Bloemfontein: The Volkswagen Amarok is dead, long live the Amarok.
Perhaps a bit dramatic but as everyone knows the current iteration is set to be replaced at the end of the year by a completely new Amarok (read about it here) built in the Ford plant in Silverton, Pretoria.
So what better way to give it a send-off than with the last Amarok Challenge in its current guise?
As happens every year there’s a media challenge and this year we were the first group to participate before 560 teams from South Africa, Botswana and Namibia descended on Bloemfontein from 23 April to 27 June to compete for the Amarok Challenge trophy.
As a result multiple South African rally champion and legendary racer Sarel van der Merwe, who’s the man behind the Challenge, made it clear in no uncertain terms that the bakkies were all new and that he would like them to stay unscathed. Or words to that effect, if you know him.
He wasn’t joking. When my driving partner from Maroela Media, Brendon Staniforth and I climbed into our individually branded bakkie, it had done 135 kilometres.
At the driver’s briefing Van der Merwe explained that we would first be doing the eight speed challenges before tackling the technical driving aspect of the event.
I doubt there’s anyone that enjoys driving that wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to push the V6 190kW (with an extra 10kW when overboost comes into play) double cab as fast as possible in the veld.
Easier said than done.
Because it’s a challenge and not just a race, careful driving had to be the order of the day.
The drag race down a grass airstrip needed a perfect getaway with a subtle combination of left foot braking and hard acceleration on take off. After a quarter mile we were piped by a hairbreadth but still very much in the running.
Each speed challenge had its own unique route flanked by white poles and red flag poles which if touched would add 10 or 20 seconds to the time depending on which one you hit.
On the face of it not so difficult, but Van der Merwe is a wily old fox.
Red flags placed strategically behind white poles on bends made sure that despite the sure-footedness of the Amarok it wasn’t necessarily point and squirt but rather brake planning, gentle throttle control and pinpoint steering that would ultimately succeed.
Between races we had time to reflect on the last 10 years of the Amarok.
Sure it may be a bit long in the tooth now, which is to be expected at the end of any car’s life cycle, but when it came out it was lauded for its interior quality and especially its car-like drive, handling and eight-speed automatic gearbox.
That handling is still there but the interior is starting to show its age especially against the competition. The 6.3-inch infotainment system makes the dash feel somewhat old even though the driving position is fantastic and cabin space cavernous.
That, as we know, is set to change radically when the new VW Amarok rolls off the assembly line.
A reverse challenge through “gates” and weaving through poles proved particularly difficult especially if you’re the navigator facing backwards and you have to say whether to turn left or right. Next time I’ll walk the course backwards.
When we headed in for lunch the two of us were lying joint first.
The technical challenges had more than just flags and poles to contend with, with a 7:30 time limit to complete a rocky, muddy 800 metre obstacle. Each second under would subtract 10 points from the starting 100 and each second over, one point.
Seems like a lot of time right? Especially after the speed challenges.
Again Van der Merwe was not going to make it easy and by the third set of flags you understand why the Amarok is wide enough for two Euro pallets as calls over the radio echoed the various teams’ pole-smacking ability.
I doubt one team made it on time and I reckon most of us hit a lot more poles than we’d like to admit.
The second technical section was the same route in reverse.
Let’s just say it wasn’t a good one for us as we tried to make up time and miss flags. Timewise we were on the button, flags, not so much.
Based on previous competitions we thought there may be one or two more obstacles to make up but it was the end of the day so we poured a drink and awaited our fate.
It wasn’t a podium but there was some satisfaction to winning the speed category of the Amarok Challenge courtesy of the quickest times and touching only four poles.
We’ll be back next year for sure, refreshed and with a whole new vehicle.
Long live the Amarok.