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Wednesday, 23 May 2012 07:42

Keep River, Northern Territory

The track had vanished for the second time in the past half hour, but this time it looked as if it was gone for good. I pushed the Nissan into the hunched fronds of the spear grass, the once-proud three-metre-high stalks now bent by time, the dry season and the wind into a metre-high mass of jumbled rotting vegetation.

Suddenly, a fence line presented and while the ‘moving map’ on the Hema Navigator had predicted such an object, its instantaneous appearance still startled us a little. I swung the wheel hard left and we then bumped our way along beside it. A gateway loomed, its entry and exit virtually hidden by the mass of grass and low scrub that had grown up since the last vehicle had passed through here.

We were heading for the NT/WA border near the northern coast of Australia and a long way from anywhere. When we got to a stream about a kilometre later, its waters tamed by the dry season into long shallow pools and trickles in between, we wandered the banks looking for any sign of the track. There wasn’t any, even though the GPS said we were close – and even right on it at times.

Conflicting thoughts battled in my head; should we go on or turn back? I really wanted to continue, but we were on our own and not really set up for such an undertaking. I had staked a tyre on a cattle grid the previous day, leaving us only one spare; food (and beer) were short, and the trip to the coast could take another day or more, even though it was so tantalisingly close. We chickened out and turned back. What do they say about saving the fight for another day?

Our travels north of Kununurra, in the far north of WA, had started a couple of days previously as we headed out of town and drove this way and back on the crisscross of roads that cut across the irrigation area north of the town. Phase Two of the Ord River Irrigation Area is now well under way with the land being prepared for irrigation and cutting up into farm blocks.

Crossing the border, we left all the development behind, although the irrigation system will reach out this far when it’s completed. Just before the Keep River crossing 9km further on and well north of the national park of the same name, we turned onto a little-used track and headed north.

A small creek which normally has water flowing in it well into the dry season is crossed shortly afterwards and then about 10km north a number of tracks lead off to the left a short distance to the high banks of the Keep River. A few spindly trees cast a minimal amount of shade while rough-hewn steps make access easier to the water. We set up camp for the night.

Here the river is generally fresh because rock bars a short distance downstream help keep the salt incursions to a minimum and it is still a long way to the mouth. Crocs though – freshies and estuarine – dot the exposed rocks in the middle of the river, making swimming an absolute no-no. Still, those with a small tinnie could launch it from around here, but you’d need to pay attention to the rock bars that stretch across the stream and are easily visible at low tide.

Shortly afterwards on the track north another deeper creek is crossed, but luckily it has a solid rock bottom and, unless the water is deep and fast-flowing, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

By following the large almost-right-angled bend of the Keep River, the track heads east passing several old station ruins before swinging north. Along here the river is mainly salt and greatly affected by the tide – but for those searching for barra and other big fish, the camps along here are some of the most popular. It’s still a fair haul from the river’s mouth, though.

The track network north from here becomes a lot less used as large areas of salt-wracked flood plain begin to dominate the landscape. These plains might only flood during spring tides or when the Keep is in full spat but, even so, narrow soft channels wend their way across the plains waiting to trap the unwary.

Well west of the river on a grassy plain we passed among magical boabs and the occasional kapok and kurrajong tree, the track narrow and little used, before we came to yet another boggy creek crossing. After that the track disappeared, for the first time, but we pushed on – the border looking ridiculously close and easy to get to. We were wrong.

Turning around we headed back to the river and a campsite, tried our luck at a bit of fishing but the tides were wrong, while “You should have been here last week” was the only really relevant advice we received.

No doubt we’ll return, possibly for the fishing, but certainly for the adventure of actually reaching the border.

We Aussies are brilliant drivers with an unassailable knowledge of the road rules. Well, that's what we tell ourselves and anyone else who asks.

But do you really know the road rules as well as you think?

We've trawled through the drudgery of the NSW road legislation to bring you the 10 road rules you had no idea you were breaking.

