For a first-time player in the lucrative dual cab ute market this Volkswagen Amarok is very able. Sure an automatic transmission isn't here yet, sure the style is trad-boxy but the ute's refinement, capability and pricing will give Japanese rivals a few headaches.
Other manufacturers may have prior experience in this paddock but perhaps that's led to some complacency, notes VW Commerical's international sales director Dr Jens Effenberger at the Australian launch.
Explore the 2011 Volkswagen Amarok Range
With VW taking a long look at the competition, previous experience with four-wheel drive systems (and Dakar history) plus some German engineering tweaks, the Amarok lifts the bars in a number of areas. Chief among these are the machine's on-road comfort and off-road ability, all wrapped up in a five-star NCAP rated package that's bigger than most.
This Amarok, with a single cab further down the track, is a major weapon in VW Commerical's cache for market growth around the world. And with Australia proclaimed the fourth most important market for the ute, the South American-built VW is not here for decoration (although the local division is not talking sales numbers just yet).
This first mob of dual cab Amaroks starts with a base two-wheel drive from $33,990. There are four trim levels for the four-wheel drives, starting at $43,990 and running through to $58,490 for the leather-clad Ultimate (which has the option of selectable or permanent four-wheel drive).
There's the choice of two suspension packages - comfort and heavy duty - for the rear leaf springs. All utes run the twin-turbocharged 2 litre diesel with 120kW and 400Nm and a six-speed manual gearbox. And all are pretty impressive.
Price-checked against the market leader, Toyota's HiLux, the Amarok deserves decent consideration. A two-wheel drive, dual cab diesel HiLux has a list price of $32,590, $1400 under the Amarok. But a four-wheel drive SR5 Toyota sits at $53,690 compared with the equivalent Amarok at $52,990 and Nissan's ST-X at $50,990 list.
Equipment levels are similar, the Volkswagen offers more space plus that five-star NCAP rating. Competitors such as the HiLux offer proven resale value and wider dealer networks.
The four-door Amarok arrives with German attention to detail and engineering, clever touches such as the ladder frame chassis which bows out under the cabin for extra room (and safety) plus the rear leaf springs sitting alongside chassis rails rather than under.
All three drivelines have electronic rear differential lock available, ABS and stability control with the sophisticated twin-turbo diesel up front. The 4Motion system offers clever driving aids, on and off the road. An Off Road mode helps the ABS stop sooner on loose surfaces and activates Hill Descent Control; even if the ute's in neutral a driver can change the vehicle's speed by using the brake and accelerator.
Other touches include a light for the cargo area, fold-up rear seats, three 12 volt outlets up front and the radio antenna integrated in the door mirrors.
It is what it says it is: a practical load-carrying commercial machine with a bent for carrying people in considerable comfort for work or fun. It is not quite a blunt instrument, the nose and sculpted bonnet have a fair amount of class but, claimed to offer the biggest cargo tub in its class, the Amarok's rear can't escape slab sides and tailgate.
Mudguard flares are standard on the top two versions and also offered in combination with the optional 17, 18 or 19-inch wheels. (The base ute runs 16-inch steels). Likewise the cabin is practical rather than pretty with good ergonomics; the dashboard clean and instruments legible. The centre console storage is on the smaller side but the door pockets are big.
It is, inside and out, a case of function over form with a rugged-looking body sitting on, and over, clever engineering. This is after all, a fancy commercial vehicle; the VW's payload with the heavy duty suspension is a handy 1157kg, dropping to a reasonable 937kg with the comfort package.
A five-star NCAP rating for a uteis a fair coup.Passive gear includes driver and front passenger airbags, head and thorax airbags. There are three-point seat belts for all five seats plus the extra protection of the bowed-out chassis rails under the cabin, good visibility and driving position. This comes on top of the ABS, stability and traction controls and the proactive 4Motion system on four-wheel drive models.
The first, and lasting, impression of the VW Amarok is its solid and sure stance _ on and off the road. It is a spacious and comfortable cab with European refinement others may find hard to match (even while one example had an off-on annoying vibration somewhere in the dashboard).
Certainly the steering is quick and direct, the ute easy to place and the brakes excellent. The engine is tractable, although with fifth and sixth both overdrives often necessary to come back to fourth for maximum effect on climbing roads or when overtaking.
Through all this, over good road and bad, the Amarok rides and tracks with surprising surefootedness for a 5.3 metre long, two-tonne machine. It is close to imperious. Broken bitumen and rutted tracks can get the back to move off line, but this is easily corrected, with little intrusion, by the stability program, electronic diff lock and traction control.
Off road the Amarok continues to impress. Indeed it is here that it should well shade the opposition (though a definitive answer would be found in some back-to-back tests and the utes at launch weren't carry a load.)
But the clever 4Motion system and all its programs, good approach, departure angles, gearing and underbody protection sees the Amarok romp through tough track. It was surprisingly competent in greasy, clay-clogging conditions; even with the treads of its road-biased rubber totally full the VW just kept on moving, traction was rarely an issue.
Here the electronics work unobtrusively, making ordinary off-roaders look like experts and the VW Amarok a star.
Amarok means wolf in the language of North America's Inuit Indians; this one could become chief of the tribe of dual cabs. Maybe it will never knock off the established rivals in the sales department, maybe the lack of an automatic transmission will limit its initial impact and maybe the dealer network isn't as widespread as some but, and even before the new Mazdas and Fords arrive, the VW Amarok looks like a leader.