A new high-torque hero signals the start of a power war in the dual cab 4x4 segment with the latest variant of the Volkswagen Amarok taking the lead… For now.
It’s unlikely anyone really thought of the Volkswagen Amarok V6 as underpowered. Thanks to a 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel, it boasted (for a while at least) the most power and torque of any ute in its class.
The old Amarok 550 (named after its torque output) wasn’t quite leaps-and-bounds ahead of competitors like the 500Nm Holden Colorado (and new twin-turbo four-cylinder Ford Ranger), but it maintained a healthy advantage nonetheless. And, in the hyper-competitive Aussie dual cab market, it seems every little bit helps.
Being ahead, if not head-and-shoulders in front of established competition isn’t bad, but with a V6 version of the Mercedes-Benz X-Class on the way, Volkswagen has been motivated to enter an arms race of sorts with a higher-output version of the Amarok V6.
The new Amarok V6 Ultimate 580 boasts 190kW of power (200kW on overboost) and 580Nm of torque. Peak figures stand 10kW and 30Nm above those of the Mercedes-Benz X350d due in Australia before the end of the year, which claims 190kW and 550Nm from its own 3.0-litre oiler. The ‘old’ Amarok 550 sits 25kW and 30Nm behind.
There’s something of a catch, though, with the old engine already able to deliver up to 180kW and 580Nm on overboost, limited to ten second bursts. This time, the new 580Nm rating isn’t an overboost figure.
As a result, Volkswagen now refers to the Ultimate 580 as the ‘muscle car’ of its commercial vehicle range. Volkswagen claims a 0-100km/h time of 7.3 seconds (down from 7.9), making it as quick as a Mark 5 Golf GTI manual. Not bad.
Otherwise, the Amarok Ultimate is very much as it was before – with a couple of detail changes, like 20-inch machined-face alloy wheels (in place of 19s previously) a new lower bumper garnish up front, 580 badging on the tailgate, and a black interior headlining.
It’s fully loaded with fancy gear like Nappa leather trim, bi-Xenon headlights, heated and powered front seats, dual-zone climate control, 6.3-inch touchscreen with sat nav, CD player, CarPlay and Android Auto, tilt and reach adjustable steering, rear view camera, front and rear park sensors, and more.
In an age where even dual cab utes are pushing to 8.0-inches for their infotainment systems (and beyond), the Amarok's screen looks a little underdone given its premium price, but at least it packs in all the right smartphone connectivity.
Although this update still doesn’t bring autonomous emergency braking, standard safety kit includes electronic stability control, ABS brakes, front and front side head/thorax airbags (but no curtain airbags for the back seat), auto lights and wipers, seatbelt pretensioners for all outboard seating positions and trailer sway control (when fitted with a genuine trailer wiring harness).
That's a bit of a mixed bag. A four-star ANCAP rating remains, but – again, as a premium-priced product – it's fair to expect top-end tech. No AEB, no rear curtain airbags, and no lane-departure warning (let alone advanced lane-keep assist, not possible with the Amarok's hydraulic steering) seem short of the mark as utes like the Ford Ranger and Mercedes-Benz X-Class start to introduce more advanced features.
Those oversights look all the worse given a bump in the price of entry, starting at $71,990 plus on-road costs, or $3500 more than before. Big money for a dual cab, but still under a Ranger Raptor or Colorado SporsCat+ with optional SupaShock suspension and less than a Benz X350d Progressive with less interior features but more safety as standard.
It’s perhaps the plushest ute available in terms of equipment, unless you plan on ticking every option box on an X-Class. The Amarok Ultimate is certainly more cultured than your usual dual cab fare in terms of interior finish and ambience, with a familiar Volkswagen look and feel to the interior and impressive suppression of noise and vibration.
Pin the accelerator to the firewall, though, and the Amarok’s point of difference really stands out compared to most of the top-gun ute brigade – Ford Ranger Raptor, and HSV Colorado SportsCat in particular.
While those two utes are built around uprated off-road credentials and leave their drivelines untouched compared to other members of their respective ranges, the Amarok skews more towards on-road ability.
It’s still a raised and off-road-capable ute (with a constant all-wheel drive system and diff lock, but no low range) and can still carry up to 868kg in the rear or tow up to 3.5 tonnes. Its lure is (as it was in 550 guise) it’s extra grunt.
To put that to the test, Volkswagen staged part of the Amarok Ultimate 580 launch drive on the Lake Mountain hill-climb rally route in Victoria, for a closed-road mock tarmac rally. It seems absurd to run a leaf-sprung, rigid axle, 2.2-tonne dual cab up a hill-climb stage (because, let’s face it, it is absurd) and yet, it works.
There are physical limitations that can’t be overcome – The Amarok still rides tall and has a much higher centre of gravity than something as pointed as a Golf GTI, but it isn’t exactly out of its element. A few moments where the load-rated rear suspension can’t recover from mid corner bumps like a passenger car might, but otherwise packed full of grunt and eager to stretch its legs.
The Amarok’s unchanged eight-speed auto seems as comfortable dawdling about town or piling on speed for overtaking as it does when pushed hard. There’s shift paddles behind the steering wheel if you’d like to pick your own gears, but there’s not often much need to.
Cruising to and from the Lake Mountain course at regular road pace better represents what the average Amarok is most likely to do. In that scenario, expect a decent ride, a little firm when unladen but not crude or abrupt, making it easy to cover big distances.
The front seats are broad and comfy, wind and road noise aren’t ever intrusive, and the smooth turbo-diesel V6 is smooth and quiet, although not quite to the same level as it is in some Volkswagen Group passenger SUVs.
The engine’s extra muscle is a handy tool to have for diving into a gap in traffic, or keeping pace with traffic with a load on the towbar where less powerful four-cylinder utes tend to wilt under pressure a little.
Arguably, Volkswagen had no need to bump outputs up, but it admits the lure of having the most powerful ute in its class was enough to push Amarok 550 sales to around 70 per cent or Amarok volumes. (RHD-converted imports like the petrol V8 RAM 1500 aren’t considered class competitors, if you were wondering.)
In time, other V6 variants like the Highline and Sportline will adopt the 580 engine tune, though right now the flagship Ultimate is first in line. A new sub-$50k V6 entry-point, the Amarok V6 Core will also land with the 550 engine tune. By that time Volkswagen expects 80 per cent of Amarok sales to be V6s.
Compared to the current crop of turbo diesel utes, hardly short on torque but still lacking in outright urge, it’s not hard to see why the Amarok V6 has become such a popular part of the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicle range.
By uniquely offering an interior that’s more car-like than just about any other ute, and backing it up with big grunt and a smooth automatic, the Amarok has carved out a lucrative niche for itself.
It won’t have that space to itself forever, but defending its turf with bigger outputs at least lets it hold onto the title of most powerful ‘medium pickup’ for a little longer yet.
For big-dog buyers nothing less will do, even if, for families, there's still a question mark over the commitment to safety.