Having an animal or person on your lap while driving

Driving with your pet Pug on your lap — or another kind of special friend — is now considered not having "proper control of a vehicle". The loophole here is that this does not apply if you are travelling less than 500m for the purpose of farming. Funnily enough, the rules do not specify if this loophole is only applicable to animals, though you'd need to be fairly creative to justify using your girlfriend for farming. Otherwise the fine is $324 and three demerit points, or $405 and four demerit points if committed in a school zone.

Turning left after a slip lane

The implementation of slips lanes has improved traffic flows, which is why you now receive two demerit points and a $189 fine if you ignore one and wait until after passing it to turn.

Beeping the horn

Sounding your horn wantonly is an offence. The only time it is permissible is when warning other motorists or animals of a moving vehicle, or if it is part of an anti-theft or alcohol interlock device fitted to the vehicle.

Continuously driving on the white edge line

100m is the total distance you can drive on the outside edge line of a road before it becomes a two demerit point and $189 offence. This includes when driving straight along a road, turning at an intersection, entering or leaving the road and stopping at the side of the road.

Splashing mud on bus passengers

According to the NSW rulebook you must slow down or stop completely so as not to splash mud on anyone in, on, entering, exiting or waiting for a bus. Otherwise you may incur a maximum penalty of 20 penalty units ($2,200).

Mobile phone use

Not using a mobile phone while driving doesn't just mean not speaking on it — it also applies to holding a phone to or near your ear, writing, sending or reading text messages, switching the phone on or off, or operating any other function of the phone.

Having your music up too loud

Anything deemed to cause unnecessary noise or smoke can be considered an offence. So no burnouts and keep the One Direction at a reasonable level.

Riding an unlit horse at night

Even though the motor vehicle has been around for over 100 years, many people insist that literal horsepower is still the best way to go. And for those that do, the regulations are almost as strict as those on motorists. So for all you Amish out there, make sure you have the correct combination of red and white lights fitted in the correct places.

Road Rage

Shaking your fists at and abusing fellow motorists can become a costly mistake if you're caught. Aggressive driving such as tailgating or sudden braking is also considered road rage. The maximum penalty for a first time road rage offence is $3,300 and 18 months in jail, while a second offence increases this to $5,500 and two years imprisonment. In both cases there is also the possibility of permanent license disqualification.

Riding a tricycle on the road

A 2008 amendment to the road rules defines anyone in a "wheeled recreational device or wheeled toy" to be a pedestrian rather than a motorist or rider. Therefore scooters, skateboards, rollerblades, tricycles and pedal cars cannot be ridden on any road which has a dividing line or a speed limit greater than 50km/h.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011 00:00

Luxury 4X4s

The word icon is probably thrown around too easily these days, but the Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen are two vehicles that certainly fit the tag.

Others to earn 4X4 icon status would be the Willys Jeep and Land Rover Series/Defender vehicles.

While the originals of these iconic vehicles were no-frills, extremely capable, and more affordable models, the current Rangie and G-Class are top-shelf off-roaders accessible to just a lucky few with the considerable dollars to spend on them. They remain capable and will take on some of the most serious terrain you will point a production vehicle at, but now they come with all the frills and are not so affordable.

They might be iconic, capable and expensive 4X4 wagons, but the Rangie and G-Class are very different vehicles. The Range Rover has more than 40 years of heritage behind it, yet the current model is the third generation of the original luxury 4X4 and it is expected to be replaced by an all-new, fourth-gen Rangie in 2013. As such, it is a totally contemporary vehicle that incorporates all mod-cons, and safety and performance features.

The Mercedes-Benz G-Class, on the other hand, has been around for 32 years but, unlike the Rangie, the G remains true to the original vehicle, and many of the body panels are still stamped in the original presses. The square, upright body is more that three decades old, and while a modern drivetrain and features have been retro-fitted to it, you can’t go past the fact that this is a vehicle based on a 30-year-old military wagon. A true Land Rover equivalent to the G-Class would be the Defender fitted with the Discovery’s TDV6 engine and passenger equipment, rather than the Rangie TDV8 lined up here.

