Text: Danie Botha
Photograhy: Jannie Herbst
249 millimetres of ground clearance. That’s the official number quoted by Volkswagen, for its Amarok double cab bakkie – and the person who made that measurement was probably using a tape measure from Mars.
In fact, the actual ground clearance is closer to 220mm.
Not that 220mm is half bad. In fact, it’s pretty good.
But add the Amarok’s sizeable bulk to the picture (it’s 5,2m long and 2m wide, combined with reasonably long overhangs) and it doesn’t like the very tricky and technical stuff very much. It loves sand and just about anything else, but it is not at its best in tight 4×4 terrain.
Sure, it has a lot of 4×4 tricks up its sleeve. Besides the low-range gearing that comes standard with the 4Motion model, the Amarok gets an electronic stability program (ESP) with an Off-road Mode. In this mode the electronic differential locks (EDL), anti-slip regulation (ASR) and anti-lock braking system (ABS) are all adjusted for off-road conditions.
As if that’s not enough tricks for a double cab bakkie, the Volksie also comes standard with hill descent assist, hill hold assist, and a mechanical rear differential lock.
Finally, there’s the two-litre turbodiesel engine. Much has been said and written about this mill, but the fact remains that it has 400Nm of torque available between 1500 and 2000r/min. If one learns how to use this torque properly, and keeps the engine in that zone by understanding what gear works best in what application, it’s a very decent engine to live with, including in off-road conditions.
But let’s pretend for a moment to be the owner of a Volkswagen Amarok 2.0BiTDI 4Motion, who wants to go overlanding, and show up all the nay sayers in their Japanese bakkies, and prove that this German bakkie is as good as or even better in an overland role as anything else on the market.
What is the first thing you would change on the Amarok?
The ground clearance, maybe? That’s certainly what we would have gone for.
And this is exactly the thinking behind LA Sport’s development work on the VW Amarok you see in these pages. This research and development (R&D) vehicle — a joint venture between Gary Swemmer from LA Sport
Pretoria East and Lionel Lewis from LA Sport’s head office — serves as testing platform for new suspension parts and accessory products.
Swemmer bought the vehicle in January, and the process of transforming an SUV-like double cab bakkie into an SUV-like overland bakkie began.
The Amarok now features TJM springs and an airbag suspension system in the rear, and coil springs at the front. These are R&D springs, and once the components have passed the local test (that covers 50 000km), TJM in Australia will complete another 60 000km endurance test. This is to ensure that the system is 100% reliable, and as capable as it should be. Only then will the system be offered for sale to Joe Public.
The TJM suspension system is not only designed to offer improved wheel articulation and ground clearance. It really comes into its own with a heavy load, as one would encounter on typical overlanding expeditions.
Talking about ground clearance, this Amarok features a 50mm suspension lift, and also runs on bigger 265/70 R17 BFGoodrich mud terrain tyres, compared to the standard version’s 245/65 R17 tyres.
The rims on which the BFs are mounted proved to be a bit of a challenge, as there is currently no off-the-shelf, off-road type rim available for the Amarok. So a set of 17-inch rims were sourced from a Toyota Land Cruiser 150, and custom LAS Pro adaptors fabricated, to make the wheels fit on the Volksie’s hubs.
The result is an increase in ground clearance of about 60mm. Add this to the standard bakkie’s 220mm, and you end up with around 280mm – more than enough for an overland application.
The TJM bullbar, fitted with a TJM winch, is another R&D product, and the model fitted here is a customised Toyota Prado bar. The blueprints for the new Amarok version, which is done in-house by LA Sport, are being sent to the TJM head office in Australia for final approval and airbag compatibility tests.
Swemmer had the wheelarch extensions (or fender flares) specially made, and although they look the part, Lewis says he and Gary still want to experiment with the design to ensure that they not only look the part, but also work off-road.
The Amarok is already equipped with an array of overlanding kit, as part of the ongoing R&D programme. This include an LAS Pro roof-top tent, mounted on an LAS Pro canopy. Inside the canopy you’ll find a drawer system, an LAS Pro Cool 80-litre fridge (manufactured by National Luna), and various camping paraphernalia. The bakkie is also equipped with a dual-battery system.
A Frontrunner Windcheetah roof-rack is mounted on the cabin’s roof, and it houses a spare wheel, jerry cans, gas bottle, spade and a high-lift jack.
The Amarok also feature four spotlights, as well as Land Rover Defender-ish metal-inserts, mounted on the bonnet.
The one item that still needs replacing is the shiny standard rear bumper. The design for a new bumper has already been completed, but the final product still needs assembly. But it will be fitted shortly, says Lewis.
“We couldn’t fit just any rear bumper. The Amarok’s rear design sports some serious curves, and we had to design a bumper that suits them, otherwise it would look cheap and nasty. But the design is done, and the bumper, featuring a spare wheel carrier and jerry can holders, will follow shortly.”
This is all part of an effort to reduce the weight on the roof, says Lewis.
“In the ideal world a 4×4 should carry only the minimum of weight on the roof. The extra weight, so high off the ground, can seriously affect a 4×4’s centre of gravity, with negative consequences for safety and the vehicle’s handling.”
The Amarok’s turbodiesel engine remains 100% standard for this application.
But what is the Amarok like to drive in this state of modification? It looks the part, but can it actually play the 4×4 role?
To determine if it can, we took the Amarok to the Hennops 4×4 Trail, near Hartbeespoort Dam, for a baptism of serious 4×4 fire.
We asked Lynette Swemmer, Gary’s better half, to steer the Volkswagen through some of Hennops’ most daunting obstacles. To make matters even tougher for the Amarok, recent rains had turned the challenging obstacles into impossible-looking ones. This was to be no child’s play.