Review and road test of the Volkswagen Amarok (2011 - 2016)
SOLID AS A 'ROK?
By Jonathan Crouch
Oriental models have for too long held sway in the UK pick-up truck market, a state of affairs that for some years now, Volkswagen has been looking to change. Having established itself as a purveyor of 4x4 passenger cars, the German brand sought to cross over into the off-road commercial vehicle market with the original version of its Amarok pick-up, a model we evaluate as a used buy here and one that was only offered in the UK in doublecab form. Big, economical and very capable, Volkswagen's off-road load-lugger aimed to give the Japanese contingent a few sleepless nights. But will it give you peace of mind as a secondhand purchase?
4dr pick-up (2.0 TDI / 2.0 BiTDI diesel [122, 140, 163, 180PS])
Pick-up sales may have taken off in Europe since the turn of the century, but the vehicles themselves have come almost exclusively from the Far East, Japan dominating the market with Mitsubishi's L200, Nissan's Navara and Toyota's Hilux, leaving Ford a few scraps to hoover up with their Thai-built Ranger model. So what kind of pick-up might a European brand design? How would it be different? In 2010 with this Volkswagen Amarok, we got our answer. The name apparently means 'wolf' in the Eskimo Inuit language but there was precious little sheep's clothing around this design, with styling and a tough ladder chassis intended to suggest this vehicle to be as tough as they come.
Previous to the launch of the Amarok, Volkswagen's track record in offering pick-ups had been really limited to an embarrassing period in the Eighties when it tried to sell something called the Taro, little more than a rebadged Toyota Hilux. But in its van line-up, it does have experience in all-wheel drive that goes right back to the LT1 4x4 of 1983. And it's this experience that was put to good use with this Amarok, originally built at the company's Pacheco factory in Buenos Aires, Argentina for worldwide sale, before production was also moved to Germany too. From the start, this design proved to be a very European take on pick-up motoring. From the way that it drove to the feeling offered up behind the wheel, this was claimed to be the most car-like vehicle of this kind ever made. Potentially then, the perfect solution for SUV buyers who want the greater practicality of pick-up motoring. The original Amarok model was initially launched with the choice of either a 122PS single-turbo engine and a 163PS BiTDI unit, these powerplants later uprated to 140PS and 180PS. The model we look at here was massively updated in late 2016, when the styling was changed inside and out and a range of 3.0-litre V6 TDI units installed beneath the bonnet.
What You Get
Pick-up drivers tend to be people wanting a degree of roadgoing presence, in which case they should find little cause for complaint with this Amarok. It's true that the styling is distinctively Volkswagen but there's little of the usual conservatism we've come to expect from the Wolfsburg company's design department. The chunky shape appears solidly planted to the ground with cleanly sculpted bonnet curves and a large Volkswagen emblem and grille, with clear horizontal lines linking them together across the front of the vehicle.
For us though, the most memorable part of this vehicle is the experience you get when sitting inside. This is a pick-up for goodness sake. You're supposed to have brittle plastics and utilitarian design. Instead of which you've got neat switchgear, clearly defined instruments, a lovely three-spoke reach and rake-adjustable steering wheel and soft-touch plastics lifted straight from Volkswagen passenger cars. It's rather like being in a Golf on stilts and it'll be rather surreal if you come to this vehicle straight from an older pick-up rival.
It's practical inside too, with lots of storage, including large bins in all the doors which can hold a 1.5-litre bottle in front and a 1.0-litre bottle in the rear. There's also a lidded bin, a lockable glovebox, a compartment for your sunglasses, two cupholders between the front seats and under-front-seat drawers on most models. The only ergonomically jarring touch is the ashtray holder projecting from the passenger side of the fascia which looks like an after-market add-on.
In the rear, the extra width of the vehicle makes it easier to accommodate three adults if need be - though two will obviously be more comfortable. All will get proper three-point seatbelts and most trim levels include rear cupholders for their use. If the rear bench isn't in use and you need more storage room, you can tip the backrest forward to free up extra loadspace.
On to the load bay. When you drop down the sturdy tailgate, the headline news is the 2.52m3 load volume - that's more than double the size of, say, an equivalent Toyota Hilux from this period. That might encourage you to use the hefty payload allowance - between 1064 and 1119kgs for Selectable 4MOTION models. These have a high rear axle load limit of 1,860kgs. With the Permanent 4MOTION variant, the payload drops to just 750kgs. If you are carrying heavy loads, you might find it a bit annoying that the presence of the large chrome bumper with its integrated step means that you can't drop the tailgate down completely. Still, the loading height is a reasonable 780mm from ground level. The Gross Vehicle Weight is 3170kg, though that falls to 2820kg if you get yourself a top-spec model with permanent all-wheel drive.
Get your cargo into the loadbay and that extra cargo volume really pays dividends. You can for example, carry a Euro pallet sideways, not something possible in any rival pick-up. That's thanks to dimensions that give you a 1555mm loadspace length and a 1620mm loadspace width that narrows to 1222 between the wheelarches. There's 508mm of load area height. A light mounted on the back of the cab illuminates the loadbay at night, plus there's a 12v power jack and four tie-down points are there to stop your cargo from moving around.
What to Look For
There are plenty of satisfied Amarok owners out there, but we did come across a few who had issues. It's reasonably well known that some early models had manual gearbox problems, often exemplified by difficulty in selecting reverse gear, so check that on your test drive. Otherwise, we came across a few owners complaining of paintwork defects and another who'd had to replace a side window mechanism and had difficulty with poor quality door seals. Apparently the hinge mechanism on the overhead sunglasses compartment breaks easily.
