It's a fierce battleground in the utility market but Volkswagen has achieved the upper hand with an eight-speed automatic transmission. The eight-speed auto is only available in VW's dual-cab Amarok range. It has two or three extra gears on its arch rivals - Toyota HiLux, Mazda BT50, Ford Ranger, Nissan Navara and Mitsubishi Triton.
The addition of the eight speeds is reflected in sales. The Amarok remains ninth in the 4X4 sector and with sales to date this year of 3614 or 4.5 per cent market share it falls well behind the heavy hitters of HiLux (19,973/24.9 per cent), Navara (16,150/20.1 per cent) and Triton (8444/10.5 per cent). But sales are up 311.6 per cent for the year and nearly 250 per cent for the month.
It makes the Amarok smoother, quieter, more economical with good performance and pulling power. It foregoes VW's own DSG transmission in favour of the eight-speed ZF torque converter box which is much more suited to off-road work than the dual-clutch transmission which tends to slip, especially at lower speeds.
The ZF option adds $3000 to the bottom line over the six-speed manual variants. The review vehicle was the Highline TDI420 with permanent four-wheel drive at $59,305 drive away, including metallic paint ($490).
It has power windows, heated outside mirrors, central locking, climatic air-conditioning, Bluetooth mobile phone connectivity, MP3 capability, cruise control, leather-covered multi-function steering wheel, front fog lights, premium sound system, multifunction display, leather gearshift lever, rear parking sensors and an alarm.
Wheel arch flares, stainless steel sports bar and side steps, 17-inch aluminium wheels and tinted glass finish the look.
It is high, wide and handsome. The squared-off lines give the body a tough and purposeful stance, set off in the Highline with stainless steel rear bumper, side-steps and a sports bar. Legroom and shoulder room is great front and back, the interior is clean and hardy but still manages to add a slight touch of premium in the trim and equipment with intuitive controls from big chunky buttons.
The glove box is ludicrous, with barely space for a notebook unless you remove the owner's manual, however, there are plenty of storage spaces around the cabin, including underseat bins and massive door pockets. There's also enough space between shifter and centre console bin to look at mounting a small laptop. There are three 12v outlets in cabin and another in the tray, plus a light.
The eight-speed auto is a first for the segment. The new transmission adds to Amarok's braked towing ability with auto models able to haul 3000kg, a figure that now applies across the range. The ZF transmission has a crawler first gear, enabling it to rock hop like a traditional 4WD, tow heavy loads, as well as climb steep inclines, while eighth gear is an overdrive.
This allows the 2.0-litre turbodiesel to saunter along at 1700rpm while cruising at 100km/h giving excellent fuel consumption. Even before the addition of the ZF auto transmission Amarok was the most refined of all the dual cabs, including the highly capable Ford Ranger/ Mazda BT50 duo.
The option of the transmission and associated off-road technology takes Amarok to a new level, more SUV-like. Volkswagen has increased both power and torque in the 2.0-litre bi-turbo-charged four-cylinder engine from 120kW to 132kW. Torque for the auto leaps to 420Nm.
The eight-speed ZF auto is a conventional transmission that is teamed to the latest incarnation of the two-litre intercooled twin-turbo diesel - the TDI420, which produces 132kW and 420Nm, the latter from 1750rpm, says VW. The TDI420 - which has a cast-iron block and an alloy head, 16 valves, common-rail direct-injection and a particle filter - lays claim to 8.3 litres per 100km on the combined cycle.
The permanent 4WD "4Motion" system has a Torsen centre differential that runs 40 per cent front, 60 per cent rear, but varies according to driving conditions. There's no low-range transfer case for the 4WD traditionalists (you'll need to go lower-spec manual model to get that) but first gear in the eight-speed auto is a low ratio for tougher conditions.
Off-roaders will also benefit from the electronic diff lock traction control system and even more useful, a mechanical rear diff lock is standard on all bar the single cab and base dual-cab models. The updated Amarok range comes fitted standard with a heavy-duty suspension. Alternatively, a comfort suspension tune that lowers the carrying capacity by about 220kg is a no-cost option.
Standard safety equipment includes driver, front passenger and head/thorax airbags, Electronic Stability Program (ESP) with Brake Assist as well as Off Road ABS/ASR and EDL.
The ZF gearbox is slick and refined and comes into its own at both ends of the scale, with first giving decently low crawling ability, and eighth offering economical highway running around a relaxed 1700rpm at 100km/h. Left in D the auto is keen to make the best of any economy opportunity by heading up towards eighth gear, and when you kick down, it often goes down twocogs.
Slipping into S manual mode gets clearer response for overtaking, but a whole lot more noise from under the bonnet, and most of the time it's well-sorted enough to work out what it needs to do in auto. It's hard to believe the torquey engine is just two litres, with its ability punching well above that size.
A glance at the fuel gauge is the compensation, with it happily averaging low 10s over a mixture of low-gear dirt roads, highway cruising, range road climbing and descending, and suburban crawl. One Far Northern owner is said to be getting 6s on his runs to and from Mt Isa with VW claiming 8.3 litres/100km overall.
Apart from the empty tray making for some bouncing over uneven and corrugated surfaces on the Danbulla Rd behind Lake Tinaroo, it's surefooted and well-behaved, with ride comfort exceptional for a big ute. Up the Gillies Range and down the Kuranda Range revealed a good handler and the gearbox changes down quickly and smoothly.
Braking needs a fair push on the pedal. With four people on board there was enough grunt for safe overtaking and it can lope along at higher speeds quietly. It's only under acceleration and at idle that the diesel can be heard. Road noise is subdued as is wind noise. Refined it is. It's big too and the parking sensors are needed to wedge the beefy bum into place. The rear headrests can block vision when reversing out of an angle park.
Volkswagen has done a grand job with its first ute. The diesel's a gem, despite its small capacity, and it will tow up to 3000kg. The eight-speed transmission lifts the Amarok to top of the class, providing good performance and economy. It's a handsome beast with the ruggedness and practicality that tradies expect, but also providing the creature comforts and the refinement for day-to-day living. But it's expensive at the higher end of the class.
Volkswagen Amarok Highline TDI420
Price: from $59,305
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbodiesel, 132kW/420Nm
Transmission: 8-speed auto, FWD
Thirst: 8.3L/100km (10.1 on test), diesel, 80 litres, CO2 219g/km
Dimensions: length 5254mm, width 1944mm, height 1834mm, wheelbase 3095mm, weight 2042kg
Warranty: three years/unlimited km
Nissan Navara D40 ST-X
Price: from $50,990
Engine: 2.5-litre 4-cyl petrol turbodiesel, 140kW/450Nm
Transmission: 5-speed auto, 4WD
Thirst: 9L/100km, CO2 238g/km
Price: from $57,390
Engine: 3.2-litre 5-cylinder turbodiesel, 147kW/470Nm
Transmission: 6-speed auto, 4WD
Thirst: 9.6L/100km, CO2 253g/km
Toyota Hilux SR5
Price: from $53,490
Engine: 3-litre 4-cyinderl twin-turbodiesel, 126kW/343Nm
Transmission: 4-speed manual, 4WD
Thirst: 9.3L/100km, CO2 245g/km