Marcus Craft road tests and reviews the VW Amarok Atacama with specs, fuel consumption and verdict.

To the rest of the dual-cab ute mob – HiLux, Ranger, BT-50, Navara et al – Volkswagen's Amarok is like that annoying mate we all have. He/she is better-looking than you, does pretty much everything better than you and is, let's face it, nicer to spend time with than you.

Amarok sales may not reflect that, but the ute has garnered plenty of awards and positive attention. Volkswagen is hoping that its new limited edition Amarok Atacama – only 500 have been made available here – will generate renewed interest in the brand leading up to the launch of VW's 2017 Amarok later this year.

The Atacama is a barren desert in Chile; which is somewhere I haven't driven an Amarok, but I have taken one through the South Australian outback, across the Simpson Desert and to Cape York. Harsh terrain, unforgiving; and the VW tackled it all with no strife, comfortably and in style.

The Atacama maintains the Amarok's Germanic high standard of looks, fit and finish.

All of that is worth noting because the Atacama is basically an Amarok Highline with a stack of goodies thrown on it at no extra cost.

Price and features

The manual gearbox Atacama is yours for just $53,990 (excluding on-road costs); while the auto is $56,990 (excluding on-roads).

Buyers have the option of a TDI400 manual or TDI420 auto models. The bi-turbo diesel 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine (132kW and 420Nm) is the same as in the regular models, matched with the slick-shifting eight-speed auto, and armed with single-range (meaning no low-range), full-time 4WD.

The Atacama is no different mechanically to its regular stablemates because the limited-edition features are mostly cosmetic touches designed to catch your eye.

The Atacama's new gear includes Atacama logo strips along the sides, 18-inch ‘Durban' black alloy wheels (with 255/60/R18 Bridgestone Dueler HT tyres on our test vehicle), black sports bar, side steps and matt-black rear step bumper.

Atacama also gets seats lined with dimpled cloth trim; Volkswagen's new QUAD cloth seat upholstery with a quilted bolster finish.

It also scores a Durabed spray-on tub liner, designed to provide more grip for the gear you throw in there and to prevent scratches or stone-chipping on the tray. The load area is anthracite-coloured and UV-resistant.

Colour choices for exterior Atacama metal are Deep Black Pearlescent, Natural Grey Metallic, Candy White or Horizon Blue Metallic (our car).

Elsewhere, there are bi-xenon headlights with LED daytime running light bands, automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, front and rear parking sensors, reversing camera, leather steering wheel with controls, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming and auxiliary inputs. There is no USB input – or, if there is, we couldn't find it.

The 5.0-inch multi-function media screen (a carry-over from standard models) is too small and hard-to-read compared to those in its dual-cab rivals, such as Ranger (8.0-inch screen), BT-50 (7.8-inch) and every other competitor (7.0-inch).

Design

Inside, the Atacama maintains the Amarok's Germanic high standard of looks, fit and finish. Build quality is impressive and interior styling is neat and understated.

Cabin layout for the five-seater is the same as Highline, so it's a no-muss/no-fuss set-up, basically, that can't be faulted. The seats provide plenty of support, including lumbar.

Practicality

There is plenty of room inside – the Amarok's cab is the widest in the class – and we managed to fit two children's booster seats in the rear, as well as plenty of gear and some shopping without any stress, crowding or complaints.

There is plenty of head and shoulder room for everyone and cabin space really feels maximised.
The rear seats can fit three average-sized adults; although things will get a little squeezy if the driver or front passenger are on the showy side of tall, forcing the seats to be racked back and eating into the rear-passengers' knee-room. Fortunately we didn't have that problem.

There are cup holders in between the driver's and front-passenger's seats – one each – and on the rear floor space between the left and right passenger seats (one each). There is a storage bin in between the driver and front passenger, big enough to swallow wallets and phones.

The bottle holders in the front doors will each fit a 2.0-litre water bottle, but the rear door pockets won't take one that big. All of those door spaces have room for paper maps and a few small bits and pieces as well. There is a small storage space in front of the auto-shifter, big enough for a phone, house keys and wallet.

