By Alisdair Suttie 25 July 2012
Wednesday 25 July 2012. Fleet Voice Column.
The pick-up truck as an alternative to a company car SUV or 4x4 seems to have faded as the accessory de jour. Like all fads, the pick-up had its moment in the spotlight and now the glare has shifted elsewhere.
Much of the reason the pick-up became so popular was the appeal of the previous generation Mitsubishi L200. It had just enough manners to be considered a decent alternative to the then current crop of SUVs that cost around the same. That means Land Rover Freelander, Nissan X-Trail and Suzuki Grand Vitara.
The L200 [pictured right] also had the looks to make all of those urban cowboys (and I don’t mean builders who think 2x4 is just a way to multiply invoices) want one. What wasn’t to like? Chunky looks, a four-door option that made the car almost as practical as a saloon, and that great bog load bed for trips through the urban jungle to the DIY store.
Recently, the pick-up has reverted more to type as the wheels of trades people and those who need an all-wheel drive machine with some proper towing ability.
However, there are still a couple of new additions to the pick-up firmament that show the breed still has designs on attracting those rufty-tufty buyers looking for something outside of the mainstream SUV arena. These additions are the Ford Ranger and Volkswagen Amarok.
The Amarok is the longer standing arrival, pitching up in 2011 with the bold statement of offering the lowest carbon dioxide emissions in the class if you opt for the less powerful of the engines on offer.
In true VW style, the Amarok majors on quality and practicality, though the driving experience is far removed from a Golf’s. Cabin construction is solid and you can see the Amarok holding up well to the rigours of life as a working vehicle. It also has handsome good looks that mean you wouldn’t be ashamed of pulling up outside a plush hotel and worrying about being told the tradesman’s entrance is round the back, so long as you’d given it a good hose down beforehand.
The new Ford Ranger, on the other hand, takes its cue from the home of the pick-up: the US of A. It may be the first stride in Ford’s ‘One Model’ policy that will see single ranges of cars sold around the world rather than developing local product as Ford has done until now.
Regardless of the arguments for and against Ford’s model range policies, which have not always resulted in the happiest compromises, the Ranger is a bit of a looker. Yes, it’s a bit more American than we’re used to on this side of the pond, but it gets away with it. It is more yee-ha than la-di-da, for sure, but again you wouldn’t mind hopping out of it and into a swish restaurant, provided you’d swapped working denims for designer jeans.
Inside, the Ranger makes plenty of effort to appear civilised and, well, saloon-like in its cabin’s layout and style. There’s no awkward umbrella handbrake as there was in the previous Ranger, which was a reworked Mazda design. There’s also a centre console designed to look a little like that of the Ford Focus’, which is a positive step.
Where the Ranger loses out to the Amarok is the strength of its construction. The Volkswagen is precision engineered and has tight, squeak-free build, but the Ford takes a more traditional pick-up approach of fitting where it touches.
During our time trying the Ranger, we also noticed more than a few creaks from the dash plastics that drove us mad during a two-week period, so who knows how much mental anguish this would inflict had we just spent the thick end of £22,000 on it.
Yes, the Ranger we tried was fitted with the brawny 197bhp 3.2-litre, five-cylinder turbodiesel. With 347lb.ft of shove, this engine is never found wanting in the power stakes and it’s also blessed with a pleasingly baritone sound that has us thinking of some proper redneck V8 motors.
The Amarok is much more what you’d expect to find in the rest of the pick-up offerings with a four-cylinder 2.0-litre turbodiesel. Buyers of the Ranger can also choose a 2.2 turbodiesel with 148bhp, which is a more natural rival to the Amarok.
Granted, the ride and handling remain steadfastly utilitarian and it doesn’t deal with bumps as well as the Volkswagen Amarok, but the strength of the Ford’s engine has to be experienced.
During some extremely inclement weather, driving through muddy fields and deep water, the Ranger happily ticked along without the need for any toe-tapping on the pedals from the driver. With four-wheel drive easily selected on the fly, the Ranger made light work of some heavy going in rural Scotland.
The Amarok doesn’t quite offer the same muscularity with its 2.0-litre turbodiesel engines, but it will inch forward on tickover and keep going through the rough stuff. Volkswagen has also kitted the Amarok out with some clever off-road electronics, so you need never find yourself bogged down unless you have ventured further off the beaten track than common sense suggests is possible.
As a long-term ownership prospect, the Volkswagen has the edge on the Ford Ranger thanks to a slightly more forgiving, less jarring ride and steering that at least has some relevance to what the front wheels are up to. In the Ford’s favour is its massively commanding driving position that lets you look down on even those pedalling a Range Rover or Toyota Hilux. This is the sort of imperious driving position that makes you feel invincible.
It’s also the added height in the Ranger’s suspension that makes it marginally the better when it comes to wading through deep water, which we’ve experienced plenty of in recent weeks thanks to the British summer.
Even so, the victor here is the Volkswagen Amarok for its more civilised demeanour. The Ford Ranger has all of the pick-up traits that made the Mitsubishi L200 an unexpected sales hit a decade back, but it hasn’t progressed much beyond that whereas the VW feels a more rounded package.
Both offer the company driver the same tax benefits as other pick-up trucks, so there are still sound business and financial reasons for choosing a pick-up over a more mainstream SUV. This is the crux of the matter for these pick-ups: they are just not good enough to drive or fuel efficient to compete with similarly priced SUVs or crossovers.
What is good, however, is that company buyers who need a pick-up now have the choice of two more excellent machines with improved comfort over previous generation pick-ups. The spotlight may have shifted elsewhere, but the Ford Ranger and Volkswagen Amarok still deserve their share of the limelight.
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