At $164,350 for the Rangie and $170,380 for the G, these two vehicles compare well on price. Those prices are as tested and don’t include on-road costs. The Range Rover TDV8 costs $160,500, but add $1050 for the rear e-locker, $1800 for metallic paint, and $1000 for the black lacquer veneer interior trim on the test car. The G 350 Blue TEC lists at $161,680, but our test vehicle was fitted with a $3200 electric sunroof, $900 alarm system, $900 woodgrain trim, $1500 wood and leather steering wheel, $1100 tinted glass, and $1100 telephone pack.

The Mercedes is the newer vehicle of this high-priced duo to Australian shores after being reintroduced to the local market in 2011 following a 25-year hiatus.

Ironically, it was the Geländewagen’s high price that limited its success here back in the 1980s. The 2011 version arrived with two models — the G 350 Blue TEC as tested, and the G 55 AMG with a supercharged petrol V8 engine that costs upwards of $217,000.

The G-Class retains rugged commercial underpinnings with a separate ladder chassis and live axles front and rear, supporting a box-like five-door wagon body. The axles ride under traditional coil springs that deliver a firm ride on road, yet still give plenty of travel when off-road.

The firm ride is one of the first things you notice after taking to the road in the G 350. Small bumps and joints in the road are felt through the vehicle, making the ride jittery and unpleasant. So obvious was this that we stopped to check and adjust the tyre pressures at the first opportunity, but lowering them to the specified level did little to improve the ride.

The fact that the Benz rolls on 18-inch alloys wearing 60 series rubber doesn’t help the ride quality, but thankfully the G 350 can be optioned with 16-inch wheels wearing more practical 265/70R16 tyres. These would certainly be the go for off-road use and this size opens up many more options for all-terrain tyres. Mercedes-Benz Australia knows that most buyers of this vehicle will never take it off-road so it specifies the 18s as standard, and the 16s are a no-cost option.

Even on the 18s, the G offers a killer off-road combo. The suspension might give a stiff and flat ride on the tar, but it loosens up during low-speed off-road work to allow those live axles plenty of sway to keep the tyres in touch with terra firma. Both front and rear axles are fitted with manually activated, electronically switched differential locks, as is the centre diff. Three simple buttons conveniently placed high in the centre of the dash activate the diff locks in sequence; lock the centre diff as soon as you leave the tar and then the rear and front diffs respectively as the terrain gets tougher.

The G-Class is also fitted with electronic traction control, but this is disabled when low-range is selected. As a result, the G is next to useless off-road unless you actively operate the diff locks. It’s left spinning its wheels as soon as weight is transferred off them in loose or slippery terrain, so it’s best to choose your diff lock options early when heading into the rough stuff. Get that right and this old wagon is unstoppable. The punchy 540Nm turbo-diesel V6 engine provides the might to the locked axles via a full-time 4X4 system with high- and low-range. This is the latest version of the 3.0-litre engine delivering the increased torque output and 155kW of power. On paper, this high-tech mill promises 11.2L/100km of fuel use on the combined cycle, but the G 350 proved to be the thirstier on test, returning 13.13L/100km to the Rangie’s 11.89.

On the highway, the G 350 cruises at the speed limit quietly and effortlessly. Squeeze the long-travel throttle down and let the seven-speed automatic transmission shift back a couple of cogs and the car surges forward to overtake briskly or tackle hills with ease. It doesn’t have the urge or refinement of the Rover’s V8 engine, but it doesn’t lack for anything in the performance department.

The Range Rover V8 turbo-diesel engine was punched out to 4.4-litres last year and it’s one of the sweetest mills you will experience in the current crop of new 4X4s. It is now available exclusively in the RR Vogue. The parallel sequential turbocharged TDV8 makes 700Nm of effortless torque and 230kW of power. It is quiet at idle and cruising speeds, but emits a glorious V8 roar from its exhaust when you put the pedal down and point that huge bonnet for the hills.