The Amarok has a best-in-class tray: 1555mm long, 1620mm wide; and 1222mm wide across the wheel arches. There are four solid tie-down points, a 12-volt plug in the tray and a rear-light in the Atacama.

Towing is 3000kg (braked); 750kg (unbraked) and the payload is 1000kg.

Safety

The Amarok has a five-star ANCAP rating. There are four airbags – dual front and front-side – but there is no rear-seat airbag protection. It is the only ute in this segment without rear airbags. There are two ISOFIX points in the rear.

You do get front and rear park distance control, as well as reversing camera, the image from which appears on the too-small media screen.

Other standard safety gear includes electronic stability control, trailer-sway control, electronic traction control and hill descent control.

Atacama has a rear diff-lock.

Engine and transmission

As mentioned, buyers get a choice of a TDI400 manual or our tester, the TDI420 auto, producing 132kW at 4000rpm and 420Nm at 1750rpm. The bi-turbo diesel 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine is the same as in the regular models and in our tester it was matched with the eight-speed auto.

The TDI400 manual has selectable 4Motion 4WD, which means the driver pushes a button and this system "distributes 50 per cent of the engine output between the front and rear axles to ensure the best traction in difficult situations", according to VW. "An additional low-range gear reduction can be engaged to cope with extremely tough terrain or steep inclines."

The TDI420 auto has permanent 4Motion all-wheel drive with Torsen differential. Power is distributed between the front and rear axle (40:60 front:rear) to suit the conditions, and adjusts automatically to distribute power to those wheels with the most traction.

Driving

Out on the road, the Atacama retains the supreme levels of refinement established by Amarok years ago and feels pleasantly car-like.

It is 5254mm long, 1944mm wide, 1834mm high and has a 3095mm wheelbase, but it never feels unwieldy, even in town, although its turning circle (almost 13m) can be annoying in the city and out in the bush.

But in most circumstances, it's difficult to find fault with the big truck; it's nice and responsive and also quiet and smooth when driving over all surfaces.

Steering is light but precise when needed, making tight turns through the bush or squeezy parking manoeuvres easy.

Making the drive even more effortless is the eight-speed auto, which works up and down through the gears without any stress.

This Amarok has coped well with slip-and-slide dirt and sand tracks, and has soaked up corrugations easily. Like any ute, it rides better with a load in the tray, but the leaf-sprung live axle rear is no deal-breaker in terms of affecting ride comfort.

The lower profile wheels on the Atacama mean that this Amarok has a slightly less settled ride than its 17-inch shod stablemates over lumps and bumps. It's not a big issue, but should be on the driver's radar.

Off-road, the future of 4WDing is here and now – and has been since 2011, when the Amarok landed here. 

Push the Off Road mode button – adjusting brakes and hill descent control, among other things, for tough terrain – and away you go. It's that easy.

There is no low-range in the Amarok, not in the traditional sense, but its first gear is so low the Amarok still tackles almost anything.

Ground clearance is listed as 230mm; wading depth is up to 500mm. We didn't get anywhere near testing either of those figures – not for want of trying – but the proof of Amarok's efficacy is in the off-road pudding, as mentioned earlier. If push comes to shove, the Atacama also has a rear diff-lock.

Fuel consumption

The Atacama has an 80L fuel tank and claimed fuel consumption is 8.3L/100km (combined); we averaged 8.9L over 100km of mixed driving (mostly bitumen with about 15km total of dirt road and some 4WDing on test).

Ownership

There is a three year/unlimited kilometre warranty; not as comprehensive, but more expensive, than some of its rivals.

Servicing is penned in for every 12 months or 15,000km. The capped-price program is for six years or 90,000km; $484, $484, $583, $608, $484, $583. Additional items not included in capped pricing: pollen filter (every two years) $44 (incl GST) and brake fluid (every two years) $138 (inc GST).