The Amarok V6 is the new force in ute-dom. How good is it? We try it out, drive the primary competitor and then chance our luck with a tough-as alternate for much the same money.
TO GET an idea of how much of a golden ticket item traydecks are, consider that for all but two brands, selling rigs designed for tough tracks was a cruise down Easy Street in 2016.
The biggest players just got bigger. Ford could do no wrong with Ranger – it not only dominated the sector but, with 8478 units homed, reached a penetration that was not only 1660 units over a 2015 result (that, in its own right, was stupendous) but also achieved a ute first by becoming the country’s top-selling vehicle.
Next up, of course, was the formerly dominant Hilux; it’s hard for Toyota to see a rig that held the top spot for so many years now play understudy but, at the same token, the Hilux continues to be a key model for Japan’s leading brand. A 6187 tally for the year was also an increase over 2015, albeit by 566 units.
Holden’s third spot seems perennial – but 3739 units, again an increase, is solid trade – and Mitsubishi will be pleased to have taken fourth, given that it sat in sixth in 2015. Triton lifted its game with 3182 registrations; a 753 unit lift on the 2015 result.
How could anyone lose? Actually, Nissan and Volkswagen both lost ground. The first had to bow to Mitsi, having sold 53 less Navara models at 3093 units, while the second managed the biggest dive of any marque, seeing 152 fewer Amarok sales year-on-year. Is there a fix? Read on.
Overall, though, utes are king, not least in the format that this multi-test mainly zones in on. High-end doublecabs are increasingly becoming oxymoronic, insofar that their increasingly lavish formats now surely largely removes them from the primary design role. When they’re this tricked, honest weekday function definitely takes a back seat to weekend recreational fun. Everything on test here save one could be considered more a toy than a toiler.
Yet they’re definitely flavour of the year. The higher the spec, the fancier the dress, the greater the power, the more phew-ful the price … the more we want them as SUV substitutes and, increasingly, as an all-round family cars.
This seemed a good chance to catch with the latest editions of the models that go extra-large on technology, performance and – in one – merely sheer size and status.
VW Amarok Aventura
For: Best in class drivetrain and driving dynamics
Against: Expensive and beaten by a cheaper competitor on assistance and infotainment tech
WHERE do we start?
It’s not wrong to suggest that 2011, the year the Amarok was presented, is as good a place as any. No sooner had the Teutonic-truck arrived on the scene when everyone, this writer included, was asking how long it would before the 2.0-litre diesel on offer would be joined by something a little .. erm .. bigger?
VW prevaricated. Argued that the twin turbo van unit they’d chosen as their staple engine was just fine, a line that firmed all the more when the little engine that could re-married to the excellent eight-speed automatic, formerly restricted to high-end Audi cars.
Yet, clearly, they realised the prudence of our proposition about capacity and cylinder count mattering in this market. By 2013, word got out they’d taken up the scribes’ suggestion of utilitising the Toureg/Q7/Cayenne 3.0-litre V6 in a more open context. However, the Germans also made plain that the enlivened Amarok would only be released once it was thoroughly tested, a process that might (and did) take years.
So, anyway, good things come to those who wait, right? Actually, now that it’s here and been driven in flagship $82,990 Aventura format, some might suggest that saying requires amendment. Strictly speaking, the German translation seems to be “…to those with deep pockets.”
The weight of the heftiest price tag yet attached to a one-tonner – at least until the Mercedes X-Class lands – is a bit of a shock - clearly it’s still an expensive engine to make or a great one to profit from.
But it’s worth pointing out two factors. First, as VW’s local product planners will have seen, the biggest movers in the market are all products in the $60-$80,000 band, and none has as much power – or even comparable cylinder count. So they’re only pricing to a theme dictated by Ford, Toyota and Holden. Also, Aventura’s tag is one that early adopters seem happy enough to accept, given that the order bank for this model alone is already huge.
