Dark Label struggles to shine bright

When the opposition starts increasing the pressure, there’s no better response than a special edition. But is the Amarok Dark Label enough of a good thing?


For: Gutsy engine, spacious cabin, good dynamics.

Against: Awful sat nav, drab interior hue.

Score: 3.9/5

It takes time to win over hearts and minds - the Amarok has been here for almost six years now, yet some utility buyers might still consider it an outsider.

Even though there are enough Amaroks here now to suggest good chance of seeing at least one on any given driving day, and despite one-tonne traydecks being the hottest sales items of the year, fact is this truck doesn’t fly high by any means.

Even the cumulative count from half a decade of availability here is comfortably less than the count the dominant workhorses of the sector, the kingpin Ford Ranger and second-strongest Toyota Hilux, achieved in their last full year of sale.

Still, New Zealanders are patently ute-crazy market; the demand for double-cab models serving as dual-purpose work/weekend vehicles is such that there’s enough business to keep even a niche performer in very good health.

A range reorganisation that repositions the German-designed, Argentine-built Amarok as less of a premium offer has to be a smart move, as well.

And so too the availability of occasional special editions, such as this $69,990 Dark Label, a spin from the most-popular Highline model that while purely cosmetic, nonetheless introduces a couple of tasty enhancements, one being the long-awaited introduction of sat nav.

Styling, image:

Here’s the thing about so-called workhorse utes: The types that seem to draw the most public interest – and almost certainly return the highest profits – are the show pony editions; those high-end versions that are really too flash to be considered as true tradesman tools.

VW first had a serious tilt into this terrain in 2014 with the Amarok Canyon, which with its extra body adornments – notably a set of huge roof-mounted spotlights – appeared ready to star in Thunderbirds.

Underneath it all, however, the Canyon was based on the medium grade Trendline; whereas the Dark Line draws off the dearer and more fully-equipped Highline.

Either way you see a full time four-wheel-driven twin cab equipped with a 132kW/420Nm turbocharged 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine in partnership with an eight-speed automatic that Amarok buyers now find distinctly preferable to the original choice six-speed manual.

Amarok’s basic design has never changed much since it first shoved that stubby snout into Kiwi territory back in 2009. What you see now is what you got then. Despite the now dating look, it continues to convince as a solid, sensible, stylish and well-sorted rig. VW’s people aimed for the stars and it still shows.

Unique styling features to help the Dark Label stand out on the road include 18-inch ‘Durban’ black alloys, extended wheel arches, a hard cover for the tray with non-slip liner and an under-ride guard for the front bumper. But no big spotlights that operated as high beam devices to blind other road users and light up hills 100km away.

In keeping with the rather sinister-sounding name, the Dark Label version takes tinted rear and side windows, darkened tail lights, as well as adding a black rear bumper, black grained door handles, matt black side bars and footstep, and black foil on the B-pillars.

The quality inside the cabin in itself shows why so many SUV-seekers instead determine become weekend warriors in a trayed union. True, it could be a little brighter inside; grey on grey – with a dash more added grey – is a German thing, but with dual-zone climate control, power windows, heated door mirrors and an excellent optical parking sensor system as standard equipment, it doesn’t scrimp for features.

It always seemed strange that the dominant fixture of the centre console, a big 6.5 inch centre touch screen screen never had sat nav, given that display has always been the right size and resolution for mapping. Or that it couldn’t host a rear view camera as standard fare. So good news that both now come with this edition, though their integration appears to be an after-market job. Is that good enough?

Powertrain, performance:

Every Amarok test always seems to hesitate when discussing the engine: There’s no point going over old ground. While a 2.0-litre four-cyulinder turbodiesel with two blowers meets every internal performance requirement set by VW and clearly also conforms to the brand’s firm and ongoing commitment to big-hearted but small capacity engines, it will always be considered a bit puny by some. And, truth be told, it sounds ‘small’ too, at times. Unsurprisingly cold starts also reveal an engine that is more clattery than some, though it settles once the heat gets around.

