Rok in a hard place:  Custom Amarok V6


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Jun 08, 2023

Rok in a hard place: Custom Amarok V6

Jumping from a souped-up Suby into a virtually unstoppable off-road tourer seems

Jumping from a souped-up Suby into a virtually unstoppable off-road tourer seems like a big turn-around but, as you might suspect, there's a lot more to this rugged ’Rok's gestation than just someone having a massive change of direction when it comes to their driving habits.

You see, this rig is not Nathan Pagulayan's first fourby; prior to this fully-loaded Amarok, Nathan spent a few years behind the wheel of a 4x4 icon: a 1993 Suzuki Vitara. Plus, childhood memories of his father's many off-road vehicles – and the many adventures the Pagulayan family had in them, growing up around the Albury-Wadonga area – meant that even though the WRX was brilliant fun, Nathan knew he’d eventually return to the world of touring.

The WRX suffering a terminal turbo and engine failure at a race meet was the subtle push in the back – and the perfect excuse – that Nathan needed to start thinking of his off-road tourer project.

"I couldn't live with a slow 4x4, so the new rig had to be modern and relatively powerful," he says. "I just test drove everything, and it was the V6 Amarok that was vastly different to the others."

It's a damn good choice, too, with Nathan explaining how it wasn't just the performance of the Amarok's V6 donk that drew him in when he made his decision back in 2018, but also the vehicle's car-like handling, large interior space and four-wheel disc brakes – plus the then-unique constant all-wheel drive system. As he says, "No vehicle was perfect, but the Amarok was what ticked my boxes best."

It is Nathan's attention to detail – and a focus on getting something as close to his ideal as possible – that is on show throughout this entire vehicle and this makes perfect sense when you find out he's an Engineering and Logistics Manager in the Australian Army; you couldn't ask for two more appropriate skills than those when it comes building a vehicle that can take you anywhere in the country, and then safely home again.

And that was the core plan: to build a tourer that was always ready to go, whether on a quick overnighter at a nearby national park, or for that big expedition-style trip across the deserts, and one that could also be employed as a daily driver if need be. It's a big ask, but this big-bopper Amarok has nailed it.

Some more than once, too, as Nathan has tweaked and tested different variations of mods to ensure he has the exact thing he needs (rather than wants) on the Amarok. Every mod is practical and there's a key focus on reliability, comfort and convenience.

If there's one common thread through any modified 4x4 story, it is that of weight. Start adding a few accessories, notably the core ones such as bullbar, lights, canopy, winch, bigger tyres, etc., and you can soon find yourself nearing GVM, or even beyond, resulting in illegality for one, as well as negatively impacting the vehicle's handling, safety and fuel economy.

Managing the Amarok's weight was a priority, and one that started early on with a GVM upgrade, as Nathan's early plans also included a full canopy setup (with gear, auxiliary battery system and loads of other stuff – read more on this later), along with the usual bigger tyres and rooftop tent.

The (Qld) GVM upgrade is a subtle (and sensible) one of a touch under 300kg (up from 3080kg to 3375kg). Under-vehicle support is via a schmick Outback Armour (OA) setup, with OA Expedition Adjustable dampers and 35mm-lift springs, combined with Roadsafe Blackhawk Upper Control Arms and a 25mm front diff drop, all fitted by Nathan.

Helping with the heavy lifting at the rear (and fitted by VAS Mechanical) is a set of OA 35mm-lift leaf springs (with 150kg constant-load rating) and another set of OA Expedition Adjustable dampers. Providing more ground clearance – and cleverly, at that – is a set of 43mm-lift body blocks. Nathan explains the Amarok-specific reason for fitment of these:

"The Amarok, it's a funny design," he says. "And I’ll give you the example of a Nissan Navara or Toyota HiLux. If you look at them side-on, you can see the chassis popping out from underneath the side sills. Whereas the Amarok chassis; it's well above the sills and hidden. What the body lift helped with is one, to fit the big tyres, and two, to get the sills up out of danger."

The body lift wasn't originally intended, but Nathan found that unless the body itself was lifted, ground clearance was compromised too much.