Certainly, too, while the Aventura even at this level might seem to come across as a bit spendthrift in respect to its specification – being a ute, you cannot expect it to dress wholly like a luxury car (and it doesn’t), yet there’s still a bit of shock from discovering it starts with a key rather than the button stab you’d expect for this money – it certainly doesn’t shortchange in respect to the powerplant, which has the smoothness, stonk and sheer sophistication to cause serious shake-up.
Being comfortably the most potent engine in the pick-up class now with 165kW of power and 550Nm of torque is great for barbeque oneupsmanship. That's an 18kW advantage on the 3.2-litre five-cylinder in the Ranger/Mazda BT-50 even before the pot is stirred – because there is an overboost function that adds an extra 15KW for short bursts under acceleration - and a significant 50Nm more than the next torquiest pick-up, the Holden Colorado.
Despite being most muscular, it’s also a miser. A claimed optimum of 7.8-litres per 100km is less than both the Fordzda (8.9) and Holden (9.7).
Who’s up for a ute sprint? Best not bother. Amarok is the hero here, as well, with the 0-100kmh sprint knocking out in just 7.9 seconds; ordinary for a car, yes, but stunning for a tall four-wheel-drive ute.
Those are all good brags; but the more relevant reason for liking it so much in daily driving is that it has something that’s not a strength of any other ute featured today: Refinement.
There’s no need for occupants to shout, or even speak at all loudly, when this thing is cruising; the engine is very hushed. Moreover, it’s very driveable.
Amarok’s ability to outshine its opposition for ride and dynamic appeal is only enhanced in this variant. It has always been one of the nicest utes to drive and that hasn't changed. It’s not car-like, but it is exceptionally tidy for a one-tonne truck. True, the ride can get fidgety with an empty tray, but overall it’s the best around for its ride quality and dynamic responsiveness. It also aces for steering feel.
The V6 just makes a good truck better. The sense of quiet, reliable strength in its every operation just makes for great feel-good. True, despite that superb sprint time, it doesn’t feel immediately punchy when leaving the line, but only because I suspect that VW has programmed the engine management to feed in the grunt incrementally.
But once on a roll there is plenty of punch to play with, and it’s all happening at quite low revs – driving at 100kmh, the tacho needle seems to stick at around 1800rpm. And when you do give it a curry up, generally it doesn’t have to rev hard to find the extra urge, so immense is the torque.
The eight-speed has been a Godsend for the four-cylinder engine but it really rises to its full strengths with the V6; the smoothness and seamlessness of the shifts is just as you get when this box accomplices in far more expensive luxury cars. Again, it’s demeanour is a reflection of the meaty flavour of the torque it gets to work with.
What to do with all this muscularity? Well, tow something, of course, but bear in mind that while it lends impression it has the heft to relocate mountains, the warranty won’t allow it.
Despite the upgraded engine, towing capacity remains unchanged from the 2.0-litre four-cylinder models at 3000kg braked and 750kg unbraked (Aventura also a diminished deck payload). Yeah, I’m wondering what the German word for ‘wussy’ is as well. You’d really think it could cope with elevation to the 3.5-tonne club. I got it to haul my Mazda MX-5 race car and that felt extremely featherweight when trailered.
The tray remains one of the best in class, with ability to fit a full-size pallet between the rear wheel arches and well-designed tie-down points and the load height is lowest in class.
When it’s not pulling, it’s good for preening; the 19-inch alloys, stainless steel sidesteps, bi-Xenon headlights with integrated daytime running lights and a sports bar in the tray and a selection of high-end paint hues are here to enhance its recreational appeal. This one also had a retracting tray cover, which I thought was brilliant until I actually used it. I hope someone has since worked out how to lock it back into place. I couldn’t. A deck liner is standard to Amarok, to enable to useful touches of an inbuilt light and electrical socket.
Tarting up a ute to SUV standard is accepted practice, and VW does well to raise the level of presentation and materials for what is, basically, a working environment with high-end Nappa leather seats with the front buckets having 14-way adjustability, Bluetooth, voice controls and VW's App Connect system that incorporates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Even so, if you want to find the latest in driver assists then … well, save yourself thousands and buy a Wildtrak.
