Last year's ute mega test was personal for one of our team, who came out of the exercise more confused than he went into it.
I tested the newest utes on sale in Australia and bought the oldest one: the Volkswagen Amarok.
Last year’s ute mega test was personal for me. In the market for a double-cab pick-up, weighing the pros and cons wasn’t just work this time around.
As we said at the time – and still say today – the breadth of ability and the prices of these utes vary greatly. The final decision for many buyers comes down to personal preference.
That sounds like a cop-out, but it’s especially the case when you consider what we are asking of modern utes – and how people use them.
Today's utes need to have car-like safety, features and technology, SUV driving dynamics, genuine off-road capability, be able to carry a tonne, and tow up to 3.5 tonnes. No other vehicles in the world need to cover such a range of ability for the money.
In our road tests – and the ute mega test – we need to rate every aspect of each vehicle, even if some elements are less important than others for individual buyers.
For example, we rightly praised the Isuzu D-Max for its long list of advanced safety technology (even though its unnecessary intervention bugged us much of the time), the Toyota HiLux for its phenomenal off-road ability (and important details such as under-bonnet space for a second battery), and the Ford Ranger for overall refinement (relatively speaking).
However, what mattered to me most was V6 power, permanent all-wheel-drive grip, four-wheel-disc brakes, a wide cabin, and a large ute tub.
I was quite comfortable living without the latest advanced safety aids or rear airbags (the Amarok still has five-star protection for front seat occupants in a crash), a small-ish infotainment screen, no push-button start, and no radar cruise control.
Which is why, a week after our ute mega test, I bought a VW Amarok TDV6 Core, the vehicle in these photos.
The ute mega test reminded me how phenomenal this is on the road; the Amarok has a level of grip and car-holding unlike anything else in the ute class today. And it’s a decade old. What has everyone else been doing?
Sure, reverse isn’t a strong point when off-road (it limits power, which can put you in a real predicament) and back-seat space is tight. But these were non-issues for me. I don’t plan to take it off-road or put anyone in the back seat.
For the record, I paid full retail (the long term $49,990 drive-away price, which has since crept up to $50,990 drive-away due to stock shortages), plus the cost of accessories.
I would rather have not paid full retail, and did try (unsuccessfully) to get a bargain.
But I still reckon I got a fair deal for the money, especially after Toyota and Isuzu increased the prices of their utes by about $10,000 overnight in the second half of 2020. I thought they were dreaming, but Toyota and Isuzu are still selling utes hand over fist, so what would I know?
This story was also very nearly about a Ford Ranger, but the weak brakes bothered me and the lack of reliability was also a concern. An injector failure on one of our test cars sealed the Ranger’s fate for me. Especially as the example tested was supposed to have the updated fuel injectors after a bad batch were replaced last year.
So, back to the buying experience.
As anyone looking for a ute right now will know, stock is tight and dealers are holding their margins.
I tried one dealer who I knew through contacts but he only had an Amarok Highline, which was more than I wanted to spend. He came back with a price and it wasn’t that hot.
I found out later he was delighted I didn’t buy it because he didn’t want to carve it up. That was his last one for a while. Fair enough, I reckon. Dealers are allowed to put food on the table, just like the rest of us.
The only time you can really get a deal is when showrooms are overstocked and/or the dealer needs to hit a number for the month to win the holiday to Tahiti or wherever the next incentive trip is.
I then found a white VW Amarok TDV6 Core in Melbourne and Brisbane, but couldn’t find one in Sydney.
Every Sydney dealer I went to had a sold sign on their examples. Then I got lucky. I spotted one in a holding yard of one large dealership: white with automatic transmission. That’ll do me.
In a last ditch attempt to try to get some kind of a deal I walked into the showroom and said I wanted to buy a VW Amarok TDV6 Core.
The sales person asked “what colour”? I immediately lied and said “black”, hoping he might carve up the white one I knew he had out the back.
Instead his response was: “Sorry, we’ve only got a white one, it’s the last one we have and there’s no more coming for months.”
So I had to call my own bluff with a lame: “Okay, I guess the white one will have to do then”.
After we sat down to do the paperwork I came clean and said I only asked for black one in case it might have helped on price if it was a colour I didn’t want. Fortunately he saw the funny side of it. We’re now Facebook friends.
The sales experience and pre-delivery process were awesome. The dealership kept me up-to-date with when the vehicle would be ready and how the accessories were coming along.
Fortunately, the sales guy really knew his stuff, so I got the optional gas strut to make the tailgate open slowly – and the spring that’s standard on dearer Amarok models to make the tailgate easier to lift.
I could have gone for the identical non-genuine hard lid but I went with the real deal because if you get it installed at the time of purchase it has the same five-year warranty as the rest of the vehicle, rather than a one-year warranty for the accessory.
A genuine tow bar, tub liner, and rubber floor mats were finishing touches.
This Core pack was supposed to come with a black sports bar, black stripes, and a black bonnet protector. I swapped all that for a clear bonnet protector.
I couldn’t subtract those extra items from the price because Volkswagen Australia apparently sends out those parts as accessories. I guess they’ve since been installed on a trade-in at the dealership, or are sitting out the back of the pre-delivery department collecting dust.
