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Not as good off-road as it think

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A new V6 engine has been added to the second generation Volkswagen Amarok, but in a sector where downsizing is now commonplace where does that leave a powerful new model?

When the Volkswagen Amarok was launched in 2009 it was the first of a new wave of more muscular pick-up trucks.

Six years on, the macho theme continues with a new model redesigned to not only showcase a fresh look for the second generation pick-up truck but more importantly a beefy new V6 engine. While other manufacturers are downsizing – the new Toyota Hilux has a smaller capacity engine but more horsepower – Volkswagen is not only increasing its power output but ramping up the cubic capacity too.

The 2-litre four-cylinder engine that provided maximum power of 178hp from a twin-turbo engine has been replaced by a V6 turbodiesel unit, borrowed from Audi, that now delivers a formidable 221hp and a terrifying 550Nm of torque. Even the lowliest power output returns 161hp and 450Nm while the middle offering in the range churns out 201hp and 500Nm.

It’s a heavyweight line-up said to have been brought about through customer demand. Speaking about the past six years since the first Amarok was launched, Dr Eckhard Scholz, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles CEO said the company has “learnt a lot about this special segment, especially in markets like South America and South Africa where reliability is more important than fuel consumption”. Scholz believes the increased capacity and a more robust engine construction better places the Amarok for these tough markets, while also appealing to European buyers who may want a more SUV like experience – and the new Amarok certainly provides that.

Across all of the new power outputs, more than 50% of sales will be with the 8-speed automatic transmission, which is brilliantly matched to the 221hp powertrain we tested. Peak torque arrives at just 1,400rpm so the Amarok is quick from the off, and accompanying it is a startling and pleasant roar from the engine. Under heavy acceleration the noise is strong and fills the cabin, but as you ease off, the new engine settles to a gentile level. The abundance of torque and the quick responding transmission means that power is always available despite the gearbox’s tendency to race through the ratios and hit top gear as soon as possible.

The handling is sharp thanks to a much weightier steering system than usually found in VW commercial vehicles, but the steering rack is quite slow, so a large amount of steering inputs are required to get through tight corners at speed, where you will invariably experience a large degree of understeer. Speaking of speed, the new V6 is fast and the 221hp engine is a surprise even to an experienced tester. More surprising is just how constant the power delivery is. It is constant and, despite being turbocharged, linear almost all the way up to its maximum speed.

With the luxury of a quiet, unrestricted autobahn on our route, the Amarok comfortably hit 180kph (112mph) in one breath and then nudged its way up to 200kph (125mph). With all that power you need some strong brakes, and the new 17-inch front and 18-inch rear disks do a great job of stopping this two-tonne truck that is plated to a 3,080kg GVW. That means the Amarok can take a payload in excess of one tonne as a double cab and can accommodate 2.52 square metres in its load deck – the largest on the market.

Volkswagen also claims the Amarok has the largest interior in the segment, and from both the driver and passenger front seats you would agree. The cabin maintains the simple design and ergonomics of the refreshed Transporter and Caddy vans, mixing in typical VW group equipment.

The neat horizontal cockpit design means there is a large dashboard area, but with a functional and stylish centre console for radio and navigation which can be controlled from the multi-function steering wheel. There will be the usual three tier model line-up in the UK, with Trendline, Comfortline and Highline trim options, each of which adds more equipment on top of the same well-built and solid feeling interior. Automatic pick-ups get the added bonus of steering wheel mounted paddle controls while top-spec models have the option of a very comfortable new 14-way adjustable electric seat that has a height adjustable lumbar.  

When it comes to working, the Amarok continues to be a quietly capable machine. Its towing capacity has now been improved to 3.5 tonnes, up from 3.2 tonnes, and changes to the suspension are said to improve both its road holding and off-road driving. This is certainly true on the roads, where the ride is about as smooth as can be expected from a leaf sprung rear axle, cushioning bumps well and returning only a minimal amount of body shimmer. It is equally at home off-road on a gravel track where the supple suspension softens even the bumpiest surfaces.

On tougher off-road tracks this model of Amarok is slightly limited by its looks. The chunky side protection bars and bulbous front end reduce ground clearance resulting in the odd bit of scraping even on relatively tame axle twists. Yet despite its apparent short comings, VW still claims the Amarok is capable of taking on 45-degree slopes when fully loaded. Our off-road course was tailored to highlight the VW’s off-road abilities, of which there are many, but our initial impression is that other models (less focused on their SUV-market appeal) do the job better.

There’s no doubting that the new Amarok is now a very different proposition with a V6 engine, but whether or not it has been improved depends on what you are looking for.

Most will argue that more power is always a good thing, and across all three power outputs the Amarok has both power and torque in abundance. It remains one of the best looking pick-up trucks on the market too, with a smart headlight unit incorporating LEDs into a wrap-around design with the grille. New material in the cabin, which now offers the option of full leather, suggests that VW is very much looking at the premium end of the market, but without having the basic version to test it would be unfair to typecast the whole range based on the all bells and whistle Highline test models available to us.

There is, however, one indication of where VW expects its pick-up to be. Despite performing well in markets where proper rough and tumble pick-ups are the requirement the decision to launch the new V6 with a special edition Aventura model featuring all the equipment and finery expected of a premium car makes us think that that is indeed where Volkswagen sees its pick-up truck. Dr Scholz is adamant this is a truck for all walks of life, but powerful engines and leather seats suggest otherwise. That’s no bad thing, as while the Ford Ranger is also a very capable off-roader, it also treads in this camp.

Where Ford differs to Volkswagen is that they also offer a smaller 2.2-litre engine, something that looks sorely absent from the Amarok range. With trucks from Renault, Fiat and Mercedes-Benz coming on to the market joining the array of existing makes, competition will be fierce. The V6 is probably Volkswagen’s way of claiming that top spot and carving out a premium in the segment it knows will be a battlefield in the coming months and years. 

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