Volkswagen Amarok Highline 2011 Review

It’s never easy being the new kid in class, if you want proof just ask Volkswagen’s new Amarok. As the first European entry into NZ’s hard fought ute segment the road ahead is rocky and steep for the Amarok. With the Volkswagen Group as a parent and some advanced tech in the Amarok’s genes it’s arrived loaded with interest and high expectations. But there are some established names and large egos to measure itself against in the NZ ute playground. So will the other kids like the new Amarok? Probably not. Should the other kids be worried? Absolutely. Car and SUV spent some time in the top spec Amarok Highline to see if this upstart has brought its A-game.

Under the Bonnet
The word Amarok means ‘wolf’ in the Inuit language and this is one wolf not content to just join the pack, it wants to do things its own way. Firstly, it has a smaller engine than its peers and is powered by a 2.0-litre twin turbo diesel unit. But that doesn’t mean its caught short on output figures; there’s 120kW of power on tap and 400Nm of max torque available from 1500rpm. That’s a fair whack of grunt for a ute of any engine size. It nearly matches the torque of the larger displacement mill in the Mitsubishi Triton (407Nm) and beats the Hilux’s 2.5-litre unit (343Nm) but can’t knock the Nissan Navara (450Nm) off its lofty perch.

The Amarok gets its high torque output from a linear twin turbo system that has the turbos engaging at different points in the rev range and overlapping briefly. The advantage of the smaller displacement engine comes with increased diesel economy. Official figures rate the Amarok at using just 7.8 litres per 100km and while that may prove a tough figure to chase down when carrying a heavy load or travelling gravel roads, it stacks up favourably against those same rivals.

The north-south configured engine is mated exclusively to a six-speed manual transmission but an auto option is expected next year. The Amarok can take a 900kg payload in its tub and will pull up to a 2,800kg trailer. While that’s short of the Nissan Navara’s pulling power (3,000kg) it bests the Hilux’s 2,500kg limitations.

Design and Dimensions
The Double Cab Amarok’s packaging is bulky and masculine, there are dashes of Euro flair but they don’t come at the cost of rugged appeal. The face is a fairly safe design with a broad grille, compact headlights, lower air intake and huge VW badge out front to remove any doubts of its origins. Pumped out wheel arches feature along the flanks and at the rear it’s a traditional look with vertical taillights and a boxy deck. The Highline model receives some effective extras like a chrome rear bumper with step, colour-coded door handles, rear tinted glass, front fog lamps and extra chrome trim. Standard wheel fitment are 17-inch alloys but out test model was upgraded to the optional 19-inch rims with 255/55 rubber.

Dimensionally it’s a big bugger, and while close in length to the Hilux it’s noticeably wider and sits up higher. It also has a more imposing presence than other NZ market utes which is noticeable when standing beside it or when the Amarok is parked among other vehicles. The tub is large for a double cab measuring 1.55m in length with a width of 1.62m and it’s deep at 780mm. The distance between the wheel housings is 1.22m, enough to fit a standard pallet and there are four tie-down points.

In the Cabin
With the current generation VW model range known for its quality interiors it’s no surprise the Amarok cabin is class leading in this area. While the dashboard is very car-like it still has a chunky look and a robust feel to the controls and instrumentation. Build quality is faultless and the brown/black two-tone colour scheme looked appealing on our test vehicle. Plenty of practicality has been injected, particularly in the broad centre console that houses large storage options and deep cupholders. The switchgear is thoughtfully positioned and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob add a touch of class. Instrumentation is nicely large and there’s a display screen that offers trip and vehicle info. The only small complaint comes with the handbrake being positioned on the far side of the centre console from the driver.

Some hardcore ute fans may claim that the Amarok interior is too fancy for a working truck. It is certainly a step up from the ocean of black or grey hard plastics found in most utes, but it also feels bulletproof tough and most surfaces can be easily cleaned.

