AUSSIES are a pragmatic bunch, especially when it comes to their 4x4s.
There’s no doubt the big T still rules the hearts and heads of a lot of people who live out where having a 4x4 is a necessity, not a fashion statement – but other brands are starting to make their presence felt. One of those interloper brands is Volkswagen.
The German stalwart has big plans for its lone dirt-trooping Amarok, but Australians still need convincing. Euro utes … seriously?
We joined the Volkswagen Australia team for a 1200km cross-country odyssey that took in three states and more than 1200km of dirt roads, aboard a pair of lightly modified Amaroks, including a V6 Ultimate.
The Ultimate’s 3.0-litre V6, plucked from under the bonnet of Porsche’s Cayenne, is creating a big stir for its category-topping 165kW and 550Nm output, and VW is determined to make the most of the momentum by getting out amongst the people that actually use 4x4s properly.
Mods to our factory-fresh cars are minimal; along with the standard sports bar in the rear of the V6 Ultimate’s ute tray, a black lockable roller shutter has been added, along with a VW genuine accessories-sourced roof rack and platform combo, an ARB awning and sand-shovel holder.
The usual 19-inch rims have been replaced with 17-inch versions from the Amarok Canyon special edition and finished in black, and they’ve been fitted with 265/60 R17 General Grabber G2s all-terrain tyres. There’s a set of rock sliders along the side of the car, but no bullbar or snorkel as VW Australia is yet to finalise approval for factory-fitted items.
A light bar with an aerial mount cleverly attaches to bracing fitted across the front of the radiator, and custom black graphics finish it off. The four-cylinder Amarok gets a canopy from ARB, roof rails and a rooftop tent.
We flew into Broken Hill to meet the cars, with plans to drive the 1200km to the second annual Big Red Bash music festival, held in the shadow of Big Red, 35km west of Birdsville. Music festivals have come a long way in the last decade, with VIP camping and backstage access obtainable for a price. Not this one.
The organisers’ list of what’s not on site is kind of eye-opening to this softy city slicker; there’s no power, no showers, no internet access, no hotels within 35km of the site (which in truth is just down the road in the outback) … in many ways it’s a throwback to the days when getting out amongst it was the best entertainment available.
It’s a journey not undertaken lightly, either. The unsealed roads that intersect the borders of NSW, Queensland and South Australia are graded periodically, but recent wet weather will make access a lottery.
Thankfully, the roads were looking good; even before we left Broken Hill, the bush telegraph was in full effect in the local coffee shop, with other festival goers helpfully passing on road-condition info before we set off.
The Big Bash is billed as a family event, and we joined a group of Amarok owners who have been on the road for a week already just to get to Broken Hill. They’d come from Sydney and Melbourne and all points in between to live an adventure many of us may only ever daydream about, and they did it in something that – out here, at least – is pretty far from the norm.
Twelve Amaroks of various ages congregated in the small town of Tibooburra, most towing camper trailers and outfitted with gear to get right off the beaten track. After a quick briefing from tour leader, Sam Petzy, and a refuel, we headed for our first stop, Cameron’s Corner.
I’d only ever driven the Amarok in more rural settings and some short coastal fire road traverses, so settling in with the torquey V6 over the loose, dusty gravel was a revelation.
The weather and grader gods had been kind, and the Silver City Highway was all gravelly goodness right past the Salt Lake and through to Cameron’s Corner, where we made camp for the night and lost several five-dollar notes trying to stick them to the roof of the Cameron’s Corner pub. City slickers …
Our luck varied the next day for the run from the intersection of NSW, Queensland and South Australia, as we’re obliged to take Omicron Road to Innamincka rather than the Strzelecki Track, but a second big day puts us within cooee of Birdsville, and a great night spent beside the Catchiekambo Waterhole.
The run along Cordillo Road towards Birdsville Developmental Road is an absolute corker. The roads were freshly graded and conditions perfect for a high-speed blast through its surprisingly frequent twists and turns – but the final run into Birdsville was a bit of a slog, with thick traffic on the way to the festival throwing up billowing dust clouds that made passing almost impossible.
Still, the Amarok fleet managed the journey with barely a hair out of place. One participant lost a side window to a stray rock, but clever use of a piece of real estate-sign Corflute from the back of a camper trailer soon saw the convoy back in action.
The V6 was an absolute boon in these conditions. There’s plenty in reserve when compared to the four-potter, which has to be worked a bit harder with a load on board. Pushing the off-road-mode button added noticeable additional torque to the front axle in the Ultimate, and it contributes to our appetite for fuel.
With full-time 4x4 always on hand, the relatively smooth dirt allowed us to limit the off-road mode for when we really needed it.
The rear-biased drive system gives the Amarok a bit of character, while its compliant suspension tune offers support in the middle of the stroke, despite the estimated 300kg of payload on board. Steering is excellent for a 4x4 ute, and the braking performance is top notch, too.
This is a trip designed to put the Amarok firmly in the sights of a cross section of people who use their vehicles just as their makers intended. While a lot of the roads on this trip could be tackled in a pretty standard SUV if the conditions were favourable, there wouldn’t be a lot left of it when you got home.
Out here, what was once almost exclusively Toyota Land Cruiser country is slowly but surely changing its stripes. There are still plenty of Cruisers and Prados, of course, but the Japanese brand’s once iron-clad grip on dusty outback roads is not what it once was.
The Big Red Bash provides a great snapshot of this brand drift. More than 6000 people descended on the tiny outback town, setting up a mini city 35km from Birdsville for the better part of a week – and they drove here, for the most part, in 4x4 utes.
