• Spike Ballantine

Toyota Fortuner Epic Black vs. VW Amarok Dark Label

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

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Toyota Fortuner Epic vs Volkswagen Amarok Dark Label

Manufacturers around the world, almost regardless of where they’re from or what kind of cars

they’re making, love a special edition. They’re the cars that are marked out as unique, sometimes made in limited numbers and / or to commemorate a particular event or milestone in a manufacturer’s history. And sometimes, they’re just a shameless plug for more sales, or there as a runout of a dying model which - in those cases - raises the whole question of whether they’re actually anything special at all. Right now, we’re going to answer the question: if you had the money, which special edition should you go for?

We’re putting two special edition 4x4s up against each other. They have slightly different appeal in that one is an SUV and one is a bakkie, but both are 4-wheel drive, turbo diesel-powered models from two of South Africa’s favourite manufacturers, and they both cost around R750 000. It’s the Toyota Fortuner Epic Black vs. the VW Amarok Dark Label 2.0 BiTDI 4MOTION.

Car review Toyota Fortuner Epic Black SUV

Let's start with the Fortuner, which has been around in its current form since 2016. So it’s no real surprise that earlier in 2020, to reignite some interest in the model (and before the midlife facelift arrived), Toyota released the Fortuner Epic. It was, essentially, an upgrade to all 2.8 GD-6

models, so if you want the really special edition, you need to go for the Fortuner Epic Black.

That takes the branded nudge bar and tow bar from the Epic package and adds 18” wheels, mirror caps, roof rails and roof all painted in black. To make sure every Epic Black stands out, Toyota are only offering the package with a Glacier White paint job, and it does stand out. The contrasting roof colour of the Epic Black is a subtle addition, but really makes an impact; if you parked it next to a regular Epic, you may not be able to point out just why the Black is the better looking option, but your eye will definitely be drawn to it.

Jumping into the Amarok Dark Label, you notice that things aren’t quite as subtle.

Car Review VW Amarok Dark Label

If anyone deserves the word “black” in their name, it’s the Amarok. With its blacked out grille and B pillar, tinted rear windows and smoked tail lights, it seems to have turned the lights off on every bit of its styling. Even the Dark Label badging and the 18” wheels seem to suck up every bit of light around them.

Although the base Amarok look has been around for a lot longer than the Fortuner, there’s something in the “dark” treatment of this particular model that gives it some extra appeal over the slightly tweaked Epic Black. There’s definitely more drama and more attitude - not just from the colour scheme, but the extras like the running boards and nudge bar as well; the blacked out chunkiness of the Amarok Dark Label is better able to draw some attention.

And that’s pretty much where the “special” parts of these special editions end. Besides some

lettering on the door sills and embroidered mats on the floor, the rest of both the Amarok and Fortuner packages are the same as you get in their regular incarnations. Which, given that we’re already pretty high up the spec chain, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

With styling being the subjective thing that it is, the interior should be the first place that points out any real differences between the two. But, on balance, they're evenly matched in that department, too. The Fortuner has the advantage of keyless operation, sat nav and climate control as standard - although you could opt for climate control in the Amarok and still pay a few grand less than you would for the Fortuner.

The Amarok also gets a tyre pressure monitor, voice control and Apple CarPlay as standard; but then, the Toyota has seven airbags to the VW’s four.

In terms of build quality and layout, the two are on par. The Toyota definitely has the more busy

design, but not at the expense of good ergonomics - it all still works as well as it should. While it is comfortable, the Fortuner still suffers from Toyota’s insistence on sticking with the fake wood inlays which looks about as bad it sounds, and feels about as bad as it looks.

The Amarok is a cleaner setup. The tech offering is good, with things like the aforementioned Apple CarPlay, as well as optional heated seats and all round park distance control. But the look is starting to feel old - not just because it’s been around for as long as it has, but because it hasn’t benefitted from parts updates that you might find in other VWs: the bigger, higher resolution screen for the infotainment system, for example. No doubt VW are holding out for the new Amarok, co-developed with Nissan, that should hit the shelves during 2022.

In terms of passenger space, the Fortuner wins hands down. Even though the design of the third

row of seats still baffles, there is a third row of seats, which the Amarok - being a bakkie -

obviously doesn’t have.

