2021 Skoda Kushaq First Drive Review: The mid-size SUV for the driving enthusiast!

The Skoda Kushaq is an all-new mid-size SUV that rivals the Hyundai Creta and Kia Seltos. Can Skoda make it big in this hugely competitive segment?
The Skoda Kushaq is a handsome car that definitely draws design inspiration from the Karoq and Kodiaq
The Skoda Kushaq is a handsome car that definitely draws design inspiration from the Karoq and KodiaqShot by Rohit G Mane for evo India

The Skoda Kushaq is finally here! This is the first SUV to be born of Skoda’s massive India 2.0 project, where cars from the VW Group will be heavily localised in India to keep prices competitive. The Kushaq is an SUV that will dive straight in to one of the most competitive segments in the Indian market — the mid-size SUV segment. Its primary rivals will be the extremely successful Hyundai Creta and Kia Seltos, but higher-spec compact SUVs and sedans like the Honda City and the Hyundai Verna will get caught in the crosshairs as well.

The Skoda Kushaq will be available in three variants in India — the base Active variant, a mid-spec Ambition variant and the top-spec Style variant. There are two engines on offer — a 1.0 TSI (with a manual or torque convertor auto) and 1.5 TSI (with a manual or DSG). The former is available on all three variants, while the latter is only available on the top-end Style variant which is the variant we’re testing today. The questions are many, the biggest of which is — with this heavy localisation, does the Kushaq still feel like and more importantly, drive like, a European car? That’s what we’re going to find out!

It certainly looks good, doesn’t it?

It does. But do I really get stuck in to styling? Skoda has been drip feeding us the Kushaq’s form over the last year and we’ve delved it to the nitty-gritties at every chance we got, so I’ll keep it brief today. The design is unmistakably Skoda — drawing heavily on the Kodiaq and Karoq for inspiration, but I swear there are hints of the Yeti in there as well. LED headlamps and tail lamps keep it on par for the course, while this top-end Style variant we are driving gets 17-inch alloys. And it looks bloody good rolling down the road. It packages a design that we have come to associate with expensive SUVs in to a compact, approachable footprint. It doesn’t have the same visual bulk as its primary rival, the Hyundai Creta which is 75mm longer, 30mm wider and 33mm taller. It doesn’t feel as imposing when you walk up to it or drive up next to it, but it makes up for that with the sophistication in its design. Sharp, edgy and very, very cool — the Kushaq is an objectively handsome car.

I can see that. But what about the interiors?

Well, it starts with the thud the door makes — which is one of the most popular questions people have when we test a new car. Particularly if its a European car. It is a satisfying thud, of that you can be assured.

But a door thud doesn’t tell you the full story, does it?

No, it doesn’t. The door may have left a good first impression but poking around the cabin will reveal more. Lets see…steering wheel: looks identical to the Octavia’s and the quality of the buttons on it feel identical too. It is also adjustable for rake and reach, which makes it super easy to find a comfortable driving position! Analogue dials: clear, crisp and the black and white MID is basic and looks dated but tells you everything you need. No Virtual Cockpit at launch at least, and while that doesn’t bother me, it seems to rile up plenty of people. If you’re one of them, you may want to look at the VW Taigun — it will have the same underpinnings with a digital cockpit when it does go on sale. The leather seats: great bolstering on the sides, they hug you well and they are ventilated!

Tell me more!

The 10-inch infotainment screen: it runs an all-new interface which is easy to learn, and gets wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. That’s a big plus. If you’ve got a phone with induction charging, you’ll never need a cable in your car again. It also has a native app store that allows you to download apps including Gaana and a navigation app, though once you’re hooked up to CarPlay there’s little need for them. And as is with any new car launch these days, you get connected car features that allow you to track the car in real time on your phone, understand driving behaviour, trip information and SOS services over the internet. The air-con controls: no physical buttons but a touch slider. It looks harder to use than it actually is with small contours on the surface guiding your fingers so you don’t have to take your eyes of the wheel. I just wish there was an audible click or some sort of haptic feedback so you know when you’ve actually done what you want to do. And in terms of storage, you have large door pockets and enough sensibly designed storage in the centre console. It also gets a sunroof, though I must add that it isn’t a panoramic sunroof.

Okay, sounds promising. But lets get back to what you said at the start — does it feel like a Skoda?

Well, for the most part, quality is what you would expect from an SUV wearing the Skoda badge. The buttons and controls on the dash and steering all feel high quality. However, start prodding around and you will notice some visible signs of cost cutting — the headliner feels flimsy, the air con vents have tried to replicate the lovely knurled effect of the knobs on the steering wheel but feel cheap and the plastics on the door pads feel hard and scratchy. Should that bother you? I don’t think so. Apart from the vents, these aren’t places you will actually touch very often and they recede in to the background when you start driving. The important bits that stay in focus like the steering wheel, the buttons on the dash and the infotainment screen all feel very high quality.

What about the backseat?

Listen, you’ve come to evo India for your review — we focus on the Thrill of Driving here. The backseat can wait. Especially since I have got what looks like the enthusiasts’ choice of drivetrain on paper — the 1.5 TSI with the manual transmission. This is the perfect car to see if the Kushaq can actually deliver on the Thrill of Driving, something that its extended family has managed to consistently do for two decades now.

Okay, fair point. So what does it feel like? Is it powerful?

