Pick-ups are undeniably practical but have a reputation for being rough and ready with crude driving dynamics. VW's Amarok, now German-built, aims to change all that and its cause is further helped by the addition of extra power and efficiency for the 2.0 BiTDI variant that most customers choose. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Oriental models have for too long held sway in the UK pick-up truck market, a state of affairs that Volkswagen is looking to change. Having established itself as a purveyor of 4x4 passenger cars, the German brand sought to cross over into the off-road commercial vehicle market with the launch in 2011 of its Amarok pick-up. Big, economical and very capable, Volkswagen's off-road load-lugger was designed to give the Japanese contingent a few sleepless nights but originally boasted a 2.0-litre diesel line-up in a class where rivals had 2.5 or 3.0-litre units. Extra power at the top end in the popular BiTDI variant though, has since negated any concerns. This really is a very complete pick-up indeed.
Pick-up sales may have taken off in Europe over the last decade or so, but the vehicles themselves have come almost exclusively from the Far East, Japan dominating the market with Mitsubishi's L200, Nissan's Navara and Toyota's Hilux, leaving Ford a few scraps to hoover up with their Thai-built Ranger model. So what kind of pick-up might a European brand design? How would it be different? In this Volkswagen Amarok, we have our answer. The name apparently means 'wolf' in the Eskimo Inuit language and there's precious little sheep's clothing around this one, with styling and a tough ladder chassis intended to suggest this vehicle to be as tough as they come.
Volkswagen's track record in offering pick-ups is really limited to an embarrassing period in the Eighties when it tried to sell something called the Taro, little more than a rebadged Toyota Hilux. But in its van line-up, it does have experience in all-wheel drive that goes right back to the LT1 4x4 of 1983. And it's this experience that's been put to good use with this Amarok, now built at the company's German Hanover factory for European sale. And this design indeed, offers a very European take on pick-up motoring. From the way that it drives to the feeling you get behind the wheel, this is claimed to be the most car-like vehicle of this kind ever made. Potentially then, the perfect solution for SUV buyers who want the greater practicality of pick-up motoring.
A tough ladder-framed chassis and a solid, leaf-sprung rear axle necessary to carry heavy loads offer the inevitably utilitarian feel. Within the confines of this approach though, the Wolfsburg engineers have actually done a very good job in making this Amarok as car-like as it reasonably could be.
There's nothing wrong with the performance on offer, which might come as a surprise given the news that at 2.0-litres in capacity, the TDI engine on offer seems to be of rather small capacity in a class otherwise dominated by 2.5 and 3.0-litre diesel units. Which is something of a worry given that at over two tonnes, this is ones of the heaviest vehicles in its class.
But there's no cause for concern. The 2.0-litre TDI is designed to effortlessly lug about much heavier commercial fare than this and even in entry-level 122PS single turbo form, develops a useful 340Nm of torque, hence the useful 3,000kg maximum braked trailer towing limit offered across the range. Most UK buyers though, will be opting for the pokier Bi-Turbo TDI powerplant, now uprated from 163 to 180PS. With twin turbos developing 420Nm of torque, the Amarok powers to sixty in around 11s (nearly 3s quicker than you'd manage in the base model) on the way to a top speed of 112mph.
Many Amarok customers will be carrying heavy loads and motoring off the beaten track as well as on it. Which is why the majority of the line-up is based around a selectable version of the 4MOTION all-wheel drive system and a tougher heavy duty version of the leaf-sprung suspension. If your motoring is going to be more tarmac-based, there's also a 'Permanent' 4MOTION set-up for top models.
Design and Build
The Amarok's styling is distinctively Volkswagen but there's little of the usual conservatism we've come to expect from the Wolfsburg company's design department. The chunky shape appears solidly planted to the ground with cleanly sculpted bonnet curves and a large Volkswagen emblem and grille, with clear horizontal lines linking them together across the front of the vehicle.
Inside you've got neat switchgear, clearly defined instruments, a lovely three-spoke reach and rake-adjustable steering wheel and soft-touch plastics lifted straight from Volkswagen passenger cars. It's rather like being in a Golf on stilts and it'll be rather surreal if you come to this vehicle straight from an older pick-up rival. It's practical too, with lots of storage, including large bins in all the doors which can hold a 1.5-litre bottle in front and a 1.0-litre bottle in the rear. There's also a lidded bin, a lockable glovebox, a compartment for your sunglasses, two cupholders between the front seats and under-front-seat drawers on most models.
