Skoda Karoq: 1,500-mile road test
We test the new Skoda Karoq to the limit, packing it with kit and driving it across Europe from its Czech home to the UK
I just knew we’d get stopped. Call it gut instinct, but as we slowly trickle forwards towards the German border control behind a line of unassuming Austrian-registered Audis and BMWs, there’s a distinct feeling of inevitability about it.
A British Skoda with a cameraman in the front seat, a video camera stuck to the windscreen and a photographer snapping on the back seats – not to mention the driver wearing brightly coloured trousers; even I would have stopped us simply because we look pretty dodgy. The next few minutes could determine if the road trip is over for good.
Rewind 24 hours and we’re far happier. Snapper Nathan, videographer Ed and I have flown into Prague airport, been chauffeured in a Skoda Superb to Skoda’s hometown of Mlada Boleslav and enjoyed a delicious (yes, really) Czech lunch of boiled beef and dumplings. After a quick dash around the museum to remind us just how old and prestigious the Czech Republic’s only surviving car brand is, it’s time to head home. Not by aeroplane but by four wheels.
The plan is simple: take a brand new Skoda Karoq and drive it from the Czech Republic back to the UK. It will be a 1,500-mile tour around Europe taking in as many different terrains as we can throw at Skoda’s new baby SUV. It will give me the chance to give the car a proper shakedown and to see if it has what it takes to take on the most fiercely contested class of the new car market: the mid-size SUV sector.
Here, a new offering arrives almost every week claiming to do this or to excel at that. Most are merely that – claims – and end up being just another SUV. But given Skoda’s recent good form with the excellent Kodiaq, Superb and Citigo, and the gold-plated Yeti, expectations are high for the Karoq – and it shouldn’t disappoint.
Waiting outside the museum and under two statues of the founders of Skoda is our car – a new Karoq in range-topping Edition trim with a 2.0-litre diesel engine, four-wheel drive, a DSG automatic gearbox and smart Meteor Grey paint. Its list price including a few desirable options is £33,910. The only modification is a set of Continental winter tyres with reinforced sidewalls for heavy loads.
Thanks to this being an Edition model the Karoq gets the old Yeti’s clever VarioFlex seats. This means the rear seats are all individual so they can slide forwards, recline, fold up and be removed altogether if needs be (the feature is available on SE L models and above). With two tripods, a video camera bag, an equally large DSLR bag, a sizeable box containing a drone and three people’s personal luggage and belongings, the Karoq is packed to say the least. Once we’ve completed the opening piece to camera for the accompanying road trip video and programmed our first overnight stop into the sat-nav, it’s time to go.
The elegant museum resides in the production halls where Skodas were built until 1926, but with its whitewashed exterior it’s as smart as it has ever been and stands in contrast to the typical modern car factory that sits next door. There’s a Skoda parked on every street; locals are encouraged not just with discounts but also with a sense of local loyalty.
Skodas have rolled out of here since 1895, making this one of the oldest car brands in the world. Then the firm was called Laurin & Klement (named after founders Vaclav Laurin and Vaclav Klement), and it was well known for building motorcycles and stylish touring cars. Skoda Works bought the company in 1925 and there followed nearly 70 years of Communist ownership before Skoda joined forces with the Volkswagen Group in the nineties.
As we leave the very industrial Mlada Boleslav it’s time to head on to the Czech Republic’s motorway network, through Prague and south towards Austria. It’s here where we settle into the newest member of the Skoda family and reflect on the brand’s history. The Karoq is one of the cars in Skoda’s model range that’s most symbolic of the current VW Group success strategy; high technology spread across as many models as possible. So the newcomer features all the fancy, upmarket tech that Skoda could only dream of if it wasn’t part of one big happy family.
There’s the latest VW Group 9.2-inch infotainment system, digital dials (available on UK cars later in 2018), park assist, a raft of safety kit and the type of precise shut lines and bulletproof interior build quality you never could have imagined if you owned a Skoda in the eighties. The Karoq also has excellent practicality and fine driving traits, as it sits on the group’s MQB platform – in other words, it’s based on the VW Golf.
