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15 February 2012

adventure Drive

Text and photography: Danie Botha

Volkswagen Amarok. Two words that tend to evoke reaction.
Take the guy who works at the local pizza shop. He was mildly impressed by Project Navara, the magazine’s 38-inch wheeled Nissan Navara. Yet he hardly spared a glance for the big and snazzy Lexus LX570. But when I rocked up in the VW Amarok, he ambled over, with a big smile.
“How is the new Amarok?” he asked.
“Ja, it is fine. We are soon going on a long trip in it. Then we’ll find out how good it really is,” I replied.
“I’ve never liked double cab bakkies – I drive a VW Golf,” said the pizza man. “But this Amarok has got me thinking about a double cab. I’ve always been a VW fan. So now, for the first time, I’m thinking about parking a double cab bakkie in my driveway. It’s got to be the Amarok, though.”
He is not alone. The Amarok has added sports utility vehicle (SUV) levels of comfort to the bakkie segment, as well as modern safety features such as electronic stability control (ESP), traction control, Off-Road ABS and lots more. Still, although many people may now find a double cab appealing, most of them are wary about the two-litre twin-turbo engine.
And then you get the doom prophets, who “know” that it will fail.
“Looks like VW has thrown its name away with this Amarok business,” said one observer the other day. “As a 4×4 it is rubbish.”
“I assume you’ve driven the vehicle then?”
“Well, um, no, I haven’t actually driven it. But I’ve seen one struggling on a 4×4 track,” is a typical response.
Perceptions are probably the Amarok’s biggest enemy. As a leisure-oriented double cab bakkie that has managed to rewrite the rulebook and set new standards in its class, the Amarok is a real player. And it has the good looks to match.
Although we have rated the Amarok highly, and it won our comprehensive double cab shoot-out by a mile, we’ve been hesitant to fully endorse that small-capacity engine, and wondered about the Amarok’s long-term durability, and reliability. Time will tell, we reckoned.
But the huge interest in the German bakkie has forced our hand. Readers want to know  everything about the Amarok.
And so, at the end of November 2011, an almost new VW Amarok 2.0BiTDI 4Motion double cab arrived at our offices, for a long-term evaluation and test.
The Amarok looked real spiffy – it was the very bakkie that was on display at the Johannesburg International Motor Show, so it is fitted with just about every accessory on the list.
These include “Vienna” leather seat coverings, 19-inch “Aragonit” alloy wheels shod with Continental CrossContact 255/55 R19 tyres, park distance control at the back, sporty front bumper trim, stainless steel side bars, textile floor mats and mud flaps. Yep, the mud flaps are optional extras.
All these extras ensure a really snazzy and upmarket look that turns a good-looking bakkie into an even better looking one. However, they also add about R38 000 to the asking price, which means you would have to fork out nearly R450 000 for the Amarok, as tested.
And although those 19-inch wheels look really cool and offer quite outstanding road holding on tar roads, the low-profile tyres don’t enjoy a rutted dirt road. Neither did the low 55 profile bode well for more serious 4×4 tasks.
Serious 4×4 driving was just what we had in mind for the Amarok during the December break. We were heading for Koingnaas, just south of Port Nolloth and the Namibian border, on the West Coast. This is restricted diamond territory where mining is still going on. You need a security permit to enter the Diamond Coast. The Atlantic Ocean is wild and bitterly cold here, so there are few holidaymakers – just the spot we were looking for!
While enjoying the peace and quiet of the Somnaas Guesthouse, about 5km from the tiny town of Koingnaas, we also planned some dune driving.
We had arranged to go on the Shipwreck 4×4 Route with tour guide Dudley Wessels. This route takes about four hours to complete, and has a 2/5 difficulty rating. It comprises mostly sand and rocks. There are several wrecks to see on the 37km trail, including the Piratiny, the Arosa and the Border.
But even before leaving Gauteng we had some reservations about this trail and the 19-inch wheeled Amarok. We didn’t doubt the Amarok’s inherent ability, but those wheels and the shiny side bars could seriously affect its off-road performance.
So we went searching for replacement rubber and wheels, with VW’s approval, and this turned out to be an interesting adventure in itself.
Of course, this could have been as easy as getting a set of original 17-inch alloys from Volkswagen, and fitting them with some general purpose, all-terrain rubber. But we wanted a more chunky item — something that would not only stand out in an Amarok crowd but also walk the 4×4 talk.
Eventually Louis van Niekerk from LA Sport referred us to Wayne at Autowiel in Pretoria ( Wayne works closely with the LA Sport crew on their project vehicles (including the Leisure Wheels ones), and if someone could come up with a plan, it was Wayne.
We settled on Goodyear’s Duratrac product – a chunky tyre that is said to bridge the gap between traditional mud and all terrain tyres. However, finding a suitable 16-inch rim to host the 245/75 R16 Duratracs proved even more difficult. The Amarok is new, and aftermarket wheels that fit are few and far between.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, we could not secure suitable wheels in time for the trip to Kleinzee, and at the time of writing a new set of wheels was due to arrive in a container from Taiwan. This left us slightly worried about the dunes. We had no choice but to tackle the sand with the 19-inch rubber.
We had more luck with fitting a canopy to the VW’s rather large “bak”. We needed a secure one so that we could safely transport expensive camera gear. We also required a unit with access from the sides, as well as a roof-rack. And since the Amarok will be used for many photo and film shoots, a “mobile kitchen” and foldable table were also on our wish list.
