Wind the clock back over 20 years and the Taro was part of Volkswagen’s light commercial line-up. It was a rebadged version of Toyota’s Hilux pick-up, but only remained on sale for a couple of years.
It may have taken a while, but VW is now ready to tackle the Japanese manufacturer dominated one-tonne pick-up market head-on with the all-new Amarok. And before anyone switches to their e-mail software to fire off a missive, the Ford Ranger started life as a Mazda BT-50.
Amarok — it translates as ‘wolf’ in the Eskimo Inuit language — is being built at VW’s plant in Pacheco, Argentina which makes sense for many reasons, not least of which is that South America is a huge market for pick-ups. Just to emphasise the point VW took some 20,000 orders in the first months of it being on sale.
This may go some way to explaining why the UK on-sale date has been postponed from this September to ‘the first half of 2011’. Another reason may be that the pick-up market here remains on its knees while other pick-up-loving right-hand drive territories like South Africa are buoyant.
When it does eventually make its way across the Channel, Amarok will be available initially as a five-seater double cab 4x4, with rear-wheel drive single cabs joining the line-up at a later date. VW is not producing a cab-and-a-half configuration. It reckons because the double cab’s rear seat can be folded down and the single cab has more room than usual behind the seats there is no need.
People already familiar with the four-cylinder Euro 5 engines found under the bonnet of the latest generation VW Transporter will immediately feel at home with the Amarok’s powerplants. There are two to chose from, starting with the 122hp 2.0TDI which features a variable geometry turbo and develops peak torque of 340Nm at 2,000rpm.
The alternative, and likely to prove the most popular, is the 163hp 2.0BiTDI which as the name suggests benefits from twin turbos. Peak torque for this unit is 400Nm at 1,750rpm. Both units are mated to a six-speed manual transmission as standard with an automatic option waiting in the wings for introduction in 2012.
Where fitted to a single cab 4x2 the most-powerful engine offers fuel consumption of 37.0mpg on the combined cycle and CO2 emissions of 199g/km. Fit it to a double cab 4x4 and you’re talking 36mpg and 206g/km. The less powerful powerplant consumes 37.6mpg in a single cab and boasts CO2 emissions of just 198g/km. Add two doors and four-wheel drive and you’re talking 37.0mpg and 199g/km. Not bad figures for a pick-up truck.
In an unusual move for this market, VW is offering two four-wheel drive systems for the double cab Amarok; one permanent, one push-button selectable. The former features an automatic Torsen viscous coupling centre differential while the latter has electronic engagement of a manual centre diff and also boasts a set of low ratio off-road gears.
Irrespective of the drive system, the 4x4s are designated 4MOTION with the former sporting a black ‘4’ while the one on the latter is red.
ABS, an ASR anti-skid system and an Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) — that can also helps stabilise any trailer up to 2,800kg that’s being towed — are all fitted along with an electronic centre diff lock. A mechanical rear diff lock is an option.
The ABS system intervenes slightly differently when trying to stop in an emergency on loose gravel. The way it works allows a wedge of pebbles to build up in front of the front wheels, providing better control and bringing the vehicle to a halt safely. To make it operate like this, the Off-Road Mode button is activated. Do this — it can be engaged at speeds of up to around 60mph — and ABS, ESP, ASR and the centre diff lock all become ‘mapped’ for off-road conditions.
Push the magic button at up to about 18mph and Hill Descent Assist is activated too. It keeps driving speeds constant on demanding descents by means of targeted brake actuations, allowing the Amarok to go down steep inclines without coming to grief. If you’re ascending one of those perilous slopes, then Hill Hold Assist ensures you don’t roll backwards when the brakes are released.
At the time of going to press the load bed dimensions are not available for the single cab so the following relates to the double cab. Maximum cargo bed width is 1,620mm narrowing to 1,222mm between the wheel boxes. Maximum length is 1,555mm and the sidewalls are 508mm high. Rear loading height is 780mm. VW points out that it is possible to slide a Euro pallet into the load bay sideways. Four load lashing points are provided, one at each corner of the 2.5m2 load area.
Access is by means of a drop-down tailgate released by a centrally-mounted handle. It can be locked horizontally, but not dropped down completely because the rear bumper, which incorporates a step, gets in the way on the high spec models. Opt for a variant without a large back bumper if the tailboard needs to be lowered completely.
Two suspension packages are available; Comfort and Heavy Duty. The former has a gross vehicle weight of 2.8t, the latter 3.0t. Choice will depend on usage and the amount of payload to be carried. The difference relates to the number of leaf springs used in the rear suspension.
Gross payloads for the UK models have yet to be revealed, but undoubtedly will be in excess of 1,000kg so that VAT can be reclaimed.
Speaking of specification, VW will be offering three levels in the UK, but the exact content of each will not now be finalised until the beginning of next year.
Needless to say the base models will be aimed at the utilitarian sector of the market and may not include even central locking or electric windows. Features that will be found on all Amaroks, however, include a height-adjustable driver’s seat, a cargo bed light and driver and front passenger airbags.
We had the opportunity to try out 163hp Trendline (middle spec in Germany) 4x4 double cabs on the European launch with selectable 4MOTION models set aside for the on-road portion of the route and permanent 4MOTION variants for the off-road course.
We fully expected Amarok to perform well off-road thanks in no small part to all the electronics VW has endowed it with and it has to be said that the Off-Road Mode works exceptionally well. It makes driving through rough terrain almost idiot-proof. We tried heavy braking on loose surface with and without it engaged and take it from us, the difference in stopping distance is very noticeable.
What we hadn’t expected, however, is how Amarok handles itself on-road. For a one tonne pick-up it rides well, goes where it’s pointed without complaint and it’s remarkably refined. VW has obviously spent a great deal of time isolating the engine and driveline from the cab. It’s the most car-like pick-up we have driven to date.
It also doesn’t fall short in the performance stakes, although with Nissan having just bumped the Navara up to 190hp and also offering a 231hp V6 diesel option we wonder if VW is being a tad conservative.
Volkswagen may be coming to the pick-up market somewhat late in the day, but there is no doubt that it has done its homework and come up with something that easily matches, if not surpasses, the current offerings from the established players in most areas.