Cliveden House, that great architectural confection above the Thames in Berkshire, is best known as the seat of the Astors and for the start of the Profumo scandal in the 1960s. The Astors were a political and financial dynasty who colonised Cliveden in the middle of the 19th century and by early in the 20th had made it an epicentre of high society. When told it was to be turned into a hotel, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan remarked, ‘It always has been.’
I was there last week, though not, alas, as an ornament of high society or target of seduction. It may seem an unlikely location for the last of VW’s recent nationwide roadshows, particularly one majoring on a utilitarian commercial vehicle, but it worked well. Plenty of room for the cars, enchanting drives through Chiltern beechwoods, lunch in the splendid imported French dining room, the Thames glinting far below and even an off-road course for the principal actor.
This was VW’s new double-cab pick-up, competing head-on with those big Nissans, Isuzus, Mitsubishis, Toyotas and Fords beloved by builders and all manner of blokes. It’s called the Amarok, which in this country will probably be read as Anorak. But maybe the cultural significance of that is peculiar to Britain and, anyway, what matters to the blokes is what it costs and what it does.
That, at least, is what VW thinks — but I suspect it may have underestimated the Amarok. For all its utilitarian intentions, this is a vehicle that could take a slice of the lifestyle market, appealing to the bosses (and their spouses) as much as to the blokes.
First impression is that you sit high and safe, indifferent to the minnows scattering before your great snout of a bonnet. Second impression is that it’s comfortable and familiar; drive any VW and you’ll be at home in this. The ride is firm — heavy duty rear leaf-springs, just like my 1972 Land Rover — but tolerable, though I’m not sure I’d want the larger 19-inch alloys. The five seats aren’t as luxurious as in your Range Rover or Discovery but they won’t hurt you and they’re spacious and durable. The rear load area — which you can leave open or have with a lockable top — is wide enough for a fork-lift to load Euro pallets sideways (thus beating all the competition, says VW) and pretty well deep enough to stretch out in. The six-speed manual is slick and easy and you engage low ratio, four-wheel drive and front-rear differential lock at the flick of a switch. The top of the range has permanent 4WD and an additional side-to-side rear diff lock.
It’s powered by a two-litre common rail diesel, offered in two levels of tune. The lower is 122 PS, giving you 100mph, 37.2mpg on the combined cycle and 199g/km emissions (another industry first, says VW). The higher gives you 163 PS, 35.8mpg, 209g/km and 112mph. You can tow up to 2.69 tonnes. I liked the engine: willing, free-revving and with more torque than you’re likely to ask of it. There’s a slight diesel clatter on idle but not enough to intrude.
Once on the roads around Cliveden I could happily have made off to Penzance in air-conditioned comfort, but it was on the off-road course that it really came into its own. My old Land Rover would hack the course, but you’d sweat a bit, whereas in the Amarok you can press a couple of switches, sit back and almost do the thing one-handed. It will handle 45 degree slopes and you can even creep downhill in neutral, feet-off.
Prices are £16,995–£21,575 (excluding VAT and delivery). The builders, farmers and foresters it’s aimed at will buy on cost, load capacity and reliability. But what about Spectator readers? Could we be tempted? I was.
To start with, you’ve got that VW badge front and rear to reassure you that you’re not really going downmarket. True, on a good shoot you’ll find mostly varieties of Land Rover and the odd Subaru, while normally the only pick-ups you’ll see in Knightsbridge belong to the blokes. But people who shoot are generally a pragmatic lot and if they find they can get as much — or almost as much — for half the price of what they’ve got, we’ll soon see a few Amaroks behind the pegs.
Also, at these prices, it could be the bargain of the year for the sprawling, boat-or horse-towing, dog-owning, camping, weekending middle-class families. And it’s cheaper still if you have a business and can claim the VAT. I love my Discovery 3 but the Amarok does almost everything it will do in almost equal comfort for much less money. All it lacks is the right image, and you can’t put a price on that. Except that in one sense you can: image costs twice the price of an Amarok. Think about it.