IAIN ROBERTSON

When you read most of the advertising clap-trap that surrounds most new car promotions, suggests Iain Robertson, it becomes very easy to assume cynicism, although Skoda is almost wilful in its determination to make you reconsider.

Promising a sensible and reasonable approach to its new cars, while the Czech arm of the bigger VW Group has always played a cannier hand, even alongside its stable-mates, it has seldom missed its intentions. Yet, it is almost as if Skoda does not speak to its in-house rivals, because the raft of ‘smartness’ that it embodies in its cars is not just tangible but is also truly practical.

Of course, discerning between the various, mostly badge-engineered models of the Volkswagen Group can prove to be a taxing exercise. Apart from radiator grilles and exterior logos, ascertaining a Seat from a Veedub, or even an Audi from a Skoda, can prove highly confusing and mildly discombobulating, even for the hardiest of brand fans. Fortunately, as the products of a most positive and world-leading group, despite VW’s much-publicised issues, there are no ensuing arguments about either quality, or delivery.

As a former Skoda owner for more than 21 years, I still harbour fond memories of the Czech brand, mostly because of the engaging little details that always enhanced the value proposition. The Czechs have endeavoured invariably to make their alternatives on a corporate theme just a little bit better, a tad more driver-orientated, subtly enhanced and, thus, value-added. The latest Karoq compact crossover does not escape the treatment.

Well-publicised is the inclusion of a fluorescent-green ice-scraper loaded neatly into the push-to-open petrol flap (because other Skoda models also feature it), which is located conveniently on the driver’s side of the car, which makes this little device easier to find and makes the car easier to refuel as well. Within both front door pockets is a clever little, elasticated retaining band, which means that map books and flimsier items are easier to manage and less likely to fly out in a breeze. A neat little rubbish bag holder, complete with lid can also be found within one of the pockets, which helps to declutter the cabin and encourages occupants to take their rubbish home and dispose of it there, rather than at the roadside.

Crack open the boot-lid and, apart from the automatic retracting luggage-cover, you will find two sturdy bars, complete with chunky hooks that are perfect for hanging loaded shopping bags and stopping them depositing their contents on the return drive from the shops. There is even a practical lip above the nearside inner wheel-arch for carrying smaller items that might otherwise roll around the boot floor. An expandable net helps to keep boot contents in place otherwise, while the space is illuminated by a removable, rechargeable LED flashlight that offers additional practicality for nocturnal situations.

However, the list of practical goodies continues with the Varioflex fold, flip, slide and removable, individual rear seats that turn an already capacious boot into a van-like load deck. Genuine practicality seems to know no bounds at Chez Skoda. Reach beneath the front passenger seat and you will locate a Skoda umbrella. However, the backs of both front seats contain flip-up tables, with pull-out drinks-holders that do not collapse the instant you place anything on them. None of these items is standard on any other VW Group equivalent product and can therefore be described as part of Skoda’s unique value-added, customer-pleasing strategy.

The test example of the Karoq is known as an ‘Edition’ model, which means that most of the items that might be regarded as extras, or even accessories, are included as standard equipment, which extends into a comprehensive suite of safety and driver aids. Of course, there are antilock brakes and both stability and traction control systems but the cross-traffic alerts, rear-view colour camera, distance cruise, pedestrian recognition, lane keep assist and autonomous braking controls are all components of a comprehensive packaging exercise.

Although accessible to a front seat passenger, the cockpit of the Karoq is most definitely driver-focussed, which also includes the electric operation of the driver’s seat (the passenger seat is manual) and the rake and reach adjustability of the steering column, which results in not just a comfortable, leather-lined driving environment but one that is both safe and commanding. Featuring gesture control, the 9.2-inch touch-screen is not merely logical to operate but is conveniently located and easier to familiarise with. The steering wheel carries not only a useful mix of minor controls, by which to operate the full-colour mini-screen between the main dials for speedometer and rev-counter, but also the shift paddles behind the cross-spokes for the 7-speed twin-clutch, automated-manual gearbox that also incorporates ‘fuzzy-logic’ ratio control. Sorry about that but I had to revert to jargon…’fuzzy logic’ means that, should the car be travelling downhill, without driver intervention, the gearbox will shift down the ratios to select lower gears. It happens in other situations too, most of which enhance the driving experience subtly. Typical VW Group column stalks work the indicators, lamps and cruise control on the left and wipers on the right, while the push to start/stop button is located where the ignition key would have slotted, were it not a keyless operation. LED mood lighting is noticeable at night-time.

Powered by the cylinder deactivating, 1.5-litre, turbo-petrol engine that can attain its posted Official Combined 50.4mpg, the Karoq’s performance is surprisingly eager. A trailing throttle will instigate two-cylinder shut-off of the four-pot unit, which saves fuel. However, that sense of willingness does demand judicious applications of throttle, especially when the automatic parking-brake is applied, as the car can lurch forwards otherwise. Yet, once familiar with the trigger response from the accelerator pedal, this car will blitz from 0-60mph in a cool 8.3s, before running out of steam at the naughty side of 126mph. Its CO2 emissions figure of 127g/km equates to £165 first year road tax and £140 annually thereafter. The price for all of this is a competitive £28,415, to which you need to add £1,405 for the Canton hi-fi upgrade, the Family Pack, heated windscreen and washer nozzles, ISOFIX locators on the front passenger seat, Park Assist and the steel ‘spacesaver’ spare wheel, all of which makes a bold ‘value-for-money’ statement.

The four-position Drive Mode selector that comes standard with all MQB-platformed models from the VW Group allows the driver to select between Eco, Normal, Sport and Individual settings, of which I found that the Sport setting, which is not overly firm, was best for motorways, while the Normal setting applied for all other roads. Although the test car is front-wheel-drive, 4×4 equipped versions also feature an Off-Road setting. The damping is supple and compliant and the overall handling of the Karoq is biased towards controlled comfort, with decent steering responses, a tight turning-circle and moderate feedback to the driver’s fingers. Sitting on 19-inch alloys and ultra-low-profile tyres is not always a recipe for ride comfort, although Karoq manages the task handsomely.

Conclusion:    Peer a little deeper beneath the Karoq’s stylish bodywork and you will find a plethora of driver and occupant-pleasing features that underscore the value of the Skoda badge. While Skoda may have edged north of its sometime ‘budget brand’ description, a mix of solid engineering and value-enhancing features ensures that it has not lost all sight of its traditional marketplace.