First drive: 2015 Volkswagen Amarok

Leave haybales and Busch to the F-150, VW's Amarok hauls havarti and Hoegaarden

The Amarok holds its own in the pickup segment, but it suffers from sub-par materials in the cockpit.

Pickups have been a discreet part of the Volkswagen lineup for over half a century, but they’ve always favored utility to off-road prowess, and have generally been a little bit … off-beat. The iconic rear-engined Bus and Vanagon both came in pickup versions, the Rabbit was reborn as the Caddy, and every front-engined Transporter van has spawned a pickup since the first-gen model was introduced in 1990.

So strictly speaking, the Amarok is certainly not Volkswagen’s first-ever pickup. But it stands out as the company’s first traditional body-on-frame truck designed with an equal emphasis on hauling and venturing off the beaten path. In Europe, the Amarok is primarily aimed at the Mitsubishi L200, the Nissan Navara and, of course, the Toyota Hilux.

By the numbers

Mechanically, the Amarok’s specifications vary from country to country. In Belgium, where I put the truck through its paces, entry-level models are powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel TDI engine that makes 138 horsepower at 3,500 rpm and 250 foot-pounds of torque from 1,600 to 2,250 rpm. More expensive models like the one tested here benefit from a twin-turbocharged version of the TDI that delivers 177 ponies at 4,000 rpm and a generous 295 foot-pounds of twist available from 1,500 to 2,250 rpm.

Both engines are available with either two- or four-wheel drive. The 180-horsepower TDI can be paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission at an extra cost, but my tester was fitted with a six-speed row-it-yourself gearbox.

The Amarok’s bed stretches about 61 inches long, which is just an inch smaller than the short box offered on the Chevrolet Colorado. It measures roughly 63 inches from side to side and 48 inches between the wheel arches, meaning it’s possible to load a pallet in the back. Finally, the Amarok can haul 2,151 pounds, and the loads of torque generated by the TDI mill enable it to tow over 6,600 pounds when properly equipped.

Looking the part

Instantly recognizable as a member of the Volkswagen family, the Amarok features a well-executed design characterized by styling cues like a tall, upright front end, sharp headlights, a twin-slat radiator grille with an oversized VW emblem and flared fenders all around. Lower-spec models are fitted with a black front bumper and steel wheels borrowed from the Transporter, but high-zoot trim levels feature a more premium look thanks to a body-colored front bumper, 16-inch alloy wheels and a chromed roll bar behind the cab. This is a good time to mention the tonneau cover and the side steps visible in the pictures are aftermarket accessories added by Volkswagen’s Belgian arm, the Amarok doesn’t ship that way from the factory.

2015 Volkswagen Amarok DoubleCab Highline
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

In the United States, the Amarok would likely be dwarfed by full-size pickups like the Ram 3500 and the Toyota Tundra, but in Europe it’s one of the biggest trucks on the road. The double-cab model isn’t even as long as the short-box Chevy Colorado, though it’s wider and taller by just inches.

The inside story

The Amarok could reasonably be cross-shopped against SUVs and crossovers in spite of its jumbo dimensions; it all depends on what buyers are looking for in an off-roader. No one’s going to pit it against a Tiguan, but for someone who regularly tows a boat, it could make for an interesting alternative to, say, a 150-Series Toyota Land Cruiser (sold as the Lexus GX on our shores).

Hard plastics aside, the Amarok’s cabin stands out as one of the best in Europe’s pickup segment.

Unfortunately, the Amarok’s cockpit doesn’t allow it to take on the Cruiser. Granted, the Highline model tested here offers acres of leather upholstery, but you’ll also find acres of hard plastics on the dashboard, the center console, the steering wheel and the door panels. That’s perfectly acceptable in a work truck, but it’s difficult to accept in a lifestyle-oriented model that costs over 40,000 Euros (that’s about $44,000 at current exchange rates, if you’re counting).

