Big, bold, brash and rugged – the all-american pick-up truck craze has started to gain momentum on this Side of the Atlantic. Marina checks out the pick of the bunch
A bold title perhaps, but for many people the reason for owning a sports utility vehicle often comes down to entirely practical choices – the need to transport bulky or heavy equipment, the ability to easily throw wet kit in the back after a day on the water, or the towing capacity that SUVs benefit from.
While most of the best luxury SUVs on the market offer the ability to do all of the above, there are often compromises – interior storage is soon taken up if you’re needing to move really bulky gear (fenders, ropes and winter covers all have a miraculous ability to become larger when trying to squeeze them in the back of the car with the back seats in place for the kids), and who really wants to damage that perfectly carpeted interior with soaking wet or dirty equipment?
The answer to these and many other problems lies in another form of vehicle – one that has long been embraced by our American brethren – the ubiquitous pick-up truck.
The market for pick-ups in the US has always been exceptional, with models such as the best-selling Ford F-series, Chevrolet Silverado and Dodge Ram accounting for well over half the 1.2 million pickups sold in America during 2016. In some states, such as Texas, they’re almost considered obligatory. And yet the UK and European markets have been slow to see the benefits.
European market pick-ups have historically fallen a long way short of their US cousins – basic and agricultural rather than plush and refined, the humble pick-up was more likely to have be seen full of tools on a building site than gracing your local marina. But times are changing – all of the mainstream manufacturers are now marketing luxury spec models packed with leather and tech, with vehicles such as the Toyota Hilux Invincible, Mitsubishi’s venerable L200 Barbarian and the Nissan Navara all accounting for the recent popularity boom. And with the growth has come all the competitive improvements you might imagine, with the latest crop of luxury pick-ups gaining advanced technology derived from passenger cars to deliver a considerably more refined, economical and car-like driving experience than we’ve seen in the past. And nowhere is this more noticeable or truer than with the VW Amarok.
A closer look
Launched six years ago, the Amarok was an immediate success for Volkswagen – the decision to market a more refined, better equipped pick-up was a brave choice, especially given it entered the race sporting just a 2-litre engine against the 2.5-, or even 3-litre variants offered by the competition. And yet the Amarok has never felt weak. Granted, the entry-level Startline and Trendline models with their 138bhp power units are more workhorse than racehorse, but the 180bhp variant in the Atacama spec tested here is a solid performer – helped in no small part by the addition of VW’s 4Motion selectable four-wheel drive transmission driven through an eight-speed automatic gearbox – managing a respectable 0-60 time of just 11.3 seconds.
For those customers seeking greater performance though, great news – VW has announced that the 2016 face lifted Amarok will be strengthened by the addition of a 3-litre V6 diesel, boasting power up to 221bhp and a maximum 550nm of torque – further improving the performance, capabilities and refinement of this already great vehicle.
And refinement is the key here, with the Atacama spec boasting leather upholstery, built-in sat nav, dual-zone Climatronic air conditioning and myriad styling and comfort accessories to elevate its luxurious level to that of most SUVs.
Don’t think that illusion is shattered with the driving experience either – with ABS (and off-road ABS), traction control and stability control systems, hill start and hill decent control, parking sensors front and rear, and a well considered and set-up chassis, the Amarok drives just like a normal SUV too. Add to this the usual high standards of Volkswagen build quality and you quickly forget you’re driving a big commercial vehicle with a load capacity of one-tonne.
Life with an Amarok
The four-door, five-seat double cab configuration of many modern pick-ups offers real versatility with ample space in the back seats for adults to travel in comfort. However, cubbyholes and storage bins aside, there is precious little secure luggage capacity unless you elect for a hard tonneau cover like the one fitted to our test vehicle. This £1,500 option transforms the vast 2.5m2 load space (big enough to take a standard Euro pallet sideways), into an enormous lockable boot – sufficient in size for anyone’s family luggage needs. The cover is removable too, should you ever require additional height (it should be noted its addition does cut the maximum payload limit by 45kg).
All this load space comes at a price though, and that price is physical size. The Amarok measures a staggering five and a quarter metres in length – longer than a Discovery, indeed longer than any European market SUV that springs to mind – making parking in the supermarket (or even the office) carpark something of an exercise in optimism and cooperation.
Fuel consumption is OK, rather than great – probably unsurprising given its weight: 3,170kg puts it heavier than most SUVs too – and performance, while adequate for the type of vehicle and its designed use, is not likely to win you the traffic light grand prix. That all said, the Amarok is not alone in these challenges – all European pick-ups are comparatively large and heavy, but they’re positively featherweight compared to their US kin.
So should you buy one? Well, if the benefits offered by pick-ups suit your lifestyle requirements and you’re happy to sacrifice a little of the top end SUV luxury in favour of a more rugged, hard-wearing workhorse, then the case for the Amarok is a fairly compelling one. It’s well made, well styled, refined and – let’s be honest – pick-ups are just a little bit cooler than an SUV too.
If you’re a company car user, the case becomes even stronger. There are some useful considerations that make the choice of a pick-up over an MPV, SUV or even a large estate more attractive – being a commercial vehicle, the Amarok enjoys fixed low Benefit-in-Kind company car tax, regardless of CO2 or market price. Businesses can claim back the VAT just as they can with vans, and being a commercial workhorse means realistic two-year (up to 25,000 mile) service intervals are achievable, so the increased fuel costs can be partly offset by reduced servicing.
Add to this the payload of one-tonne, perfect for moving a heavy outboard or all the sailing kit you could possibly wish to carry, and the enormous towing weight, and what’s not to love.