Battle of the Big Guns

Text: Danie Botha and GG van Rooyen
Photography: Jannie Herbst and GG van Rooyen

After more than 600 Volkswagen Amarok bakkies were delivered to customers in November 2010, the alarm bells must have sounded in the offices of all the other bakkie brands.
Indeed, it seems as if the Amarok is destined to make the runner-up sales position in the double cab segment its own. Good news for the other manufacturers is that, for now, Volkswagen SA are limited to the number of units it can import (it’s built in Argentina), due to the Amarok’s popularity in international markets.

Still, it will need a rather substantial miracle for the Amarok to come even close to the Hilux, which regularly sells more than 1000 double cab units per month.

General Motors will be slightly more concerned. The older Isuzu KB has traditionally been the undisputed number two bakkie, but now has to bank on its solid reputation and customer loyalty as the next-generation KB is only due here in the beginning of 2012.

Adding further reason for worry in the Isuzu camp is the fact that Nissan’s Navara has also started selling in bigger volumes, and it now occasionally breaks through the 250-per-month mark.

But the VW Amarok is the real cat amongst the pigeons in the double cab segment. It’s modern and fresh, safer than any bakkie ever sold in SA, spacious on the inside, suitably large and stylish on the outside, and also well-priced.

But there is one major issue with the Amarok. And that, if you believe the anti-Amarok lobbyists, is the engine.

Volkswagen decided to equip the Amarok with a 1968cc four-cylinder turbodiesel engine. Sure, the top BiTDI version is equipped with two turbochargers, but 1968 cubic centimetres is still 1968 cubic centimetres.

Leisure Wheels reader Andre Calitz, who has owned four VW Transporter T5 vans fitted with the older 2,5-litre, five-cylinder turbodiesel and loved them all dearly, recently acquired the latest T5 bus – that is now also fitted with the 1968cc twin-turbo diesel engine.

Now Andre, who happens to be a big Volkswagen fan, is foaming at the mouth about this new engine in his beloved bus.

“For the past five years I’ve been towing a heavy trailer with my heavily loaded T5 buses, all over the country. And they have been amazing, combining reasonable fuel economy with excellent pulling power. But this new BiTDI engine just doesn’t cut it. The new bus just can’t match the five-cylinder engine for towing performance, and it is heavier on fuel too! Is this progress? I certainly don’t think so,” he says.

So, is the two-litre mill up to the vital task VW has entrusted it with? In this test, conducted at the Gerotek Vehicle Testing facility, situated west of Pretoria, we find out.

How it works
For this test we decided to go the repeatability route, at a suitable facility. We also enrolled the services of independent vehicle testing specialist, Adrian Burford. Together with Adrian, we devised a tough test routine for the VW Amarok 2.0BiTDI 4Motion, and a Toyota Hilux 3.0D-4D Raider 4×4. Importantly, we required the testing conditions and parameters to be exactly the same for each bakkie.

First we would fill the vehicles’ tanks to the brim at the Gerotek filling station. Adrian would then head to the nearby Gerotek high speed oval track, always following the same route, and use exactly the same driving style. Once he was on the track, he would complete 25 laps of the 3km-long circuit in each vehicle, driving at a constant 115 km/h (true speed).

Once this session was done, the performance testing would commence, also on the oval circuit. This would consist of a 0-100 km/h acceleration run, a 60-100 km/h in-gear acceleration test (4th gear), followed by an 80-120 km/h (5th gear) test. Adrian would then head back to the filling station, where the vehicles would again be filled to the limit. The total distance per run would be 89km.

First, both bakkies would run as is. So, no additional weight, other than Adrian and his state-of-the-art Vbox satellite testing gear. For the second round we would up the stakes, and add 780kg to the “bak” of each vehicle, in the form of sand bags.

And, for the last round, we went big, adding a Commander Conqueror, weighing 990kg, to the deal – with the 790kg weight still on the “bak”.

