Build a sports car and compromises are accepted in order to deliver top dynamics. Create a ute (or pickup) such as the Ford Ranger Wildtrak or Volkswagen Amarok V6 Highline and these days the engineering demands are far greater.
Both the $60K-plus Wildtrak and Ultimate must play more than just the classic rugged workhorse role. In the last decade utes, perhaps more than any other category, have leapt well beyond their predecessors in terms of overall ability.
The Ranger and Amarok have long been the top picks in the segment – and, in a clear sign that they have broadened their consumer reach, top model grades have become hugely popular.
This Ford and Volkswagen must remain tough off-road and practical wherever, while being able to double as a roomy family car and high-end conveyance. In essence they are replacing both kid-hauler and tough-as-nails ute in some households.
The question is whether a newly launched V6-engined Amarok – the most powerful and most expensive contender in the segment – can challenge an older but hugely popular Ranger rival that was wholly designed and developed in Australia.
Ford Ranger Wildtrak ($60,090 plus on-road costs)
Volkswagen Amarok V6 Ultimate ($67,990 plus on-road costs)
Spending $60K-plus on a dual-cab ute could seem absurd. If that’s the case it’s worth remembering that the one-rung-down Ranger XLT costs $55,590 plus on-road costs, while the Amarok V6 Highline starts from $59,990 (plus orc).
Ford charges another $4500 to move to the Wildtrak tested here, while Volkswagen asks for $8000 to upgrade to the Ultimate also present in this comparison test. At least from the outset, however, neither seems worth the extra spend.
The Ranger XLT already gets 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights and wipers, dual-zone climate control, 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with digital radio/satellite navigation and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology, and front and rear parking sensors with reverse-view camera.
A Technology Pack adds $1100 and features adaptive cruise control with forward collision alert, automatic high-beam, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assistance – all of which is standard on the Wildtrak that only further includes 18-inch wheels, part-leather trim with heated front seats, roof rails and a rear roller shutter.
All Amaroks lack the rear curtain airbags found in the Ford, while none of the above active safety systems are available either. But keep in mind the V6-engined Highline is only $4400 more expensive than the five-cylinder XLT yet otherwise matches it for kit, adding 18s but offering a smaller 6.3-inch infotainment screen.
Indeed, it’s difficult to see where the hefty extra spend with the Ultimate goes over the Highline – leather-trimmed, electrically adjustable and heated front seats, side steps, rear sports bar (all so far like Wildtrak), larger 19-inch wheels, a colour trip computer display and steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters for the standard automatic are about it.
First impressions are that the Amarok feels a whole size larger than the Ranger, but this is only partially true. At 1954-millimetres-wide the Volkswagen from the driver’s seat really does feel so much wider than the 1860mm Ford. But at 5254mm-long the Ultimate doesn’t stretch as far as the 5355mm Wildtrak.
Even the Amarok’s front seats feel broader than those of its rival, and those less than fully figured individuals will barely touch the side bolsters. The updated dash of the six-year-old model is as classy as ever, while the touchscreen and trip computer graphics are as simple yet ergonomically impressive as they are in a Golf.
From the tighter (yet no less comfortable) front seats to the narrower and shallower dashboard, the Ranger always feels sportier and more compact.
Especially in orange-tinged flagship guise, however, the cabin feels low-rent and gauche; a bit like comparing the decor of a Thailand ‘full moon’ party to a spot of high tea. Which one the target market of a ute will prefer, however, is ripe for debate.
Although the Ford feels notably cheaper – perhaps more than $10K cheaper – its touchscreen is larger and its twin trip computer screens (flanking the analogue tachometer) can permit, for example, sat-nav directions on the left and digital speedometer on the right.
While the voice control, sat-nav and digital radio functions work similarly well in each ute, only the Volkswagen permits Apple CarPlay to run concurrently with the integrated nav – the Ford deletes any formerly-entered nav when CarPlay is connected. Its six-speaker audio system further trumps its foe, too.
If only it were possible to combine the front half of the Amarok with the middle section of the Ranger.
The shorter Volkswagen trades at least one-third of the rear legroom of its rival and it features a backrest that is far too upright. Sure, three people will sit more comfortably across the bench thanks to that extra width, but the Ford is simply superb in every other way – from the nicely tilted squab to the gently reclined backrest.
For families the choice is clear, and that is even before we consider the standard powerpoint sitting on the rear console of the Wildtrak, next to a 12-volt socket that is singularly included in the less-than-ultimate Ultimate.
As is often the case, it’s swings and roundabouts. And if we needed to load up a backyard swing birthday present for an enthusiastic child, it would best fit in Amarok.
Entry between the tailgate is 1364mm, with a 1620mm maximum tray width and 1222mm between the wheelarches; 34mm/60mm/83mm-wider respectively. It’s that latter difference that means the Volkswagen is currently the only dual-cab ute to fit a standard wood-pallet in its tray.
However, Ranger edges closer for tray length – its 1549mm being only 6mm short – and only the Wildtrak gets a lockable shutter mechanism that slides over its smaller tray. But given that dual-cabs already offer reduced tray space compared with their two/three-seat brethren, every millimetre is to be savoured, covered or uncovered.
