VW Amarok first drive: it's a Life & Style thing (and PanAmericana and Aventura)

David Linklater
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Photos / David Linklater, supplied

An Amarok is a giant wolf, but when it comes to the all-new version of Volkswagen’s one-tonne ute there’s also an elephant in the room: the Ford Ranger.

It’s no secret that the Amarok was part of a joint-venture project with Ford. It’s definitely a Ford-led product, but 20 VW engineers spent four years in Australia working with the Blue Oval, making sure what the German company calls its “non-negotiables” were part of the new Fordswagen ute package.

What we’ve been wondering about until now, was how much the new Amarok would really look and feel like a VW up close, on/off the road. VW rhetoric versus real differentiation.

This is an important model for VW NZ. Amarok has always been a niche player compared with Ranger or Toyota Hilux, but it came along at the right time in 2010, when “lifestyle” utes were really taking off. That year, six out of the top 10 vehicles in NZ were utes and Amarok “got us a seat at the table” says Kevin Richards, head of commercial vehicles at VW NZ.

Now that we’ve seen, touched and driven it, we don’t mind admitting the Amarok feels a lot more bespoke than we expected. Yes, the basic platform and powertrains are carried over from Ford; but of the stuff you can see and touch, only the doors, glasshouse, mirrors and a few interior components (like the portrait infotainment screen and door handles) are shared.

All other body panels and interior elements are Amarok-specific; note the squared-off wheelarches, very different to the Ford, and even the seats are sourced from the German company rather than borrowed from the Blue Oval.

There are four tiers to the Amarok lineup. The entry Life (above) is the work truck, with a single-turbo engine (125kW/405Nm) and six-speed transmission.

But it’s full of driver-assistance/safety features all the same: everything from adaptive cruise to Speed Sign Recognition (a first for VW in NZ) to AEB with pedestrian/cyclist alert and nine airbags. It also offers LED lights, a mechanical rear differential lock and an impressive 800m wading depth.

The Amarok lineup has a brace of 4WD systems that VW calls “4Motion”, but both are exactly the same as the drive technology offered on the Ranger; Life and Style have the same part-time 4WD with low-range.

But the Style (above) steps up to the twin-turbo 154kW engine with 10-speed gearbox, adding keyless entry/start (incredibly, a first for Amarok) and substantially upgraded interior trim.

The two V6 hero models are the PanAmericana and Aventura. The PanAm is biased towards off-road driving, with 18-inch wheels and all-terrain tyres, while the Aventura (a name carried over from the previous Amarok) is the flagship with 20-inch rims and road-biased rubber. Both have their own suspension tune, different to that of any Ranger. Each also has a signature colour: Diffused Silver for the PanAm (below right) and Moroccan Blue for the Aventura (below left), although you can also have any of the other five hues on offer.

The V6s pick up a full-time AWD system (again, as per Ranger), extra drive modes and intelligent adaptive cruise control (which can adjust the speed depending on traffic signs), Park Assist and Area View Camera. The Aventura also adds higher-grade leather and Advanced Park Assist, which can do absolutely everything (steering, throttle, gears) to get you into a space.

Both V6 models sport special slimline LED tail lights, which look quite different to the chunkier units on the Life and Style.

VW NZ also plans to bring in a small number of 2.3-litre turbo-petrol Aventura models – around 25 – featuring the EcoBoost engine from the Ford Focus ST and Mustang. The idea is to gauge interest in something a little outside the Kiwi-ute norm, the only difference from the V6 turbo-diesel model being 21-inch wheels. Price is to be confirmed (the cars arrive in June), but expect it to cost the same $90k as the Aventura V6.

From first impressions, we’d suggest the Style and PanAm are the standouts. The Style is a bit of a sleeper, actually. The part-time 4WD that comes with the four-cylinder powertrain is a necessity from Ranger and arguably a step back from the previous Amarok, which was one of very few utes to mainstream full-time AWD. But then, you could also argue the provision of low-range ups its off-road credentials.

More to the point, the Style looks a lot more swish than the deliberately low-key Life, gets the great twin-turbo engine, quite a bit of tech like “IQ Matrix” LED lights, sensible stuff like a tray liner and navigation (although wireless phone projection/charging is standard across the range), and a nice interior that’s quite similar in look and feel to the top-line Aventura.

The 12.3in digital dash and 12in portrait-infotainment screen (courtesy of Ranger Wildtrak) are standard across the range, but they have VW’s own software and menus, so look very different to Ford’s. In fact, after the overly complicated digital cabin OS of the latest VW passenger cars, the Amarok is refreshingly simple.

The Style is not cheap: at $75k it’s around the same money as a Ranger Wildtrak with the same engine, or a Ranger V6 Sport. But while it’s not as showy as the Ford, it does have more of a premium feel, with nicer interior styling and textures.

The PanAm V6 really looks the part, with blacked-out details, those sensibly sized rims and a very sturdy looking sports bar. We already know the Ford Ranger V6 is a brilliant drive and so is this, but the PanAm gets our vote among the six-pot Amaroks both on and off-road: a one-tonne ute is no sports car and the PanAm’s more compliant suspension makes it the driver’s choice on all terrain.

But what were those “non negotiables”? VW says it insisted on 3.5-tonne towing across the range, and wanted to preserve established Amarok features such as the V6 engine option, a tray big enough for a European pallet, rear disc brakes and a high standard of on-road handling.

Pallet aside, it’s likely all of the above were things Ford wanted, too. But it’s clear VW has taken the platform it was given and made it into an equally impressive product, with its own character.

ENGINES: 2.0-litre single-turbo or twin-turbo diesel fours, 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel or 2.3-litre turbo-petrol four
POWER: 125kW/405Nm (Life), 154kW/500Nm (Style), 184kW/600Nm (PanAmericana, Aventura) or 222kW/452Nm (Aventura petrol)
GEARBOX: 6-speed (Life only) or 10-speed automatic, part-time 4WD or full-time AWD, low-range transfer
CONSUMPTION: 8.3-9.6/100km, CO2 218-242g/km (Clean Car fines $1840-$3910)
PRICES: $65,000-$90,000
PROS: Unique character compared with Ranger, interesting V6 models, loaded with tech
CONS: Four-cylinder versions step back to part-time 4WD, old-school twist-key in $65k Life


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