So, that’s a total driving distance of 534km for Adrian – and possibly, some interesting results for us.

Setting some benchmarks
The VW Amarok BiTDi 4Motion was first up on the oval track. Adrian reported via the two-way radio that the Volkswagen was surprisingly comfortable on the bumpy oval track, and that it had absolutely no problems maintaining the required true speed of 115km/h in top gear (sixth). At that speed the engine was ticking over at 2175 r/min.

After completing the 89km run, we refuelled the Amarok – and it was time for the Hilux 3.0D-4D 4×4 to hit the high speed oval.

Now Adrian reported a more bakkie-like ride. Harder, and slightly bouncy on the track. At a true 115 km/h the Hilux’s three-litre engine was spinning at 2500 r/min in top gear (fifth). Finally, almost an hour later, Adrian was back, and we refilled the Toyota.

It was time to analyse the results. The Hilux had sipped 9,1 litres of diesel fuel over the testing distance, for an average consumption figure of 10,2 litres/100km. The Volkswagen, with the benefit of the sixth gear, had needed 8,6 litres to cover the 89km, for an average figure of 9,6 litres/100km. Yes, the Amarok was more fuel efficient. But we had thought the gap would be bigger.

Right, the performance tests. In the 0-100 km/h run, the Toyota was a clear winner, recording a time of 13,3 seconds versus the VW’s surprisingly slow 15,7s. In the 60-100 km/h acceleration run (fourth gear), the Amarok was marginally faster than the Hilux, with a time of 9,3s compared to the Toyota’s 9,7s. But the Toyota had turned the tables comprehensively in the 80-120 km/h test. Here the Amarok managed 14,9s, while the Hilux did it in 13,1s.

“The Amarok feels stronger than the Hilux in the initial part of the flexibility test. This is particularly noticeable in the 80-120 km/h run, but then the VW runs out of steam at the top end of the rev range” – Adrian Burford.

Get a load of this
With 780kg of sandbags added to the bakkies’ loadbins, Adrian hit the road again. We checked his progress via the two-way radio.

“The Volkswagen’s engine note is different with the heavy load, like it is really exerting itself. But the ride is still very good,” Adrian reported over the radio’s speaker.

After the run in the VW was completed, it was the turn of the Hilux. We again checked in with our tester, and enquired about the Hilux.

“The ride is definitely bouncier than the Amarok’s. By the way, do you know that when all the driving is done today, I could have been in Durban, if I had taken the N3 highway?”
Yup, doing 25 laps of the 3km-long Gerotek oval track can make you think about such matters.

When Adrian finally pulled into the filling station with the Hilux, we refuelled it – and it was time to compare numbers again.

The Hilux needed 9,6 litres of fuel after this run with the 780kg added to the bak. That equates to 10,7 litres/100km. The Amarok had again sipped a little bit less than the Hilux, with 9,1 litres of diesel consumed. That works out at 10,2 litres/100km.

Interestingly both the Hilux and Amarok’s consumption had increased by half-a-litre for this test, compared to the first, unladen run.

In the 0-100 km/h run, with that 780kg load, the Volkswagen reduced the time difference to a second – 18,9s versus the Hilux’s 17,9s.

As was the case in the unladen 60-100 km/h test, the Amarok was again faster, but again only marginally. It completed the run in 12,6s compared to the Toyota’s 13,4s. And, continuing the trend set in the unladen test, the Toyota was faster from 80-120 km/h, with a time of 20,3, versus the Amarok’s 21,4s.

“The Amarok and Toyota need to be driven in a slig
htly different way. The VW seems to reward earlier upshifts and needs to be in the right gear at the right time because of its narrow power band. The Toyota is more “revvy” and because of the inherent torque of the bigger engine is a little bit more forgiving” – Adrian Burford.

The full Monty
The Commander Conqueror, retailing for about R200 000, is a popular piece of off-road caravan kit. Although it is not the heaviest caravan in its class, it still weighs in at a ton (empty). The table had been set with the previous rounds of testing – now it was time for the main course.