ON AND OFF ROAD
Without needing to shield your kids’ eyes, it’s fair to say the Amarok V6 is all about its girthy appendage. That its 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 engine makes 165kW of power between 2500rpm and 4500rpm, and 550Nm of torque from 1500rpm until 2500rpm, is one thing; that it can ‘grow’ to 180kW/580Nm thanks to overboost is another.
It’s little wonder that Volkswagen, which claims a 7.9-second 0-100km/h for the eight-speed auto-only ute, kicked off advertising at last year’s Bathurst V8 Supercars race.
Ford’s 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel may be one pot short of a six pack, but its 147kW at 3000rpm and 470Nm from 1750rpm and 2500rpm are still impressive.
The Ranger’s 2105kg kerb weight is 111kg lighter, too, while its 1095kg payload is 231kg heftier and 3500kg towing capacity rated a half-tonne ahead. Needless to say, that’s a workhorse onslaught for the technically less-grunty ute here.
In drivetrain terms the Ultimate feels like a Mercedes-Benz S-Class compared with the rough-and-tumble Wildtrak, though. On light throttle the Ford actually responds with instant vigour, but it’s a shame that enthusiasm is signalled by a gruff roar that sounds like a steam train speeding through a tunnel.
The Ranger’s auto likes to keep the engine on song, but it has clearly eaten too many lollies over lunch given how excitedly it bounces back through gears on hills when the torque-laden engine can clearly cop a taller ratio – as we found by using the tipshifter and asking it to slur to lower revs without issue.
Sharp relief is provided with the Amarok. Its auto sits in eighth gear seemingly forever, and rightly so. Yet at 120km/h that gear totals 2000rpm – the same as sixth in its rival. The closely stacked ratios, in concert with a narrow power band, simply provides seamless surge backed by creamy refinement beyond that of any ute.
It’s little wonder that the V6 claims to drink 7.8 litres per 100 kilometres of diesel on the combined fuel consumption cycle versus 8.9L/100km for its five-cylinder foe; although on test the gap narrowed to 9.1L/100km versus 9.3L/100km respectively.
If the Ford feels more rudimentary in the drivetrain department, then nothing could be further from the truth regarding its Australian-developed suspension package. Riding on bush-friendly 60-aspect tyres – or even chubbier 65-aspect on XLT – the Wildtrak offers superbly cushy ride quality over rough bitumen and dirt tracks alike.
Both utes offer ample ground clearance, a locking differential and wheel articulation off road, however – and we could not say one is better than the other, despite hours off the beaten track. The Ranger is probably just ahead thanks to 2WD mode that makes it more fun to ‘adjust’ on dirt and the inclusion of low-range gearing.
The Ultimate on lower-profile 55-aspect rubber – versus 60-aspect on Highline – initially offers comparable urban ride quality and medium-speed touring comfort, but it’s a veneer of competitiveness. On dirt the Volkswagen feels too stiff, and on country roads at 100km/h its pitchy and jolting ride really grates.
A major upside is handling that hints at hot-hatchback more than ute. When that engine is teamed with Continental ContiSportContact 5 tyres, the result is sharp cornering perfect for those who perhaps once owned a Golf GTI.
That description is cutting this ute short, however, because mid-corner bumps also fail to faze the Amarok despite utilising a crude leaf-spring suspension set-up.
It is incongruous, however, that the seemingly sportier ute has decidedly inferior steering; the slow rack feels truck-like and the vast, vacant on-centre patch is disconcerting.
Over the same bumpy corners the Ranger shifts slightly sideways, feeling lumpy and edgy. Its cornering limits are obviously lower, but they are otherwise remarkably impressive and its electronic stability control (ESC) is more silken and silent in operation – a hallmark of Aussie tuning.
Softer the Ford may be, but on smooth roads it is nicely balanced. Best of all the electric-assisted – versus hydraulic assisted – steering is utterly fantastic for a ute, with sharp, yet consistent and measured response. Along with that more compact cabin, the Ranger can feel more nimble despite its lower limits.
Additionally, despite seeming more rugged and unrefined, the Wildtrak has adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane-departure warning and lane-keep assistance all standard – a case of the less outwardly sophisticated ute actually being quite savvy behind the scenes.
TMR VERDICT | Which Vehicle Wins The 'Top Ute War'
We would recommend neither the Wildtrak nor the Ultimate – simply because the respective XLT and Highline is where the value lies with both Ranger and Amarok.
Either way, the drivetrain of the Volkswagen alone feels like it is worth $10K beyond its rival. The classy interior and sporty suspension further means that anyone downgrading (or upgrading) from a passenger vehicle will feel right at home here, at least from the driver’s seat. The Amarok is the contender this driver would choose.
Utes must be more than on-road superstars, however.
If many kilometres are spent on dirt or off-road, then the soothing yet rugged Wildtrak is the pick despite its noisy engine, picky auto and slower overall performance. It is also a real balancing act this Ford, with a cheap cabin but one that offers increased rear seat comfort and greater active and passive safety credentials.
Quite simply, the Amarok hits higher highs, but the Ranger is the better all-rounder; the former the pick if more time is spent travelling one-up with a large load out back, the latter if a greater number of bodies are loaded in and variety of surfaces encountered. Either way, these are the top picks in a genre that has come a long way.
- Ford Ranger Wildtrak – 4.0 stars
- Volkswagen Amarok V6 Ultimate – 4.0 stars
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