Also putting Amarok out of step with its major competitors is that it still lacks rear curtain airbags; not a smart move for a rig pitched as a family car alternative and now a necessity for any ute seeking for a five-star ANCAP score.
There is airbag protection for the front seat occupants. Safety assists also run to a stability control, all disc brakes with anti-lock with an off-road mode, a reversing camera plus front and rear parking sensors.
The front seats offer plenty of adjustment but are a little flat, but there’s good space up front. Less so for rear occupants; Amarok’s rear offers adequate head and shoulder room, but knee room will seem tight adults and teenagers and the seat cushions are flat and hard.
Aventura’s price puts it well ahead of Toyota Hilux SR5 Limited, Ranger Wildtrak and Holden Colorado Z71, but so does its cylinder count, refinement and performance. VW’s confidence that the V6 will create a sales increase is well-founded; there’s clear evidence that some ute buyers will pay any price to buy the best.
It does have obvious weaknesses – VW needs to resolve that airbag situation and it would do well to emulate Wildtrak’s active safety systems – but smart and strong under the bonnet really should see it right.
Ford Ranger Wildtrak
For: Comfort, safety, even in flash harry form it maintains good workhorse cred.
Against: Still no steering reach adjust, engine’s gruffness becoming intrusive.
UTES becoming big money-spinners isn’t a new thing – just ask Toyota New Zealand.
Their Hilux, regardless that it’s now second in the traydeck sales rankings, has been a cash cow right from the early 1980s. However, even in its heyday, Hilux never outsold Corolla and it never accomplished more than 25 percent of TNZ’s total annual volume.
In that respect, Ranger is a wholly different beast. Or should I say, monster. Because it certainly is the Godzilla of the Ford family. That the best-selling ute of 2015 kept this status last year and added another, as the country’s top-selling vehicle, is one heck of a thing.
But this incredible success seems to have come at some expense; Ford has become the Ranger pick-up company, while it has ascended, most key passenger models – save the amazing Mustang – have lost sales pace.
That Ranger, n total volume, accounted for just under 50 percent of all Ford vehicle sales for the whole of last year and in some months was responsible for 70 percent of trade suggests some other Ford fare has become all but invisible to consumers.
Is this a bit dangerous? Betting on a single horse is good while it’s winning … but, as Toyota found out, even the best can ultimately be beaten. Hilux, after all, had more than two decades at the top and, even after Ranger released – in fact, even after it began to eat up market share at incredible rate - their confidence in it was unbreakable.
This isn’t an anti-Ranger rant. Critical acclaim and commercial success for the first Australian-designed and engineered one-tonne pickup is well-deserved; it is a very well-sorted product, not least when it comes to reaching into the family/recreation market. Ranger’s ability to appeal as a SUV substitute, without degrading its workhorse image, has been impressive to say the least.
Will Ranger continue to ‘own’ our market in 2017? Quite probably. Certainly, Ford has shown no mercy to its sector rivals. No sooner had the opposition managed to bring their own contenders up to scratch with the models that Ford presented in 2016 than the market leader unveiled a facelift that raised the game further and left some of them, including – cruelly, Mazda’s project co-sharing BT-50 – choking on dust again.
The aim of creating a tougher truck goes well beyond the usual refreshed look that delivers Ford’s corporate trapezoidal grille, a bigger bumper, projector headlights and squarer bonnet. Also delivered are some useful engineering mods (including a switch from hydraulic to electric power steering).
Beyond that, it’s the technology upgrade that really throws down the gauntlet. A completely redesigned dash (essentially the same as the related Everest seven-seater SUV), touchscreen multimedia connectivity, are welcome key interior changes effected almost completely across the board, but the Wildtrak on test is more special still, in that it now has segment-busting driver-assist accident avoidance tech.
Do you really need a ute that sports Adaptive Cruise Control, Forward Collision Alert, Lane Departure Warning, Lane Keep Assist and Driver Impairment Monitor? Traditionalists who tend to do most of their driving on the wild side will almost certainly decry the inclusion of bleeping, flashing assists that cannot be easily disengaged: You don’t need a ute going to Defcon One every time you cross a paddock, nudge a farm gate and nose into a mud hole. In fact, it’s downright annoying.
