While most utes spend their time in and around the urban grind traversing worksites and city parking lots, there’s a subset of utes and ute buyers that do a little bit more.
Volkswagen recognised this and established the Volkswagen Spirit of Amarok Challenge, which combines competitors from all over the world to compete against the clock across a range of technical and rally stages. Winners then convene in South Africa where they’re given the chance to take out the world title.
The weapon of choice for the challenge is the base model Volkswagen Amarok Core fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox and low-range.
We discovered last year that even without low range, the Amarok Core can really go anywhere, driving it all the way to the northern most tip of Australia along the Old Telegraph Track.
This time, things were to be a little different. The Cape York vehicles were all automatics, whereas this time around they were all identical vehicles with manual transmissions.
At this stage, most masculine blokes won’t bat an eyelid. But, it demands a whole new set of technical skills, needed to make the most of off-road terrain — especially when combined with a locked centre differential and low range.
These features change steering feel and clutch accuracy, making it hard to be precise when placing the Amarok around each course.
This year’s event was held at the Werribee four-wheel drive training centre, located around 45 minutes away from Melbourne.
This purpose-built facility has been constructed to punish even the most hardcore of four-wheel drives and would be made even more difficult, thanks to strategically placed flags and markings we would need to avoid.
The media event included seven teams, but the actual customer event expanded that offering to over 30 teams over several days, making the challenge hard and real for customers that signed up to take part.
We would compete in five challenges throughout the day — one regulation, two technical and two rally stages. Several penalties were also on offer for teams — some of which included arriving to gates too early, or late, stalling cars, using reverse gear, going the wrong way, tapping flags and even misuse of the radio.
The first regulation stage would test our ability to keep an average speed of 50km/h across a muddy track, stopping the car within a box with points deducted if we arrived too early or too late to the box.
In this challenge, we weren’t told the target time, which made it all the more challenging.
The next stage amped up the game further with a technical challenge. We were allocated a finish time with a window of five seconds we would need to arrive within.
The course also included several tight turns and a component that required the navigator to reach and replace a flag from outside the vehicle.
This meant lining up the car perfectly next to the passenger window with the navigator only allowed to reach the flag without removing their seatbelt. This was followed by a steep descent and u-turn.
Performing a u-turn in low-range with the centre differential locked is hard work, thanks to the tight gearing and shuffling effect that comes from the drivetrain. It causes the car to push much wider than usual.
This almost caught us out, and we were thankfully able to let the car roll back to complete the tight turn without touching any flags.
After a steep incline on a slippery cement surface in low-range, we had to replace the flag before arriving into the finishing box with less than one second to spare.
The challenging times weren’t over yet, with the next technical stage testing our ability to read course instructions and our ability to place the car within millimetres of flags on a muddy course.
It was during this course than a rut drop-away caused our first and only penalties for the day, with the car catching two flags on the wing mirrors as the tyres navigated through the ruts.
During this stage, we were also given a five second timeframe to arrive within the finishing box. The course creators cleverly allowed an extra minute to test whether teams were correctly timing the event. Remember, arriving into the box early would result in huge penalties - so, of course, we sat at the finish line for a little over a minute before driving into the box.
The fun really started at the rally stage where speed, accuracy and navigation would pave the path to success. The course involved two circuits, including a hidden middle section, which required us to drive as fast as possible without touching any witches’ hats or hay bales in chicanes.
We were one of two teams that completed the course in the correct direction, with five of the teams missing instructions in the pace notes relating to a centre portion of the track that was hard to see. It meant that we scored maximum possible points for this stage.
The final rally stage was a surprise one. Instead of using our Amarok Cores, Volkswagen wheeled out the Mad Max-esque Korama, custom-built to promote the Amarok V6 ahead of its launch last year.
The beastly machine featured a roll cage, race seats with six-point harness and the gruffest sounding diesel engine note we’ve ever heard.
Thinking that we still had a chance to win this thing, we took the course quickly, but conservatively, to clock a respectable time.
All other teams that missed their run at the last rally stage went all-out here, on the basis they had nothing to lose. There was some pretty hairy driving with a few hay bales killed in the process.
And, what about the results?
Team Carmarok came second overall, well and truly beating the rest of our online and print competitors. Who beat us? Seasoned four-wheel drive expert Pat Callinan, by a margin of just those two poles that we knocked in the technical stage.
The Volkswagen Spirit of Amarok Challenge was never about winning and beating out competitors (well, it was a little). Rather, it was about proving the Amarok's capabilities in a hard-fought segment of the Australian market.
It was a cracking event and goes to show just how incredibly capable the Amarok Core is. It really can go anywhere and it proves that you don’t need to spend mega dollars on high-spec models, from any brand, to find the thrills of driving a vehicle off-road.
Big shoutout to Beech for the expert navigation skills and Volkswagen for inviting us to such an enjoyable event.