Volkswagen create you-beaut ute
IT has been long overdue, but finally a German manufacturer has come to the ute party in Australia.
The sector is dominated by Japanese and home-grown brands – with Toyota's HiLux firmly leading the way – but a new Euro kid in town is set to steal a large chunk of the market share.
This is Volkswagen's new Amarok, recently released on our shores and coming out fighting with claims of being the biggest, safest and most fuel efficient offering in the one-tonne ute segment.
Local dealership Garry Crick Volkswagen are understandably excited by its new arrival, and launched the new Amarok at its Maroochydore showroom before offering test drives along a dedicated four-wheel drive track in Brightwater.
I hopped in its Trendline TDi 4Motion variant featuring switchable four-wheel drive, with the shift between tarmac-specific 2WD and off-road 4WD modes activated by the simple push of a button inside the cabin.
Hosting the test drive with access to a challenging off-road track was no accident: if the Amarok wants to compete with the similarly-priced HiLux, it needs more than its pretty VW badge; it needs to be brilliant along the rough stuff.
Fortunately, the Vee Dub ute already has an accomplished record. Dozens were used as backup vehicles in the 2010 and 2011 Dakar Rally endurance events, and there are few sterner tests of a vehicle's 4x4 ability than across the rally's varied terrain.
On the road
The newly-laid residential asphalt in Brightwater couldn't be further from the treacherous desert and mountain roads of South America's Dakar Rally route, but for the Amarok to be relevant in Australia, it needs city work, too.
My brief bitumen blast revealed the VW would be fine to live with as an everyday proposition. It's still a ute with high ground clearance so doesn't feature car-like driving dynamics, but it by no means felt as utilitarian as some rival light commercial vehicles.
Volkswagen is no mug when it comes to a decent chassis with impressive handling, and they've brought this knowledge to the Amarok.
It handles the turns with excellent poise for such a vehicle, displaying little body roll and impressive grip.
Its turning circle isn't half bad either, and its lofty driving position equals decent visibility all-round.
My on-road route wasn't too lengthy so I couldn't assess its highway manners, but I'd suggest with its six-speed gearbox and low-down torque it would cruise along at 110kmh at quiet revs.
Cabin noise when the 2.0-litre diesel is pushed is naturally more intrusive than the likes of VW's Golf or Polo offerings, but for a work truck it still has that level of refinement you'd expect from the German car maker.
Off the road
The majority of my test was conducted off-road on a recently saturated dirt route. It threw up enough challenges for the Amarok to prove itself, and in mud bogs, deep ruts and rocky sections it always escaped any trouble.
The underside of the Amarok is metal plated to prevent component damage.
To anyone who has driven a fair distance on an unsealed road with stones annoyingly peppering the underside you'll appreciate how important this is.
Off-road, it was clear this ute could handle a lot more abuse than I could throw its way.
It's unmistakably VW inside, with the dashboard like an extended version of the Golf's.
There's a fair amount of hard plastics, but as it's a commercial rather than luxury family wagon this is to be expected.
Seating is excellent, with a real sense of space in the back. These double cab utes can be very uncomfortable for rear passengers, but VW has cracked it here, with decent low floor and high headroom to easily accommodate two adults in the back, and three if asked.
In terms of cabin width and height, it's the largest in the one-tonne ute segment.
The interior is hardly awash with extra toys or decoration, but this again suggests its planned work use. Some steering wheel controls would have been nice though.
The Amarok has achieved a five-star ANCAP safety rating, making it the first ute sold in Australia to do so, thanks to its collection of air bags and abundance of smart electric gadgets.
As for the important load aspects that tradies need to consider, the load area is 2.52 square metres, and has a payload capacity of up to 1.15 metric tonnes.
My test Amarok is affectionately known as ‘Stickers' thanks to its Dakar Rally livery.
For the image conscious, its Euro looks with or without stickers is sure to appeal, especially with the added options such as 18-inch wheels, flared guards and stainless steel sports bar.
A bonus is a six-year whole body anti-perforation warranty.
Large, capable, safe and efficient: VW has come up with a real challenger in the competitive one-tonne ute segment.
As tested, the Amarok cost more than $60,000 once on-roads were added, but you can get in the base 2WD version for $33,990 before on-roads or $43,990 before on-roads for the 4WD 4Motion. This puts it squarely in HiLux territory.
The concept, build and all-round accomplished drive is hard to fault, but it's a shame that for now we are offered only one engine choice (though it does its job perfectly), and no automatic transmission.
This manual-only offer may well lose VW customers it's worked hard to attract.
This takes little away from what is an excellent work/lifestyle offering.
Model: 2011 Volkswagen Amarok Trendline TDi 4Motion.
Details: Double-cab utility with switchable 4Motion four-wheel drive.
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder bi-turbo diesel generating peak power of 120kW @ 4000rpm and peak torque of 400Nm @ 1500-2000rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual 4Motion.
Consumption: 7.9 litres/100km.
Performance: 0-100kmh in 11.1 seconds; top speed 181kmh.
Bottom line: Prices start at $33,990 for the Amarok 2WD and $43,990 for 4x4 4Motion (before on roads). Test car is $60,390 drive away (includes 18-inch alloys, flared guards, sports bar, side steps and front bumper extension).