Volkswagen will launch an updated and more potent version of its 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel-engined Amarok double cab in South Africa in 2019, and we’ve just returned from an exclusive pre-launch drive of the 190 kW/580 N.m machine through the deserts of Oman.
Judging by the extreme terrain and relentless heat faced by journalists over the 3 days of the launch, Volkswagen wants you to know the Amarok is one tough bakkie. And this is what impressed me the most about the Amaroks we drove; we were the 5th group of journalists from around the world, which meant that these test cars had already been through 12 punishing days crisscrossing the interior of Oman. And not one of the cars had a squeak, rattle or mechanical issue throughout our trip.
Starting in the capital city, Muscat, we loaded up our luggage in what was already 35°C heat – at 08:30 in the morning. This was to be a baptism of fire for me: I was thrown into a manual-with-the-steering-wheel-on-the-wrong-side car.
An Amarok V6 equipped with a canopy traverses a wadi (a dry riverbed) in Oman.
It was great to experience the manual Amarok, as this variant is available with a low-range transfer case, however this configuration won’t be available in South Africa.
The big news here is that, largely in response to the upcoming Mercedes X-Class, Volkswagen has hiked up the 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel's power output up from 165 kW to 190 kW (200 kW on overboost, for up to 20 sec), while the peak torque has increased from 550 Nm to 580 Nm (available between 1 400 and 3 000 rpm).
The testing ground was Oman. The country's almost the size of Germany, but with a population of less than 5 million, it is home to some incredible, dramatic roads which are traversed entirely by 4x4s, reaching into the most remote regions of the region and providing a lifeline to rural and desert communities. It was to be a harsh test for the Wolfsburg-based manufacturer’s relatively "new kid on the bakkie block".
When your camel runs out of steam, the Amarok's more than willing to take over dune-climbing duties.
The first day saw the convoy tackling an impossibly steep mountain pass, climbing high into the interior of the country from a quick drive on a beach to over 2 000 metres above sea level. The Amaroks coped admirably and we didn’t even have to use low range. Even if they had wanted to, our colleagues in the automatic variants didn’t have that option, as automatic Amarok derivatives are still not offered with low range and won’t be for our market.
Automatic Amarok 3.0 V6 TDIs sold in South Africa feature permanent 4Motion all-wheel drive and to aid off-road prowess, the bakkies are equipped with a significantly lowered first gear, which plays the role of a crawler gear. Additionally, the hill-descent control is customisable, allowing you to set the preferred speed of descent.
"Our" bakkies were modified though; each was fitted with a snorkel to help the car breathe easier out on the dunes. The rear-facing mouth of the device, and the fact that it draws in air from above the roofline and not down in the stream of dust and sand kicked up by the car in front, help to keep the cars going in the desert.
The first day of the Amarok adventure saw the convoy tackling an impossibly steep mountain pass.
Underbody protection was fitted as any trip through rural Oman means crossing countless dry river beds, filled with rocks and boulders. Fairly hardcore offroad tyres were fitted too, and 2 of the vehicles were fitted with winches (neatly hidden in the front bumper) to aid with vehicle recovery (if necessary).
Day 2 saw the convoy head deep into the desert, where only camels and Toyota Land Cruisers survive. For some of the Bedouin people we spoke to, they’d never ever seen a Volkswagen, and perhaps if the German manufacturer hadn't hosted the Amarok media event in their region, they would never have.
Our hosts had set up a training ground for us to experience dune driving at its best, and local guides were on hand to show us the ropes. They were however in a hurry, for some reason, and keeping up with them was a test of bravery and thrashing the bakkies across the sand. I thoroughly enjoyed coaxing my Amarok up and down the dunes; the auto 'box effectively selects the best gear for each off-road situation. It makes the drive on the open sand less stressful for a relative novice. Only one of us got properly stuck (it happened to be the head honcho from VW, who, after a few weeks out here, perhaps become a bit too exuberant with his dune-bashing.)
The Amarok's auto 'box certainly took the stress out of dune driving, especially for a relative novice.
We covered around 1 200 km in 3 days, and around 400 of those were on some of the smoothest highways I’ve ever encountered, so I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment on how the Amarok might fare on our slightly less-than-ideal roads back home.
However, that engine absolutely hauls. The feeling of acceleration is almost what you’d experience in a hot hatch and coupled with SUV-like road manners and ride quality, the Amarok is frankly excellent at eating up mile after mile of tarmac. The way this engine builds speed is remarkable. Who could have predicted that a horsepower war would break out in the world of bakkies? Either way, the consumer is the winner. The Amarok's suspension setup, meanwhile, is perhaps not as soft as that found in the Ford Ranger Wildtrak, but the benefit is that the Volkswagen feels like it can actually go around corners.
The 8-speed automatic operates in the best way, which is to say that you don’t really notice its machinations... at all. Interior space and comfort has never been in short supply in the Amarok, and that hasn’t changed, but unfortunately neither has the fascia, which is feeling a little plain and dated now, although the plastics employed are a good compromise between the soft-touch and rugged-feeling varieties.
The feeling of acceleration produced by the 190 kW Amarok is almost akin to what you’d experience from a hot hatch.
The infotainment system is standard Volkswagen fare, which is to say that it doesn’t look particularly fancy but is comprehensive and easy to use. And, of course, one feature we were particularly pleased about was the aircon. You can definitely rely on the aircon unit in the Amarok to keep you cool through the worst of our South African summers. It frankly kept us alive out there in that Middle-Eastern heat.
Modern bakkies have to perform a multitude of roles. For many South African motorists, the bakkie is a daily-driver, as well as being a family car and needs to be up to the unique demands of increasingly being seen as a status symbol. When the 190 kW Amarok 3.0 V6 TDI arrives in South Africa, it will sit at the top-end of the market, and especially with the imminent entry of Mercedes Benz into the mix, a flagship bakkie essentially has to be a luxury SUV with a load bed affixed aft of its cab.
The Amarok, which was named the winner in the Leisure Double Cab Bakkie category of the 2017/18 Cars.co.za Consumer Awards – powered by WesBank, portrays this role better than most, and while comparisons to the upcoming Benz X-Class will be ubiquitous, for now, the Volkswagen rules the roost in providing performance, luxury, ride quality and practicality. As for when exactly the 190 kW version will arrive in South Africa, Volkswagen South Africa can only confirm that it will be at some point next year (2019) and that the new top-of-the-range derivative will be offered in eye-catching Aventura specification. Pricing will be confirmed at a later date.