For all its merits, the Skoda brand has never risen above niche status in Australia. But that's due for a change, and the new Skoda Kodiaq is the vehicle to make it happen.
The Czech Kodiaq taps into the booming seven-seat SUV segment that accounted for more than 100,000 sales in Australia last year, about 10 per cent of the entire new vehicle market.
Reflecting Australia's growing importance to Skoda – it sells 5000 vehicles annually but will grow – the Kodiaq launches here only a few months after its European premiere, a brand first.
To put this into perspective, Skoda outsells Toyota in Europe, so Australia is generally not the brand's focus.
Not only does the brand-spanking new Kodiaq tap into one of the market's fastest-growing segments, but it adheres to Skoda's core strengths of unpretentious practicality and kitschy, clever touches throughout.
As you can read in detail here, the all-wheel-drive (AWD) Kodiaq opens at $42,990 plus on-road costs or $46,290 drive-away, making it by far the most affordable European seven-seat SUV for those who care about such things.
But more importantly it sits alongside big-sellers such as the Hyundai Santa Fe 2.4 Active AWD ($41,850) while offering much more standard equipment and cabin space, and comparable servicing costs and warranty cover.
The Kodiaq also undercuts the entry Mazda CX-9 Sport AWD ($46,490), which is a noticeably larger vehicle but which Skoda claims to match or trump in front- and middle-row seat space and cargo room.
This clearly isn't some oddball destined for the garages of hipsters living in trendy Erskineville, Clifton Hill or Fortitude Valley like the Yeti was. This is a car for the 'middle Australia' who barely knows of Skoda's very existence.
The edgy exterior design, full LED headlights as standard and 19-inch alloy wheels (with space-saver spare) will certainly make it stand out in shopping centre car parks or at kids' footy games.
Dimensionally the Kodiaq is actually closer to a Mitsubishi Outlander or Nissan X-Trail seven-seat derivative than a CX-9 or Toyota Kluger, measuring 4.7 metres long nose-to-tail on a 2791mm wheelbase, with a modest 187mm of running ground clearance.
In this way it's a '5+2' seater, with a third row of seats well suited to smaller kids, or larger occupants for short trips, that fold flush into the floor when not in use.
The middle row is absolutely excellent, with leather/suede seats that slide on rails and recline, can be flipped down via levers in the cargo area for long-item loading, and offer amenities such as LED reading lights, rear air vents, pull-up sun-blinds and sufficient space for anyone up to two-metres tall.
There are also three conventional child-seat attachment points and ISOFIX-enabled anchors on the outboard seats.
With the second row of seats in use you get a very good 630 litres of cargo space, and there's 270 litres behind the third row if they're being occupied. There's more than 2000 litres if the middle row is also folded.
Up front the cabin is very Volkswagen in its design, headlined by the slick glass 8.0-inch screen with proximity sensors (and proper volume knob) that swipes like a smartphone, and has sat-nav, rear-view camera and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
There are also the typical tactile surfaces, excellent build quality and small touches like the felt-lined door pockets.
Other standard fare that belies the $43k entry price includes leather/Alcantara suede seats (with manual adjustment only), full LED cabin lighting, electric tailgate, proximity key and dual-zone climate control.
There are also typically 'Skoda' touches such as the umbrellas in the doors, drawers under the front seats, double glovebox, LED torch flush in the cargo area and the genius spring-loaded plastic door protectors that pop out when you open said doors, to protect them from bingles.
Standard safety equipment beyond the five-star ANCAP rating includes nine airbags covering all rows, Autonomous Emergency Braking and adaptive radar-guided cruise control. That's significantly superior to more established rivals.
Where Skoda will get you is on optional extras, though it's somewhat fitting given there's only one spec level available. Said options come in packs.
There's the $2500 Tech pack that adds: adjustable dampers to soften or harden the car's ride depending on your mood, an uprated 10-speaker audio system, park assist, hands-free tailgate, programmable keys and an off-road driving assist system.
Then there's the $4900 Luxury pack that adds: full leather seats with electric adjust and front/rear row heating, lane assist, blind-spot monitoring, three-zone climate control, a 360-degree camera and a partially autonomous traffic jam assist.
Then there's the Kodiaq's Launch pack that essentially amalgamates the two for $5900. Finally, metallic/pearl exterior paint costs $700, a panoramic glass roof is $1900 and the sleeker 19-inch 'Triglav' alloy wheels you see here are $1650 extra.
The only engine option in the Kodiaq – for now at least – is a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol unit making 132kW (between 3900 and 6000rpm) and a decent 320Nm of torque between 1400 and 3940rpm.
This unit is matched to a seven-speed DSG auto transmission and a standard on-demand 4x4 system that can send about 80 per cent of torque to any of the four wheels if slip is detected.
It's a solid though not spectacular unit that offers acceptable pulling power from low down and decent refinement, acceleration from 0-100km/h in 8.2sec, and claimed combined-cycle fuel use of 7.6L/100km using 95 RON. We'll put this to the test when we spend more time at the wheel.
Skoda claims a 2000kg braked-towing capacity, though keen tow-ers and country buyers alike will be happy to know that a potent 140TDI diesel Kodiaq with 140kW and 400Nm is due in Australia around September/October.
The handling and body control through corners is excellent, ditto the well-weighted electric-assisted steering with various resistance levels. We were also impressed by the suppression of road noise on the launch.
Our test vehicle had the Launch pack, and so offset the low-profile rubber/19-inch wheel combination with adjustable dampers that offer a softer comfort mode and a very stiff sports mode.
We can't make a call on how the base car rides on its fixed dampers yet, though even our test car was a little fidgety over sharp inputs.
Unlike many rivals that come with front-wheel drive offerings at base level, the Kodiaq has a standard on-demand 4x4 system with hill-descent control. We easily negotiated a rutted downhill track, and it's more than capable of mild travel off the beaten path, or snowy roads.
Aside from initial value for money, another misconception Skoda wants to smash is the one that says European cars are expensive to own and run.
The Kodiaq gets a five-year and unlimited kilometre warranty (second only to Kia) and three years or 45,000km of servicing coverage (that's three visits at the recommended intervals) costing a total of $1399 across the term, which is cheaper than some Japanese brands.
In short, on first impression Skoda has comprehensively nailed the brief with the Kodiaq, an assured and upmarket family 5+2 (don't call it a full seven-seater) crossover SUV that will make the neighbours double-take.
Skoda isn't yet a household name, but it deserves more attention. And while motoring writers such as yours truly have a reputation for being disproportionately big fans of the brand already, the Kodiaq deserves its hype.