The inclusion of the new eight-speed ZF transmission, again exclusive to the TDV8 Vogue, makes the model super economical when you consider its size and 2800kg weight. Its quoted combined cycle fuel numbers better many family sedan cars at 9.4L/100km, while on test it returned 11.89L/100km to better the Benz.

The third-generation Rangie has been around for nigh-on 10 years now, and is nearing the end of its life cycle. While the Geländewagen uses a traditional chassis with live axles and coil springs, as it has for more than 30 years, the current Rangie strayed from the trad formula when it was launched in 2002, with a monocoque chassis and full independent suspension using air struts.

Many purists will say you don’t get the desired wheel travel from independent suspension, but the Rangie does a great job by using long control arms to give heaps of travel. When low-range is selected in the transfer case, the air struts are cross-linked so that opposing wheels act upon each other just like those on a live axle to give plenty of articulation. Add in the height increase available from the adjustable air struts and it is close to the ultimate on- and off-road suspension package.

On the road in high-range, the corners are un-linked and the independent air suspension delivers taught dynamics and a luxurious ride befitting the ultimate luxury off-roader. Ten years on and there still isn’t a production 4X4 suspension system that offers the best of both worlds, as the Range Rover’s does.

The Rangie features Land Rover’s Terrain Response system that has five setting to optimise the calibration of the electronic traction and stability control, ABS, differentials, throttle, transmission and other adjustable systems for various road conditions. Coupled with the height adjustable suspension, it makes taking on tough terrain a bit more complicated than it is in the G 350. You need to select low-range, choose the right Terrain Response setting and the correct ride height. The centre diff is automatically locked as required and the rear diff lock is a similar e-locker that is a $1050 option. There is no factory front diff lock available on the Range Rover.

Our testing has found that there are really only three of the five Terrain Response settings you will need for general use: Normal, for everyday driving and most off-road use; Sand, for driving in soft sand or snow; and the Rock setting which is the sharpest off-road setting for the best off-road performance. Using these three settings will get you through most situations and, to our surprise, even the Normal setting did a great job off-road.

Breaking away from a muddy track to cross a deep rut to test out the G 350 required all three of its diff locks to get it across. At one point the front diff got hung-up on the ridge, but a bit of a re-align and some momentum got it over with plenty of action and mud-slinging. For comparison, we pointed the Rangie at the same rut and with its independent suspension it didn’t get hung-up on the crown, it had equal — if not more — wheel travel, the centre and rear diffs locked automatically, and it crawled over with ease, with TR in the Normal setting. Without a front diff lock there was more wheelspin at that end and we did find it a bit more difficult to place on rocky terrain with steering lock on as the rear end pushed the front axle straight ahead. Something that will restrict the Range Rover off-road is its 255/50-R19 tyres. The 19-inch wheels are the smallest diameter pieces you can fit over the Rangie’s massive disc brakes, and the low-profile tyres are susceptible to damage off-road There are very few options for all-terrain tyres for them.

Both these vehicles are exceptional off-road performers, but the Rangie does it easier and more comfortably. With its tough commercial vehicle platform you might expect the G-Class to fare better in the long term, but that is yet to be proven.

The Rangie is easier to drive on the road too, and much of that is thanks to its big and airy cabin with a huge glasshouse that gives great visibility all round. The Benz’s cabin is dark, narrow and tall, and its windows are much smaller making the interior feel more cramped than it actually is.

The Rangie’s rack and pinion steering is a lot lighter and more direct than the G’s recirculating ball steering box and, again, this makes driving more pleasurable and easier. Both vehicles corner flatter than you might expect of high-riding heavy wagons.

The Vogue’s interior makes it a winner for comfort as well. Light and spacious, it is loaded with luxury and convenience features even though the test vehicle was the lower specification of the TDV8 Vogue range. The TDV8 Vogue Autobiography sells for $212,500. Being a modern vehicle design, all the equipment is easy to reach and use.

Benz has loaded the G 350 with features such as heated power-adjustable leather seats, premium sound system and satnav — just like the Rangie has — but fitting them in a 30-year-old design has proved a challenge. An example is that the screen for the satnav and reversing camera is down low in the dash, beside the driver’s left knee, instead of being placed high where it is easier to see and operate without looking so far away from the road ahead.

