Exploring the Thrill of Driving on an INRC Stage with the Skoda Kushaq
It made sense bringing the Skoda Kushaq to a rally stage. Skoda is no stranger to rallying. In fact, it has been involved in motorsport since 1901 (with motorcycles!) and the first time a car built by Laurin & Klement participated in the iconic Monte Carlo rally was in 1912. You know the Rapid Monte Carlo, don’t you? Where do you think it gets its name from? From Skoda’s success in the iconic Monte Carlo rally, which is a mainstay of the WRC calendar! In fact, Skoda has had Monte Carlo editions of its cars from way back in 1936, starting with the absolutely gorgeous Skoda Popular Monte Carlo! And Skoda rallies to this day, with the Fabia R5 being one of the most successful rally cars in the WRC.
In a rally, cars don’t race against each other, they race the clock. Much like that, the Kushaq doesn’t have any rivals to go up against here. It is competing with the bank of memories I have of driving great cars, on great roads. I have my entire experience of driving cars to fall back on. Memories where I felt excitement, joy and happiness behind the wheel, because a car just did everything right.
This is the ultimate shakedown for handling. It isn’t a road that you’d approach with abandon, but a rally stage — one of the many from the INRC’s Rally of Maharashtra. And while we aren’t rallying today, we are putting the Kushaq to its most demanding test yet. Dip the clutch in. Punch the starter button. The starter button isn’t on the dash but on the steering column exactly where you would have slotted in the key. I love that little flourish — a thoughtful touch reminding us of the analogue machines we used to drive. The 1.0-litre TSI engine is now thrumming enthusiastically, waiting for me to do something. I stab the throttle, and watch the revs rise and fall. The car is ready. I look up at the road ahead, with perfectly paved tarmac that ducks out of sight behind a hillock on the right and carries on, winding through the rolling countryside.
I stab the throttle and the revs rise and fall again, almost as if to tell me to get a move on. Deep breath. I push the gear stick into first, get both hands back on the ’wheel, pick the revs up, hold them there for a split second and then dump the clutch. The steering goes light momentarily as the tyres scrabble for traction on the damp tarmac, before they grip and send me hurtling forward. The turbo lights up and the redline approaches far quicker than I anticipated. Muscle memory takes over — pushing in the clutch pedal, flicking the lever back to second, and flooring it again. The right turn that disappears behind the hillock is approaching fast — a gentle one that is opening up the more I close in on it. I don’t need to brake but I get off the gas to let the weight transfer forward as I turn in. The front end darts right, and the rest of the car follows as the Kushaq leans on its suspension. There is body roll but the good kind. The kind that is progressive and communicated with you, instead of being unpredictable, unwieldy and leaving you reacting to it every time it shows up. Next up is a gentle left, which the Kushaq finesses again, followed by a crest… and I am not sure what is behind it. I don’t have a co-driver, if you haven’t noticed already!
“When in doubt…” Famous words that can be taken literally when driving a proper rally stage, or metaphorically for when life throws curveballs your way. But when driving on a public road at speed? Probably not sound advice. So I back off, take the yump gently and only gas it when I sight the road ahead. The road snakes through the countryside: it is incredibly narrow and one mistake, one error in judgement can plaster me against the bright green countryside. The fact that it is slippery doesn’t help. But I have a job to do. I have to push this Kushaq until brilliance shines through, or it crumbles against the weight of expectation. We continue this dance for about a kilometer and half, until I spot a signboard announcing the hairpin ahead a little too late. Slam the brakes. The Kushaq’s nose dives forward, the tyres working hard despite the conditions, as speed is shaved off. Down to third, and down again to second. The quick-revving TSI engine makes rev-matching a breeze. Bleed off the brakes gently as I turn in, and the Kushaq sweeps through the corner in a graceful arc. Impressive.
Which explains why the Kushaq isn’t out of place here. One of the many reasons why carmakers take to motorsport is because it accelerates development. The heat of competition pushes how fast they learn about new technology, and forms a great testbed for this tech that can eventually filter down to the road. And the Kushaq’s sorted chassis must have some links to what Skoda has learned on the rally stages.
The engine never disappoints either. A 1-litre TSI sounds out of its depths for a car of this size — and yet, it will keep you thoroughly entertained. On roads like these, where we need short bursts of speed between corners, the TSI engine is perfect. Peak torque is available as low as 1750rpm, and revs with a freeness that other small turbo-petrols just lack. Keep it on the boil, and it delivers speed with an urgency that would shame a competition car. The three cylinders with their uneven firing order make for an engaging soundtrack as well, a muted growl that gets angrier when you wring it out. It is the TSI tech that makes it so engaging. The engine may be down on capacity, but the combination of a turbocharger and high pressure direct injection gives it performance that punches above its well above its weight. It also helps with keeping emissions to a minimum, but to me, the TSI badge means one thing and one thing only. A big fat smile on my face.
The gearbox adds an additional layer of interaction to the driving, heightening the sensations around you. The simple act of taking the left hand off the steering wheel for a downshift as a corner approaches at speed makes everything just a little more dramatic. It forces you to time your footwork perfectly. Clutch in. Blip the throttle. Downshift. Clutch out. No automatic makes you work so hard to nail a corner. But nailing one in a manual just feels that much more satisfying.
Sorted drivetrain and chassis aside, the Kushaq does so much more to suck you into the driving experience. A steering wheel that is adjustable for both rake and reach — so important to getting a good driving position. Supportive seats — there’s adequate bolstering so you aren’t thrown around when you get aggressive behind the ’wheel. A traction control-off button that never disappears off the infotainment screen — perfect for the dirt trails around the windmill farms we are visiting. Not to mention it comes packing luxuries such as ventilated seats and a sunroof.
Back on the road, the Kushaq and I are flowing with the ribbon of tarmac we are on. Through dips, over crests and through fast directional changes, the car feels like an extension of my being. The road is narrow (and tricky!) but with every passing kilometre, my faith in its abilities grow. No bump unsettles it. No ditch causes me to flinch. No corner catches us out. I push it harder and harder, until I realise that I am no longer holding back. I am driving as fast as I can, fully confident that the Skoda Kushaq will keep up. It just feels so natural on this undulating terrain that is so typical of India, almost as if it were made for it. With every corner, the Kushaq on this INRC stage is moving further up the list of great drives I have filed away in my head. It doesn’t just survive the shakedown. It decimates it.
To see for yourself how the Skoda Kushaq fares around an INRC rally stage, you can check out the video on our YouTube channel here.