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Skoda is slowly changing its 'just a cheaper Volkswagen' image in Australia, with the brand's current range not only offering more standard kit for similar money, but also squeezing more practicality out of its models than their German equivalents – the company's mantra is 'Simply Clever' after all.
Probably one of the best examples of this is the new Karoq crossover, which has a more compact footprint than its cousin, the Volkswagen Tiguan, while also including a number of equipment items as standard that would normally be reserved for the VW options list.
Since its launch in July last year, the 'Kodiaq Junior' has only been available in one trim level – the 110TSI with front-wheel drive. The six-speed manual option is now no longer available for our market, leaving the seven-speed DSG as the sole variant on offer in Australia.
Originally listed at $32,290 before on-road costs, the DSG-equipped Karoq 110TSI is currently advertised from $35,990 drive-away, putting it smack bang in the middle of the medium-SUV segment currently dominated by the likes of the Hyundai Tucson, Mazda CX-5 and Toyota RAV4.
Standard inclusions range from 17-inch alloys, keyless entry with push-button start, an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, dual-zone climate control, a rear-view camera with parking sensors, LED daytime-running lights, LED ambient interior lighting, and an eight-speaker audio system.
Other highlights fitted as standard include automatic headlights and wipers, front fog lights, a three-spoke leather sports multifunction steering wheel, an electric park brake, and a double-sided mat in the boot.
That's not a bad amount of kit for the money, and families will appreciate the extensive list of driver assistance and safety features included from the base level, too.
Autonomous emergency braking is standard, as is adaptive cruise control. Seven airbags are scattered throughout the cabin, too, helping the Karoq to achieve a 2017-stamped five-star ANCAP safety rating based on Euro NCAP tests.
While the trim grade choices are slim, there are plenty of options to up-spec your Karoq as you please, and our tester was fitted with just about everything.
The Premium Pack ($3600) brings full-LED headlights with adaptive function, suede seat upholstery, front parking sensors, an electric tailgate, stainless steel pedals, and larger 18-inch alloys.
Opting for the Tech Pack ($3900) adds the 9.2-inch 'Columbus' touchscreen navigation system with Gesture Control, selectable drive modes, a 10-speaker Canton audio system, DAB+ digital radio, wireless smartphone charging, gesture operation for the electric tailgate, an automated parking assistant, along with a customisable key.
Finally, ticking the box for the Travel Pack ($3300) specifies electric adjustment for the driver's seat with memory, leather-appointed upholstery in black or ivory, auto-folding side mirrors with auto dimming, memory and LED puddle lights, Lane Assist, Traffic Jam Assist for the adaptive cruise system, and Emergency Assist.
Our tester was fitted with all three option packs, which can be bundled for a far more affordable $7900 – separately, the options would ask for $10,800.
The solid 'Energy Blue' exterior paint is a no-cost option, though the electric panoramic glass sunroof is an additional $1900.
All up, our Karoq's as-tested sticker is $45,790 drive-away, which is right up there with flagship versions of its key rivals, though you'd hardly call it sparse.
In terms of design, the Karoq is rather understated in the car park, which tends to be the case for the Czech brand's models. Some may find its lines, creases, and funky light designs a little quirky, though it still looks classy and upmarket.
Measuring 4382mm long and 1841mm wide, the Karoq is 104mm shorter than the short-wheelbase Tiguan, but interestingly 2mm wider. At 1603mm tall its roofline is 55mm lower than its cousin's, making for a compact and city-friendly aesthetic.
Inside, the overall design and layout of the cabin are pretty much lifted straight out of the larger Kodiaq, and dominated by the large 9.2-inch central display in the case of our tester, along with the familiar centre stack and physical Skoda dials – the all-digital Virtual Cockpit is a $700 option.
We're pretty familiar with the 'Columbus' navigation unit from various MQB-based models like the Golf and Superb, and it's still a very good system. Graphics are crisp, response times are quick, and it's fully featured.
It's a shame our tester wasn't optioned with the new Virtual Cockpit driver's display, which would have completed the Karoq's digital suite with a premium and high-tech driver's display that would give it another point of difference compared to rivals outside the Volkswagen Group.
The overall ambience is fairly upmarket, as it tends to be for Volkswagen Group products, though some of the materials used don't really match those of the larger Kodiaq.
Take the door handles, for example. No, not the nice chrome ones that open them, the physical ones that you use to pull them shut. They're essentially two pieces of hard plastic moulded together, and just grabbing them made a cheap-feeling squeak in our tester.
On the topic of the doors, the Kodiaq gets soft-touch fabrics in the door cards, whereas the Karoq makes do with hard plastic. They're fairly minor things, but it does detract from the overall feeling of quality, especially when the Kodiaq is one of the class leaders in this regard.
While some of the door trims may not be as nice as they could be, the dash top and upper section of the front doors are finished in more yielding plastics, though the rear doors revert to all-hard bits.
Enough about that, though, let's talk about the space on offer.
