VOLKSWAGEN has let slip that a Toyota Fortuner-rivalling, seven-seat SUV based on the Amarok is definitely on the carmaker’s development table.

Under intense scrutiny over why Volkswagen Commercial chose not to add head-protecting rear side curtain airbags as part of a major makeover for the Amarok ute due in Australia late this year, a spokesman told 4X4 Australia that they would need to be engineered in for the next generation “for the seven-seat”.

“It [rear-curtain airbags] is under consideration for this generation,” the spokesman said. Asked if the headprotecting rear airbags would definitely be part of the second-generation Amarok due around 2019, he said: “We will have to have it for this [Amarok] and for the seven-seat.”

It’s the closest we have come to confirmation that Volkswagen is considering the niche seven-seat offroader as part of its future product development. It won’t need to be a big-volume seller for the commercial division of VW, either, with Amarok designer Albert- Johann Kirzinger indicating that an Amarok-based SUV would only need to attract a small number of sales – about 1000 a year – to make it viable.

“When we look at a niche in the commercial vehicles, we’re looking at numbers that are lower than one per cent [of total sales],” he said.

Adding weight to the seven-seat Amarok’s development is a shift to a 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel engine for the ute, which will help to move the heavier kerb mass of a wagon-based Amarok via a more versatile spread of torque than the current twin-turbo 2.0-litre engine.

Australia is the secondlargest market for the Amarok outside South America, with VW keen to maintain a foothold here even as mining companies step up their safety standards to mandate side curtain airbags on all vehicles used on worksites. The Amarok currently wears a top fivestar crash rating in Australia – it was the first vehicle sold here to gain the top score without side curtain airbags. Instead, it relies on a specially engineered safety cell to protect rear-seat passengers in the event of a side-on collision.

However, the seven-seat Amarok’s niche future may be over even before it starts, with the carmaker – struggling in the wake of the emissions scandal – reportedly looking to cull up to 40 models from its product line-up as part of cost-saving measures.