With 780kg on the bak, and the Commander in tow, the Amarok kicked off the testing sequence – all the factors remained as before.

Adrian gave us his feedback over the radio.

“I’m almost flat-out here, trying to maintain 115km/h in top gear. It will be interesting to see what the Amarok’s in-gear acceleration will be like,” said the metallic voice.

After the Amarok had completed its rounds, we hooked up the Commander behind the Hilux, and off Adrian went on his last 89km drive.

He was soon on the radio again.

“The Hilux definitely feels more nervous and bouncy than the Amarok on the oval. Oh well? I suppose it’s always been like that,” he said, rhetorically.

Finally Adrian pulled into the filling station for the last time, and we set about our routine to refill the bakkie. And it was time for number crunching again.

Towing the caravan and with the load on the bak, the Amarok had drank 13,1 litres over the 89km test route, for an average consumption of? 14,7 litres/100km. And now, for the first time, the Hilux had the Volkswagen’s number, needing only 12 litres of diesel to cover the same distance. That works out at 13,4 litres/100km.

So the tables had been turned, and by quite a margin too. But what about the performance tests?

In the 0-100 km/h test it was the Hilux that again came out tops – and this time the Japanese bakkie beat its German rival by almost three seconds (31,2s for the Hilux and 34,1s for the VW).

Showing that it is a bit of a 60-100 km/h and fourth-gear specialist, the Amarok beat the Hilux in this test with a time of 24s, compared to the Toyota’s 26,4s.

And lastly, the 80-120 km/h run, in fifth gear. And in this test there was no contest. The Hilux recorded a time of 65,4s, and it took 1,9km for the bakkie and caravan to accelerate from 80 to 120 km/h.

The Volkswagen needed 84,1s to complete the same test. And it required 2,4km to accelerate from 80-120 km/h.

Yikes. That’s how far we used to run during our fitness tests in the Army. And as we recall, 2,4km was a long, long way.

“In terms of stability I’d say the VW had the edge – maybe the trailer stability system was helping. However, it is incredibly easy to stall the VW’s engine when starting from standstill, if the engine falls out of the bottom end of the power band. I also battled with the gearbox. You have to be quite slow and precise into second, and shifting up to third was a clunky and slightly unsatisfactory experience due to the long throw and vague gate” – Adrian Burford.

This test yielded some interesting results. Firstly, whether the Amarok is running with or without a load on its bak, it is more fuel efficient than the top-selling Hilux – but not by the margin we expected it to be.

It also loses out in the 0-100 km/h acceleration runs to the Hilux, but bounces right back in the 60-100 km/h test, beating the Hilux in all three runs. But the 80-120 km/h test, especially the one with the caravan added to the mix, highlighted an obvious Amarok shortcoming, as experienced in our tests. And that is a very limited power band.

The Amarok’s engine produces its 400Nm of torque at 2000 r/min? but this figure evidently tapers off dramatically once the revs swing past the 2000 r/min mark. The Hilux, on the other hand, combines the inertia of more cubic centimetres with a wide spread of torque.

Its 343Nm of torque may seem considerably less than that of the Amarok, but it peaks as low as 1400 r/min, and remains at a high level long after the rev counter needle has swung past the 2000 r/min mark.

This also explains the Amarok’s performance in the 60-100 km/h test – in fourth gear, between 60 and 100km/h, the engine is operating in its “zone” – and the performance is all there.

But as the speed increases, the Volkswagen’s engine has to be worked harder than the Hilux’s mill. This in turn increases fuel consumption, turning a fuel efficient powerplant into a bit of a guzzler.

So, it seems as if reader Andre Calitz may not be chasing ghosts, after all.

