There’s never been a better time to review the dual-cab 4x4 class of 2016 than right now. Wheels pitches eight of the biggest sellers in the segment for the title of King of the Heap. Here's number one, the Volkswagen Amarok.
First published in the May 2016 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
IF THE rest of this field is clearly from working-class stock, it’s equally clear the VW is a cut above. The others may be solid blue-collar performers, but the Amarok creates the impression it’s the only one with a university degree, capable of not spending its life on the tools. It feels polished, with a sheen of sophistication.
Take the refinemed and (relatively) revvy 2.2-litre twin-turbo four. At idle it’s nicely muted and clatter-free; feed it some throttle and the short first gear of the eight-speed torque-converter auto gets it moving smartly. Seamless upshifts make progress feel effortless compared to the other lumbering beasts here. Its 9.8sec 80-120km/h overtaking time may not seem special, but we’ll take the lack of coarseness and induction roar in trade.
This is an engine that welcomes hard work. The transition from small turbo to larger one is fluid and impossible to pick, the peak torque smeared across a generous curve. Spin it up and it still pulls strongly past 4700rpm, an engine speed that the D-Max and Colorado definitely do not like.
The powertrain’s refinement is mirrored in the chassis. With the Amarok, VW has mastered the apparently dark art of mating a body to a separate chassis. It has none of the wobbles and tremors that plague its rivals to varying degrees, instead feeling like a cohesive whole on the road, clearly a more secure starting point for the chassis engineers to tune from.
And the tune is excellent. It blots up bumps that shake like a wet dog in others, and holds its line through dips admirably. Its steering may not be the absolute benchmark – it’s a little remote – but is reliably direct and relaxed enough at backroad cruising speeds.
Further proof VW has it right comes when you heel it into a few bends. It leans without pushing into early understeer and responds to the throttle mid-bend to allow subtle line adjustments. Mid-corner ruts are isolated from the steering column, so it makes swift, relaxing progress in a way none of the others here can match.
Sealing the deal is a level of interior presentation, comfort and refinement that feels Business Class to the others’ Economy. There are front seats with ample side and under-thigh support, a vast range of steering height and reach adjustment, super-legible instruments with a sensible info screen, a decent sound system, lined door bins so your bottles don’t rattle, and a heating and ventilation system that’s instantly familiar and intuitive to operate.
Add to that the widest cabin in its class – even three teenagers sitting across the back won’t complain – and a tray capable of swallowing a full-size pallet, and you can see how Amarok brains the competition in almost all key areas.
And yet Amarok is not the class sales leader. Perhaps more remote buyers are concerned about the lack of VW dealers and aftersales issues. Perhaps all those horror stories of dud Golf transmissions and engine issues knocked around a reputation for bulletproof reliability and strong resale that’s so important in this segment. Address those and Amarok deserves to rule.
Amarok’s full-time 4WD system means you don’t even need to think about switching out of high-range 2WD to go off-road. While it doesn’t have a low-range transfer case, that’s not a real-world impediment. A short first gear, high-stall torque-convertor and sophisticated chassis electronics means it climbs with the best of them. It just dug in and found traction up our hell-climb where other contenders with better on-paper credentials wilted into steaming wheelspin and lost momentum.
Model: Volkswagen Amarok Highline TDI420 Dual Cab
Price as tested: $56,990
Engine: 1968cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, TTD
Power: 132kW @ 4000rpm
Torque: 420Nm @ 1750rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B): 5254/1954/1820/3095mm
Tray capacity: 991kg
Braked towing capacity: 3000kg
Unbraked towing capacity: 750kg
Ground clearance: 192mm
Tyres: Pirelli Scorpion ATR 245/65R17
ADR81 fuel consumption: 8.3L/100km
0-400m: 18.6sec @ 120.5km/h
3yr resale: 64%
Plus: Class benchmark for comfort, refinement, driveability and liveability
Minus: Mechanically complex; lack of dealers; service costs
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