Volkswagen's Amarok Canyon a real show pony
Limited edition Amarok is a bright lights, big city ute
We Kiwis do love our utes. In a booming new-vehicle market, the pickup truck is the third most popular genre overall, behind small cars and sports utility vehicles (SUVs).
Volkswagen Amarok Canyon
Registrations of new commercial vehicles overall are over 20 per cent up on this time last year, a growth rate twice that of passenger cars.
There's something that Kiwis love even more than utes, and that's dressed-up utes.
High-end double-cab pickups are now often regarded as pseudo-SUVs and makers have responded with models dressed to thrill, like Ford's Ranger Wildtrak or the seemingly endless line of special-edition Toyota Hiluxes, such as the new TRD Sportivo (although that one's as much about chasing volume as it is about being cool).
Mazda New Zealand has also had a go at creating a look-at-me version of the BT-50, with a local option package called Arashi.
The Volkswagen Amarok is not a big player in the pickup market. The Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux outsell it eight-to-one, for example. But despite - or perhaps because of - that, it does sit on a pedestal as the poshest pickup around.
The limited edition Amarok has carpet in the back, lights on top and a stylish interior.
It's the only one with a European badge on its grille of course, but it's also undeniably impressive in terms of style and cabin quality. It commands attention.
So it's only natural that Volkswagen should send the flagship Amarok double-cab in for an SUV-style makeover. Look what's emerged: the limited-edition Canyon.
From the outlandish looks, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Canyon is a bit beyond what sober VW could envisage. Another local concoction, perhaps?
Not so. The Amarok Canyon is a full factory model, albeit one available in restricted numbers for New Zealand: just 60 units are allocated, another numeric celebration of the brand's 60th anniversary in this country. It costs $69,990, which represents a $4000 premium over the usual Amarok flagship, the Highline.
The hero colour is copper and exclusive to Canyon. But you can also have it in less lurid hues, such as silver, grey and beige.
The Canyon wears darkened head and tail lights, special decals and a unique design of alloy wheels with Pirelli Scorpion tyres. There's a substantial styling bar over the tray and a hard lid fitted as standard. The latter is actually a locally produced item, but integrates beautifully with the rest of the package.
If you have any doubt that this is a prestige vehicle rather than a workhorse, take a look at the tray. Many utes have tough plastic liners to protect the steel from knocks and scrapes; this one is fully carpeted, so there's not much chance of chucking the chainsaw in there. It's heavy-duty material of course, but still carpet. That's load-carrying luxury for sure.
Inside, there are two-tone leather seats, with a combination of colours that VW calls Anthracite and Moonrock; you could also call them light grey and dark grey. There's a nice touch in the trim on the leather steering wheel and seats, with stitching that matches the exterior body colour. So in our test car, there was a hint of orange everywhere you looked.
I've managed to make it halfway through this story without mentioning the most arresting part of the Canyon package: the light bar on the roof, with four auxiliary lamps standing tall.
After copper paintwork and a carpeted tray we should be ready for anything, but it's fair to say the light bar will not be to all tastes. It's last on the list of things to talk about, because it's actually optional: another $3000, or $750 per light if you prefer. Canyon by night with six headlights on high beam is something that has to be seen to be believed.
The Canyon package is purely cosmetic. There are no mechanical changes to the Amarok base vehicle, nor do there really need to be. It's pretty special even without the loud paint and large stickers, with a 132kW/420Nm 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine, eight-speed automatic transmission and 4Motion four-wheel drive.
The Amarok's small engine capacity remains a turnoff for some, but you cannot argue with the outputs or the incredibly slick eight-speed gearbox - itself a unique feature in the pickup-truck segment. The Amarok lopes along in relaxed fashion, even at open-road speeds.
Right about now you might expect something about how car-like the Amarok is to drive. Well, it's not. No ute is, but the best of the current generation (surely a toss-up between the Ranger/BT-50 siblings and Amarok) are certainly brisk and engaging on the sealed stuff, with decent steering and good body control.
The main drawback with Amarok as an urban vehicle is its sheer size - but the VW is not alone in that. It's 5.3m long and taller than most owners, even without the light bar.
Driving in the city is not a major problem as smaller traffic (that's most of it) seems to scatter. But parking can be tricky. The Canyon comes to the rescue somewhat with parking radar front and rear, plus a camera on the tailgate.
The likelihood of seeing a limited-edition Amarok Canyon scraping its way through dense bush or achieving maximum axle-articulation in an off-road environment is probably pretty slim.
Why buy the really special shiny model with the stickers and then wreck it by climbing over rocks?
But the reality is that the Canyon is still one highly capable off-road vehicle.
That kind of credibility is obviously still important to VW even with this model, because it's been specified with sensible 17-inch wheels, wearing relatively high-profile and practical 65-series tyres.
Given that VW hasn't exactly been shy with the rest of the Canyon package, it would have been easy to go to town with massive alloy wheels on slivers of rubber.
But then that'd only be useful in, well, town.