AS ever, I feel I must preface any article starring a bakkie with the disclosure that I’m not a fan of the vehicle genre. To my mind, bakkies were introduced to serve a practical purpose which is why they were mostly single-cab designs sporting a large load area and a decidedly utilitarian cabin.
Somewhere along the line, more mod cons got added along with a second row of seats which almost without exception offered a lousy seating position in cramped confines. Say hello to the double cab.
Sadly, the leather, the electric windows, the fancy sound system and the climate control disguise very basic underpinnings which means a ladder-frame chassis and leaf springs for most contenders in the segment. Somehow, the once-utilitarian bakkie acquired the dubious mantle of “lifestyle” vehicle.
This configuration, despite the added niceties, is inherently a recipe for very average driving characteristics but it isn’t quite as simple as this. Because some bakkies – very few I suspect – may regularly tackle nasty surfaces and/or carry heavy loads, spring rates and ground clearance need to be tweaked to suit.
All this means that the inherently ancient underpinnings are even further compromised in a lightly-loaded state and observation tells me that most bakkies are used most often in exactly this condition.
So, for 340 days a year – a vague guesstimate on my part – when owners are at work or home, the practical virtues of bakkiedom remain under-utilised while the driver, often the sole occupant I might add, tolerates compromised driving dynamics.
Let me though make the point that owners of bakkies, or double cabs if that description puts a more presentable slant on the matter, become conditioned to the driving characteristics which then become the norm and acquire an air of acceptability.
However, when other vehicle types are readily accessible as happens in my case, the inherent deficiencies in bakkie dynamics are highlighted in a matter of seconds and it’s against this background that I introduce this week’s subject matter – the VW Amarok 3.0 TDI V6.
On the launch of this model a few months back, it was primarily the engine that earned the plaudits and with good cause too as it endows the bakkie – oops, double cab – with class-leading levels of performance.
For the most part on the launch, the Amarok was used in an open-road environment where it loped along at or above the national limit with aplomb and devoured quite steep inclines as though they weren’t there.
In essence, its cruising characteristics were hard to separate from those of a decent saloon or hatch which is praise indeed for a vehicle of this type. Perhaps though, it’s more accurate to say that the Amarok 3.0 TDI V6 is the nearest a bakkie has got to assuming SUV driving characteristics.
Now move the calendar along a couple of months and I had at my disposal a metallic grey and very shiny Amarok 3.0 TDI V6 to sample for a whole week in a normal workaday environment.
To refresh memories, the motor in this model is Audi-derived and it incorporates all the latest tech that makes modern diesel engines decidedly pleasant (and clean) to use whatever misguided, vote-seeking politicians in Capitol Hill, and now in Westminster, might say.
Peak power of 165kW arrives at a mere 3 000 rpm but there’s also an over-boost function that massages output to 180kW for short spells. Perhaps even more importantly, torque of up to 550Nm flexes its muscles from just 1 400 rpm which means there’s effortless thrust on tap at all times.
All out, the Amarok will hit 193 km/h which ain’t too bad for a large vehicle with an open load area but it’s the 0-100 time of 8 seconds that leaves the opposition literally trailing in the dust.
On cold start, the compression ignition does make itself heard but thanks to the presence of six cylinders, the knock is muffled and once heat makes its way through the block, the “diesel sound” morphs into a rather pleasant thrum that no current rival can replicate.
Mated to this marvellous motor is an equally appealing 8-speed auto box that makes low speed lugging an absolute cinch. It also shifts cogs with alacrity and highly commendable smoothness during normal road operations and to my delight, it can be manually manipulated courtesy of wheel mounted paddle shifters.
There’s virtually no slip even under low speed load and this may well account for the fact that fuel economy is terrific with 9.0l/100km readily accessible provided the temptation to join the traffic light Grand Prix is avoided!
As already suggested, open road cruising is a delight as the rev counter sits in the lower reaches at little more than double idle speed. And should an errant truck or right lane hogger slow down your progress, getting back up to speed is a rapid and effortless process.
Should you be one of the few who actually does go off-road with regularity, the Amarok will be an admirable companion contrary to the rumours apparently orchestrated by rivals when the Amarok first appeared.
Independent tests readily accessible on You Tube, as well as reports from off-road specialists, are near-unanimous that the Amarok is a master of the tough stuff. It may not have a low ratio transfer box but the auto features a particularly low first gear and drives through a permanent 4MOTION system bolstered by a Torsen differential and electronic diff lock.
Aside from the praiseworthy engine /transmission combo, the Amarok is fitted with an all-disc brake system that inherently has greater reserves than any disc/drum set-up. It’s also equipped with power steering that ensures those big 255/55R19 tyres are easy to manipulate. Sure, the system lacks the precision and feel of a Golf for example but the compromise is small.
The other stand-out aspect of the Amarok is the ride. Put simply, it’s indisputably the best in the bakkie class as it offers unmatched pliancy and resistance to jerky vertical movements that are so much part of the regular bakkie menu.
Compared with a sorted saloon, it’s still flawed in that uneven surfaces trigger an obvious but not disconcerting shuffling movement and dips taken at speed result in detectable rebound. The real point though is that in return for the generous ground clearance and extensive wheel articulation needed for load carrying and /or off-road work, the Amarok makes the fewest concessions on the comfort front.
I’ve deliberately devoted most of the space here to the dynamic behaviour of the Amarok for the simple reason that it is the one area of traditional bakkie ownership that involves the most compromises from a pure driving and comfort point of view. Not so with this vehicle – it’s still compromised for sure but the extent of the compromises is diminished such that I had no desire to don a kidney belt when tackling poor surfaces.
In terms of the cabin fittings, the 3.0 TDI is very well equipped with VW’s modular infotainment system on board. This offers touchscreen operation, AppConnect (still not activated in RSA), Bluetooth and USB interface compatible with iPhones. Specifically, Highline Plus and Extreme spec vehicles get the Discover Media unit with sat nav while Comfortline and Highline models use the Composition Media device.
This Highline Plus test unit also sported leather seating which is very comfortable up-front and better-than-bakkie-average in the back in that space is adequate and the seat itself is thickly padded but posture is still indifferent because the floor is too close to the seat cushion which forces a knees-up seating position.
All the unusual powered mod-cons are on board and the cabin environment is smart but certainly not plush as hard surfaces – admittedly well-disguised – abound. And down the back, those with a desire to carry half a house will find the huge load area most appealing. Those who spend their lives in an urban environment though, may just find the Amarok’s bulky dimensions a little daunting when it comes to accessing tight parking spaces.
As an overall package, the Amarok 3.0 TDI V6 is the benchmark in its class thanks to surging performance and the least-compromised chassis set-up that does actually offer more than a modicum of ride comfort and acceptable control, even on poor surfaces, but such benefits don’t come cheap.
(Please consult CFAO Volkswagen in Zimbabwe for details of Amarok model availability. All comments herein relate to the South African market)