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Volkswagen Amarok TDI420 is an off-road 4×4 of the future

Ready or not, the Volkswagen Amarok points the way forwards for rough-terrain vehicles, meaning low-range is no longer the be-all and end-all for off-roaders.

THE EARLIEST OFF-ROAD vehicles share several characteristics with their much-developed cousins of 2015, and one of the most defining is the low range transfer case which gives you crawler gears. The Willys Jeep and Series 1 Land Rover both had low range, as does the 2015 Range Rover Vogue and Jeep Grand Cherokee. The only difference being that the transfer case is operated by a finger on a button instead of a fist around a lever. And up until now, all serious off-road vehicles have had low range, and indeed I defined a soft-roader as a vehicle designed for off-road use but lacking low range.

And that’s why I’m annoyed with Volkswagen’s Amarok, because I’m going to have to change that definition.  No longer can it be said that vehicles without low range lack offroad capability.

Unlike most 4WD Amaroks, the Amarok 420TDI doesn’t have low range. Instead, it has an 8-speed automatic gearbox, traction control, constant 4WD via a Torsen centre differential, and a rear differential lock.  It also has the clearance and angles of a low-range 4WD ute, so I was very keen to find out just how good it’d go off-road, and in particular on steep, loose hill climbs and descents.

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And thus we headed out to some of my favourite tracks to experiment on the hills, the sort of incline where it’s hard to stand up – I slipped over at least twice. I’ve driven these hills before, and most vehicles need second or even first low to make it up. Properly steep hills, the sort you’d use low range for, no question.

First we descended, and found the Amarok has an unusual sort of hill descent control. There’s a button marked ‘Off-road’, and when you press it there’s a dash icon to tell you that you’re now ready for the rough stuff. The off-road button changes the ABS calibration, but also activates a hill descent control feature.   You then brake the vehicle to your desired speed, and release the brake pedal. The electronics take over, and lower you down the hill. 

In the past, I’ve been critical of such descent systems, because the vehicle speed was too fast, the systems were rough and the braking was poor. But the very latest versions are superb (Toyota, Land Rover, Jeep to name but three), and none more so than on the Amarok. 

Without low range, we descended steep hills under more control and at a slower pace than many low range vehicles could manage. Behind me, the safety car Patrol in first low had to slow down to avoid getting too close.

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Stability control off, rear cross-axle locker, Offroad Mode

Everything was smooth, controllable and reassuring. I was impressed, but then the track went over a spoon drain, so the Amarok was temporarily almost level. This is, apparently, the signal to disengage the descent control, and so when I went over the other side there was a temporary moment of high excitement and rather quicker speed than was perhaps ideal. But then wise to the ways of the vehicle I just lightly braked next time, and the problem was solved.

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So much for descending. Ascending is the real test, so at the bottom I locked the VW into first high and pointed it at the hill. I was expecting it to make the hill but with some drama, some effort. But no. And this was steep; any stock vehicle would have needed brake pressure in first low to descend, but the ‘Rok needed only 1400rpm to ascend. I even stopped the car at the steepest point and restarted. Not a problem. The automatic hill hold even worked, and those things aren’t normally any good. Only for two seconds before it gave up, as per owner’s handbook, but at least it had a go.

So, I’m impressed again and it was only 10 minutes into the drive. Time for a steeper hill, one that’s defeated more than a few vehicles. This one’s also rougher, requiring some rut straddling and for an extra challenge, there’s rocks and washouts. But that was no problem for the Amarok.

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I’m amazed, but the Amarok has better throttle control than many low-range vehicles. In fact, if you didn’t know there was no transfer case, you wouldn’t notice. It’s possible to get inch-perfect control of torque and momentum.

Something else now apparent is the superb job VW has done on the traction control calibration, which kicks in early and effectively, unlike, say, that of the Ranger PX (the PX Mk2 is better) which takes a little while to wake up. The traction control, combined with the excellent gearbox and the exquisite throttle control make for a very effective off-roader. A good but simple test of an offroader is a three-point turn on a difficult track, as that’s where delicate throttle control is required. The Amarok passed that test with flying colours, several times.

There’s also the locking rear differential, which like so many others unfortunately disables traction control on the front wheels. The basic difference between a hill climb with the rear locker vs one with traction control is that you’re less likely to spin wheels with the locker, but once you do spin the locker can do no more for you, whereas traction control increases in effectiveness. It’s good to have both, but most of the time I’d be using traction control, not the rear locker.