Front seat comfort could put many passenger cars to shame, the seats are wide, cushioned and supportive. They are trimmed in a durable cloth and there’s height adjustment to help get comfortable. The Amarok’s exterior width pays dividends in the double cab’s rear seat where three adults can travel comfortably on short trips. The rear pew is raised for better visibility, is slightly reclined and folds forward to reveal a hidden storage compartment. Interior space is impressive all round in the Amarok and it’s one of the few utes where back seat comfort has been seriously considered rather than just being an afterthought.

Equipment and Options
Ute’s don’t usually get tricked out with all the latest gadgetry but the top dog Amarok doesn’t do too badly at all. Standard kit includes dual-zone climate air-conditioning, cruise control, heated side mirrors with electric adjustment, halogen headlights, electric windows and a 6-speaker CD player with auxiliary input. The optional equipment list includes parking sensors ($550), heated seats ($750), 6-Disc CD player with colour screen ($900) and if you want to be really flash – full leather interior ($3000).

Amarok – On Road
Getting off the line the Amarok doesn’t launch like a dragster but the torquey diesel engine can show some gusto and remains smooth even above 4000rpm. Occasionally there is some turbo lag but it’s only found at very low rpm and is seldom a nuisance. It’s well-mannered round town and while open road passing takes some space, if you drop down enough gears there’ll be plenty of torque available.

The six-speed ZF manual transmission is well matched to the motor but is quite notchy and the gate doesn’t feel that well defined. The clutch is light and predictable and even in stop/start traffic it won’t prove a burden.

Ride comfort is a highlight of the Amarok even when driven without load. The leaf-sprung rear set up makes for some bounciness but it’s generally very compliant and glides along more like an SUV than a work truck. The double-wishbone front suspension makes for ample grip through the front wheels and it’s eager when turning into corners. Steering is well weighted and while it may be a little vague for tough guys, there’s certainly enough feedback to allow fluent progress.

Amarok – Off Road
Get off the road and the Amarok proves itself to be the real deal. VW’s 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system gobbles up even the harshest off road duties. It can be switched from 2WD high for the road and 4WD high for the paddocks through a cabin button. If things get rougher 4WD low further increases traction along with an electronic diff lock. There are other handy electronic aides like a downhill assist function, hill start control and a very clever off-road ABS braking system that lets small bits of loose material from the ground build up and create wedges for the wheels in emergency stopping situations.

Approach angle (28 degrees), departure angle (23.6 degrees) and ramp-over angles all check out and a wading depth of up to 500mm could prove handy too. Even if the terrain can beat the Amarok, the chassis is super-rigid and there’s some heavy underbody protection making sure things can’t get too nasty.

Safety
The Amarok Highline went straight to the top of the class in terms of safety when it became the first ute in NZ to achieve a 5-star ANCAP safety rating. Helping achieve this feat is a full electronic stability programme, which isn’t shy about intervening. There’s also an anti-slip regulation system, trailer stabilisation for towing and front and side airbags.

The Low Down
Straight off the bat Volkswagen has built a ute that’s capable of bloodying the noses of its key competitors. In some key areas it’s the most advanced ute currently on the market. With the Amarok Highline’s safety features, comfortable ride and spacious interior it also makes a tempting work/play proposition for family duties. Priced at $61,500 for our tested model, it’s occupying the upper echelons of the ute market but for the money you get a smooth operator that’s highly competent in all regards, is progressive and very modern. This isn’t a vehicle that was first released many years ago and has been constantly tweaked ever since. This is an all-new machine. While the kiwi ute buying public may not take to the Amarok instantly, it’s capable of long hauls and that’s exactly what it’s here to do.

Price: From $43,000 as tested $61,500

What we like:

  • On road dynamics and off road ability
  • Spacious well appointed interior
  • Safety features
  • Advanced and economical diesel motor
  • Large tub for a double cab ute

What we don’t like:

  • Handbrake placement
  • Overly notchy feel to gear changes
  • No automatic option currently available

Words and Photos: Adam Mamo

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