Road test: Volkswagen Amarok converts sceptic
OF ALL the questions I get asked as a motoring writer, one of the most common is whether a dual-cab ute is a viable choice as a family car.
Ten years ago my answer was typically: "Yes, as long as you and your kids don't mind a horrible ride, rubbish rear passenger space, noisy engine, plastic cabins and disturbing crash test ratings". On reflection, it was my roundabout way of saying no.
I always understood the temptation though. Dad uses it as a work vehicle during the week and come the weekend, you throw the kids in the back and the lifestyle gear in the tray and, magically, the family only needs one car. Too good to be true? Yes. The compromises when compared to a good ol' sensible family wagon were just too long to list.
In 2013 things are a bit more complicated. Utes have seriously upped their game, spurred on by the European invasion of VW and its Amarok.
It's no surprise we've been seeing a lot of these Amaroks on our roads these past two years: the VW has appealed, thanks to its build quality, interior finish, off-road talents and a wonderfully refined diesel engine.
VW's ute rivals in Australia are no slouches either, of course but tellingly, the Amarok won Ute of the Year in 4x4 Australia Magazine in both 2011 and 2012, up against the might of Toyota's HiLux, Ford's Ranger, Nissan's Navara and Mazda's BT-50. That should tell you all you need to know about its work capabilities, load-lugging and bushability but the question remains, does it stand up as a family car, too?
First signs are good. Its Euro style makes you proud to show it off on your driveway. Its imposing size tells your neighbours you're a go-anywhere family of action and the inside is as close to car standard as you'll find in any ute. It still doesn't rival a VW Golf's cabin but it is very close.
Not bad when you consider this Amarok is the entry level dual-cab variant. Flash the dollars and you can find yourself in the Amarok Ultimate, complete with 19-inch wheels, park distance control, leather, dual zone A/C and Bluetooth. Don't take this one to the building site, though.
Rear seating in the dual-cab Amarok is superb. A genuine three adults space. Driver and passenger are well cared for too and the sense of space inside is class-leading.
But the trumps are the engine and gearbox. The Amarok's 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel with twin-turbochargers is a gem. Bags of torque from next-to-no revs and so wonderfully refined around town and on the highway mean the cabin is always a serene place to be.
Mated to VW's eight-speed auto gearbox that seamlessly cog-swapped on my test, it's an impressive combination that returned a palatable nine litres/100km.
With a five-star ANCAP safety rating, I'm close to saying the Amarok succeeds 100% as a viable family car but those talented off-road ute abilities have to come at an on-road cost.
It's still a traditional body-on-chassis construction and rear leaf sprung, so - particularly with a lightly-loaded or empty tray - the Amarok does bounce over uneven surfaces and lean in the turns. But positively, remains surefooted and the ride impressive, considering its near-1000kg payload.
If you still love the true comfort, feedback and handling abilities of a decent car, a ute will never be a replacement. But in the dual-cab Amarok, I'm as close to recommending it as a viable family car alternative than any other truck I've tested.
Model: Volkswagen Amarok TDI420 4Motion Dual Cab.
Details: Four-door all-wheel-drive dual-cab ute.
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbocharged diesel generating maximum power of 132kW @ 4000rpm and peak torque of 420Nm at 1750rpm.
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.
Consumption: 8.3 litres/100km (combined average).
Towing capacity: 3000kg (braked).
Bottom line: From $45,990.