For the first time in years, there’s stirring in the midsize pickup truck market. The present players in the USA -- the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier -- are dinosaurs, relatively unchanged for ages. Meanwhile, General Motors is just launching some fresh entries with the GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado, which will offer both four-cylinder and V-6 gasoline engines, with a diesel coming along in 2015.
Honda is taking a year or so break from the market. A new Ridgeline is due for the 2016 model year. We also expect to see a new Nissan Frontier in the future, and mules for the next-generation Toyota Tacoma are busy testing.
On the domestic side, Chrysler and Ford have decided to pass on a midsize pickup, at least for now. There are rumors of a small Dodge pickup (below midsize) in the future, based on a Fiat. We’ll see if that comes to fruition. Ford offers its latest midsize Ranger in other markets, but in the USA Ford is going at the pickup truck market with just a single big stick: its new aluminum-bodied F-150.
Another company that has a midsize pickup outside the U.S. is Volkswagen. The Volkswagen Amarok offers four doors and one bed length (a touch over 5 feet long). It’s similar in size to the Frontier Crew Cab and Tacoma Double Cab, as well as the Colorado/Canyon Crew Cab with the shorter bed. While in England recently, I spent a few days with the Amarok.
My test vehicle was a loaded Volkswagen Amarok Canyon. Power came from a twin-turbo, 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel with 180 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. It’s hitched to an eight-speed automatic, putting power down via a full-time four-wheel-drive system. Buyers can also get a single-turbo diesel (140 hp and 251 lb-ft), a six-speed manual gearbox, and a part-time four-wheel-drive system with a low-range transfer case. My top-spec model with all-wheel drive featured the softer, “comfort” suspension and 19-inch wheels.
My Volkswagen Amarok stickered for £31,820 (about $52,000), but remember that cars are more expensive in the U.K.; that £31,820 is about the same as a BMW 335i Luxury, which is $44,450 here. The base Amarok is £20,720, which is about the price of a Ford Focus ST, or $27,000 in our market.
On the road, it’s very smooth and refined for a pickup but don’t mistake the Volkswagen Amarok for a truck version of VW’s Touareg SUV. The Amarok is a traditional body-on-frame pickup. As such, rough pavement sends shakes and quivers through the chassis, along with a fair share of squeaks and rattles. The steering is linear but offers little feedback. But slow your pace and remember that the Amarok is a pickup truck and it impresses.
As far as straight-line speed goes, VW quotes a 0-62 mph time of 11.3 seconds. That sounds slow on paper but in the real world, the diesel engine’s torque and fast-shifting automatic transmission means it feels much quicker. Driven enthusiastically in the U.K., we averaged 23 mpg. I’m sure that number would improve with a lighter right foot.
Inside, the Amarok carries a familiar VW design and layout, with simple, logical controls. Space is good in both rows, though the rear seat lacks under-seat storage and other utility features you find in many full-size trucks. The plastics also aren’t up to the same levels as what you find in VW’s cars.
Unfortunately, we don’t expect to see the Amarok in America any time soon, but VW has been casually talking about a pickup for our market in the future. The chicken tax (25 percent import tax on all trucks built outside NAFTA countries) means that VW would likely need to build any pickup sold here either in Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Puebla, Mexico, rather than in Argentina and Germany as is the case now.
But does America need a VW pickup? Better question: Does America want midsize pickups at all? Currently, they only make up 2 percent of the car and truck market. In 1994, that number was 8 percent. Full-size pickups make up 11 percent of the market. As I see it, today’s midsize pickups are too close in size to full-size trucks. Their limited sales volume means that they can’t be sold for much less than their full-size counterparts, so the savings for buyers aren’t that great. It’s simply economies of scale. Plus, when was the last time there weren’t huge discounts on a Ford F-150, a GM half-ton pickup, or a Ram 1500? Additionally, full-size trucks are making impressive gains in fuel economy, and most Americans want the biggest truck they can get for the money. It’s a big country; we have the space for big trucks. Still, VW will surely be watching Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon sales closely as it weighs its options for offering an Amarok in the USA.
2014 Volkswagen Amarok Canyon
On Sale:Now (In Europe)
Price as tested:£31,820 (in U.K.)
Engine:2.0-liter twin-turbo diesel DOHC 16-valve I-4/180 hp @ 4000 rpm, 310 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm
Layout:4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD pickup
L x W x H:206.9 x 87.7 x 72.2 in
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