With a combination of German engineering influence through Volkswagen Group ownership, left field but likeable styling, and delightfully clever functionality, Skoda is steadily building a following in Australia.
But the line up of passenger and SUV models is still has some gaps that, when looking at rival’s ranges, have been plugged long ago.
In response to stiff competition from more mature brands, the Czech marque is working hard to identify the holes in its armour and continue filling the range with more compelling offerings. And the Karoq mid-sized SUV has been somewhat of a work in progress, until now.
What is the Skoda Karoq?
Skoda’s first mid-sized SUV is not completely new to Australia and first arrived in 2018 as just one 110TSI variant with a choice of manual or automatic transmissions, but the company always intended to withdraw the six-speed manual and bolster the line-up with more choice later.
That extra choice has now arrived in the form of an updated 110TSI automatic alongside a more premium and sporty 140TSI Sportline.
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The former targets a customer that prioritises practicality, economy and perhaps a more urban environment, while the new offering focuses on the driving enthusiast looking to get away from the urban jungle and into the real one.
What is the Skoda Karoq like to drive?
Skoda has done an excellent job of offering a pair of Karoqs that exist at polar opposite ends of the spectrum and do very different jobs. Neither are in any danger of cutting each others grass or standing on each other’s toes.
At one end you have the 110TSI - a variant that bumps in with a small 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine, front-wheel drive and a ‘conventional’ automatic gearbox, while the 140TSI has 2.0-litre turbo petrol, all-wheel drive and a dual-clutch auto.
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As you might imagine then, both offer a very different driving experience.
For the 2020 update, the Karoq 110TSI has had an engine downsize from 1.5-litres but its eagerness and impressive torque prompted a look at the user manual to make sure we hadn’t accidentally picked up the wrong version.
110kW and 250Nm doesn’t sound like a lot but the Karoq makes it feel like a lot more with surprisingly brisk acceleration from a standstill and it doesn’t even start to show weakness when it comes to freeway slip roads, blasting up to the national limit as strongly. Only the odd overtaking dash found a slight drop off in otherwise impressive power for such a tiny engine under the bonnet of a decent sized SUV.
And the sophisticated power plant is not let down by its gearbox pairing either. Once again, the snappiness and aggressive uptake of torque had us reaching for the spec sheet to check this particular Skoda hadn’t been fitted with a dual-clutch transmission.
Its eight speeds are carefully placed for optimum smoothness and even the lack of paddle shifters on the steering wheel wasn’t an annoyance with the transmission program doing everything we wished automatically.
Chuck the 110 into a corner and there’s a little roll and the tyres will squash around to remind you that this is definitely not intended to be a track car but that doesn’t mean it isn't fun. Light weight front-drive only and carefully tuned suspension have resulted in a variant that’s nimble and enjoyable with surprising performance.
And those good manners continue on less enjoyable roads thanks to an engine and transmission combination that manages to be silent and efficient in traffic for less appealing commute driving.
140 TSI Sportline
But where the 110TSI delivered far more performance than expected, perhaps our expectations were a little too high for its 140TSI sibling. With a 2.0-litre turbo engine that, in other states of tune delivers proper firecracker performance, the sportiest Karoq didn’t have quite the bang we had hoped for.
Ironically, its DCT automatic transmission with seven speeds didn’t have quite the urgency off the mark either. To an extent, the Sportline redeems itself on the open road where it can stretch its legs and demonstrate the 320Nm it has to offer.
Its more dynamically leaning chassis is a treat through corners and has enormous grip in combination with the handsome 19-inch alloy wheels. Flick its driving mode to Sport and the added steering weight enhances the experience, while ride hardens noticeably - for the better.
You also get more noise though its Sound Generator which sounds like someone has placed a microphone directly in the four-cylinder engine’s induction system, which is effectively what the system does. The piped-in engine noise is rich and authentic.
In other Volkswagen Group vehicles, the EA888 engine is capable of making up to 228kW, which is perhaps why the 140TSI (140kW) version feels a little detuned, but tantalisingly, this leaves room in the Karoq line-up for a flagship RS version, which is a very exciting proposition if confirmed.
What is the Skoda Karoq like to live with?
In the case of the 110TSI, the Karoq is nothing short of a delight to have parked on the driveway. Its engine and transmission is always eager to impress regardless of how you chose to drive it, but its practicality proposition is just as compelling.
The cabin is generous no matter which part you look at. In the front row, occupants are treated to tons of headroom with a generous view of the surroundings, its the same story in the second row albeit a little narrower - three abreast would be cosy but doable, and it continues to the back where you’ll find one of the most flexible load areas since Honda’s magic seats.