Row upon row of 4x4s, the majority towing camper trailers or off-road vans, are lined up in an orderly semi-circle that’s almost two kilometres long on its outermost edge, all facing into a sound stage that’s nestled in the shade of Big Red. It’s an eclectic mix, too, but it follows current sales trends pretty closely.
Hiluxes rub fenders with new arch rival, Ford’s Ranger, while Isuzu D-Maxes nestle next to Nissan Navaras, with a smattering of oddities – a Mazda CX-7, a Commodore wagon and a couple of Land Rover Defenders – in amongst the sea of bullbars, awnings and cans of XXXX.
So, why has our band of Amarok owners looked to Germany for a 4x4 ute? Surprisingly, a lot of people picked it for its size. “I had my heart set on a new Hilux,” says Brendan McKee, who brought the entire clan along in their 2011 ’Rok. “But when I sat in the Amarok, it was just so much more comfortable. We’ve done a lot of work in ours, and it hasn’t missed a beat.”
Eric Yu uses his 2013 Ultimate for his day job as a sign writer in Melbourne, but he’s outfitted the rear to fit a large fridge, a custom-made single-drawer cabinet, electronics, a 12,000lb winch and more. A set of 33-inch BFG mud tyres, a bullbar, and custom drawers and canopy turn his workhorse into a play toy.
“We finished work on Friday afternoon, ditched the tools and were on our way to Broken Hill that same day,” he says. “This is my first 4x4, and it felt most like a car. I did try a Hilux, but it just felt old tech to me. I wanted something that felt a bit newer.”
Eric is typical of the group on this trek. They aren’t buying Amaroks because it’s trendy, or – as I initially suspected – because they enjoy challenging the status quo. The words ‘comfortable’ and ‘reliable’ come up again and again in conversations with these seriously car-minded people, and their rigs cover serious distances.
Property assessor Ian Gumley covers 60,000km a year in his Highline and reckons it’s the best tool for the job. “I’m a big guy, and everything else I tried just doesn’t have the same comfort,” he says. “And it’s easy on the pocket, too. I just changed the front rotors at 210,000km. Did the pads, too, but they could have gone longer.”
The crew enjoyed a couple of days at the mid-week festival, with three nights of shows from artists as diverse as Missy Higgins, Ian Moss and Kate Ceberano to country music heavyweights Lee Kernaghan, Christie Lamb and Troy Cassar-Daley. The weather was fair and the company great.
We expected to go to Birdsville in an Amarok and be laughed out of a town rammed full of Toyotas, but my theory was debunked almost immediately. Aussie buyers aren’t abandoning the brand that helped open up the outback by any means, but plenty of other rigs are starting to show up, dusty and dirty, in outback towns.
The Amarok’s penetration will always be limited in the bush by the lack of a dealership network, but in terms of being a valid, relevant product for a tough environment, it deserves a place at the outback pie-shop table.
There will still be snide asides from the diehards for a few years yet, but don’t be surprised to see more and more Amaroks carrying the marks of a week in the bush turn up in the office carpark on a Monday morning.
THE RIGHT TUNE
JOSH Cinzio is a man on the move – or, at least, his cars are. He runs an engine-tuning business out of South Australia called J-Tech Automotive Enhancements, specialising in remapping ECUs for all manner of 4x4s, but VWs in particular. He’s recently completed the work on a tune for the V6, netting owners up to 35kW and 84Nm extra grunt for a final result of 168kW and 505Nm.
More importantly, Josh backs himself and his work, insisting that every customer car gets its own tune. He even travels the country to install tunes, exhausts and other parts for customers.
He took his 2015 four-cylinder Amarok Highline to the Bash, fitted with Outback Armour suspension, an AFN bullbar and TJM rear bar, Delta Klassik Beadlock 18x9-inchers fitted with BF Goodrich K02 275/70 17s, as well as custom rock sliders from SC FabWorx in Brisbane.
It’s also running a stage one tune which gives the 2.0-litre four-potter 155kW and 520Nm. “It’s my second year, and it’s a fantastic event,” he said. “Great driving roads and it’s a great place to meet other VW enthusiasts. I’ll be back in 2018.”
BEST ’ROK IN TOWN
YOU’VE bought a new Amarok and you can’t find accessories for it. Do you wait until someone builds them; go buy another truck; or get sick of waiting, quit your high-paying IT job and start your own company importing and producing accessories for Amaroks? If you guessed the latter, then meet Ashley Gibbons, who runs Wolf 4x4 from Queensland.
South African born, he was exposed to Amaroks while visiting family and friends, before seeing them on the roads when he emigrated here.
His business literally kicked off from his bedroom floor in 2011, and it now runs from a facility in North Lakes, dispatching bits like Darche rooftop tents, Bilstein shock-based suspension kits of his own design and loads more.
A self-professed petrol-head, Ashley ditched fast cars for a Nissan X-Trail (“Yeah … that wasn’t the smartest car to start with,” he grinned) before scratching the Amarok itch with this car, a 2015 Dark Label limited edition.
As the importer of AFN bullbars and parts, Ashley’s car wears kit from the Portuguese company, as well as a raft of other kit, including a cleverly hidden Runva winch controller behind the VW badge, 6mm AFN underbody protection, 17-inch Fuel Vector rims on 285mm BF Goodrich K02s, Outback Armour suspension, EzyDown tailgate struts and Rhino Cab canopy, an awesome MSA drop slide and more.
“From a personal perspective, it was great to catch-up with fellow Amarok owners, some new faces and some old faces,” said Ashley. “For business, it was great to have possibly the most modified Amarok out there, which got plenty of attention from prospective customers … as well as the boys from Volkswagen Australia!”