Well, the 1.5 TSI Evo engine makes 148bhp and 250Nm of peak power and torque, strong numbers that give it an enthusiastic turn of speed. The engine is the same one we saw in the Skoda Karoq last year, but now a small part of it has been localised and the engine is assembled here in India. It has also been re-tuned for India, to account for our stop-and-go conditions. What does it feel like? Well its punchy, for sure. Once the turbo lights up, it has a strong, solid shove and this is an engine that likes to be revved. It doesn’t sound riveting but it is effective, though I must add that it doesn’t seem to have the performance to match Skoda’s claimed 0-100kmph time of 8.6 seconds in the sensations it delivers. We haven’t VBOX tested it yet though, and will be able to confirm our impressions only after we do.

However, it is extremely tractable. You can slot it in to a high gear and do ridiculously low speeds without stalling it, and it accelerates without stuttering in such conditions as well. As for the transmission, this six-speed manual is a rather pleasant piece to row through. The clutch action is springy but not heavy, and driving it in the city shouldn’t be a problem. The gearbox doesn’t have a very long throw either, and it feels sporty moving up and down the gears. This isn’t a drivetrain that sets your heart on fire, but it does give the Kushaq adequate performance, enough for you to look at it as a car that you can have fun in on the weekend.

That’s a good start. What about the Skoda Kushaq’s ride and handling?

This is where the Kushaq really shines. All that European ride and handling we keep harping on about? The Kushaq nails it. Ride quality is set up marginally on the firmer side, but that is not to say that it comes at the expense of comfort. At low speeds you can feel a certain amount of the road in the cabin, but as you pick up speed, the Kushaq behaves better and better and flattens the road out more confidently. It can deal with bad roads without trouble and large breakers do not faze it. And on the highway it stays planted and confident. The Kushaq may have been designed, engineered and built in and for India, but it still feels like it can take on the Autobahn without breaking in to a sweat.
The handling is great too! The front end has a lot of grip and while it does roll a fair bit as you can see in these images (it is a tall car and not a hatchback like the Polo), it feels confident and you always feel in control. Drive it hard and it will kick its rear wheel up in the air, speaking volumes about the torsional rigidity of the platform. Over the last two years, whenever we interviewed the top bosses at Skoda and VW, we asked them if the MQB platform will be watered down for India. No, they firmly said, and added that it will retain the rigidity of the European cars. And by the looks of it, they have. This is, by far, the most entertaining SUV to drive in this segment.

So its perfect, is that what you’re saying?

No, it isn’t. I have one major grouse with its dynamics and that is the steering — it is too light. And the Kushaq doesn’t even get drive modes that can weigh it up on demand. The steering is direct, so the car reacts well to your inputs but that lack of weight makes it feel a little disconnected to the front end. In fact, the Ed says that it feels lighter than the prototypes that we drove in Goa earlier this year.

I must also mention here that the Kushaq doesn’t get disc brakes at the rear. Drums are standard across variants, I never felt the braking capability lacking at any point in time, but discs would just give the driver that much more confidence.

Hold up. A light steering? Isn’t that good for city driving? A lot of people will be driving it in town…

That’s true, and its actually a very competent city car. It's smaller dimensions means squeezing in to gaps is easy, and that tractable engine allows you to potter about without trouble. Ground clearance is good so you don’t have to worry about the conditions of the roads and the controls are light, so you’re not wrestling this SUV in traffic. It may not ride as plushly as a Creta, but thats a small sacrifice you have to make for the thrills it delivers when you do take it out of town and cane it.

But, but, but… kitna deti hai?

Skoda has not declared the ARAI fuel economy figures just yet, and we didn’t have the car long enough to do a fuel economy run. But these turbo petrols are very sensitive to the driver’s driving style and can give hugely fluctuating fuel economy figures depending on how heavy a foot you have. Find comfort in the fact that the 1.5 TSI Evo has cylinder deactivation tech which allows it to run on two cylinders under low load.

Okay, you’ve said your bit. Can we get to the backseat now?

Of course. And I know what you’re thinking — that since the Kushaq is smaller than the Creta, the backseat space must be less too. Well, surprise, surprise! The Kushaq’s overall length may be less than the Creta’s but at 2651mm, the wheelbase is actually longer by 41mm. Which means, you have plenty of knee room — more than the Creta’s in fact! Headroom is adequate as well — there’s no panoramic sunroof and there’s a big scoop in the headliner above the passengers’ heads. And the seats themselves are scooped out and hug you well even in the back. However, this SUV is narrow. Apparently, this is the widest the MQB-A0-IN platform can be stretched to and that means the rear is only comfortable for two. Three is a squeeze. Not to mention, the middle seat is raised up and is a rather uncomfortable affair anyway.

What about boot space?

The boot is interesting. Skoda declares 385 litres with the second row in place and 1405 litres with the 60:40 split bench folded. The boot is visibly smaller than the competition’s and loading large amounts of luggage will not be the Kushaq’s strengths. But it is deep and should suffice for most needs. You do get two hooks to hang bags.

Safety must not be a concern, right?

The Kushaq hasn’t been crash tested yet, but we do know Skoda and VW take safety very seriously. The fact that this platform is as rigid as the European MQB-A0 platform should bode well for it. That said, it does get six airbags on top spec variants and a whole host of electronic aids including ESP as standard on all variants.

So what’s your verdict, then?

Well, its all down to the prices now. Skoda and VW need to undercut the Hyundai Creta and Kia Seltos to get people to take notice. And I can only tell you whether you should buy one or not after I know the prices, which will be announced on June 28.

What I can say is this — the Kushaq feels resolutely European. It looks good, comes packing enough features and nails the driving dynamics as we would expect it to. If you are a driving enthusiast that has their heart set on an SUV at this price point, look no further. The Kushaq is all you will ever need. That said, it is also spacious and deserves attention not only from hardcore enthusiasts but for anyone in this segment looking out for an SUV. The first fruits of the India 2.0 project are here. And they are certainly very, very sweet.

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