You've got a dilemma. You need a workhorse and bells and whistles but don't want to spend mega bucks. You could opt for a poverty pack ute and deal with the missing features, or, you could stump up the cash for the latest work-oriented dual-cab utes from Nissan and Volkswagen.
The 2018 Nissan Navara SL 4x4 and 2018 Volkswagen Amarok Core 4x4 answer a complaint shouted from the rooftops of all tradies' homes — they want a ute built for work that doesn't look over the top, but still has all the kit inside to make it comfortable.
Despite Mitsubishi, Ford, Holden and Toyota offering similar products, the Navara and Amarok try to sharpen up the proposition with features and pricing.
Nissan launched the Navara SL to coincide with its Series II range, which features revised suspension tuning and minor specification tweaks, while Volkswagen shipped us of to Cape York along The Old Telegraph Track to prove the Amarok was just as capable without a low-range transmission.
In fact, we were so impressed with the Amarok in this Core specification, it recently took out our mega dual-cab ute comparison. We asked Nissan to supply us with a Navara SL for that test, but they refused to supply one until the Series II product was launched.
So with that in mind, we teed up this test to find out whether it would have the goods to take on our reigning champ, the Volkswagen Amarok Core.
Pricing and specifications
The Nissan Navara SL kicks off from $43,990 (plus on-road costs) for the six-speed manual, but we'd happily stump up the extra $2500 for the seven-speed automatic gearbox.
Where the Navara RX looks like a basic work ute, with thin tyres and steel rims, the SL turns it up a notch with beefed up wheel arches, a tray-mounted plastic spoiler, privacy glass, LED daytime running lights and headlights, wider 255mm tyres, and side steps.
Inside the cabin, the SL comes with all of the features fitted to the RX, plus vinyl floors, rear-view camera, a 5.0-inch infotainment screen, auto dimming rear vision mirror, and a rear differential lock.
Part of the Series II update included changes to the entire coil-sprung Navara range. The changes, according to Nissan, will improve ride unladen and ride with a load.
Nissan also said the car looked unappealing with a weight in the rear, which meant it looked like it was constantly overworked and sagging, unlike a lot of its competitors which appear more composed when carrying a payload.
This issue was resolved, according to Nissan, by making changes to the front and rear shock absorbers, with rear rebound dampers also stiffened to prevent the oscillation effect experienced with a softer ride carrying a payload.
Volkswagen on the other hand offers the Core in both cab chassis and dual-cab form, with pricing starting from $41,990 (plus on-road costs) for the Core cab chassis six-speed manual, moving up to $43,490 (plus on-road costs) for the Core dual-cab with six-speed manual and finally the $47,490 (plus on-road costs) for the Core Plus with six-speed manual.
Like the Navara, we'd opt for the $3000 optional eight-speed automatic gearbox. While manual variants come with low-range four-wheel drive, the automatic full-time four-wheel drive is just as capable both on- and off-road. The manual also has less torque (400Nm v 420Nm) in comparison to the automatic.
The Amarok Core looks slightly classier than the Navara SL, finished with 16-inch alloy wheels, but it misses out on the chrome touches fitted to the Nissan.
It also gets a rear-view camera and ups the ante on the infotainment front with a 7.0-inch colour touchscreen that features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard.
It gets a rear differential lock too, along with vinyl floors for easier cleaning, but it sits on narrower 245mm wide tyres on all four corners. But, the Amarok has the big advantage of being a permanent four-wheel drive.
And, unlike the Navara, the Amarok comes with leaf spring rear suspension, which can be configured in a comfort mode, which reduces the number of leaves.
Don't expect the Taj Mahal from either of these when you climb in. They are basic work utes that cater for tradies who use their vehicles day-to-day.
Both feature vinyl floors for easy cleaning and both have rugged and durable plastic surfaces that don't scratch easily.
Inside the Navara, everything is within easy reach with the buttons and controls all minimised to prevent confusion. The aim for Nissan with the Navara was to make it feel SUV-like in terms of the layout.
Nissan has achieved that with a modern infotainment system and a steering wheel similar in appearance to the brand's SUV range.
It's a comfy place to be with excellent visibility out the front, sides and rear.
Legroom in the rear is excellent and certainly trumps the Amarok, which offers more seating width, but less leg- and knee-room. Rear seat passengers also get air vents to make riding in the back a little more comfortable.
