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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…


23 Comments

  1. trackdaze
    October 22, 2015 at 5:43 pm — Reply

    Nope sorry nice try. The only one to benefit from deleting the transfer case is vw. I suspect the computer knocking power as it did was as a result of the not low enough gearset/cv et al would have been snapped had full torque been applied. Thats not the case (pun) with reduction gears.

    Whats the first gear ratio after final drive? As compared to the low range vw or similar?

    Things likely will change however when electric motors are part of the 4×4 driveline make up.

    • October 22, 2015 at 8:24 pm — Reply

      Yes, low gearing not low enough. I have those stats somewhere, will dig them out.

      • trackdaze
        October 23, 2015 at 8:01 am — Reply

        Cheers, how does one explain the knock on the front bumper?

        • October 23, 2015 at 8:09 am — Reply

          That was an errant stick on a track when I was doing around 30km/h. Made me realise again the value of a bullbar. Well spotted.

      • trackdaze
        October 24, 2015 at 9:33 am — Reply

        So I fished out a challenger for reference. Its 1st&2nd gear low ratios are 28.198 & 15.30. Whereas the VW 1st is 17.67 (from above) So a little higher than second gear low in what one we might say wouldn’t be benchmark for the lowest of reduction gearing.

        I just wonder if reverse ratio is lower than ordinarily? Because sometimes in difficult circumstances reverse may be the safest or only option? I’m sure I’ve heard an old bloke or two say never drive down something you can’t get out of….in reverse!

        Don’t get me wrong as I see these 8-9 speeders opening up some of the suv crowds capability. But offroading is to some degree about margins. A soft roader may be able to do it once or twice with care but if you turn a corner and it turns pear shaped lightweight driivelines/lower ground clearance etc under stress can turn a non event into one.

        I have no doubt you will get a single range VW amorok to the cape/across the Simpson over to Fraser island. But I’m not so sure I would want to be 3/4’s up a seriously long snotty hill climb in the Vic high country and a gearbox warning light come on.

        Like I said once electric drive becomes part of 4wd drive line its game on.

        • October 25, 2015 at 10:21 pm — Reply

          This Amarok is the same as a low-range 4X4 just doesn’t have low range. This is as distinct from a lightly-built softroader.

          • trackdaze
            October 26, 2015 at 5:42 pm

            Thanks for reminding me. Was a generalisation on the suv class.

            So it seems reverse gear is a bit of short at 3.3-1.

            Funny thing is the 6sp auto in the tdi400 appears to have lower ratios for both 1st and reverse than the 8speeder

        • SubyTim
          March 28, 2017 at 12:49 am — Reply

          There was a group from the Subaru 4WD club on QLD that took some lifted Foresters up the Victoria High country and they did fine one of them was an SF Forester GT (turbo model auto with no range) it handled it fine. also talking lessor ground clearance alot of the soft roaders run fully independant suspension which will often give you more ground clearance under the diff center than many of the tried and tested big trucks take a GU patrol they come standard with about 210mm GC a 2009 Forester has 220mm 🙂 225MM if its the XT turbo 🙂 that being said approach and departure angles and break over angles the patrol will obviously have better angles and more articulation and wheel travel. but clearance while very important isn’t everything either there is other factors 🙂

          • trackdaze
            March 28, 2017 at 10:21 am

            Im not saying they wont get to places. Well driven they will make it about anywhere. Its just that a single range gearbox even with an ultra low 1st gear is not even 2nd low in a reasonable low range vehicle. This is going to mean you may have to stress the driveline or drive faster through an obstacle than you otherwise would. This raises the risks of breakage or damage.

            Subarus are capable too but the risk is higher due to lighter built components that are more susceptable to being bent etc etc.

          • SubyTim
            June 27, 2017 at 12:29 am

            Yes and no they are lighter built but they are on a lighter vehicle there for the load on those components is alot less. also snapping a CV sucks but its alot easyier to fix on a little suby in the bush than breaking one on a big fourby in the bush

          • trackdaze
            June 27, 2017 at 6:17 am

            Loads and their paths work in quadradics engineering wise so those control arms, cvs are likely to be much lightler.

    • Off the beaten track
      October 23, 2015 at 9:04 pm — Reply

      Good review . Despite not having low range ,the test shows the Amarok is capable enough to satisfy a lot of twin cab buyers . The Amarok auto could be the start of a new direction for off-road vehicles – as it all hinges on the level of off -road worthiness required by the buyer .