That technology comes into play on the drive to our overnight stop in Salzburg. The Czech motorways are clogged with slow-moving traffic and contraflows, but we manage to miss the worst of it thanks to the traffic-rerouting function on the sat-nav. Turning off the choked highways, we dip into some of the prettiest and most rural villages I’ve seen, seemingly untouched since 1930. Little cottages basking in an orange winter glow, freshly ploughed fields and open church doors are snapshots of a Czech Republic that I never knew existed.
With the sun setting, it’s back to the motorways, the traffic now more regimented the closer we get to the Austrian border. Again, we turn off along country backwaters, with a lone sign announcing the speed limits in Austria all that greets us. Within yards of the unassuming borderline, we’ve gone from every other car being a Skoda to one in five – winter-prepped Audis decked out in roof boxes are the order of the day here.
At a stroke past 8pm we roll into Salzburg, the trip computer clicking on to 263 miles. With its baroque architecture, neat pedestrianised streets, upmarket shops and smart trolley buses, Austria’s fourth-largest city is quite unlike the industrial Czech towns of Kvasiny and Mlada Boleslav, from where the Karoq hails.
We arrive just when the city is celebrating its most famous export – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – while many of the less salubrious shops display images of Julie Andrews. But the only sound of music to be heard in Salzburg this night is the clicking of Nathan’s camera shutter as we (probably) break civic rules and park up underneath the city’s Hohensalzburg Castle, just to grab that perfect night-time shot. From here, we drive out of Salzburg’s Altstadt ‘Old Town’ for a short drive to our clean but utterly soulless three-star ‘Star Hotel’ for a welcome rest.
Day two and we endure a depressing breakfast of cold ham and bitter lukewarm German coffee. After a few pieces to camera and shots in the rush-hour traffic, we point the car towards the ski resort of Kitzbühel in south-west Austria. Just outside of Salzburg the first of three tanks of Shell diesel go into the Skoda and with Kinder bars of chocolate purchased, it’s time to head towards colder climes. Under the shadow of snow-capped mountains, the fast Austrian motorways show off the Karoq’s impeccable high-speed road manners – it’s calm and hushed with barely any wind or road noise and the 2.0-litre TDI quietly working in the background.
However, while the Karoq is happy to canter along for hours, we are less so. That miserable concoction the Star Hotel called breakfast has been digested and we’re running on empty. A hop into southern Germany reveals what any hungry British motorist craves: a McDonald’s. We stockpile burgers, pies and drinks.
Back on to the road and we sneak back into Austria. Climbing higher towards the mountains, we travel for another hour or so. Small clumps of roadside snow become high verges; the air is crisper and chillier and so we switch on the Karoq’s seat-heaters.
Ski resort Kitzbühel is a mecca for Land Rover Defenders, Mercedes G-Classes, Volvo Cross Countries, and the odd four-wheel-drive Porsche 911. Here, the Karoq fits in well, and its distinguished look easily holds its own among the more premium machinery casually cruising around the town.
Austria’s excellent snow-clearing attitude is not what we want and despite the two-foot-high snow on the verges, the roads are clear. Past a group of distinctly Bavarian hotels at the top of the town we find a small road left untouched by the ploughs. At the bottom it winds its way up underneath a line of gondolas before drawing level with Kitzbühel’s most famous feature. The town sits between the Hahnenkamm and Kitzbühler Horn mountains, and the Streif slope is arguably the steepest and most challenging in the world, having played host to a world-class downhill skiing race since 1937.
The road we’re on, just a few metres from the Streif, is challenging, but to my genuine amazement the Karoq doesn’t falter. That’s because our 2.0-litre TDI model comes with four-wheel drive as standard, and it isn’t your old-fashioned permanent system with huge levers protruding from the dashboard. Instead, the Skoda’s set-up uses sensors to constantly monitor the road conditions and then works out which wheels need the power. There’s even an off-road mode, and if you’re really keen on taking your car off the beaten track, the company can also fit a Rough Road package that consists of cable, brake and fuel line protection, skid plates and underbody panels.