We tried a third hill, even steeper and more slippery again. And again, the Amarok conquered it. Sure, it slipped here and there, but at road pressures on road tyres you’d certainly forgive it that, and I know for a fact some low-range vehicles can’t make that particular climb without using first low.

So what does all this mean? Firstly, let me state absolutely clearly and unequivocally that the Amarok TDI420 8-speed has very real and useful off-road capability, despite having no low range. It is not a toy, it is not a soft-roader, it is designed for and can handle the rough stuff. My litmus test is simple – would I drive it anywhere in the Victorian High Country, stock standard except for off-road tyres? And the answer is yes, because the car will run out of tyre grip and clearance before its 4WD transmission and gearing are a problem.

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I said at the start of this post that the Amarok is a car of the future. It’s only ever been a matter of time before low range isn’t needed, and the Amarok is the first of many serious off-roaders without a transfer case.  Low range is only there to produce large amounts of torque at low speeds, but with eight gear ratios and today’s modern engines there’s less and less need to use complex and heavy gears to multiply torque, and less need for engine braking for downhills as hill descent systems become ever more refined.

So the Amarok is hugely impressive, but not without some faults. Firstly, the parkbrake operates only on the rear wheels, but as the centre diff unlocks at rest that means the front wheels aren’t braked by the parkbrake at all. The result on a downhill is that you apply the parkbrake, the rear wheels lock and you slide down the hill.  The Torsen centre isn’t lockable, and it should be. It is possible for the system to send too much torque to the front wheels, for example, and not enough to the rear. Toyota use Torsen centres too, and they have lock facilities. And Toyota know 4X4s. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – I’m yet to see a better means of direct torque front/rear than a good old fashioned centre diff lock.

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Rear wheel madly spinning, neither front moving. This TDi made it out, but it had to work a bit harder than it should. If the centre diff could be locked that would have made life easier.

Also, the Amarok could also do with a bit more freedom to use the throttle. My test assistant continued his tradition of getting bogged at least once every test, and this time it was in mud. I would have been able to rock the vehicle out of its predicament, but the throttle response was deadened as the car decided it wasn’t going to give me the power I asked for. And I found the same thing on the hills on occasion too, foot flat to the floor, car not moving. This is a contrast to the Ranger, whose engineers believe in the old-fashioned way of the engine doing what the driver wants, not what the computers think it should be doing.

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See that root near the left front wheel? Tried to back up over it and no go, foot flat to the boards, computer said no. The hill is not that steep, but it’s a still a fair angle.

You may be wondering just what it would be like to drive a 4WD without low range, and of course you could simply leave your car in high range and see how far you get. But that won’t be as far or the same experience as the Amarok, because the designers of any vehicle with low range expected people to use it in difficult conditions, so the entire car is designed around that principle.

The Amarok TDI420, on the other hand, is designed on the premise that it’ll never have low range, and that’s quite a different starting point. You may think that, like soft-roaders, it’s all first gear work, but no.  A feature of the ZF gearbox in the Amarok is its willingness to use higher gears, and even at low speed it’ll shift into second, and surprisingly quickly into third, using the torque of the engine and the convertor lockup to maintain momentum. I’ll say it again, if you didn’t know the thing lacked low range you may well not notice.

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But would it be even better with low range? I think so. Engine braking still means less chance of a slip, and less stress on the brakes. A good example is Jeep’s system in the Grand Cherokee, which is even better than the Amarok’s, and I credit the difference to the Grand’s low range. 

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I also wonder about how many of those very slow ascents we could make with a heavy load, and the temperature of the transmission. Low range isn’t yet entirely redundant, but it’s nervously looking around.

It’s a bit of an off-roader writer’s cliche, but I think that there will be many, many buyers for whom this utes’s offroad capability are so far beyond what they would ever attempt that for those buyers, the transfer case is redundant.  

And for the rest of us it’s only a matter of time.

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AWD surety on fast dirt roads and bitumen is good to have.

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Many Victorian novice offroaders will recognise this shot!

And there’s this..

There’s also the Range Rover Sport which is offered in versions lacking low range. I’ve driven both back-to-back up steep, rutted hills, and while there’s no question the low range vehicle is more capable and does the job easier, the single range car is impressive enough.

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And this…

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There will be more on the Tomcar later…


Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!