ROAD TEST: Skoda Karoq ups the performance ante
CZECH brand Skoda's new Karoq mid-size SUV shares its structure and most hardware with parent company VW's Tiguan - but it has enough discreet design to qualify as a genuine alternative rather than a same chocolates/different box marketing contrivance.
Its new 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo, for example, isn't yet available in Australian-spec Tiguans and its sheet metal is chunkier.
Climb in and you're immediately aware it's a VW Group car, though the Karoq's cabin has a more family-friendly design focus than Tiguan.
Skoda is similar to Volvo in this regard. It understands what parents and kids want in a wagon and delivers clever solutions, with great attention to detail.
That's one of the main reasons why Karoq's seven-seater sibling, the Kodiaq, won our 2017 Car of the Year. The Superb is also a good thing.
The Karoq, the replacement for the Yeti, is a one model-only range for now. It's priced at $29,990 for the 1.5-litre six-speed manual, front-wheel drive 110TSI.
That's $2000 less than the base Tiguan 110TSI Trendline manual, which runs the Golf's 1.4-litre turbo. Outputs are identical (110kW/ 250Nm) and to save fuel the engines have partial cylinder deactivation under light loads, plus auto stop-start. The new 1.5 gains low friction internals and higher injection pressure, further improving efficiency.
Most Karoq buyers will go for the seven-speed auto (DSG in the company's jargon), tested here. At $32,290, it's $2200 cheaper than the Tiguan DSG, which runs the more robust and refined six-speeder.
The extra ratio and a 97kg weight advantage give the Skoda quicker acceleration from rest to 100km/h. It clocks 8.6 seconds, putting it at the pointy end of this class. The Tiguan does 9.2 secs.
This combination also contributes to the Skoda's excellent fuel economy - 5-6L/100km on the highway and 7-9L in town, on premium unleaded.
Standard equipment includes dual-zone aircon, keyless entry and start and 17-inch alloy wheels. Infotainment is via VW's base eight-inch touchscreen with full smartphone connectivity plus Bluetooth with voice control. USB and SD card slots are provided.
Our test car adds perforated leather upholstery, hands-free power tailgate, adaptive LED headlights, 18-inch alloys, 9.2-inch infotainment touchscreen with navigation and digital radio, wireless phone charging and Canton audio in a "Launch Pack" option, priced at $8900. Servicing for three years/45,000km is included in this option.
It's worth noting that the Skoda's warranty is five years, the VW's three. The Tiguan's six-speed DSG largely contributes to the extra $793 in servicing costs over four years, too.
Inside, the Karoq is more spacious than it looks. As with any VW, it comfortably accommodates a tall driver.
The rear seat is where the Karoq differs. It splits 40-20-40 and each section can be tumble folded, or easily unclipped from the floor and removed, so you can have a two, three, four or five-seat layout and space to fit a bike or two.
Legroom, adjusted in a 60-40 split, is fine for adults. Backrest angles are also individually adjustable.
Available load space ranges from 479L with all seats in use and maximum rear legroom, up to a small van-like 1810L with seats removed.
Other neat touches that justify Skoda's "Simply Clever" brand slogan include lots of handy storage, tablet holders, vents and a 12V socket for the rear seat, an umbrella under the front passenger seat and, in the boot, three nets, an LED torch, 12V outlet, four adjustable bag hooks (on tracks), an adjustable, velcro-backed panel for securing smaller objects and a double-sided floor mat.
Seven airbags, autonomous emergency braking, rear obstacle detection and braking, adaptive cruise and fatigue alert are standard, so the Karoq vies with Mazda's CX-5 for class-leading safety spec at the circa $30K pricepoint. Blind spot monitoring(another boon for cyclists) and lane keeping are packaged with a few frills for an extra $1700.
The 1.5 is a smooth, torquey, willing little engine, with stronger performance and better low down pulling power than its naturally aspirated rivals.
The seven-speed, though, has the same slight hesitation in engaging from rest as it does in the VW Golf and Polo. In bumper-to-bumper traffic, it can also dither around in the lower gears with the occasional abrupt shift.
Handling is safe and secure but the Karoq doesn't feel quite as solid or comfortable at speed as the Tiguan, or the CX-5. Rough roads induce a little body flex and the ride on optional 18-inch wheels is lumpy and fussy.
With tactile, precise steering complemented by light weight and firm suspension, the Karoq is quite an agile, enjoyable little SUV. Again, though, the Tiguan feels just a smidgen tighter and more finessed overall.
They should have kept the world's coolest SUV name - Yeti - but Skoda as a brand is still edgy enough to be interesting and I like its parents-and-kids-first priorities.
I'll get more gear for less money than a Tiguan, a longer warranty and cheaper servicing. And if I pull the back seats out I can move house with it.
FORD ESCAPE TREND FROM $33,490
Wait until September when Ford adds AEB as part of a midlife update. Gutsy 134kW/240Nm 1.5 turbo/six-speed auto/front-drive, slick infotainment and excellent handling. The ride's a bit rugged.
MAZDA CX-5 MAXX SPORT FROM $33,990
Our top-selling SUV has a fairly gutless 115kW/200Nm 2.0-litre, six-speed auto/front-drive at this price. Does the job fine in town, runs on 91 RON and is safe and comfortable.
A well-priced kid carrier, with stronger performance than the asthmatic fours in most rivals, class-leading safety at the price and a genius interior.
SKODA KAROQ 110TSI
PRICE $32,290 (auto; value)
WARRANTY/SERVICING 5 years (long); $1661 for 4 years/60,000km (reasonable);
ENGINE 1.5-litre 4-cyl turbo, 110kW/250Nm (excellent)
SAFETY 5 stars, 7 airbags, AEB, adaptive cruise, camera, rear obstacle detection and braking (excellent)
THIRST 5.8L/100km (frugal but 95 RON)
SPARE Space-saver (not ideal)
BOOT 479L-1810L (big)