One owner we found reckoned that his Amarok was getting through tyres at an unreasonable rate - he was on his 6th set on a vehicle that had completed 73,000 miles. He'd also needed to replace the CV joint at 67,000 miles. Another owner had to replace an intercooler. And we found another owner who reported that the coolant light kept coming on: the only way to make it go out was to keep topping the engine up with water. Otherwise, the only issues are the ones common to all pick-ups. So check that the loadbay doesn't have too many scrapes and dents. And look underneath the vehicle for signs of over-enthusiastic off roading.
(approx based on a 2013 Amarok 2.0 TDI 140PS) An air filter costs in the £16 to £21 bracket and an oil filter costs around £6 to £8. Brake pads cost around £32 for a set, though you could pay up to around £76 for a pricier brand. A pair of brake discs cost around £61, though you could pay as much as £125 or even just over £150 for a pair of discs from a pricier brand. A pair of wiper blades cost in the £3 to £15 bracket, though you could pay in the £23 to £30 bracket for pricier brands. Try not to damage a tail lamp; a replacement unit costs around £90. A radiator is around £260.
On the Road
We're sure that Volkswagen is capable of producing a design that looks just like a pick-up but handles just like a car. The problem is that such a thing would be absolutely feeble when it came to the kind of heavy duty use that vehicles of this kind must take in their stride. For heavy payloads associated with that, you need a tough ladder-framed chassis and a solid, leaf-sprung rear axle - which both bring an inevitably utilitarian feel. Within the confines of this approach though, the Wolfsburg engineers have actually done a very good job in making this Amarok as car-like as it reasonably could be.
For a start, it rides better than anything else in the class from the 2010 to 2017 era, to the point where it's not too far off the standards set by older SUVs - a Mitsubishi Shogun for instance. The same applies to refinement, enough to complement the feel of the very car-like cabin. Unfortunate then, that the rather clunky long-throw gearchange doesn't feel very car-like, which were we buying, might make us want to seek out an automatic gearbox model. There's nothing wrong with the performance on offer though, which might comes as a surprise given the news that at 2.0-litres in capacity, the TDI engine on offer seems to be of rather small capacity in a class otherwise dominated by 2.5 and 3.0-litre diesel units. Which is something of a worry given that at over two tonnes, this is ones of the heaviest vehicles in its class.
But there's no cause for concern. This 2.0-litre TDI is designed to effortlessly lug about much heavier commercial fare than this and even in entry-level 122PS single turbo form, develops a useful 340Nm of torque, hence the useful 2,690kg maximum braked trailer towing limit offered across the range. This unit was later uprated to a 140PS output. Most UK buyers though, opted for the pokier 163PS Bi-Turbo TDI powerplant which, with twin turbos developing a hefty 400Nm of torque, powers this particular Amarok to sixty in 11.1s (nearly 3s quicker than you'd manage in the base model) on the way to a top speed of 112mph. This BiTDI variant was later uprated to 180PS. Try and use all of the BiTDI performance on a twisting country road and, as with any pick-up, you'll need to be a little circumspect, especially if you're travelling unladen. But handling's predictable and there's reasonable feedback through the meaty three-spoke wheel which you can twirl in town through a reasonable 12.95m turning circle.
If that isn't good enough and you're really looking for an SUV pretending to be a pick-up, then you'll need the top spec model that has so-called 'Comfort' suspension to better soak up the bumps and permanent all-wheel drive automatically able to adjust itself to suit the prevailing conditions. All of which will be fine if most of your motoring will be tarmac-based. Many Amarok customers though will be carrying heavy loads and motoring off the beaten track as well as on it. Which is why the majority of the line-up is based around a selectable version of the 4MOTION all-wheel drive system and a tougher heavy duty version of the leaf-sprung suspension.
With selectable 4WD, you've the option to switch out of the standard rear wheel drive set-up via a push button arrangement beside the gearlever. All-wheel drive is the first option, and that should deal with slippery tarmac and light off road use, but if things get stickier, you can further switch into low range, aided by an electronic differential lock that improves traction on all surfaces. Some original owners opted for an extra cost mechanical rear differential lock that will make this vehicle even more capable in the poorest conditions, but even without it, assuming you're equipped with the right tyres, you'll be amazed by what this vehicle can do.
Thanks to a ground clearance of 265mm, it can wade through rivers up to 500mm in depth. Thanks to an approach angle of up to 28-degrees, it can climb an incline of up to 45-degrees with hill hold assist to help on the way up. And once you've crested the slope, there's Hill Descent Control to help you down the other side and a generous 23.6-degree departure angle to level things out when you reach the bottom. Another clever touch is an ABS system designed to cut braking distances in off road conditions.
Customers looking for a quality pick-up from the 2010 to 2017 era aren't necessarily expecting their vehicles to be advanced, car-like and fuel efficient. But most would be very pleased if they were. These are people who should get themselves behind the wheel of a pre-facelift first generation Amarok. You do have nagging worries in the plush, car-like cabin as to whether this vehicle really is going to prove as tough and durable as its Asian rivals in the long term. Volkswagen of course, always played down these concerns, pointing to this vehicle's development in the Patagonian wilderness and its use on the testing Paris-Dakar rally. Many satisfied owners would agree.
This aside, the only issues are those common to all pick-ups, essentially based around a utilitarian on-tarmac feel. And this is less of an issue with an Amarok than with many rival models. And overall? Well with this pick-up, a European brand at last gave the Far Eastern brands something they could learn from.
Volkswagen Amarok (2011 - 2016) review by Jonathan Crouch