But is that still a Wildtrak user play? Ford thinks not. It also imagines that the more obvious audience - those who see the Ranger as being more than ‘just a truck’ and use it, in town as much as country, as a SUV substituting family wagon – will appreciate the helping hand.
The extra smarts turn the top dog into the most expensive Ranger sold here – the test model is just $360 short of the $70k mark – and elevates it to the same price standing as two significantly sporty in-house offers, the Mustang V8 GT Coupe and the Ford Focus RS. There’s a part of me that says horsepower beats haul-ability any day; the RS would definitely have a priority park in my dream garage.
Even so, for those who are swayed more strongly by desire to deck out, then – at least insofar as kit content is concerned - the Wildtrak continues to make a very compelling argument to remain most-favoured in tray chic.
So much stuff: Automatic projector headlights, foglights, daytime running lights, Sync2 voice-control connectivity, 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with sat-nav, two USB points and an SD card slot, WiFi hotspot, digital radio, tyre-pressure monitor, heated seats, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, reverse camera, cruise control, chrome exterior trim, cargo area light, tinted windows, an integrated rear bumper step, power-folding exterior mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, rear parking sensors, a second battery, an expanded wiring harness and auxiliary inputs, towbar and a 12-volt outlet in the tray.
Wildtrak-pure treatments also provide 18-inch alloys, brushed-look inserts for the sidesteps, a blade-style sports bar, exterior puddle lamps, power-adjustable driver's seat, heated front seats, floor mats, front parking sensors, ambient lighting and a roller-shutter hard tonneau that, unlike the one on the Amarok, works properly every time.
Provision of a very car-like fascia is a good update, so much better than before. The new instruments follow latest Ford fashion in featuring a large central analogue dial, flanked on the left by an Entertainment, Navigation, and Phone screen, while the right-hand side window is for vehicle related activity. You can call up a digital auxiliary speedo (in mph as well as kmh), or a small tacho and temperature gauge, though not simultaneously.
The touchscreen meanwhile, has Sync2 voice recognition and is divided intuitively into Phone, Nav, Entertainment, and Climate Control quadrants, all of which flick away when Reverse is selected to enable a massive camera screen. Again, if you’ve seen the old sat nav display, you’ll understand why this one is better.
Provision of Apple CarPlay means you can use the embedded mapping or whatever’s on your phone; it’s possible – but not easy (because the pathway logics are weird) – to use a little bit of one and some of the other: Like, CarPlay for phone calls and the inbuilt sat nav. Occasionally the test car’s set-up refused to acknowledge my iPhone; though I was impressed that it didn’t demand Apple’s generic cable to tether (I have a Mophie battery pack that has its own cable that doesn’t generally work in this application. But this time it did). The plethora of 12V charge outlets for phones and stuff is also well considered.
Being a Wildtrak, there is some garish orange-stitched brownish leather/fabric trim that clashes with the black-on-grey contrasting plastic and also some mock carbon-fibre, also awkwardly integrated but probably necessary pizzazz. And all those hard surfaces; not something you’d put up with in an SUV.
It’s more comfortable than most utes, notably for rear seat design. Ford, alone, has cracked that one. Both the rear backrest and cushion also fold down or upwards respectively, but only in one piece, for additional heavy cargo loads. The front chairs are supremely good and the high-set driving position affords excellent visibility, but the continued absence of a reach adjustment on the steering column does irk. Like Amarok Aventura, it ought to have keyless entry and push-start as standard, but doesn’t.
Road driving-wise, it’s as before. Strong engine and tidy handling, with improved steering feel now, but still second best to Amarok in respect to its mannerisms, though there’s not a lot in it. All modern utes are big and bulky, so Ford’s crew have done well to make it feel more civilised than most of its ilk. However, if you compared ride quality, you’d immediately agree that in unladen configuration, the leaf spring rear suspension hasn’t the VW’s schmoozy compliance. The Ford isn’t exactly bucking its tail, but it always reminds that it is a commercial vehicle at heart. However, within the context of what it is, it’s not bad.