In the end?
The VW Amarok’s car-like ride, the car-like interior (mind, there were a few small quality issues in the test unit’s cabin), and all those standard safety systems, including a trailer stability system that works in conjunction with the bakkie’s electronic stability programme (ESP), still give it a clear edge in the double cab bakkie segment – in spite of the small capacity engine.

And the Hilux? Well, it’s still the solid option. It feels like it will last a lifetime, even though the cabin is not nearly as plush as that of the Amarok. And although the engine is not the most refined or modern mill on the block, its tractability and a proven track record count in its favour.

The verdict? If towing a caravan or heavy trailer is your main reason for acquiring a new double cab bakkie, the Amarok BiTDI may disappoint you in the long run, especially on the open road (with a caravan or heavy trailer in tow).

But if you are in the market for a leisure bakkie that is, for all intents and purposes an SUV with a bak onto which you can load a quad or a few bags of cement, and you don’t have any intention of towing heavy objects over longer distances, then the Amarok is certainly worth having a look at.

“Although the Amarok did not fare so well in the towing test, I still prefer the German bakkie over the Hilux, if I had to live with one. The Amarok, as an overall package, has shifted the goal posts in the bakkie segment” – Adrian Burford.

Reader views of the Amarok


“Since it has a two-litre diesel engine, the Amarok’s torque curve is insufficient for proper off-road work.” – Nathan Cheiman

“The VW’s 1968cc engine is competing in a market where a lot of torque is required. In my opinion, diesel engines suffer when they consistently have to operate at high revolutions.” – Johan Kleynhans

“The VW engine’s 400Nm of torque is available only across a small section of the rev counter. After that, it quickly plummets to 200Nm.” – Christo van Wyk

“The Amarok’s power delivery did not impress me. I think it is overrated. I also found the gearbox to be awkward and finicky, to say the least.” – Dr Kefentse


“I doubt VW would have ever tackled the Amarok project without doing its homework. It’s clear that they have identified the strenghts and weaknesses of every other vehicle in the segment and tried to offer a better alternative.” – Jurgen Hontsch

“I took the Amarok for a test drive. And I must admit that I was very impressed. In fact, I fell in love with it instantly.” – Ad Keukelaar

“With South Africans being force-fed a staple of Japanese bakkies, I think many will be ready to try something new. Like a German bakkie.” Amadeus

“The Amarok’s list of standard safety features really impress me. I commend VW for being the first manufacturer to not only sell a bakkie for selling a bakkie’s sakes, but to sell a bakkie that sets new standards in the safety department.” Hennie du Toit

VW Amarok Toyota Hilux
Engine 1968cc 2982cc
Four-cylinder Four-cylinder
Bi turbo, intercooled Turbo, intercooled
Power 120 kW @ 4000r/min 120 kW @ 3400r/min
Torque 400 Nm @ 2000r/min 343 Nm @ 1400r/min
Gearbox Six-speed manual Five-speed manual
Price R390 000 R394 700
Tare weight 1848kg 1795kg
Payload 862kg (excluding driver) 971kg (including driver)
Towing capacity
(braked) 1500kg 1500kg
Gross combined mass (GCM) 5500kg 4260kg

Fuel consumption 9,6 litres/100km 10,2 litres/100km
0-100 km/h 15,7s 13,3s
60-100 km/h (fourth gear) 9,3s 9,7s
80-120 km/h (fifth gear) 14,9s 13,1s
LADEN TEST (780kg)
Fuel consumption 10,1 litres/100km 10,7 litres/100km
0-100 km/h 18,9s 17,9s
60-100 km/h (fourth gear) 12,6s 13,4s
80-120 km/h (fifth gear) 21,4s 20,3s
LADEN PLUS CARAVAN TEST (780kg plus Commander Conqueror)
Fuel consumption 14,7 litres/100km 13,4 litres/100km
0-100 km/h 34,1s 31,2s
60-100 km/h (fourth gear) 24s 26,4s
80-120 km/h (fifth gear) 84,1s (2467m) 65,4s (1900m)