You would have to really want the Mercedes-Benz to shell out your 170,000 clams for the G 350 ahead of the TDV8 Vogue. The Rangie matches the Benz off-road, is better on-road and is all round a more luxurious and easier vehicle to live with every day. Sure the G is exclusive, tough and purposeful, but for that sort of dough, you want all the luxury and trimmings that only a Range Rover can offer.

Few buyers of these vehicles will take them off-road regularly, so any advantage the G-Class might have there is nullified by the time spent on the roads in town. Nothing matches the Vogue for its blend of opulence and on- and off-road performance. The G 350 would be on the money for half the price, but at $170K, it’s difficult to see where the value is. Perhaps the military-spec, stripped-out G-Wagon Professional would be better priced and specified for the off-road user if it were to become available here.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012 00:00

4X4 Comparo: Ranger vs BT-50

To the casual observer, the Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50 share nothing but a market segment: they are both dual-cab utes, that much is obvious, but inside and out they look completely different. The Ford is a bluff, squared-off truck in the Ford F-150 mould; the Mazda wears the swept back, bulbous guards, corporate-Mazda look.

But drill down further, and their shared DNA is revealed; these utes are twins born after a shared gestation period and with an identical gene pool. Both were engineered by Ford Australia and use identical powertrains, chassis and suspension. Nature provided the identical genes; Ford and Mazda engineers nurtured them to become slightly different, as we will see.

We tested the six-speed automatic mid-spec dual cabs, and compared and contrasted what should have been simple variations of a theme. While much was as we expected, some was not. The results may surprise you…

To read the full story, check out the April issue of 4X4 Australia out now.

Thursday, 24 November 2011 00:00

Modified Mitsubishi Triton

Scott Newbie’s tale of 4X4 passion and the love of the outdoors begins back in New Zealand. Imagine an excited young lad heading off with his dad to watch the adrenalin-pumping action of man and machine battling the elements; picture the boy’s widening eyes as a thundering vehicle approaches, engine screaming, and bursts through the bushes into view; watch his jaw drop as the 4X4 slews sideways into an impossible turn, tyres spinning frantically for grip in the sodden earth.

His senses are overwhelmed with the sight, sounds and smells of vehicles pushed to their limits in the heat of competition. At day’s end that clean shirt – the one his mum told him to take extra care of – is forever battle-scarred with honourable splatters of mud. He is completely and utterly hooked. And so it was that Scott and his dad would sneak out every chance they could to enjoy the buzz of NZ forest rallies.

The taste for mud

Having developed, quite literally, a taste for mud, Scott was keen to follow the path of many a good 4X4 enthusiast and share his passion with like-minded individuals by getting involved in the 4X4 industry. Not shy to roll up his sleeves, Scott’s first job was working for a company based in Christchurch that specialised in the design and fabrication of quality bullbars. It provided a strong grounding in the processes and techniques needed to fabricate durable, robust accessories, and gave Scott an up-close understanding of what constitutes quality and how to spot an inferior product.

Scott made the move to Australia and is now based in Perth with his wife Klaartje. Fortunately they have friends and family back in Melbourne, which gave Scott a perfect excuse to contemplate a big trip east, starting out on the great central road, through Alice Springs and maybe the Simpson Desert; and eventually winding back down to suburbia. Which meant Scott needed a great rig, with all the right kit.

Scott explained his choice of an ’09 dual-cab TD 2.5 Triton: “I have fond memories of my good-old trusty and much-beloved mate, the MQ Shorty. With a suspension lift and some chunky Mudzillas all round, there wasn’t much we couldn’t get through. Those tyres used to howl so loud they’d drown out the stereo – yep, good days.

“Sadly, the MQ fell victim to the Marysville fires in 2009. Since then I’ve had a couple of HiLuxes, but so did everyone else. It was time for a change and I wanted to try something a bit different.

