Volkswagen workhorse has big boots to fill
The Amarok, a charming American-looking pickup, is worth a look by the horsey set
Date Reviewed: August 6, 2014
In the week of Dublin Horse Show it seemed appropriate to abandon the usual array of school-run soft-roaders that fill suburban driveways and opt for something a little more rugged.
Enter the Amarok. This is a pure Americana pickup, looking as if it has been pinched from outside a general store in small-town Montana and landed in Ireland. It should really be sold with a smallholding, a bale of straw and John Denver loaded on the stereo.
The Amarok initially looks like a parody of itself, especially in its Canyon specification. The roof-mounted spotlights suggest that behind the wheel is someone who watches too much Walker, Texas Ranger, wearing an “I shot JR” T-shirt.
And yet for anyone who has grown up watching our constant stream of US reruns on TV, there’s something incredibly resonant about hopping up into a pickup.
It’s the same sense you get when you land in the US for the first time and see the enormous trucks or the school buses: it’s your first physical encounter with them, but they feel so much a part of your life, courtesy of that flickering screen in the corner of the sitting room you stared at every evening. It’s big, it’s brash, but it’s charming all the same.
The Amarok is a workhorse in its basic guise, sold as a double cab. (For the uninitiated, that means there’s a second bench, with back doors, behind the two front seats.) It’s aimed at builders or farmers and carries a commercial tax band of €333 a year.
But for those who fancy a little style in their working life there’s this range-topping Canyon version, complete with leather heated seats, Bluetooth, those roof lights, a closed cover in the back and 19in alloys. It even has Isofix fittings for child seats in the back row. (What is the minimum age to work on a farm these days?)
The legroom in the back is basic fare, but then this pickup’s not designed for long-haul family motoring.
Behind the wheel it’s as comfortable as a regular saloon, only hoisted several feet higher. The switchgear, controls and even the transmission have the feel of a regular car’s. And it’s actually no wider than most regular SUVs. In fact you’d be surprised how easy it is to weave through tight city streets.
That said, it is more than 5 metres long, and you need to remember the 1.6-metre rear tail you are lugging along. If you opt to leave the rooflights with the dealer then car parks will not prove a problem; go for them and the height of the Amarok goes from a multistorey-friendly 1.84 metres to a street-parking-only 2.2 metres.
Power comes from the 2-litre four-cylinder diesel engine up front, with either six-speed manual or automatic transmission.
It’s offered in 140bhp and 180bhp; the latter is the better buy, given the size of the car and the fact it weighs 3 tonnes.
For all its bulk we were amazed by its comfort and performance. It should be a glorified tractor, but it’s as smooth as a regular Passat, with extremely accomplished suspension, and the 180bhp engine does its job with aplomb.
Last weekend’s weather offered a timely opportunity to illustrate the merits of a big pickup, particularly on country roads. The wind whipped the trees like reeds, small rivers ran between sudden pools, and part of the M1 was closed.
Yet, cocooned in the Amarok, it all seemed a bit cinematic; like comfy front-row seats at a screening of The Perfect Storm. At no stage did the big VW show the slightest sign of wavering off its line. While everyone else seemed to be struggling to keep their cars on the road, holding a steady 120km/h in the Amarok was child’s play.
The Amarok’s direct rival is the Toyota Hi-Lux, a pickup made famous by its seeming indestructibility on Top Gear and infamous by its customer base in the most remote and war-torn parts of the world. It seems there isn’t a Kalashnikov-wielding fighter out there who doesn’t swear by the reliability of the Hi-Lux. So VW has big boots to fill if it plans to take on this particular Toyota.
VW’s commercial sales are booming, and it has an attractive finance package in place for Irish buyers, plus a revamped commercial network to support its impressive growth. But it has a long way to go to match the street cred – or, rather, the rebel-enclave cred – of the Hi-Lux. The challenge is all the harder when you consider the “premium” Hi-Lux – complete with leather seats, cruise control, privacy glass and alloys – comes at €39,650. That’s a whopping price difference over the top- end Amarok Canyon, at €56,375.
The Amarok in basic specification is a regular workhorse, from a brand that has done remarkably well in the commercial fleet market since the onset of our economic recovery. And although it’s no alternative to the school-run soft-roaders normally parked along the leafy lanes of Ballsbridge, for those visiting the area this week with horseboxes in tow, the Amarok is certainly worth a serious look.