A padded armrest and two cupholders, along with a decent sized glovebox make the front-end of the cabin very user friendly.
Above: Nissan Navara
One thing that continuously irritates us with the Navara is the lip at the bottom of the steering wheel that activates the horn. When doing a u-turn or parking in tight spaces, without fail you nudge the horn. It seems like a pretty obvious design flaw that Nissan should have fixed with the Series II update.
Stepping into the Amarok is a different story altogether. It immediately feels more premium and comfortable.
The seats are softly padded and hug you nicely, while the interior fit and finish feels a cut above the Navara. It still feels oriented towards the tradie, but the integration of the bigger screen and soft touch plastics really fits the bill.
Like the Navara, visibility out the front, sides and rear is excellent with a lower bonnet, which makes the car feel a bit smaller.
There's slightly more storage on offer with two cupholders and a deeper storage cavity in front of the gear lever. The centre console is much smaller, but the glovebox makes up for it with decent storage.
Getting in and out of the rear is a little tricky due to the narrower doors. It means you constantly hit the B-pillar as you try to slide in and out. There are also no rear air vents for your back seat passengers.
The seating position in the Amarok Core is far more car-like than the Navara. You sit slightly lower and the smaller steering wheel sits nicely in hand – Volkswagen also modelled this interior and steering wheel off its other passenger vehicles for a more 'car like' experience.
Above: Volkswagen Amarok
Of the two, the Amarok feels the homeliest and the one we'd pick if we had to sit inside it day-to-day between work sites.
On the road
Our road loop with the Navara SL and Amarok Core included a highway stint, followed by a drive through the country with a brief off-road stint thrown in for good measure.
Before we get on to how they drive, we had the chance to load both vehicles with around 650kg during previous testing.
Even with suspension revisions, the Navara still hit its bump stops and oscillated at least four times before it settled over speed humps. The sag at the rear was also still evident, despite Nissan claiming to have fixed this as part of the Series II update.
When the Amarok was loaded with the same payload, it presented no issues. The leaf springs offered enough to travel to eliminate hitting bump stops, while the rear end settled almost immediately after driving over speed humps.
Suspension aside, both vehicles felt comfortable with a load in the tray. Both engines offered enough torque to get moving and brake pedal feel was excellent when coming to a stop.
Our on-road loop was done with no load in the tray and one passenger across a variety of surfaces and terrains.
The first section was through a residential area that included a mix of sealed roads and incomplete sections mixed with speed humps, road changes and traffic lights.
Driving the Navara is a 2.3-litre twin-turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine that produces 140kW of power and 450Nm of torque. It's mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission and a hydraulically assisted steering track.
On the combined cycle, the Navara SL uses just 7.0 litres of fuel per 100km with the automatic transmission.
Throttle response throughout the rev band is excellent. You can confidently hit the throttle at any point to get that full complement of 450Nm. It's available between 1500rpm and 2500rpm, while the gearbox shifts with enough pace to make delays between inputs unnoticeable.
In and around the urban sprawl, the Navara is let down by heavy and slow steering. It needs a big 3.75 turns to move from lock-t0-lock, which is a pain when the steering is as heavy as it is.
The coil sprung suspension in this environment is excellent and the better of the two. It soaks up bumps nicely and performs well over speed humps and traversing worksites. The rear end can sometimes feel a bit disconnected from the front, which results in a brief jiggle as the rear end collects the bump after the front.
Out on the highway, it's hard to split the difference between the Navara and Amarok. The Navara performs well overtaking and copes well with coarse chip surfaces. The engine is super quiet at highway speeds and overall noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) is great.
The Amarok does well in the urban grind, thanks to its responsive 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine. It produces 132kW of power and 420Nm of torque, which peaks at 1750rpm. It's mated to an eight-speed slick shifting automatic gearbox and consumes a combined 8.5L/100km.
Despite featuring seven- and eight-speed automatic transmissions respectively, both cars rarely get stuck hunting for gears and leverage that bulk of torque at low revs.
The Amarok peaks slightly later than the Navara, which means there can be a bit of a delay before it reaches full swing from a standing start. But the full-time all-wheel drive system helps get torque down without wheelspin, especially handy in the wet when you're trying to get away in a hurry.