“For my needs the Triton had all the right credentials and offered a cost-effective foundation on which to build a competent tourer. It still had to be a fully functional pick-up. I didn’t want something I couldn’t use for daily delivery duties or for loading up and heading bush for a few nights’ camping.

“I’ve had the Triton for almost two years now, and yes, that 2.5TD is good fun. It still puts a smile on my face when the turbo kicks in and gives me a firm shove in the back – especially since I fitted a Red Back 2.5-inch full-flow performance exhaust system.”

School of hard knocks

Being a four-wheel driving enthusiast for the best part of nine years can teach you a thing or two. The school of hard knocks is a good teacher of what not to do, and Scott is quick to point out the sense of always using quality equipment. “Get the right advice from people in the know and don’t cut corners when it comes to protecting your vehicle and the safety of your passengers,” he says. It’s a solid philosophy to live by, and you can see it working in the set-up and customisation of Scott’s truck.

Tough Dog adjustable struts and shocks are used to give the Triton its brutish stance and they’re coupled with Tough Dog coils and Superior Engineering Extended Shackles. While they give a modest 40mm lift, Scott was firm on the benefits.

“Off-road capabilities have been significantly improved,” he says, “with better ground clearance, enhanced wheel articulation over undulating terrain, and overall improvement in on-road stability and control.”

To make the best of the Triton’s newfound off-road prowess and ensure Scott can get turbo’s extra urge firmly down to terra firma, he’s enlisted the help of the impressive Mickey Thompson 265/75-R16 MTZ tyres.

With the ability to travel further off the blacktop, Scott has added a VMS Touring 500 GPS unit to make sure the Triton stays on its plotted course. Should the unthinkable happen, leaving Scott with no alternative but to ask for directions (never happen – right, guys?), he can always use the GME TX3100 UHF to check in with the convoy before Klaartje slaps him!

Protecting the Triton’s nether regions on these out-of-the-way excursions are Outback Accessories’ 3mm steel underbody protection plates. These cover both the sump and gearbox, and Outback Accessories’ rock sliders keep the sill straight and true when negotiating the rocky trails or creek crossings. Scott reckons these are essential. “It’s a real confidence thing,” he said, “to know you have solid frontal, underbody and sill protection.” Stormtrooper?

Up front, the Triton looks a little like a Star Wars stormtrooper, sporting competition smart bar work from the lads at X-Rox Bullbars. And turning total darkness into daylight is no mean feat, but Scott’s got any night-time departures covered with two LightForce Genesis, and three LightForce 140 Lance driving lights.

After driving all day to reach that little-known secluded spot, a comfortable camp is paramount. Being able to carry all the necessary gear for the trip safely and securely is critical to the success and enjoyment of the trip, but being able to access it easily is just as important. To help here Scott uses a combination of a Rhino Rack Alloy Roof Basket up front – perfect for smaller, lighter items – and a solid WindCheetah alloy roof rack for the rear tray, which also provides the mounting platform for the Eezi Awn Roof Tent. There’s even bright 4X4 Equip LED lights to help out when setting up after dusk.

“The Eezi Awn tent has been a real benefit,” Scott reckons. “It’s finished in quality canvas that is cool in summer but offers good protection and a comfortable night’s sleep even when the weather turns nasty.” Knowing there’s a comfy bed to fall into makes sitting around the campfire with a cleansing ale that little bit more relaxing.

Unlike a typical tradie’s rack, the WindCheetah sits a little lower, with the load that much closer to the Triton’s centre of gravity. Scott confirmed that it helps lower overall wind noise and reduces any impact on vehicle stability. It looks good too, highlighting the Triton’s radical rear design, which is a welcome departure from the more typical straight-up, box-shaped ute.

Even with the lower rack, there’s still plenty of headroom in the rear tub to put in the National Luna 40L fridge-freezer, to be stacked, no doubt, with drinks and tasties.

Taking responsibility for his own recovery and retrieval, Scott also keeps a Mean Green Recovery kit on board, along with 4X4 Equip Combo shovels and axes – just in case.