Despite its compact dimensions, the Karoq feels spacious and airy in the cabin, even with the optional panoramic roof. Front passengers get plenty of adjustment in the seats, and the driver sits nice and high with plenty of headroom.
In the back, the story is pretty much the same. There's plenty of room for six-foot-tall adults, and kids will basically be swimming back there. Parents will appreciate the two sets of ISOFIX child seat mounts on the outboard rear pews, too.
Rear air vents are included, meaning everyone gets cold air on hot days, while the centre rear seat also doubles up as a fold-down armrest with cupholders.
Speaking of cupholders, there's plenty of storage just about everywhere. All the door pockets can accommodate large bottles, there's a configurable cubby between the driver and front passenger, and a drawer up front to store your phone that also features wireless charging in our tester.
Behind the second row is a 479L boot with the back seats in the rearmost position, which expands to 1605L with them folded down (measured to the roof). The VarioFlex system means the rear seats can be tumbled forward and even completely removed, opening up a van-like maximum of 1810L.
The space itself is nicely square and there's almost no lip, so lifting heavier items in shouldn't be much trouble. Under the boot floor is a space-saver spare wheel.
On the road, the Karoq doesn't try to put the 'sport' into sports utility vehicle, instead focusing on offering a plush and wafty driving experience.
Like the larger Kodiaq, it has a rather cushy suspension tune that soaks up the lumps and bumps of Australia's various road surfaces with ease, while also offering a good level of body control so that it doesn't feel like you're constantly wobbling about.
On the highway it settles nicely and continues to offer that plush and cloud-like feel, while road and wind noise are kept to a relative minimum.
Under the bonnet is a new 1.5-litre 'TSI' turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, which is the first implementation of this motor in the Volkswagen Group's local range – not to be confused with the über-efficient 1.5 'Evo' unit offered in Europe, however.
Outputs are rated at 110kW (@6000rpm) and 250Nm (@1500–3500rpm), with drive sent to the front wheels via a seven-speed DSG automatic. Skoda Australia says it's working on bringing an all-wheel-drive version, possibly with a diesel engine, but there's no firm timing on when that'll arrive Down Under.
Performance isn't quite brisk, but more adequate for the class. Response from a standstill is good thanks to that low-down torque, but the Karoq can quickly feel like it's running out of puff when you really push it, and the engine gets a bit thrashy under load.
Skoda's 8.6-second 0–100km/h claim feels about right by the seat of the pants, though if you like a more sporty feel, you might be more interested in higher-output versions of the Ford Escape or Volkswagen Tiguan for similar money.
The DSG transmission offers seamless shifts once on the move, though it occasionally exhibited that initial hesitation off the line that's fairly common for shifters of this type. Sure, many will find it annoying, but it's an easy thing to adapt to.
We reckon the 140TSI turbo petrol or 110TDI turbo-diesel engines offered overseas would address the 110TSI's lack of punch, though unfortunately that's not currently an option in Australia.
As for steering and handling, the Karoq is very much like the Kodiaq where it's light and direct through the wheel, making it easy to park and negotiate tight streets, while also offering enough grip and good body control (as mentioned earlier) for the target buyer – though a 'sports' SUV this is not.
In terms of fuel consumption, Skoda claims an impressive 5.8L/100km on the combined cycle. We managed low 8.0s according to the Karoq's trip computer, though our week of testing was skewed towards high-traffic urban driving.
While it's quite a bit higher than the manufacturer's claim, anything below 9.0L/100km in real-world driving for the class is still pretty good. Keeping the trip computer's figure in mind, you should easily be able to drive more than 600km per fill from the Karoq's 50L tank even with mostly urban driving. It's also worth noting the Skoda asks for minimum 95RON.
Buyers wary of the Karoq's European origins should have added peace of mind thanks to Skoda's five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty program, which also includes six years of capped-price servicing.
Speaking of scheduled maintenance, it's required every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first, with the first five visits costing $296, $376, $440, $601 and $440 – making for a total of $2153 for the first five years or 75,000km. For those wondering, the sixth service (six years/90,000km) is listed at $449.
Compared to its rivals, the first three years of ownership will actually cost less when compared to the Mazda CX-5 and Subaru Forester – buying Euro doesn't mean you'll be stung at the service centre anymore.
In the increasingly competitive medium-SUV segment, manufacturers are finding it harder and harder to stand out. The Skoda Karoq already has rarity in its favour, given only a hundred or so are registered every month in Australia compared to the monthly 2000-unit efforts by the CX-5 and RAV4, while also bringing European flair and engineering for equivalent pricing to its Asian rivals.
It may lack some of the polish its Kodiaq and Tiguan siblings are praised for, though the Karoq impresses with its level of standard kit (namely active safety), interior versatility and all-round ability.
Should you be in the market for a crossover that will stand out a little from the crowd, while also maximising interior space in a dimensionally compact package, the Skoda Karoq is definitely worth a look.