If you haven’t ever seen the rear-most compartment of a Fortuner, the two seats in the last row are folded up and lashed to the side of the boot area when they’re not in use, unlike the more 21st century concept of having them fold into the boot floor. We asked Toyota why they insist on sticking with the design, and they say it’s because the seats are completely removable, so there’s no impact on boot space if they’re not being used. We've spoken to Fortuner owners, and they seem willing to forgive it the inconvenience of having the extra seats take up either boot space or garage space when they’re not being sat on.

The closest comparison between the Epic Black and the Dark Label is with the drivetrain - except that the Amarok doesn’t have low range, because VW doesn’t offer that particular feature with its dual-clutch gearbox. It does feature a lockable rear diff, and from experience, unless you’re looking for something to take on some hardcore African terrain, the Fortuner and the Amarok are equally capable when it comes to things like milder axle twisters and loose terrain. The Fortuner also has the advantage of having more weight over its rear axle in its natural state, which should make things more manageable. Both feature downhill speed regulation and trailer sway control.

The Amarok and the Fortuner are also very closely matched when it comes to more daily considerations. The Toyota’s 2.8 GD-6 turbo diesel puts out 130kW and 450Nm, and it’s very easy to live with - even when you’re not using its Power Mode, which adds a little more urgency. The gearbox is a 6-speed auto that includes paddle shifts - although I’m not entirely sure why.

Car Review Toyota Fortuner Epic Black

It’s not the most responsive setup - after you pull a paddle, it’ll often delay the shift by a good few seconds, and sometime just ignore you completely - and it happens up and down the gearbox. So, rather just leave the paddles to hang there decorating the steering wheel while the auto gearbox does its thing. The Fortuner has become quite refined; it’s still obvious you’re driving a bigger car, but it handles its size well, as long as you don’t plan to hoon it around the place.

The Amarok is similarly well behaved. The Dark Label’s power comes from VW’s 132kW / 420Nm 2.0 Bi-Turbo diesel. Drive is to all 4 wheels via an 8-speed dual clutch gearbox. Since the day it arrived on the scene, this drivetrain has been excellent, with useable power smoothly delivered, making the Amarok feel like something half its weight. Like the Fortuner Epic Black, the power available in the Amarok Dark Label makes living with this thing on a daily basis easy, and not a little bit enjoyable. If there’s any advantage of one over the other, it’s the Amarok’s dual clutch gearbox feels more refined; it’s a minor advantage though, not the kind of thing that would sway your opinion completely.

While we’re making comparisons, it makes sense to assess which models within their own ranges these machine compete against. When it comes to the Amarok, you could pay R35 000 less for the Highline Plus spec, for which you’ll get the same motor but no all-wheel drive. If you add R20 000 to the Dark Label’s price, you could get the Highline Plus 4MOTION, with the same drivetrain, as well as climate control, sat nav and electric folding mirrors, but a more plain looking Amarok.

In that sense, then, the Dark Label for me would be the better buy because sat nav really isn’t a

thing anymore thanks to smartphones, and electric folding mirrors are only really occasionally

necessary, even on bigger cars like the Amarok.

As for the Fortuner, it’s a lot simpler: ten grand less buys you the regular Epic version, without the black bits I mentioned earlier. So, like the special edition Amarok, the special edition Fortuner is worth the extra money. That said, with the model having recently been updated, the Epic Black now falls into an older model category.

We started out asking the question: if you had around R750 000 to spend on a special edition

diesel 4x4, which would be the better option between the Toyota Fortuner Epic Black and the VW

Amarok Dark Label?

From a sensible point of view, with its extra passenger space, more modern interior and low range gearbox, the Fortuner Epic Black offers better value, even though it's R10 000 more than the Dark Label, and is now an older spec model. The Dark Label, however, is just as comfortable and just as enjoyable on a daily basis. It’s lack of low range means it can’t go everywhere the Fortuner can go, and you obviously can’t take as many people with you, but there’s something about the Amarok that doesn’t appear on the spec sheet: it has real attitude and character, and for us, that makes the Dark Label the more special special edition.

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