All the same, it feels robust, provides unexpectedly rapid performance – well past the 100kmh mark, in fact – and there’s no disputing that the ‘Rok becomes much ready-fit for lifestylers with the auto transmission. Good economy, with 8.3 litres per 100km overall claimed, is really just a side-product of the experience; what wins you over is a level of supernaturally schmoozy shift finesse and refinement.

Don’t be dismayed that it engages eighth at as low as 80kmh; though you sense it is operating right at the lower edge of the torque band, it copes, even if allowing the revs to rise just a little further rewards with tangibly greater authority. On mud, as much as seal, the performance is delivered in a smooth, unrelenting surge.

This ute, and Mitsubishi’s Triton, stand apart by having all four wheels driving all of the time. VW’s setup features a Torsen (torque sensing) centre differential that distributes drive between the front and rear wheels, defaulting to 40/60 front/rear in normal conditions. There’s opportunity to spend extra for an electronic differential lock that employs automatic brake intervention to enhance rear-end traction on slippery surfaces. Basically, though, unless you’re out to trek seriously beyond the beaten track, why bother?

Driving appeal:

Comfort is a word that tends to attach tenuously at best to many utes, but it can be used within any degree of wryness when discussing Amarok.

There are two facets. First, in how it drives: Trucks aren’t cars and shouldn’t be driven thus, yet but this one does provide good evidence that a truck built by an accomplished carmaker is off to a good start at winning over drivers whose previous experience might have been restricted to something smaller and sedan-like.

Some of the pleasure comes from the steering, due to its progressive weighting and sufficient responsiveness, but it’s also down to the wonder-work VW has undertaken to make the Amarok feel more settled, better-balanced and thus more confident, even with an empty tray, than any rival ute.

It’s a tough act to follow and what says it all about the quality of the ride is that, even the new Navara NP with the high-end coil spring rear, is more rumpty than this leaf-sprung VW. I’m not sure if the Germans will ever disclose how they made it feel the way it does but, fact is, the Amarok lopes along in supremely relaxed fashion, even at open-road speeds, not just down the straights but through corners, where the body control is uncannily good.

If you’re comfortable with how it drives then you’ll also be cosy with the driving position. I enjoy the relationship with a steering wheel that, in addition to be being more ‘car’ than ‘truck’ in dimension, also adjusts for rake and reach. The back seat is also above average within a category that usually pays scant respect to this aspect, though others – notably Ranger and the new Hilux – are just as good now. One nice trick only Toyota also employs is to set the rear bench slightly higher than the front chairs, thus ensuring occupants get a decent view out front as well as to the sides.

A maximum five-star Ancap crash test rating is always a good thing to have. Amarok ticks off front and rear airbags, an electronic stability control system that includes a trailer stabilisation function and a traction control and anti-lock braking system that includes special programming for gravel and off-road driving.

Funnily, the one let-down for me involved the added equipment that I’d really thought would make positive difference. Yet the sat nav integration is let down by VW using an interface that is simply appalling. Illogical controls and a screen on which just a close-up mapping scale could be maintained is simply ridiculous. Nice to have a reversing camera – this ute has a long and high tail, after all – but, overall, no points for this one, VW.

How it compares:

The Amarok’s ride quality and dynamics are above average for the one-tonne category. And the eight-speed auto is pretty special as well.

However, as much as the engine punches above its weight, we always step out of this ute thinking about how much better still it would be with the excellent 3.0-litre V6 TDi that resides in the Touareg SUV. Will it ever be a candidate for transplant surgery? Perhaps it’s too old, now; there’s talk, too, that the Dieselgate saga affecting other (not this) VW oiler engines has caused belt-tightening. One project reportedly dropped is a plan to sell Amarok in North America, the major candidate market for a bigger engine.

It’s not easy to actively dislike Amarok: It really is a well-considered truck. But anyone set to spend $70k on a high-end ute will surely find better buying in the Ranger Wildtrak or the Hilux SR5 Limited.