I’ve long been a fan of the 3.2-litre five-cylinder engine; I enjoy the manner in which it operates and quite like the unique signature sound of an uneven cylinder count. It’s always been a gutsy performer and, now with 147kW/470Nm, it feels stronger again. There’s a heap of low-down torque that maximises at just 3000rpm, so it needn’t be revved hard to provide decent shove. In fact, give it too much and you’ll spin those rear wheels; even in the dry, before the electronic stability and traction controls can enact.
For towing and off-roading, too, it is a very good accomplice, mainly because the torque feed is so broad and effortless. You get the sense the only limiting factors for off roading will be the road-tuned 18 inch tyres and an owner reluctance to scratch up the fancy paintjob.
However … as good as it is, the Ranger is starting to feel like that favourite shirt that is j-u-s-t starting to show signs of fraying. It’s an inevitability of its age and, like that shirt, there’s nothing that won’t stop you from continuing to enjoy it. But you also know that it’s condition is not going to reverse.
That comment applies in some ways to the design – it is starting to look a bit dated – but more to the engine which, despite feeling more civilised than before, nonetheless has now been trumped by the VW six. Those who can afford to pay the difference will notice it any back-to-back comparo. The Ford has a little less pull, is not quite as flexible and, more than anything else, sounds a lot more like a truck engine (or, if you’re going to split hairs, an ex-Transit van unit), especially under a firm foot. It’s thirstier, too.
Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Series
For: Nothing tougher, brilliant off-road.
Against: Too rudimentary for recreation; no disguising its age.
What the ….!
Yup, you’re right. Realistically speaking, the newest version of the oldest, most ancient vehicle that Toyota still builds should not figure in this company. Realistically, it should be Hilux, in SR5 Limited form, that has the spotlight, right?
No disagreement. However, it still seemed relevant to include the 70-Series for several reasons: It’s in the same category, it’s in the same price and it’s also interesting (because of those factors) to consider whether the old boy can even remotely compare, any more, to the best of the new-age fare.
In saying that, it’s very much a notional comparison. Even Toyota New Zealand is first admit that it really doesn’t expect any weekend warrior interest in the 70-Series.
Japan’s No.1 will tell it has kept this model in stock for almost six decades because ‘needs must.’ But it’s very much the needs of a few within a well-defined buyer set, one that very niche in New Zealand: High country farmers, particularly within South Canterbury, the McKenzie country and the central North Island; mine operators, rural service providers; forestry operators.
Even though it’s a small group, they’re loyal as heck. Enough to warrant Toyota New Zealand spreading its 2017 update range bets across five variants, all of which are tailored expressly for toil.
Of course, who’s to say it won’t fall victim to fashion. After all, its UK equivalent, the Land Rover Defender, though clearly born to the same kind of role, has become something of a social set climber, so there is a potential that someone will seek to go urban adventuring in one of these?
Well, don’t. Time spent with the $75,780 entry LT singlecab and swankier – but still eminently Swanndri-suited – $84,580 LX doublecab – included frequent trips to the urban jungle. It wasn’t an impossible task, but one that left indelible impression that the effort – which becomes literal when negotiating car parks and narrow streets – is questionable. Taking this truck to town and using it as a giant-sized Lego shopping kart is a bit like having Donald Trump in the White House. Obviously, it can be done. But clearly, it shouldn’t. But the longer it’s in there, the less sensible it seems.
Not a surprise, really. Land Cruisers have always been tuff trucks at heart; even the swanky 200-Series are up to taking on everything from Sahara sands to heavy snow. But the fact that it has picked up more refinements and remained in circulation through having undergone some fantastic re-engineering, the fact is that – in the context of what off-roader utes have become now – this one will inevitably seem almost Neanderthal to some.
