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Seatbelt fastened, seatback upright, I was staring at the skyline of Prague from around 5,000 feet when the pilot’s voice crackled over the public address system. It was going to be a warm day. 23-24˚C, he said. I could have laughed. Less than 12 hours ago I had been in the sweltering heat of an early summer that was baking everything around Pune at a steady 38-40˚C. There’s no denying that Europe in summer is gorgeous. Three quarters of an hour later and back on terra firma, I walked out into glorious sunshine, the kind that feels lovely because it’s warm and not scorching, and there, sparkling in that bright summer light was the moonweiss (moon white) Skoda Karoq that was going to be my companion over the next few days.
The last time I was in Prague had been in the summer of 2010 to drive the Karoq’s predecessor, the Yeti. This SUV is a far cry from that one. It’s actually handsome and not oddball. There is no doubt at all that Skoda’s design has evolved in leaps and bounds since its Yeti days. The proportions of the Karoq give it exactly the sort of understated presence that will get you that second glance from the colleague you’ve been trying to woo while also telling her that you’re not a loud, brash fellow who’s trying to overwhelm her with a show of wealth.
Luggage loaded, Google Maps being beamed on the touchscreen system via Android Auto, I get going. It’s not just the outside that has evolved. Like the Kodiaq, the design of the interior shares little in common with that of the Karoq’s VW Group cousins. This feels spacious, fresh and contemporary. Much like the Europe I gawp at when I stop at traffic signals. I have travelled a fair bit, even if it isn’t as much as some of my peers, and I never fail to marvel at how Europe always seems so stylish. So up-to-date without losing touch with its heritage. The Karoq with its contemporary design built on classical lines fits right in.
Like every European city, Prague too becomes narrower and more crowded as you get closer to the city centre. Despite its size, the Karoq feels comfortable and easy to drive as Google tells me I’m not too far from my hotel. This SUV has a curious way of shrinking itself around the driver without crowding him (or her) out. You’re blessed with a sense of compactness that isn’t really there, which I think will be particularly unintimidating for someone just moving up the SUV ladder. At the same time it doesn’t feel too compact. I’m not quite sure what Skoda has done to get that right but their engineers have and that’s a great thing.
Humming underneath the Karoq’s bonnet is the all too familiar 2.0 TDI from the Group, but what is this I hear? Rather, don’t hear. The Karoq is incredibly refined and you’d be hard pressed to get a hint of the fact that you’re driving an oil burner. Even with that 1968cc four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine idling and you standing right next to it! Perhaps it’s the work of clever sound deadening placed strategically around the vehicle, or perhaps the engine really is that quiet, by diesel engine standards. Either way, Skoda has hit the bullseye. It’s a world away from the rough clatter of the TDI Pumpe Duse engines that we were once used to before the Group switched to common rail tech.
“Unless you’ve set out with an agenda the Karoq’s powertrain is pretty perfect”
There are close to 150 horses in the stable, all of whom can be let out of the corral between 3500 and 4000rpm, but that’s not really all that significant when you’re in a diesel SUV. What you really want is the torque. In the Karoq that means playing with 340Nm of peak twist from as low as 1750rpm, which comes soon after the car is rolling, all the way to 3000rpm. The result is an incredibly creamy delivery. There’s no lag either, at least none that I could find. All of that is transmitted to all four wheels via the Group’s faultless 7-speed DSG. In fact, unless you’ve set out with an agenda, the Karoq’s powertrain is pretty perfect for powering a vehicle like itself. There’s plenty of torque when you want it and there’s a bit of power as well for the speed junkie. Most importantly, that flat torque curve makes for excellent fuel economy. Out on a mix of European cities and highways I got 720km on a tankful with some to spare. Without having to squeeze anything out of the 55-litre tank.
Come to think of it there’s not much to complain where dynamics are concerned. Bored of exploring if the adaptive cruise control and the lane assist really work on the highways, I headed for the village of Hallstatt across the border into Austria. There’s a wonderful lake and one of the oldest salt mines in the world (with a guided tour of course) if you’re interested in that sort of thing. But the region around Hallstatt also has some of the best driving roads you can find. They are superbly surfaced with sparse traffic, twisty and incredibly picturesque. It’s out here that the Karoq’s real strength and weakness show up. Thanks to that taut chassis and that lovely suspension setup, which some in India will definitely feel is stiff, the Karoq handles very well. For an SUV that tips the scales at well over 1.5 tonnes and is over 1.6m tall, its dynamics are surprisingly well controlled. She sticks to her line and there’s just a hint of understeer in the medium quick tight U-turns that Austria’s Alpine roads offer in plenty. The seats offer plenty of support and prevent you from being thrown around. But it’s also here that you miss the direct feel from that electro-mechanically assisted steering. It’s accurate alright but just doesn’t feel as connected as it needed to be to compliment the SUV’s dynamic setup.
The Karoq I was driving around in was packed to the gills with features, ranging from a huge sunroof to that adaptive cruise control and lane assist, and more. In India, as and when the Karoq arrives, for it surely will, expect it to be spec-ed down some. Even then, it will have the potential to do for Skoda what the Compass did for Jeep. Provided of course Skoda hits the sweet spot with their pricing.