"A lot of people will just go rock-sliders," he explains. "I’ve done both body-lift and rock-sliders. The reason being, if I didn't do the body-lift, the sliders just reduce ground clearance.

"I went through a process [early on] of no body-lift and with rock-sliders and the amount of bellying-out was unbelievable. So, I finally went to the body-lift, and lifted rock-sliders, and it's made it much… much better for not bellying-out."

The rock-sliders Nathan settled on are custom steel Southern Cross Fabworks Fatboy jobbies, with a Raptor coating.

Rolling underneath this impressive setup is a set of 17x9-inch Rotiform SIX-OR (+20 offset) alloy wheels, wrapped in Mickey Thompson Baja Boss 315/70R17 A/T rubber. Stopping power is courtesy of the standard brake setup, but fitted with DBA T3 slotted rotors and DBA Xtreme Performance pads.

Nathan obvioulsy wanted to ensure his Amarok was fully protected for its intended off-road use, but he was also conscious of weight, hence his decision to go for a sweet-looking Rival 6mm aluminium front bar. With additional custom aluminium inserts, the Rival bar has an almost OE look, wrapping around the front and matching up neatly with the delta4x4 widebody flares.

The bar's good looks don't get in the way of functionality, either, with its steel inner cradle housing a Carbon 12K low-mount electric winch and offering a mounting space for the two Perception Lighting Apex 8.5-inch spotties, and the Stedi ST3K 21.5-inch lightbar. The bar is also equipped with recovery points, with Outback Armour shackles fitted.

Additional protection is supplied under the body, too, with a custom-made 6mm aluminium plate mounted to Overkill internal gussets. This runs from the front bar back to the gearbox for optimum assurance that nothing is going to damage the ’Rok's vitals when negotiating rugged terrain.

It is this popular accessory that can make or break a tourer's final outcome, and even impact its eventual performance on- and off-road.Nathan had started off with the Amarok still fitted with its standard rear tub.

Two incarnations of the vehicle's rear-end later, and he knew he wanted something far more specific for the rear storage setup. It had to be practical, of course, but it had to be designed to his and his wife Anna's touring needs. To this end, Nathan took his time – around six months – to ensure he ended up with exactly what he needed. And that meant plenty of throwing around different ideas along the way.

"Initially, I drew up some semi-decent plans on Google SketchUp. That's all I knew how to use," he laughs. "It's like a more advanced Microsoft Paint."

After sorting those sketches (and deciding on a MRT Base Tray to fit the custom canopy to), Nathan went to see the team at Swanny's Fabrications, in Brisbane, for the canopy build. The result was the schmick half-canopy you see now; as Nathan says, the Swanny's team "made it perfectly into a fabricated piece of aluminium."

Nathan wanted no space wasted for the half-canopy and the team ensured that was the case. On the driver's side, there's a huge storage area, while on the other side is an impressive mobile kitchen setup with a custom vertical slide-out pantry, drawer/table and even a coffee machine (plus a couple of fans to keep you cool when cooking up a storm), along with the vehicle's electrical setup (more on that later).

The top of the Amarok has received plenty of attention, too, again with reliability in mind. Amusingly, the current rooftop tent (a Darche Ridgeback Eco) is actually Nathan and Anna's fourth, after much trial and error with other variants, and it's affixed to a custom roof-rack setup, again built by Nathan.

"What I’ve tried to do is make the Ridgeback as low as possible, which meant I got rid of the full-sized Rhino platform. I just used some Backbone-style racks, and then some extrusion crossbars," he says. "Everything's fully adjustable on it. And then I added a wind deflector and made these custom brackets to have the [140W] solar panel tilt."

Impressively, even though the current rooftop tent is heavier than the last one atop the Amarok, by customising/trimming the roof rack system, Nathan shaved 20kg off it – always handy when that weight comes off a vehicle, and more so when it's off the roof.