Sliding behind the wheel is an experience of four-wheel-driving life as it once was. Regardless that it has been meted emissions and safety improvements that conceivably make it more people and environmentally-friendly, and even though it now has a nice stereo and a reversing camera and – on the LX – even cruise control it is the epitome of hard core, created purely and simply to meet one remit alone: To be the ultimate, never-fail tool for tough-as assignments.
Hence why it still continues with basic air con, cloth seats, grey vinyl floor coverings and so on. In LX spec you get central locking, electric windows and alloys; the LT goes wholly old school with grey painted steel rims, wind up windows and even divests floor mats. The cabin switches have remained unchanged since the 1980s yet I was surprised – in a smiley way – to find the steering column is now telescopic. Even so you almost feel compelled to wear a blank singlet when driving it.
Who would have thought a dinosaur-era rig on a ladder frame chassis and lacking car-like crumple zones could be brought up to five-star safety? Yet it has been, through no small effort. The reshaped nose, provision of electronic stability control, brake assistance, electronic brake distribution, cruise control and curtain and driver’s knee airbags for 2017 is less to do with customer demand than to shape up for increasingly rigid safety regulation that really won’t seem important when you’re smashing through the bush, up to the sills in mud or snow and generally charging through conditions that would likely stop any orthodox one-tonne ute in its tracks.
And it’s this incredible sense of all-terrain ability that marks the 70-Series as something special. You accept the reason for it being so rudimentary on the road, and especially in urban use, that you do not drive this model so much as manhandle it, far more so than, say, a Hilux, because that is the trade-off for it being tailored to go … well, anywhere and to conquer … well, everything.
Stylistically (if that’s the word) the T-squared shape fits the bill perfectly, though the manly stance has one quirk in a huge difference in wheel track from front to rear, the result of the front being made wider to fit the 4.5 litre V8 and Toyota not bothering to correct the rear axle width to resume visual symmetry.
Also apparently irksome to cognoscenti are other factors: That, after decades of use, the wheel pattern has gone from six to five studs; that and the split rim tubed tyres have been dropped for a wider steel single piece and a 225/95R16 tubeless; that the grab bar for the front seat passenger has gone (because of the airbag.
To give an idea of how different the support base is, whereas the majority of high-end one-tonne utes only provision in automatic form because that’s a clear customer preference, the ongoing lack of a slushbox in the 70-Series as an alternate to the faithful five-speed pot-stirrer manual is simply not considered an issue.
A positive byproduct of an improved chassis is an increased payload – this is truly a proper 3.5-tonne ute in that it can haul that much while carrying five occupants and up to 1200kg on the deck.
The 4.5 litre intercooled, turbo V8 diesel cleans up in gaining a DPF (Diesel Particulate Filter) while introduction of a taller ratio of top gear equates to a reduction in revs so it’s pulling just 2000rpm at 100kmh.
This should bode well for improved fuel consumption during highway cruising and probably also makes for reduced mechanical noise. And yet it’s still hugely vocal. Throw in the din off those knobbly tyres and from the air movement around this bluff body and the resultant din is enough to ensure the stereo really doesn’t stand a chance at cruising speed. You’ll have to stop to hear those stock reports and gold price updates.
Progress is solid. A device made to move mountains is also a mountain on the move. The gearing is such that you’re in fifth by 70kmh. Also, the throttle is quite long in its travel and very progressive in its reactivity, because it is tuned for off-road use when you don’t want it to be hip-hopping with all the continual bumping and shaking.
Fair to say the 70 is the exact antitheses of any modern ute in that it’s quite possibly at its most refined when off-roading. Though even then, it’s not very refined at all. Yet it is utterly unstoppable; you'd have no compunction taking it to places no city ute should be seen in. When it gest sticky, just activate the front and rear electro-mechanical diff locks. These back up a newly introduced A-TRC (Active Traction Control) system which replaces the rear limited slip diff and is automatically adjusted for use in H2, H4 and L4 ranges.
So it's rough. But, boy, is it ready ... for anything gnarly to sownright nasty. It’s built for a singular purpose and makes no effort to disguise this. What you see is what you get and what you get, when used in proper fashion, is unbelievably impressive.
It’s the ute to keep in mind for when the storm hits.