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NELSPRUIT – “Can the Amarok V6 cut it in the rough stuff?” This has become a common question from 4x4 enthusiasts when it comes to Volkswagen's double-cab bakkie.

In my opinion, the Amarok V6 is the most competent leisure bakkie in our market (read the road test here). It's powerful, refined and feels more like a luxury SUV with a load bay than a commercial vehicle. This notion and the fact that it does without a low-range transfer case may give the impression it does not like to get its wheels dirty. During the recent Spirit of Africa event, however, we had the opportunity to test both our driving skills and the ability of the Amarok at a level most owners will never experience…




The competition

Local racing legend Sarel van der Merwe created the annual Spirit of Africa event for amateur 4x4 drivers to test their skills. Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles has been the sponsor of the competition for the past ten years, with the Amarok bakkie the vehicle of choice. This year was the first time the 3,0-litre V6 double-cab model was used for the off-road driver skill test, with 420 Southern African teams (including contenders from Namibia and Botswana) competing for a spot in the international competition later in 2019. It truly has become a global event with teams from Australia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Taiwan, China and Russia vying for overall honours in the International Spirit of Amarok event. I was part of the media challenge group that had the chance to experience some of the stages first-hand.




Technical challenges

Steep slopes littered with rocks and dongas were the order of the day on each of the technical challenges. Precision driving was required in order not to clip the strategically placed plastic poles that formed a corridor barely wider than the distance between the Amarok's mirrors. All this while sticking to a strict time limit...




In a bakkie with a manual transmission and low range, a lot of thought would have been needed to select the correct gear at the start of each obstacle as any shift mid-stage could spell disaster thanks to the loss of forward momentum. With the Amarok, the driver has to simply press the “off road” button and point the nose at the slope. First gear is low enough to crawl up virtually any incline and there is always extra power available under foot when needed. As the Volkswagen scaled the inclines, I could sense the torque being distributed to the wheels with traction, and forward progress was maintained.

A steady foot on the accelerator and the selection of diff-lock was all that was required when the going got really tough. The fact that 16 vehicles completed all the challenges with not so much as a scratch (although some egos certainly took a beating) shows the immense capability of the product.




The speed sections

Not usually part of a 4x4 challenge, the second half of the event consisted of speed sections. This is what happens when a multiple rally champion ("Supervan" himself) is responsible for constructing the courses. This time, the roads were more level and open with the odd loose stone section thrown in for good measure. In short, the fastest time wins, while contact with the plastic poles results in severe time penalties. The driver has the choice of either risking all and employing maximum attack (and be in danger of clipping a pole) or being more conservative and scrubbing off plenty of speed before entering a pole “gate”.




Not many owners will drive their bakkies in “rally mode” but the Amarok jumped at the opportunity to put all of its 165 kW (180 kW on overboost) through the Goodyear Wrangler tyres. Acceleration on dirt is impressive and the bakkie soon reached scary speeds over bumpy terrain. The driver needs to adjust to this rapid turn of speed and brake much earlier for a corner than would be the case is a less powerful machine. The heavy lump under the bonnet tends to push the nose wide when cornering on dirt and it's best to employ the slow-in-fast-out approach. Saying this, the Amarok was not designed to win rallies but made a pretty good effort to prove the contrary!





Conclusion

The Amarok can handle the rough stuff, full stop. Hardebaard 4x4 owners may sneer at the VW as it makes off-road driving a cinch and requires less driver skill than most other double-cab bakkies. But it's unfair to criticise a product for overachievement. There is the issue of price, though, as the range starts at R727 800 and tops out at R818 200 for the Extreme version. But after spending two days with the V6 in the bush, I'd say it's worth every last cent...


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