An automatic transmission transforms VW’s Amarok – Chris Mullett reports

The ute market is always full of interest, and right now the Australian market is looking at some exciting new vehicle replacements over the next 12 months. Toyota’s HiAce is due for an upgrade and so too is the Mitsubishi Triton and Nissan Navara.

VW’s Amarok showed that a European influence on design and technology could lift expectations above those of the humble and basic one-tonne load shifter. A further benefit came from the sophistication of the electronics controlling off-road traction in the all-wheel-drive versions. At the time of introduction it was the most sophisticated and intelligent of all the manufacturers, a position it still holds today.

But if there was an Achilles heel to the Amarok, it was the turbo-lag on take-off that let it down. With an engine capacity of 2.0 litres, the diesel is a willing performer, and frugal when it comes to fuel consumption, but until the turbo winds up it’s not quick off the mark from rest.

Buyers that Delivery has interviewed all mention how easy it is to stall the engine on take-off. Once rolling there are no problems, and when fully laden on the highway it performs faultlessly.

Up until late 2012, the only transmission available was the six-speed manual gearbox, and that remains the mainstay of the range today. The much-publicised problems of the seven-speed DSG twin-clutch automated transmission never applied to the Amarok, as that gearbox was not engineered to be available in the ute or chassis/cab versions.

VW realised from the outset that a DSG transmission would not work well when off-road. The alternative for those looking at not changing gears manually was for VW to introduce an eight-speed, full fluid ZF automatic transmission. This option was released in late 2012 in the four-door dual-cab 4MOTION all-wheel-drive models, and it is an absolute winning combination. The problem is that once a driver interested in buying an Amarok experiences the automatic version, they would never buy the manual, it’s that good.VW-Amarok_2

And that leads to another problem. Why doesn’t VW release the eight-speed automatic transmission throughout the range, including the 2WD dual-cabs and also the single-cab versions?

The Amarok TDI420 with automatic transmission is available in base dual-cab form with 4MOTION all-wheel-drive priced at an entry level of $44,490 for the cab-chassis and an extra $1500 for one with a ute tub already fitted. Move up to the next level in specification with the Amarok TDI420 Trendline 4MOTION and the price moves to $47,490 for the cab/chassis, and again a further $1500 for the factory ute tub.

The Amarok TDI420 Highline 4MOTION moves the price point up to $53,990 and cuts out the availability of the cab/chassis option, leaving the buyer only with a factory ute tub. At the top of the spectrum is the Amarok TDI420 Ultimate 4MOTION – again only available as a factory ute and this time with a price tag that is $61,490. Both these top-level versions, the Highline and Ultimate, can be supplied with Comfort Springs at no additional cost, which provide a softer, less commercially oriented ride.

Although there are four different power and torque alternatives of the 2.0-litre turbo diesel available throughout the broader Amarok range with a manual gearbox, the auto-shifter stays with one engine, the higher performing TDI420, and completes the driveline with permanent 4WD.

The Euro 5 rated, common-rail, fuel-injected, 132 kW, 2.0-litre, twin- turbo TDI420 has a maximum torque output of 420 Newton metres. The maximum payload is a full one tonne, and it can tow a laden trailer with a gross weight of up to 3,000 kg, with 300 kg of downforce ball weight.

Maximum power comes in at 4,000 rpm and peak torque is rated at a set 1750 rpm. This output rating is a little different from the electronic control engine management systems of the other three engines, in that the programming of those matched to the six-seed manual gearbox sees a torque spread over an rpm range that runs from 1500 rpm through to 2250 rpm.

When on the highway, the cruise speed of 100 km/h results from just 1600 rpm in 8th gear. Take the speed up to the freeway maximum of 110 km/h and you add just an extra 200 rpm.

A quick word here about towing. A 2.0-litre, twin-turbo diesel as used in the auto versions is well capable of towing a fairly weighty trailer. What it is not capable of doing, though, is to provide a high degree of engine braking on over-run.

If you are towing a fully-laden trailer down a steep hill, you will be relying on brakes, as the compression from a 2.0-litre isn’t a match for that generated by engine capacities of 3.0 litres and above. So, the message here is clear, use the manual selection of lower ratios to assist your vehicle retardation and reduce speed before the start of the descent. Apply brakes sparingly and always play for safety rather than speed.

Amarok comes fully classified as a five-star ANCAP crash safety rated ute and returns a combined town and country fuel consumption figure of 8.3/100 km with an emissions output of 219 g/km of CO2. If you spend more of your time on the freeway you can drop the consumption figure down to 7.3 l/100 km and emissions to 192 g/km of CO2. Spend all your time in the city and you’ll be seeing a fuel economy level rise to 10.1 l/100 km and 266 g/km of CO2. Fuel tank capacity is 80 litres.VW-Amarok_5

Delivery has been driving the Amarok auto in all types of road situations, and out of the entire model range this is the one to choose. The build quality of the Amarok, which hails from Argentina, is excellent, and there were no accompanying trim or body squeaks. It’s obviously the buyer’s call as to what level of trim and accessories are required, but it’s worth pointing out in terms of driving dynamics all models are equal.

When compared to the ride quality, internal cab noise levels and general driving behaviour of its competitors, it’s the sophistication of the Amarok that gets it over the line. Whereas the six-speed manual gearbox and associated turbocharger lag can be really annoying, when you match a turbocharged engine with an automatic transmission all those concerns tend to dissipate.

If there is any limit to the appeal of the Amarok it is probably the high-set ride position and the sheer bulk of the body. As with the Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50, the high walls of the tub preclude anyone of normal height from reaching over the sidewall to grab something from the interior of the tray. That makes the selection of a chassis/cab with a drop-side tray the more appealing purchase.

With this in mind, our choice comes down to the base model and the Trendline, and then involves selecting a suitable locally-built alloy or steel floored tray. This brings in your buying strategy to focus on a price point of $44,490 – $47,490, and at this level the Amarok represents one of the best value models on the market available at this time.

This decision is reinforced through the safety features that come standard across the entire Amarok range. With standard driver and front passenger airbags, front head/thorax side airbags, Electronic Stability Program (ESP) with Brake Assist as well as Off Road ABS/ASR and EDL, it hits all the right spots for safety.

If you do head off-road and into serious 4WD territory, we can vouch for the cleverness of the 4MOTION permanent all-wheel-drive system. We tested this unit on our toughest 4WD hill climbing section and it passed with flying colours as the best in class. Most 4WD utes fail to make it halfway up the ascent, the Amarok took it in its stride without hesitation.

When first launched into the Australian market the pricing was on the high side. In the meantime, the competition has increased its pricing structure, but the Amarok retail pricing has stayed static. It’s now more appealing and more affordable and gets the Delivery recommendation as the chassis/cab to consider.

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