From a strategic perspective, the Amarok ute is a vital member of the Volkswagen fleet in New Zealand.
The German carmaker has a formidable reputation for the hatchbacks, sedans and wagons it has always built, and the commercial sector also holds the company in high regard for its vans.
But it's only been in relatively recent times that Volkswagen has been a player in the ute segment. It was in early 2010 that the Amarok had its world launch in Argentina - the only country where it was built at that time - and it arrived in this country a year later.
Since then the Volkswagen has been chipping away at the dominance of such ute product as Toyota Hilux, Ford Ranger, Nissan Navara, Holden Colorado and Mazda BT-50 - a big task, considering that it was only four years ago that the words Volkswagen and ute didn't belong in the same sentence.
But now they most definitely do. There are a growing number of customers who appreciate the Amarok for being possibly the most car-like of the current ute selection. It might not have the down-and-dirty ability of others because it doesn't carry the traditional 4WD transfer case and reduction gearing, but it does have a lovely 2.0-litre turbodiesel matched an an eight-speed automatic, and on-seal drive characteristics that really are comfortable. As a result you could almost call this ute urbane.
The Amarok is due for a major facelift in 2016, and as the countdown begins for that event Volkswagen has begun rolling out a series of special editions designed to maintain sales of the ute in the meantime.
The first arrived last week. Called Canyon and sourced from a second Amarok assembly plant in the German city of Hanover, it features such extras as factory-fitted running boards and unique leather upholstery, and it enters the market priced at just under $70,000. An initial shipment of 60 of these utes has been secured, and a second shipment is being negotiated for later this year or early next year.
Next year another special edition Amarok, called Ultimate, will arrive. The intention behind this model will be to make the ute even more car-like with such features as xenon lights, daytime running lights, and more safety equipment. No prices are yet known.
Meanwhile, the Amaroks already on sale in New Zealand have been undergoing various running changes. It all started with the installation of the eight-speed auto at the beginning of last year, and it has continued via such improvements as additional sound deadening, improved audio, installation of automatic wipers and lights, and fitment of park distance control on the high-end models.
All of that combines to help ensure the Amarok remains a refined and desirable ute.
At the top end of the regular Amarok selection is the Highline, an AWD model powered by a 2.0-litre twin-turbocharged diesel engine that provides 132 kilowatts of power and 420 newton metres of torque. It's available with a choice of six-speed manual and selectable 4Motion high/low all-wheel drive, or eight-speed auto with permanent 4Motion.
We've been driving the $65,990 auto, which features a transmission taken straight out of the A8 luxury sedan. For the ute
operation first gear is configured for low-speed off-road use or for towing, while the eighth gear is intended as a fuel-saving overdrive gear that operates at reduced engine speed. This means that all the hard work is done up to seventh gear - and the transmission then pops into eighth for lazy, long-legged motoring.
At 100kmh along the highway in eighth, it feels as if the engine is barely ticking over, and the high level of interior specification and sound deadening add to the relaxed experience. That is despite the fact the Amarok has a ladder frame chassis and a suspension system that includes heavy-duty leaf springs at the rear, which can often mean a lumpy sort of ride. But this ute rides so well, even when empty, you'd think it has independent rear suspension.
Being an automatic means there are no reduction gears, but this has saved weight. And anyway, the combination of the low first gear, permanent 4WD and various electronic aids including a lockable Torsen diff and hill-hold mean the Amarok can take on some quite heavy work. The Highline level of specification means the exterior features chrome accents and a rear bumper, and 17-inch alloys with flared wheel arches. On the inside, there's a lovely leather-covered steering wheel with multi- function controls, and the ute has full Bluetooth connectivity.
Upholstery is a robust material called Endless, and the rear bench seat is interesting because it is what VW calls cinema style in that it is elevated higher than the front seats for better visibility. They also split and fold to provide extra storage space if required.
And talking about storage, our test vehicle was fitted with an optional spring-operated and lockable lid made of high-density plastic durable enough to protect any cargo in the rear tray from theft or the weather.
There's also a high level of safety equipment, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it now includes a front and rear park distance control system that is illustrated on an LCD screen on the dash area.
Overall, everything aboard the Amarok looks sufficient to carry the ute through to the scheduled 2016 facelift, with the vehicle's appeal bolstered by the availability of limited numbers of the special edition versions that are now starting to arrive.
And with that facelifted Amarok not too far away, a question that is beginning to be asked is whether the new model range will feature versions powered by a V6 petrol engine.
The answer is probably not. Instead it seems likely that the ute will remain exclusively turbocharged diesel, but will benefit from Volkswagen's continuing effort to extract more power and torque out of engines with less cubic capacity.
At present this all revolves around that lovely 2.0-litre twin-turbocharged diesel that is efficient enough to offer a very good 400 newton metres of torque. It'll be interesting to see if VW can do even better than that with the facelifted version.
AT A GLANCE
Powertrain: All-wheel driven 2.0-litre common rail fuel injected twin turbocharged diesel engine, with eight-speed ZF automatic transmission.
Output: 132kW at 4000rpm, 420Nm at 1750rpm, 8.3 L/100km, 219 g/km CO 2.
Chassis: McPherson strut front suspension, heavy-duty leaf spring setup at the rear. 4Motion permanent all-wheel drive.
Safety: Front and side airbags, stability control, hill-start assist, hill descent control, trailer stabilisation, anti-spin regulation including off-road ABS, park distance control. Five-star Ancap crash safety rating.
Connectivity: High-end MP3 compatible audio system with colour touchscreen, six-disc CD changer, voice control, rear speakers. Bluetooth.
Dimensions: L 5254mm, W 2228mm, H 1834mm, W/base 3095mm, approach angle 28 degrees, departure angle 23.6 degrees, ramp angle 23 degrees, wading depth 500mm.
Hot: Lovely relaxed and highly specified drive.
Not: Rear legroom is now beaten by some of the new utes now on the market in New Zealand.
Verdict: Amarok rightly holds place as the urbane ute. We're looking forward to the facelift to see what improvements will be made.
- Taranaki Daily News