03 Oct 2018

Volkswagen Amarok V6 Ultimate 580 2018 first drive review

VW delivers the dual-cab ute segment's most powerful truck yet
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The once mundane dual-cab ute market has split into a tray full of niche work-and-play toys that are proving tradies are indeed cashed-up and that perhaps pickups can be a replacement for defunct Aussie Falcon and Commodore product - even the old V8s.

Just look no further than the launch for the Volkswagen Amarok V6 Ultimate 580 - not a speck of dust let alone gravel or off-road course was included in the 400km-odd loop prescribed for driving on over two days.

Instead, the program consisted of driving on city freeways, twisting back roads and a hell-for-leather run up a fully closed Targa stage in the Victorian alpine region in what Volkswagen calls “the muscle car of the modern era.”

It sounds a stretch but tuned-up to produce a name-fitting 580 Newton-metres and 200kW (on overboost from a regular 190kW), this German machine is indeed genre-busting. Newton-metre for newton-metre, it puts out more grunt than the last of the 6.2-litre naturally-aspirated petrol V8 Holden Commodore utes of just a few years ago.

It’s not the only German muscle ute in town, though, with Mercedes-Benz landing its V6-powered X-Class later in 2018. That will produce 190kW and 550Nm and would seem the spark which ignited a power war between the only two European utes on the market. Is this the beginning of a modern-day blue vs red type ute rivalry?

The incoming Benz claims a 0-100km/h of just 7.5sec, the old Ultimate 550 claimed 7.9sec, and now with just 30Nm and an intermittently available 10kW boost, the 580 has dropped to a claimed 7.3 seconds.

So, sub 7.0-second dual-cab utes might be just around the corner… but is this an answer to a question no one asked?

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Overview

If you need a work truck with benchmark payload and tough-as-nails off-road cred this is not it, but if you want benchmark performance, ride and bragging rights, the Ultimate has it.

The thing traditionally going against utes like this top-spec Amarok V6, which was the most expensive dual-cab ute just a couple years ago, and new machines like the Ford Ranger Raptor and Mercedes-Benz X-Class V6 (which now is the most expensive ute in this size) has been the price. It seemed inconceivable that anyone after a work truck would want to spend over $70,000 on something that was once common place working on a farm or belting across the outback.

But cashed-up tradies and blue-collar types after something with tough looks yet a refined ride are buying otherwise. VW says over 80 per cent of Amarok sales will be V6, and Mercedes has similar lofty sights.

The trade-off for this ute’s comparatively excellent ride and performance is a lighter payload in the segment of just over 850kg, but still a towing capacity of 3.5-tonnes that matches the best in its class.

Priced at $71,990 plus on-road costs the Ultimate competes with the top players – the Raptor, the Ram 1500, and the three-pointed star.

Upgraded from the previous Ultimate 550 the 580 brings a higher output tune from the same 3.0-litre turbo diesel V6 engine, producing 580Nm of torque and 190kW of power, with 200kW on overboost (activated for up to 10 seconds when the accelerator is pressed over 70 per cent). That kicks it up over the incoming Mercedes-Benz which will land with 190kW and 550Nm – splitting hairs maybe, but no doubt a war is brewing between German foes.

There are further changes to the new model to differentiate it over the outgoing model, including one inch larger new-look 20-inch alloys, black roof lining and pillar trims, new front bumper and (the pictured) Peacock green paint.

Otherwise, the inclusions are similar to before; Nappa leather trim, electric adjustable and heated front seats, electric mirrors, spray-on tray cover and stainless-steel sports bar and side steps.

Its all-wheel-drive system is permanent and there’s no selector like in most competitors for switching between two-high, four-high and four-low. That means there’s also no low range for off-roading, but its diff lock and off-road mode promise capable performance and a simpler setup for driving off the beaten track.

What's the interior like?

It's neat and tidy for a ute and presented similar to most of the company’s other models. The plastics are tougher and not as pretty but don’t feel cheap or flimsy. For the driver, the seat has a good amount of adjustability and the steering wheel, finished with contrasting stitching, feels nice in the hands. Elevating comfort are two-step heated seats and an accurate climate control that’s quick to change temperature.

Inside, the front of the cabin feels big and the wide centre console helps put some space between occupants. It isn’t as capacious in the rear where the bench sits higher than the front, so headroom is a slightly squished.

The infotainment system is well presented and has CarPlay/Auto connectivity for simple phone mirroring and the interior is well presented, particularly with the Nappa leather trim and black headliner.

The Amarok beats most rivals for tray practicality, taking a standard Australian pallet between its arches (1222mm) and the protective tray liner, which is spray-on, doesn’t steal space like a drop-in tub.

What's it like on the road?

The engine is a beast that produces tremendous pull on full throttle right up to redline, and that’s a big part of the attraction for buyers. Using the same 3.0-litre turbocharged diesel V6 as the previous Ultimate 550 (that produced 180kW/550Nm), a revised tune sees the numbers grow to 190kW with a 200kW overboost (of up to 10 seconds) and 580Nm of torque. It’s mated to an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, which adjusts the front- and rear-wheel torque bias on the fly.

Despite VW calling this the modern-day muscle car, it doesn’t produce a soundtrack worthy of the label.

With on-road rather than off-road use the focus (just look at those protruding 20-inch alloys), the Ultimate excels where those cashed-up tradies and blue-collar weekend warriors will likely use the car heavily – around the city and on highway roads.

The ride is settled and calmer in the rear than most due to a softer compression and rebound that sacrifices some payload – this isn’t a one-tonne ute – and is one of the more compliant rides you’ll get in something that can tow 3.5-tonne and have a dog in the tray. It settles quickly too, keeping a stable foot around corners.

Unusually, VW closed the Lake Mountain sealed-road Targa stage in Victoria as part of the launch loop. There’s no doubt this is not a setting most ute drivers will get in, and some will criticise the lack of an off-road component, but here’s an over $70k dual-cab 4X4 ute marketed as a muscle car – make of that as you will.

Regardless, the Ultimate 580 showed it is capable of more than just a quick 7.3sec 0-100km/h sprint, linking up 69 corners of varying difficulty on the edge of its dynamic ability with ease. Hitting mid-corner bumps at pace the chassis remained composed and communicated its grip well. The steering isn’t crisp, and it lacks the feedback and accuracy of most passenger cars, but it’s pretty easy to steer quickly.

Driveability around traffic and the ‘burbs is complemented by the power on tap and the eight-speed auto doesn’t hesitate to engage from a standstill while offering a smooth ladder of gears to fire through when on the move. The auto-stop start can be a little annoying though, taking a second to get going and shutting off frequently, but it can be switched off.

We managed a foray into the woods and onto some rutted off-road fire trails and the new Amarok Ultimate, like the current range, is simple to drive on fairly rugged roads without having to think about drivetrain settings as it is all done automatically, except for a diff lock and an off-road button.

Verdict

Is the Ultimate the ultimate ute? The segment has become too broad to paint a single king. But for now, it’s the muscle car of the segment, easily outgunning rivals (though the Hemi V8-powered Ram is a more powerful but larger ute option) and offering a car-like ride with practical workhorse ability.

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