On the steering front, the Amarok uses a quicker steering rack, plus it's electrically assisted, which makes it great to drive at low speeds. It's easy to place in traffic and doesn't feel as big as its size suggests.
Despite the Navara having an edge on the Amarok around the city, the VW still performs well. The Amarok can be optioned with a three-leaf setup, which improves comfort, but reduces payload to 850kg.
Speaking of payload, the Navara SL offers 982kg, while the Amarok trumps it with 1018kg. Given how much the Navara struggles with more than 650kg in the tray, we wouldn't want to get close to its payload with passengers and a load in the tray.
The Amarok lags behind the Navara in terms of braked towing capacity. The Navara delivers 3500kg, but the Amarok is capped at 3000kg (both braked capacities).
As we hit the unsealed country roads, the divide between these two was eliminated. Both feel excellent on poor quality roads and deal well with potholes and undulations.
The Navara's heavier steering isn't as noticeable as speeds increase and both offer plenty of torque to get moving during overtaking.
Permanent all-wheel drive really helps the Amarok shine on unsealed surfaces. While you can engage four-wheel drive in the Navara, it can't be used on sealed sections of road, so switching between two- and four-wheel drive continuously can be a bit annoying at times.
Stability control on both vehicles works well, but unlike the Navara, Volkswagen offers an off-road mode that limits stability control intervention and allows the wheels to lock temporarily on loose surfaces to help it stop quicker.
It's a sensational feature that works well in off-road conditions, where an on-road stability control program can be somewhat intrusive.
In terms of four-wheel drive equipment, the Navara comes with an electronic rear differential lock and low- and high-range four-wheel drive. It offers a 226mm ground clearance, 600mm wading depth, 32.2 degree approach and 26.5 degree departure angle.
Volkswagen skips the low-range gearbox with the Amarok, instead opting for a rear differential lock, 226mm ground clearance, 500mm wading depth, 28 degree approach angle and 23.6mm departure angle.
Off the beaten track we found both vehicles offered intelligent traction control systems that helped with wheel slip, but it's the Amarok's system that's most intelligent and allowed enough wheel slip to keep the car moving.
While it wasn't the best in our mega dual-cab test, the Amarok proved that it didn't need low-range to keep it moving when the going got tough.
At the end of our testing, we found fuel economy to be quite similar, despite Nissan's advertised claims. The Navara chimed in at 9.1L/100km and the Amarok at 9.4L/100km.
There's no doubt that Nissan's suspension work has helped it conquer the streets, but it's not enough of a step above the Amarok to justify its poor load carrying capacity.
The Amarok performed just as well across a variety of surfaces and can also be optioned with a comfort suspension tune if load carrying isn't at the top of the priority list.
Both vehicles come with a three-year warranty, with the Navara limited to 100,000km and the Amarok unlimited.
Nissan demands servicing every 12 months, or 20,000km, while Volkswagen requires servicing every 12 months or 15,000km.
Over a period of five years, the total cost for the Navara is $2950, while the Amarok is less at $2878.
That equation changes slightly if you travel more than 15,000km per year, at which point the Amarok will require extra services. It means at least 6 services for the Amarok, while the Navara only needs five.
If you wanted to look even closer at the cost differences over that period, a fuel economy difference between the automatic Navara SL and automatic Amarok Core is 1.5L/100km. Over 100,000km, the fuel cost difference is around $2250 (assuming an average fuel price of $1.50 per litre), which then makes the Navara more cost effective over a distance of 100,000km.
We were expecting the Navara to do significantly better than the Amarok on this comparison.
The engine is punchy and it's a more sophisticated package from a suspension point of view.
Where the lifestyle versions of these utes may skew the equation closer to the Navara (given less reliance on payload and its abilities as a workhorse), it's the Amarok that remains a true jack-of-all-trades.
It's comfortable as a daily cruiser, exceptional as a workhorse and delivers with permanent all-wheel drive surety.
But, it's massively let down with a lack of rear airbags. If you're planning on hauling kids or workmates in the back, give the Amarok a wide berth and pick the Navara.
On the other hand, if you seldom carry rear seat passengers and want the better overall ute, it's impossible to look beyond the Amarok. It genuinely excels in this segment and proves that as a ute, it only gets better with age.
Click on the Photos take for more images by Tom Fraser.