Enter AluCab, a company that specialises in top quality aluminium canopies. The AluCab unit is strong enough to carry a weight on the roof without reinforcing. It has side-opening doors, and one can convert the canopy into a full overland-style unit by simply bolting on standard accessories. The canopy weighs in at around 60kg, and is 100% recyclable.
The canopy can be customised according to individual needs, so the unit fitted to our Amarok features a kitchen section, as well as a fold-up table, stored inside the canopy. Like all great things in life, though, the AluCab unit does not come cheap. This one retails for R21 243 and it costs about R700 to have it fitted. You get a five-year warranty on the canopy itself and a one-year warranty on the working parts.
Our trip would reveal the worth of the canopy – and whether the Amarok could handle the sand and 4×4 tracks with those beautiful but impractical 19-inch wheels.
On a trip
Travelling at 120km/h on the open road, with the six-speed manual gearbox in top gear, the VW Amarok is in a class of its own. Really, it’s streets ahead of other bakkies when it comes to on-road comfort, handling and feel. Only the new Ford Ranger comes remotely close to the Volksie in this department.
Overtaking other traffic initially proved to be a challenge – it requires a different driving approach. Quite simply, you have to rev it hard to get the best out of the engine, which thankfully does rev very smoothly.
And you have to row that gear lever between sixth, fifth and fourth gears. The impressive 400Nm of maximum torque peaks for only 500r/min (between 1500 and 2000r/min).
As soon as you master this mind-shift, and get used to the slightly finicky clutch/gearbox relationship, the Volksie is really great on the open road.
Fuel consumption was not particularly good, but it wasn’t half-bad, either. On the open road the heavily-laden bakkie used an average of 10,4 litres/100km.
Let’s fast forward to the Shipwreck 4×4 tour. Tour leader Dudley Wessels drives a Toyota Hilux V6 double cab, and the other vehicles on the trip were all rather serious 4x4s, with at least high profile, all-terrain tyres fitted, allowing more flotation.
After some earlier experimentation I had figured out that the stability and traction control systems did not switch off completely when one engages 4×4 High. So I went the low-range route, cutting out most of the electronics.
With a suitable amount of momentum, we easily conquered the sandy sections. The same could not be said of some of the more hardcore, well, hardware!
On the rocky sections, a circumspect approach allowed the Amarok to sail over the worst parts, and the fancy side bar made contact with terra firma only once. The biggest challenge, as it turned out, was to avoid the rocks on the side of the tracks!
The Amarok is surprisingly wide: At 1954mm it is 119mm wider than a Toyota Hilux double cab (1835mm). So you have to adjust your driving style accordingly – or make friends with a rock or two on the edge of the track. After encountering two rocks, and thankfully suffering no damage, we got our aiming right.
Having made mincemeat of the Shipwreck trail’s sandy parts, we convinced Dudley to take us on the Sandveld 4×4 trail, also near Koingnaas. This trail ambles through a 30 000ha private game reserve, and features 1 200ha of sand dunes.
With the family preferring to sit out for this round, I again engaged 4LOW and deflated the tyres to 1,2bar. I had already removed the spare wheel from its position under the body, and half expected a low-profile tyre to depart from its rim on this trail.
I had to take a second run at some dunes afte starting off in the wrong gear, but the Volksie soldiered on bravely. Negotiating the crests of the dunes required a slightly more speedy approach than normal, what with those shiny side bars drastically reducing the break-over angle.
I attacked one such crest with due speed, crested it – and then realised the sand had levelled out on the other side, barely a metre below the crest. The result was that the Amarok’s fancy “front bumper trim” connected hard with mother earth – damaging the part.
But all in all, the Amarok, despite its cool but 4×4-unfriendly wheels and tyres, ran with the best of them. All and sundry were suitably impressed.
On the way back to the city, between Ventersdorp and Coligny, and with the sun about to reveal itself on the horizon, a guineafowl decided to commit suicide by flying directly into the Amarok’s front end. The result was a broken left headlight.
But after spending about 5000km with the bakkie, traversing gravel, tar and 4×4 obstacles, city tar roads and deserted gravel B-roads, I have certainly been impressed. The Amarok is the most comfortable bakkie I’ve had the pleasure of living with, and my family agrees.
Here’s to the next 5000km – and a set of Goodyear Duratrac off-road tyres!

VW Amarok 2.0BiTDI 4Motion
Good: Ride comfort, handling, space, sound system quality, reasonable economy, AluCab canopy, big and chunky good looks, the easy-to-use 4×4 system, the stability control that does its job without the driver knowing that it is doing its job
Not so good: The small capacity engine that runs out of steam if you don’t rev it, the finicky clutch/gearbox combination, some of the bling accessories, the bulk and width of the machine in a tight parking area
Wish list: Off-road tyres and wheels, VW’s V10 TDI engine (okay, so that’s not going to happen), the eight-speed automatic version with the 132 kW 2.0BiTDI mill (it arrives later in 2012)
Issues so far: Front bumper trim (courtesy of the driver) and front headlight (courtesy of a depressed guineafowl), resulting in about R8 000 worth of damage. Ouch.
Odometre reading: 7 952km
Average fuel consumption: 10,9 litres/100km

Want to know more?
Shipwreck 4×4 trail, Kleinzee: Contact Sandy Blake at tel. 027 877-0028, e-mail; Sandy will also be able to assist with accommodation bookings in the Kleinzee and Koingnaas area.
AluCab aluminium canopy: Contact Jeremy Bergh at Tel. 021 703-3028, e-mail;