Accuse me of having OCD (many do) but I wanted a cleaner look with my Amarok rather than having stripes and sports bars.
Indeed, I’m so obsessed about my Amarok I bought deep dish rubber floor mats to go over the genuine rubber floor mats that clip into place over the vinyl floor.
Yes, you read that right, I put floor mats on my floor mats. Let me know if the comments below if you do, too. Or if I need to see a therapist.
So imagine how shattered I was to discover, just a few weeks later, three scratches on the instrument cluster surround.
It appeared the instrument cluster had been taken out with a wide, flathead screwdriver. My concern: it looked like the instrument cluster had been replaced and a future buyer might think the vehicle had been 'clocked' (had its odometer wound back or a new one installed).
To make sure I didn’t do it, I went back through my photos on the day I collected the car, with 21km on the odometer. Luckily the photos showed the scratches, or the dealer might have blamed me.
Some observers might say this attention to detail is over the top. But if I bought an iPhone with a scratched screen I would ask for another phone or another screen.
Another car is probably a bit over the top on this occasion, but I reckon the scratches are fair game to be fixed.
I’m also genuinely curious to find out why the instrument cluster was out in the first place. Did it happen on the production line at Pacheco, on the docks in Sydney, or at the dealership? To me, it’s as big a mystery as MH370. And we may never find out what happened on both counts in a lifetime.
My shoulders slumped again when, soon after scratch-gate, one of the seven pin sockets in the genuine Volkswagen tow bar assembly came out when I unplugged my trailer.
And then the air-conditioning went kaput, when the car had just 700km on the clock. The fans were blowing hot air. The chilling effect of the AC was non existent – in the middle of summer. Luckily I had access to work cars, but if this were my only vehicle I would be fuming. And, presumably, sweating.
So back to the dealer the Amarok went to get these faults looked at.
The air-conditioning fix was straightforward and easy: there was something wrong under the dash. A part was replaced under warranty. The fault happens to older Amaroks but rarely to new models, apparently (let us know in the comments below if this is a widespread issue or has happened to your Amarok).
The dealer fixed the dodgy trailer seven pin connector on my Amarok – by swapping the part with one from another vehicle in stock. He also said the pin that came out “doesn’t really do anything any way”.
I begged to differ but didn’t raise the point. However, a quick diagram search on Google revealed the missing pin does indeed serve a purpose.
Getting the instrument cluster fixed is proving to be a bigger drama. Two of the scratches are on the surround of the cluster itself, one is a part of the trim attached to the dash.
The service advisor said he couldn’t swap my instrument cluster with someone else’s because each is coded to a specific car (I was hoping for a new instrument cluster, not to stiff some other unwitting Amarok owner). But he knows a plastics repair guy who can fix it.
I asked for time to ponder the plastic repair option because I don’t want the instrument cluster surround to look like a melted ice cream container in the years to come.
So we’re at a stalemate at the moment. As this article was written, the service advisor is on holidays and I’ve since had a second opinion which says the instrument cluster can be replaced, but the one scratch attached to the dash may have to remain untouched.
It might seem a minor detail, but I see these scratches every time I get in my Amarok. I’ve done 1200km in five months because I drive it just to drive it – yes, I love it that much – and when I need to tow. Most of the time I want to keep the kilometres low and the vehicle’s condition pristine.
Why the fuss over a base model Amarok? I might be wrong, but I reckon there’s a chance this original Amarok could be better than the Ford Ranger-based one due in 2023.
Ford and VW are developing their next utes together because this generation Amarok cost too much to manufacture. Translated: VW engineers over-engineered it. And I like that.
Every other ute I’ve driven lately appears to be missing something. The VW Amarok is a tank disguised as a double cab ute. At least that’s how it feels to me, chugging along with the same V6 all-wheel-drive powertrain that once underpinned the Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7.
There’s nothing I can do about it, but here I am sitting awake at night, wondering if VW is going to bungle the next Amarok two years from now – and whether Ford will let Volkswagen engineers work their magic.
Memo to VW. Ford doesn’t know how to calibrate its own 10-speed automatic, so please send a transmission specialist to join the development team. Oh, and an interior expert. Please make the next Amarok have a VW interior and not a version of whatever Ford comes up with.
While we’re at it, maybe you guys could have a conversation about four-wheel disc brakes and all-wheel-drive. Oh, and maybe bring a box of your own fuel injectors. I think Ford uses off-brand ones it sources on the cheap. Surely, being German and all, you guys at VW might know someone at Bosch.
Any way, rant over for now. Next instalment: I have a cardiac arrest after someone decided to run the edge of their car across the front corner of mine and leave a thin 15mm-long scrape on a front fender flare.
PS: Do any Volkswagen dealers who might be reading this have a spare front bumper for a white VW Amarok Core TDV6 – left behind by someone who fitted a gnarly bullbar? The first touch-up guy I went to abused me because he reckoned the scratch wasn't worth his effort, so then I tried my own hand with a touch-up brush, but my skills aren’t that good. I’ve tried the Amarok forums to source a front bar, but because the supply of bullbars and Amaroks are tight at the moment, there aren’t many spare bumpers on dealer scrap heaps. Thanks in advance.