In addition to the now commonplace folding rear seats that boost boot capacity from 588 litres to 1605L, the clever VarioFlex sliding second row is easily removable to take the total to a whopping 1810 litres. Pop the seats back in and roll them back for maximum leg room and the boot shrinks to a minimum of 479L. That flexibility is a big tick on the Karoq’s score card.
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Then there are the technological enhancements for the 2020 version which are exemplified by vast digital displays. Not only can the beautifully sharp central screen be enlarged optionally to 9.2-inches, the fully digital instrument cluster complements it as another surprising standard feature.
Through normal use, the Karoq is constantly revealing brilliant but simple practicality features that we can’t believe haven't been done already. A removable boot light that doubles as rechargeable torch, umbrella hidden under the passenger seat, smartphone/tablet holders for rear occupants, clever and smart storage cubbies everywhere all combine for to make the Karoq feel like you know something everyone else doesn’t.
Add to that, other previously high-end-only features including LED headlights, power tailgate with hands-free operation (requires a foot though), navigation, ambient lighting, keyless entry and start, and you’ll be checking the price in disbelief as often as we were consulting the user manual.
The 140TSI however, demands more in the way of sacrifice to live with its performance-focused advantages.
For a start, there’s the sports seats that are included as standard. When the road gets twisty, the beautiful fabric-upholstered front seats provide excellent side support with deep bolsters that add to the look and sporty cabin. Unfortunately a lack of tilt adjust made it difficult to find exactly the right driving position, while the absence of headrest adjustment and lumbar support became uncomfortable during a longer cruise.
Fixed and partially-fixed sports seats are often as subjective as each driver’s preference and body dimensions differ greatly, so it’s definitely a case of try (and pay particular attention to) before you buy.
With large alloy wheels on both variants, there was surprisingly little road noise or wind noise from either but the shell had a tendency to ‘boom’ over rough surfaces much like a van, which disappointingly detracts from the otherwise excellent build quality and finish.
While the 110TSI has the clever VarioFlex seats, the 140TSI’s Sportline seats do not pull the same trick - another style-over-practicality sacrifice. The boot still accommodated a decent load of gym equipment despite lacking the maximum volume.
But there is still lots to like. For example, the standard active lane-departure system is one of the most effective but least intrusive. Instead of a patronising tug at the wheel, the Karoq subtly and almost imperceptibly keeps the vehicle in lane and we didn’t once reach for the ‘off’ button as so many other models have prompted us to do before.
You also get all-wheel drive which we didn’t test off-road although Skoda says the system imparts genuine all-terrain ability, while the steering-wheel paddle gear shifters make more sense matched to its dual-clutch gearbox. We definitely got stuck into these in the 140TSI.
And the 140TSI’s party piece is absolutely the way it looks. Like the equally handsome, Kodiaq Sportline, you’ll be proud to park the Karoq flagship anywhere and walk away looking at it over your shoulder.
Is the Skoda Karoq worth the money?
Priced from $29,990, the new entry point for the Karoq range appears to be competitive for the brand and this segment. There aren’t many other European mid-sized SUVs that fit a sub-$30k budget.
But the generous standard kit list and an engine and transmission combination that clicks so perfectly elevates the Karoq 110TSI to an even more irresistible level. Frankly, it’s a bargain.
It’s harder to make the figures balance when it comes to the 140TSI Sportline although we doubt too many Australians will have the same problem in our typically premium look and feel-favouring market.
The step up of about $7000 on paper at least seems fair for a corresponding boost to performance and specification, but in practice, the entry level 110TSI is so strong in its performance and standard equipment, the gap between them in reality feels narrower.
Both however, are cheap to run with fuel economy figures coming in from our test drives remarkably close to the claimed efficiency of 6.6 litres per 100km for the 110TSI and 6.9L/100km for the Sportline.
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Skoda’s Karoq siblings still have very different personalities and unique target audiences, but the smart money is definitely on the 110TSI if you can ever look at a handsome Sportline and not lust after its looks.
With a 2020 relaunch, the Karoq range has never been more attractive from both a value and styling perspective, but it might have been more effective in drawing a greater number of curious customers to this latest, most alluring double tap in its first outing.
Nonetheless, with an even stronger mid-sized Karoq offering now available in Australia, Skoda’s line up is building momentum and attention by the day. And when its baby Kamiq SUV arrives there will be even fewer reasons to stroll past the Skoda showroom and into a Volkswagen (or Kia, Hyundai, Honda, Mitsubishi) dealership.