“OK driver, get your revs to about two-three… keep to the left… keep to the left… “. The measured, gravelly drawl is unmistakable, even through the walkie-talkie. We’ve successfully negotiated a hectic scramble up a rutted ramp, tiptoed along a vertigo-inducing slope at just the right speed, and are now lining up for a last scramble up and over a gully as Sarel van der Merwe talks us through from his position on a rock outcrop up above.
What’s even more interesting is that Volkswagen has brought us to Aussenkehr on the banks of the Orange River in Namibia to try out the new 8-speed automatic transmission fitted to its Amarok pick-up – which, unlike what you’d expect from a 4×4, has no low range setting.
VW commercial vehicles man Jaco Steenekamp says the Amarok’s drivetrain is up to the job. “We decided to do away with low range because there is a wide spread of ratios,” he says. First gear is 4,8:1 and 6th is direct. (Reminiscent of the old VW Syncro’s low “donkey” first gear.)
Similar to the transmission used in the VW Touareg and the Audi Q7, the box is sourced from ZX. It is a conventional torque converter design that locks up as low as 1 200 r/min.
The Amarok’s 4motion all-wheel drive system detects wheel slip and by means of a viscous coupling l diverts torque flow to the axle where it is needed most, from a normal 40:60 front:rear split to as much as 65:35.
In practice, we never missed the low range. Our route took in punishing climbs, loose rock and, of course, plenty of sand – though just one true dune, a brute that needed skill in addition to the Amarok’s battery of traction aids.
The truth is, the modern 4×4 is able to call on sophisticated electronics to stand in for the mechanical systems that 4x4ers are used to. Anti-lock braking reliably creates “virtual” diff locks; on downhills, the same technology mimics the effects of engine braking to avoid runaway. The automatic Amarok uses these kinds of systems, in addition to its mechanical driveline to enhance its off-road ability. Simply push a button to engage a specific off-road driving mode that automatically optimises traction; the diff is mechanically lockable separately.
Thanks to drive-by-wire electronic throttle control and the automatic transmission’s inherent initial slip, you can drive this Amarok smoothly, even at walking pace over bumpy terrain that might otherwise induce jerkiness. The same characteristic is a distinct advantage in pulling away while towing.
The question, therefore, is not whether it all works – because quite clearly it does, and in a wide range of situations, too. More importantly, for hardcore 4x4ers anyway, is this kind of system tough enough to stand up to prolonged use in extreme situations? This upmarket 4×4 is pitched more at the leisure market, so the question may be moot, but we will certainly watch this development with interest.