In the rear, the extra width of the vehicle makes it easier to accommodate three adults if need be - though two will obviously be more comfortable. All will get proper three-point seatbelts and most trim levels include rear cupholders for their use. If the rear bench isn't in use and you need more storage room, you can tip the backrest forward to free up extra loadspace.
Market and Model
The range is based around the Doublecab bodystyle that almost all UK buyers want. Excluding the dreaded VAT (which business users can claim back on all versions with a payload of over 1,000kgs - which means all but the priciest Permanent 4WD model), you'll pay from around £19,000 for the entry-level 122PS Amarok. Most British customers though, will want to pay the £1,000 premium Volkswagen asks to graduate from a 122PS Amarok to the 180PS BiTurbo TDI model we tried, priced in the £20,000 to £25,000 bracket. That's around the same as you'd pay for more powerful versions of obvious rivals that as well as the Ranger, the Hilux and the L200, also include Nissan's significantly more powerful 190PS Navara.
Equipment levels of course, depend upon the trim designation you have in mind, but whether you choose the entry-level 122PS 2.0-litre TDI or the 180PS BiTurbo unit, you'll find that all Amaroks come with most of the basics. That means things like alloy wheels, Climatic air conditioning, daytime running lights, all-round power windows, power heated mirrors, a 12v power socket, a CD stereo and a Thatcham Category 1 alarm and immobiliser. Plusher variants like this one add things like cruise control, a trip computer and front foglamps. Going upwards on sharp inclines, there's a Hill Holder Clutch to stop you drifting backwards. Going down the other side, there's Hill Descent Control to keep the car at a steady speed.
And of course there are plenty of accessories. These include a lockable toolbox designed to fit across the loadspace, a choice of tonneau covers or a complete matching hardtop to enclose the entire load area.
Practicalities and Costs
Drop down the sturdy tailgate and the headline news is the 2.52m3 load volume - that's more than double the size of, say, an equivalent Toyota Hilux. That might encourage you to use the hefty payload allowance - between 1064 and 1119kgs for Selectable 4MOTION models. These have a high rear axle load limit of 1,860kgs. With the Permanent 4MOTION variant, the payload drops to just 750kgs.The Gross Vehicle Weight is 3170kg, though that falls to 2820kg if you opt for the top-spec model with permanent all-wheel drive.
Get your cargo into the loadbay and that extra cargo volume really pay dividends. You can for example, carry a Euro pallet sideways, not something possible in any rival pick-up. That's thanks to dimensions that give you a 1555mm loadspace length and a 1620mm loadspace width that narrows to 1222 between the wheelarches. And there's 508mm of load area height.
As the only pick-up in the class to use 2.0-litre diesel power rather than a 2.5 or a 3.0-litre unit, the 122PS Amarok is the only one able to get under the 200g/km of CO2 barrier (though only just at 199g/km), while the 180PS model can return as little as 199g/km in 'Permanent' BlueMotion technology form. This Volkswagen has less of an advantage over its rivals when it comes to fuel consumption, but the official combined cycle figures - 37.2mpg for the 122PS variant and as much as 37.2mpg for the 180PS model - suggest that you'll probably get 2-3 more miles from every gallon in comparison to obvious rivals. Thanks to the 80-litre tank, that means a theoretical range of over 600 miles.
Pick-up users aren't necessarily expecting their vehicles to be advanced, car-like and fuel efficient. But most would be very pleased if they were. These are people who should get themselves behind the wheel of an Amarok. You do have nagging worries in the plush, car-like cabin as to whether this vehicle really is going to prove as tough and durable as its Asian rivals in the long term. But these are concerns your Volkswagen Van Centre will be quick to play down, pointing to this vehicle's development in the Patagonian wilderness and its use on the testing Paris-Dakar rally.
This aside, the only issues are those common to all pick-ups, essentially based around a utilitarian on-tarmac feel. And this is less of an issue with an Amarok than with any other rival model. Limited UK numbers mean that this Volkswagen isn't going to threaten its Oriental rivals' market dominance just yet, but in terms of product excellence, it certainly should give them plenty to think about. At last, we Europeans have given the Far East something it can learn from.