It’s a shame, because the rest of the cabin stands out as one of the best in Europe’s pickup segment. The Amarok boasts an ergonomic, car-like cockpit with familiar controls, numerous storage bins as well as ample space both up front and out back. The infotainment system is carried over straight from Volkswagen’s passenger car division, and it’s unquestionably one of the most user-friendly and straight-forward systems on the market. There’s almost no learning curve. Controlled by a 6.5-inch touch screen, the system groups all of the functions you’d expect to find like connectivity, entertainment and navigation, and it provides real-time traffic information. That’s handy, as Belgium has a lot more traffic jams than you’d ever imagine. Really, try getting out of Brussels during rush hour.

Volkswagen isn’t to blame for at least one of the Amarok’s foibles: the aftermarket tonneau cover feels nothing short of low-rent. The process of unlocking it and opening it generally takes two hands and it accurately defines the word flimsy.

Behind the wheel

The oil-burner clearly makes its presence known when you start it up, especially when it’s cold outside, but the purr impeccably matches the truck’s ruggedness. The rumble quiets down considerably as the engine warms up, but it never goes completely silent.

The twin-turbocharged TDI provides plenty of grunt and gobs of pulling power in all driving conditions – the Amarok isn’t your dad’s old smoke-belching Rabbit pickup. Although it weighs over 4,600 pounds, it can merge on the freeway faster than most of the compact hatchbacks that buzz around Europe.

2015 Volkswagen Amarok DoubleCab Highline
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

Speaking of freeway driving, the Amarok is surprisingly well-mannered at high speeds. Get it up to speed, slip it in sixth gear and you can comfortably drive for hours on end. That’s one of the truck’s most surprising aspects: It’s a fantastic highway cruiser. The seats are well padded, the ride is smooth and the rear end doesn’t bounce when the bed is empty like it does in less refined pickups.

Gas mileage is kept in check thanks in part to Volkswagen’s BlueMotion technology, which adds features like low-rolling resistance tires, regenerative braking and a start-stop system, but also thanks to the six-speed manual transmission. At freeway speeds, the turbo four spins at a leisurely 2,000 rpm – better yet, the low-end torque means you can comfortably pass without having to shift into fifth. All told, I averaged about 30 mpg over three days of mixed driving.

In the U.S, the Amarok would likely be dwarfed by full-size pickups like the Ram 3500, but in Europe it’s one of the biggest trucks on the road.

The power-steering system is responsive but not overly assisted, which makes meandering through small towns and parking in tight spots a breeze. However, the Amarok is much bigger than your average spot in a European parking lot, so I made it a point to always park as far away as possible from other cars to avoid dings and dents, especially because there’s no plastic cladding on the doors.

I wasn’t able to tow with the Amarok, but I couldn’t resist the urge to take it off the beaten path in order to test out the hill-descent control system, which keeps the truck at a crawl with no fuss even on steep, slippery terrain. The Amarok is a reasonably capable off-roader, its high ground clearance and its generous approach and departure angles allow it to conquer obstacles with ease. It’s not a Wrangler Rubicon or a Ford F-150 Raptor, but it wasn’t designed to be. Pure off-road chops aren’t what shoppers are looking for when they buy a truck like this.

Conclusion

The Volkswagen Amarok is a practical, rugged and well-rounded pickup that’s unfortunately hampered by sub-par materials in the cockpit. Folks looking to haul hay and goats through the Alps certainly won’t mind, but families who are cross-shopping the Amarok against a crossover or a SUV likely will.

Of course, there’s virtually no chance of seeing the current-gen Amarok show up at Volkswagen dealerships in the United States. For starters, the truck would be overly expensive due to the Chicken Tax, which slaps a 25-percent tariff on all imported commercial vehicles – the same tax that all but forced Volkswagen to stop selling rear-engined, Bus-based pickups on our shores 52-years ago. However, Volkswagen has confirmed it’s taking a good strong look at the commercial vehicle segment in the United States, so never say never.

Highs

  • Smooth TDI engine with gobs of torque
  • Relatively capable off-road
  • Comfortable, ergonomic cabin
  • Spacious cargo box
  • Surprisingly well-mannered on the highway

Lows

  • Hard plastics in the cabin
  • Expensive once options are piled on
  • We’re not getting it in the ‘States
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