SKODA, the younger, brasher cousin of car giant Volkswagen, has been in Australia for 11 years selling cars that are slightly cheaper and better equipped than the VWs they compete against — and whose underpinnings they share.
They also come with a five-year warranty for added peace of mind, versus three years’ cover for Volkswagen. To entice buyers, Skoda believes it needs to over-deliver but it has been a tough road so far — its cars still only sell at less than one-tenth the rate of VWs in Australia.
However, with SUVs such as the clever Kodiaq seven-seater, our reigning Car of the Year, and the latest arrival, the unusually named Karoq mid-size SUV, Skoda’s fortunes may be about to change.
The Karoq puts Skoda in the thick of the action, joining one of the fastest growing segments of the market. As with many of its peers, the Karoq is front-drive only. An all-wheel drive will be added next year.
The range starts at $32,990 drive-away for a six-speed manual and $35,290 drive-away for a seven-speed twin-clutch auto. The Karoq escalates to $47,000 drive-away with all options added, lineball with peers that have all-wheel drive in this price range.
The arrival of the Karoq means buyers now have more than two-dozen mid-size SUVs from which to choose — and there’s good reason to put the Skoda on the shortlist. As one of the last to join the category it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s one of the best dressed.
Standard fare includes radar cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, rear camera and sensors, a large touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, push-button start, dual zone aircon, electric park brake and digital speed display. The list goes on.
Clever Skoda touches include a parking ticket holder on the windscreen, tablet holders behind the front headrests, an umbrella under the front passenger seat, an elastic cord in both front door pockets to secure bulky items, a bin for the driver’s door and large adjustable cargo hooks in the boot. As in the Kodiaq, the cargo area light can be removed and used as a torch.
The Karoq’s biggest party trick is the ability to adjust or remove each of the three back seating positions individually. They can slide forward to create more cargo room, slide back to provide more knee room, or be taken out altogether by pressing two red tabs on each seat.
It means the Karoq can be a five, four, three or two-seater. It is the only car in its class with removable second-row seats and in two-seater mode it has almost as much cargo space as a small van.
It’s not the first Skoda with removable seats (the Yeti performed the same feat). The Peugeot 5008 seven-seater’s back row can be removed.
Bumper-to-bumper the compact Karoq is marginally shorter than rivals — among them the Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Tucson, Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage, Holden Equinox, Ford Escape and VW Tiguan — but has comparable width and cabin space.
With the rear seats forward, it has the biggest boot among its mainstream rivals. Slide them rearward and it either matches or exceeds the occupant space of most others in the class.
Every Karoq has seven airbags, autonomous emergency braking (crash mitigation at freeway speeds and a complete stop at city speeds), radar cruise control, and rear AEB (in Skoda-speak, Manoeuvre Braking Assist).
More advanced safety aids such as blind zone warning, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-keeping assistance are part of a $1700 “Travel Pack” bundled with heated front seats, electrically adjustable driver’s seat and auto-folding side mirrors.
A powered tailgate, leather seats, front parking sensors, 18-inch wheels and a handful of other extras are part of a $3600 “Premium Pack”.
The $3200 “Tech Pack” adds a larger central touchscreen, digital radio, built-in navigation, 10-speaker premium audio and wireless phone charging.
The $8900 “Launch Pack” adds the best of all three packs — which combined would add up to an extra $8500 — but includes five years of free scheduled servicing valued at $2088.
This pushes the price to $44,190 drive-away before metallic paint is added — the higher end of the mid-size SUV class but a few thousand dollars shy of all-wheel drive petrol mid-size SUV flagships from Mazda, Honda, Hyundai and Kia.
You can spend in excess of $47,000 with the addition of a sunroof, metallic paint and 19-inch alloy wheels.
To further enhance the Karoq’s appeal, Skoda would do well to bundle key features such as a power tailgate, front sensors, built-in nav, blind zone warning and lane-keeping assistance into one affordable option pack — or make them standard. For now, buyers can’t cherry-pick from the options lists.
ON THE ROAD
The Karoq has surprisingly sharp reflexes for a mid-size SUV. It feels like a nimble high-riding hatchback rather than a commuter car destined for a life in shopping centre car parks.
The responsiveness from the chassis is largely due to the Karoq sharing much of its underpinnings with the highly regarded VW Tiguan. We tested a car on 18-inch wheels and sporty Michelin tyres, with slightly lower profile rubber than the standard 17s.
The ride feels taut over bumps — at cruising or suburban speeds — but it’s not bone jarring or uncomfortable. It’s a fair compromise for agile handling.
The 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo feels a touch lazy on take-off but performance is brisk once it starts to accelerate through the gears.
There can be a slight pause from the twin-clutch auto when moving from rest but it’s more refined than some other VW-Skoda twin-clutch autos and not as jerky in stop-start traffic.
Vision all around is excellent thanks to the large glass area and wide-view mirrors on both sides of the car, although the option of a 360-degree camera would be welcome for parking in tight spots.
The sporty flat-bottomed steering wheel and driver’s seat position have ample adjustment, from hot-hatch low to SUV high.
The flexibility of the rear seats is remarkable and could well be a deciding factor for many buyers. The clever adjustable cargo hooks are also genius. Overall, it’s a smart package.
The Karoq brings new levels of practicality and driving enjoyment to the mid-size SUV class.