AUSSENKEHR, Namibia - Volkswagen has expanded the transmission options available in its Amarok light truck range with the addition of an innovative eight-speed auto gearbox in a 2.0 BiTDI 132kW Highline.Sure, it’s an auto, but the multitude of ratios, along with lockable differentials, VW SA says, way overcome reservations held by some in the off-road brotherhood about the double-cab’s true off-road worth.SAREL IN CHARGE...To prove it, they took a half-dozen to a really tough place. The Namibian Outback. Including the Richtersveld National Park and the Aussenkehr Nature Reserve on the Orange/Gariep (that’s the bit below the confluence with the Vaal River) and the only problem was a trio of punctures (avoid the sharp rocks, next time guys!Oh yeah, and VW put the legendary Sarel van der Merwe in charge...The drive started at Oranjemund international airport and pretty much followed the Orange on an amazingly good and wide gravel road; perhaps the ANC’s roads’ people should go take a look-see on how to do it – Namibia uses a privatised (oops, rude word!) system of graders, apparently.Image galleryDestination: the (we recommend it!) Norotshama river resort buried in the fast-growing spread of the Aussenkehr winelands that make the Cape’s Franschhoek Valley look like somebody’s backyard. The resort is right on the river; sorry, its four floating rooms disappeared in the most recent floods – perhaps they can now be rented in Oranjemund.Disgruntled Western Cape farm-workers should look out for their jobs before the last of Aussenkehr’s proposed 100 000ha is planted to vines and takes over SA’s table grape market... its remote location is free of crop-pests and the area’s lack of fruit-eating birds avoids pre-harvest damage.LIGHTNING CHANGESLet’s get it straight from the start, though: this Amarok (a bit of a Rolls-Royce among bakkies) is NOT a challenger for a Land Rover or Toyota’s Land Cruiser though an experienced off-road driver will be able to get most places the Kings of Rock can go – especially if sand, mud, slush or snow are involved.Howcomeso? Because this 'box’s cog-swops are lightning quick, far faster than even a human with a very fast left foot can manage and, possibly, faster than a double-clutch setup can achieve - and that means no loss of traction through up-changes. The mountains and desert dunes of Aussenkehr show it, so though those with a nervous right foot need to keep it planted (see sand-slip bit below).This new transmission system (already used on the Audi Q7 and VW Touareg), VW says, combines a high degree of ride comfort and good off-road ability with excellent fuel economy from the 80-litre tank. "The (listed) combined fuel consumption of 8.3 litres/100km and CO2 emissions of 219g/km set this Amarok derivative apart in the one-tonner market."The eight-speed, VW adds, is a first in the first bakkie class with the emphasis on efficiency, smooth gear-shifting, weight reduction and reliability “at the level of the sportier DSG transmission” used on other VW and Audi products and uses a torque converter.OPTIMAL TORQUE“This allows a better response at low speeds and less resistance to slip than a DSG transmission - key factors during off-road driving and towing,” the automaker says.The extra ratios remove the need for a low-range set in a separate gearbox.“As a result, the bi-turbo, 132kW/420Nm, two-litre diesel engine works even more frequently in its optimal torque band and is fuel-efficient with the eighth gear configured as a fuel-saving overdrive,” VW says. “First gear is configured as a low-range gear for pulling away in off-road use or when towing.”Top speed is listed as 179km/h in seventh gear and 0-100km/h is claimed to take 10.9sec and this Amarok is rated to tow three metric tons (12% gradient test).All-wheel drive is permanently engaged with a 40:60 front/rear torque split under unstressed conditions. The Torsen differential is also new to the bakkie class: it distributes torque variably, front/rear.TOUGH CLIMBMost of the test-drive route was on gravel (yep, the traction/stability control works a treat at speed) but included diversions up (and down) shale-covered severe gradients mapped by Super Sarel for his ‘Spirit of Africa’ 4x4 competition, over a couple of modest rocky sections and – eventually – a very severe and long climb up a sand-slip between two of Namibia’s awesome sun- and wind-blasted black mountains... visualise a Swiss alpine snowslide but make it sand-brown.Only four or five of the group managed the climb first-time; yours truly enjoyed the “you made it look like a non-event” comment from Van der Merwe. He’s a hard-to-please so-and-so at the best of times... Thank-you, sir. And by the way, he’s bought a vineyard in Paarl – watch out for the brand provisionally named ‘Park Ferme’. The first signed 1000 bottle are out.The route also took in a section of the Sperrgebiet diamond area, passed the Namdep mine and Sendlingsdrift turn-off and Noerdower on the C3 near Violsdrif and over the currently dry Fish River, for those brave enough to have visited the remote area.From April 2013, all Amarok models will be available with BlueMotion Technology that employs regenerative braking and a stop/start system to further reduce fuel consumption and reduce CO2 emissions.Tch! Should've asked if the auto bakkie would be called the BlueMotion 4Motion or the 4Motion BlueMotion...SLOWER CRUISE?The auto Amarok comes with a range of upmarket gear – hence the Highline moniker. Among them are electronic stability control (handy at times of those wide, fast and superbly smooth Namibian roads), emergency braking pressure, hill start/steep descent control, anti-lock off-road brakes, front air bags, 17” alloy rims, six-speaker MP3 audio, dual-zone aircon (very handy given the Day 1 of the launch’s high of 56 degrees C), under-seat storage, cruise control and three 12V sockets, one of them in the load bed.And talking of cruise control - how about lowering the minimum speed at which it operates for off-road work, perhaps down to five km/h, now that an auto box has been incorporated?Options include a communications package with Bluetooth and controls on the steering-wheel, front and rear parking radar and leather upholstery.PRICEStandard VW Amarok double-cab 2.0 BiTDI 132kW 4Motion Auto Highline - R461 100, including a three-year or 100 000km warranty, five-year service plan, 15 000km service intervals and six-years’ rust-through corrosion warranty.For other Amarok products, accessories and prices go to Volkswagen South Africa.