I asked Scott to name the biggest impact he’d noticed after all the changes. “The most important mod I’ve made is the Tough Dog suspension system,” he said without hesitation. “It completely changes the attitude of the vehicle to one that is more responsive to driver input. It also lasts the distance when it comes to a lot of dune and corrugation work. The shocks never fade, which is pretty important when it comes to control. And coupling the upgraded suspension with the Mickey Thompson tyres has made the Triton a more than capable off-roader.

A word, too, from experience: “I would use adjustable struts and shocks over the non-tunable variety next time, just to avoid doing it twice.”

“The best feature of the vehicle would be the traction control – but only in certain situations,” Scott adds. “The fact that you can turn it off and on is great, because in mud and rough terrain it works well, but not on the beach – as the traction control kicks in, it takes your speed away so you lose momentum.”

Other benefits of the refit? “The addition of the roof tent and National Luna Fridge makes camping very comfortable, which is important if you want your wife to come along. The tent also has a clever quick-release system so the whole roof tent can be removed easily to create more storage up top.” Scott’s still working on perfecting the Triton. “High on the list of to-dos is a long-range fuel tank, dual-battery system and snorkel,” he says.

Scott’s tested out his mods in some fairly trying conditions. “The Triton recently did a trip to Southern Cross and the surrounding goldfields area. It performed really well in the less than favourable conditions. Great trip too – it’s good to get away sometimes and the area we were in felt very isolated from the rest of the world.” He gets plenty out of closer, long-weekend destinations too, and lists Brunswick, Lancelin and Pemberton as his favourite, easily accessible WA spots. He also reckons Mt Terrible, back in Victoria, is a great destination.

Team player

Scott says building up a good tourer is a team effort. “I’d like to thank Chris and his team down at Opposite Lock in Jandakot,” he says. “They have been really important in getting the Triton sorted and making it as capable as it is. Plus my mate Craig, who’s a great sounding board and, most importantly, my beautiful wife for putting up with me!” Smart thinking, Scott – say nice things about your wife before you ask for the okay to install those extra bits…

Scott’s approach to tweaking his Triton has been spot-on, and he’s had plenty of fun to prove it. “If you get the right information and have your accessories professionally installed, you won’t get stuck in the middle of nowhere when something lets go in the worst way.”

Sounds like good advice.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012 07:14

Review: VW Amarok auto

Volkswagen’s decision to introduce the Amarok ute powered by a small (compared to segment rivals) 2.0-litre turbo-diesel with manual-only transmission drew criticism from amateur and professional commentators alike. Would the engine be up to the task of the regular demands placed upon a workhorse vehicle and would the lack of an auto put off buyers seeking the ease of indirect cog swapping?

So far sales have steadily increased but not in stratospheric numbers, despite the fact the Amarok has (as stated in our Ute of the Year award) set a benchmark in ute dynamics, performance and quality finish.

The three-engine spec range of Amaroks named in order of torque output (300Nm, 340Nm, 400Nm) will be, by July, augmented with a 132kW bi-turbo diesel that adds 20Nm to the torque store. Peak power remains at 4000rpm like the current 120kW model, whereas the extra torque peaks at 1750rpm.

Crucially, as a class-leading introduction, the Amarok has been given an eight-speed ZF auto transmission. The new ’box will only be available on the all-wheel drive models and only with the higher-power engine. Towing capacity in the 132kW model increases to 3200kg.

The decision to only use the new auto in AWD models and not low-range equipped variants may surprise, but the ratios are such that the eight cogs provide enough flexibility, with short ratios in first and second, so the Amarok takes off in second gear and allows enough range to retain off-road function. No exact ratio figures were available at the launch in Spain, so we can only speculate as to the spacing.

New to Australia will be the single-cab Amarok, but potential customers will have to wait to see exactly what will be on offer. Auto/manual, powertrain; we received no answers. Some good news on the tray in that variant is that it can hold two pallets with room to spare. Specified with the new higher-power engine and auto combination (and consistent in-cab quality) would take the single cab workhorse into a new realm of capability. However, at this stage the ZF auto is destined for dual-cab models only.