Add in flared mudguards and nifty under-tray storage (again, courtesy of Swanny's handiwork), a spare-wheel carrier, a MW rear trundle drawer, repurposed Rhino toolbox (for rubbish and wet gear), a 43-litre under-tray water tank, Dunn and Watson dual jerry-can holder (for either water or additional fuel; the Amarok runs its standard 80L fuel tank), ladder rack, and a well-proved (and tough) 60L Trailblaza fridge (these also used in the Aussie army's tanks!) on a Dunn and Watson slide, and it's not hard to see how the rear setup works perfectly as that home away from home when remote-area touring.

Cleverly fitted (somehow!) into the passenger-side/kitchen-side of the half-canopy is the vehicle's comprehensive electrical setup – a tricky job also undertaken by Nathan himself, calling on his electrical engineering background.

"Having to do the electrical fit-out on the inside [of the half-canopy] was a challenge because it's so tight to get to," he says, while also explaining his aim was to futureproof the system.

"So, with my old setup, I made an enclosure out of a cargo box. This sat in the [previous] tub. I made an enclosure out of a cargo box with an external light switch panel. And I thought, ‘Oh, that's pretty cool’, because you can take it in and out of vehicles, and whatever else. It's also waterproof," he explains. "But then when I was making this one, I thought, ‘Nah, I might as well go big, but I’ll also make something that can easily be removed if I need to’.

"And yeah, hence, everything out the back is pretty much Anderson plug… the main cables are just an easy terminal… "

I mentioned ‘comprehensive’ to describe the electrical setup earlier, and when you see its full list, you understand why. There's an Enerdrive 40Amp DC2DC charger, and a Victron BlueSmart 25Amp AC charger, combined with an Enerdrive 2000w inverter.

Keeping Nathan informed of the internal goings-on is a Victron BMV-712 battery monitor, and there's also a Narva 12-way fuse-box. When it comes to charging various gadgets, there are two 12V and two USB ports in the half-canopy, as well as one 12V and two USB ports in the actual rooftop tent itself.

In-cabin, there's another two 12V ports. Finishing it all off are seven Anderson plugs. All of this is to power the coffee machine, TJM heavy-duty vehicle-mounted air compressor (and 5L air tank), those two fans, a KickAss 12V travel oven, 2000W induction cooktop and the water tank's pump (a 6L/min unit).

The vehicle's starting battery is an AGM 100Ah unit, while the auxiliary battery is an ATG 150Ah Lithium jobbie, with a 200Amp constant discharge BMS (to ensure that induction cooktop keeps delivering top nosh). Yep, the electrical system is bloody impressive, for sure, and a credit to Nathan's hard work.

In terms of other ‘power’ mods, the engine has seen a mild tune, something Nathan is keen to re-explore at a later date; yep, he's after a bit more grunt. It is fitted with an additional Fuel Manager (30-micron) secondary fuel filter and a K&N air filter (housed in a Platinum Mechanical & Suspension custom airbox), with additional air being drawn back through a TJM Airtec snorkel (with wedgetail head).

The three-inch mild-steel exhaust system expels fumes effectively, while the Wholesale Automatics Transmission Cooler kit ensures the Amarok's single-range auto doesn't get too tetchy when serious off-road work is being done. Power delivery is further enhanced with fitment of an EVC Idrive (Ultimate 9) throttle controller.

Nathan has kept the interior close to standard, with good reason; the Amarok cabin is well-known as one of the most comfortable in the 4x4 ute class – if not the most – and he didn't want to mess with that. Small additions, such as Global Automotive Accessories neoprene seat covers, a Blackvue DR750X PLUS dashcam (with truck rear camera), an Oricom UHF380 radio (with magnetic mount), a VW Golf GTI steering wheel (with paddle-shift), and a 1kg fire extinguisher are subtle and smart additions to the cabin.

The end result is incredibly impressive; among a veritable sea of amazing modified off-road tourers, this particular V6 Amarok still stands out, with its chameleon-like ability to be as comfortable poodling around as a daily driver in town as it is tackling Australia's toughest tracks.

The attention to detail (again, due to the time being taken to ‘get it right’ for their purposes) and the fact that, whenever they wish, Nathan and Anna can confidently load up some fresh food, jump in and head to pretty much anywhere they like, for however long they like, is what building a modified tourer is all about – and this tough ’Rok is a brilliant example of that theory put into practice.