the theory detailed above, you’d have four ratios around town.
My ramblings aside, you’d have to try pretty hard to find terrain the Amarok couldn’t traverse, even without low range. Its limiting factor (in standard guise) will be ground clearance, not grip or drive. The gearbox, rear diff lock and electronics all work together seamlessly, to ensure you can tackle just about anything.
We love the way the throttle becomes less sensitive in off-road mode, making careful modulation incredibly easy and the gear holding ability in manual mode works perfectly too. Another plus is the way the ABS braking behaves when off-road mode is chosen – it pulls up rapidly, inspiring confidence if you're driving on roads where those furry bouncy things are a constant threat to your front bumper.
The Volkswagen Amarok is covered by the brand’s three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and features capped-price servicing up to six years or 90,000km. There’s also roadside assistance for three years that extends if you extend the warranty coverage at the time of purchase.
Services are required every 12 months or 15,000km. It's not that cheap to maintain, though: you're looking at a minimum of $540 per visit on average, before consumables. So this Core model is cheap to buy, but not quite as pocket-friendly to own.
Across the dual-cab sector, the Volkswagen Amarok is still invariably the stand out all-rounder, but is cruelled by the lack of safety kit as we mention often. In this work specification though, safety might, theoretically at least, play less of a part for buyers who won’t use the second row often, and that’s why we rate the Core TDI420 so highly. It’s an exceptional, multi talented, and effective workhorse.
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