      Interestingly (from VW’s specs ) , the final drive ratio’s 3.75 :1 and first gear’s 4.714 :1 and furthermore , there’s also torque converter slip which effectively drops the gearing to be slightly lower again . Given that this is not low in terms of proper low range gearing ,it’s impressive how capable the Amarok is .

      This raises the question : How much better off-road is an Amarok than a similarly geared diesel SUV , like a Land Rover Discovery Sport for example ?

  2. Dennis
    December 28, 2016 at 12:04 pm — Reply

    I would love to know how the amarok compares to , say , an auto ford ranger with low range.
    I can’t believe it has the climbing ability of a car with low range.
    You mentioned the patrol camera car, what gear was it in and how was it travelling compared to the amarok on the steepest climbs?
    I am thinking of buying one but as a keen off-roader Ime not sure

    • December 28, 2016 at 12:10 pm — Reply

      Not as good as the Ranger PX2 with low range if you want to get into the serious stuff. Patrol went well, no dramas.

      • Dennis moore
        December 30, 2016 at 5:30 pm — Reply

        Thanks for the reply. Dissapointed that it has no low range

  3. Chris BSomething
    March 19, 2017 at 10:30 am — Reply

    It seems to me, doing the math, the *could* have made this car full-on competitive with a low range car, being as they have 8 gears to play with, but didn’t, because they didn’t spread the ratios out enough. If they gave the top 6 gears as “normal” and reserved the bottom 2 for ultra low, we’d be all set. But they didn’t do that. Maybe they don’t have really tough stuff in Germany.

  4. SubyTim
    March 28, 2017 at 12:41 am — Reply

    Isn’t it funny Subaru has been running around with a similar 4WD system for years and you’ve been only too happy to call it a soft roader and yet when a ute does it suddenly we need to change what we classify as a “soft roader” lifted Foresters in the petrol turbo model have been made by many to be absolute weapons off road without low range but the second a ute does it and its a new and accepted thing, I am curious the exclusion for tyres larger than 15mm on MC category vehicles that are AWD typically “soft roaders” would this in affect the Amarok? If not what makes Amarok any more deserving then a Forester or any other AWD? if someone says separate Chassis then why isn’t Pajero down there with the AWDs

    • March 28, 2017 at 6:30 am — Reply

      Hi Tim. The Amarok is NA class as it’s a ute, not M class. Read this for more info.

      https://practicalmotoring.com.au/voices/why-the-ford-everest-is-not-classfied-as-an-mc-offroader/

      Seperate chassis is irrelevant.

      As for why this is not a soft roader; clearance is the short answer and height of tyres. Subarus scrape where this will drive clean. Also, the latest Subarus run CVTs which I have found to overheat easily offroad, and on racetracks.

      Here is a full Forester review:

      https://practicalmotoring.com.au/car-reviews/2015-subaru-forester-diesel-cvt-review/

      You can see there at the bottom a highly modified Forester. That vehicle is amazing and capable keeping up with much larger vehicles. However, it needed a lot of mods and effort to get to that stage, and if the same amount of effort had gone into say a Prado it’d be further ahead again.

      While I am a big fan of softroaders and drive them offroad frequently as you can see from numerous reviews here, the fact is their clearance and angles are low, their drivetrain is often not great for offroad use, and they can’t carry a touring load as well as the larger vehicles.

      I hope that answers your concerns.

      • SubyTim
        April 8, 2017 at 2:19 am — Reply

        Angles are a pain but ground clearance? Sure the early ones with 200mm is relatively low but one review I have read lists the Amarok as having 192mm GC that’s less than the early foresters and well SH foresters and onward are better by more than an inch

        • April 8, 2017 at 6:55 am — Reply

          Ground clearance is poor on the Amarok at 192mm. The full independent Subarus are better…but their softer suspension means you quickly lose that advantage when the suspension compresses or a load.

          • SubyTim
            April 8, 2017 at 12:13 pm

            Yeah you can buy king springs for them which are stiffer but you loose travel

      • SubyTim
        April 8, 2017 at 2:44 am — Reply

        That was a very good review I wonder with the power issues you felt weather the XT model would’ve done it a lot easier

        • April 8, 2017 at 6:55 am — Reply

          Possibly, but you want torque down low not power up high for offroading. The XT would be a weapon in sand for that reason, but over ruts and up steep hills…not so sure.

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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!