While displacement remains at 1968cc for diesel Amaroks, the increase in power has been achieved through engine software tuning and larger turbo vanes for more air intake. Claimed combined cycle fuel consumption in the 132kW auto is 8.5L/100km; 8.0 for the BlueMotion.

Nothing has changed in on-road operation. The Amarok has the dynamics of an SUV – amazing in this vehicle class – and, when pushed through twisting mountain passes, there’s none of the body-roll you’d expect of a ute. The cab is quiet, even though we were driving vehicles shod with Goodyear Wranglers, which are more aggressive than Australian-market Pirelli Scorpions. Despite the vehicles being left-hand drive, all interior appointments were the same as Oz-spec, bar the sat-nav system and fuel-efficient stop-start technology. The latter was much more noticeable than in comparable fuel-efficiency strategies, with an evident judder at stop/start points.

The eight-speed auto is a joy. Controlled with a throttle that is light in operation, there was no harshness and no unruly kick-down even with the Sport mode engaged, which sharpened throttle response and provided even livelier performance from the tweaked bi-turbo diesel. It’s a shame that, at this stage, only the top-spec Amarok will snare the new gearbox.

In most cases, vehicle manufacturers tailor a launch program especially for an off-road element, without being too extreme as not all journalists are experienced four-wheel drivers. This wasn’t the case in Spain. Far off the beaten track the course was a dedicated 4X4 driver-training facility that would have Land Rover Experience operatives interested, though it lacked mud. While there were VW staffers at the start of any severe obstacle, we were surprised that in-cab chaperones were not employed to make sure the right line was taken. Given that we first tackled the course in a high-riding VW Crafter, the off-camber slopes, ditches and climbs seemed even more extreme.

The Amarok is our 4X4 Ute of the Year, but it has to be re-stated how capable it is off-road. The track surface was dusty and loose soil and gravel coated all the climbs and descents. A series of high-crested undulations tested undercarriage protection and ramp-over angles and we gave up explaining our progress over the “wombat” holes to the German organisers. What’s the German word for wombat?

We were advised at each obstacle to engage the off-road mode that employs Hill Descent Control (HDC), which also works in reverse and tunes throttle and brake reactions according to input. There’s also traction control and a rear diff-lock can be employed if necessary. Ambling around the softer sections of the course, the Amaroks provided a smooth ride. The huge rubber bushings go a long way to help in the rear leaf-spring set-up, although no one could confirm whether we were riding on the comfort or optional heavy-duty suspension. Stopping the vehicle over the wombat hole with wheels in the air let us feel the traction control start to push us forward with slight throttle application and the suspension cycled through unfazed no matter the droop or compression at either end.

The most impressive feature of the off-road mode is the HDC. Its effectiveness is one thing, but it is the unfussed way it goes about its business that stands out. Nose over a steep incline and it will slow the Amarok to a crawl. But it’s not set to a limit; it reacts to throttle and brake application accordingly. We found no real need to use the manual mode of the auto to slow progress, in Drive it worked perfectly well no matter how steep the decline.

Locking the rear diff aided progress (traction control is not disabled), but we found the Amarok still made the worst climbs without it and with the off-road mode disabled, progress still wasn’t halted.

Amaroks have one of the best-protected underbodies of all the utes available here, and it was only on a few occasions that a lack of judgement called those plates to the fore, especially over the severe mogul tests.

The test vehicles had a great spray-on tub liner and a sporty hard tonneau cover on gas struts, but neither is confirmed for Australia. When questioned, PR confirmed VW’s stance on accessories such as bullbars are not on the agenda nor sanctioned, but the aftermarket is taking the issue in hand and producing what Aussie buyers require.

Prospective Amarok buyers hoping for Touareg’s V6 turbo-diesel in the auto will be disappointed, for now anyway…

Not that that matters. Amarok is a fantastic vehicle as it stands. And now that the niggle of low output/capacity engine and the lack an auto have been addressed, it’s appeal will only be broadened.

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