Our Karoq sprints up the slope, but nevertheless I dive into the Drive Mode Select. A prod of a button by the gearlever brings up a range of driving modes you can select via the touchscreen. There are the usual Eco, Normal, Sport and Individual options, but I choose Snow, which primes the car for slippery conditions. Coupled with winter tyres, the Karoq is capable enough to put more rugged SUVs to shame.
After some beauty shots and drone work for the video, it’s time to leave. Our original plan to head down across the top of Italy, over the Italian Alps and into Switzerland is tossed aside – in order to make our Friday 3pm Channel Tunnel train, we need to get motoring. The three of us throw around possible destinations for that night’s stop – the Karoq’s glassy infotainment screen with pinch zoom allows us to pinpoint exactly the best routes and potential traffic hotspots. We eventually agree upon Strasbourg.
We take the main road out of Kitzbühel and head on to the A8. The sat-nav tells us this is the road we must stick to for the next five hours. But soon enough we’re at the Austria-Germany border and it’s here where the road trip could have had a different ending.
A cranky German border guard and flamboyant, slightly posh car journalist don’t make a good combination, and if it wasn’t for the peacekeeping skills of Nathan to calm down the heated argument (short summary: I stopped in the wrong place for inspection, leading to a small disagreement), we could have been spending time in a Polizei station.
International relations at an all-time low, we’re eventually waved on our way. I decide it’s time to retreat into the back seats with my tail between my legs and let Ed do some of the driving. If anything, the back of the car is even nicer than the front. The VarioFlex seats allow a good amount of backrest adjustment, and even with a boot full of luggage I can easily slide the seat back to get comfortable.
A drop-down picnic table provides a great place for the work laptop to be rested and the infotainment system’s secure and fast WiFi hotspot allows me to catch up on emails and start writing this feature.
On the fast-flowing A8 – considerable parts of it are derestricted – the Karoq holds its own amid a sea of super-executive German barges. The road leads us into France and Strasbourg and to our hotel.
Next morning, it’s time for more pictures and video in the medieval parts of the city – the timbered buildings looking quaint despite it lashing with rain. And then it’s time to point the Karoq towards Calais.
The last leg of the journey represents what every British holidaymaker travelling through France experiences: sheer boredom. Even the Karoq can’t shake off a slight whiff of monotony – not through any fault with the car but more because of the vast, featureless French autoroutes. We hook up my phone via Apple CarPlay to listen to various Spotify playlists and something more educational: Learn Czech in 40 Minutes. Some 40 minutes later and with my Czech vocabulary consisting of just ‘ano’, ‘ne’ and ‘ahoj’, we drop into Reims – and the Circuit de Reims-Gueux.
It’s a mandatory stopover for any Brit wishing to break up the monotonous trawl to Calais. The row of pit garages, faded advertising and crumbling grandstands are all that’s left of the famous road circuit. But while I want to stay there forever boring Ed to tears with stories about Fangio and Ascari, we need to get back on the road. It’s essentially a straight line to Calais and to avoid the speed traps we engage the Karoq’s adaptive cruise control and relax.
Channel Tunnel completed we’re soon into the hustle and bustle of central London. As we roll up to Auto Express HQ in the West End, the trip computer clicks over to 1,504 miles – or, in other words, 1,504 miles of motorways, city streets, slippery snowy tracks, McDonald’s, arguments, terrible coffee and the enormously talented Skoda Karoq.
Read our Skoda Karoq SUV vs Peugeot 3008 SUV road test...
- 1IntroductionSkoda’s new Karoq SUV is one of 2018’s most exciting new cars - our special feature charts its journey from concept to production
- 2DesignThe Karoq follows the success of the Kodiaq with another striking look. We learn how it evolved
- 3Engines and technical developmentChristian Strube and Dr Martin Hrdlicka talk us through the Skoda Karoq development process from sketchbook to showroom
- 4Interior design and practicalityWe find out if the new Skoda Karoq has the neat, practical touches to handle everyday family life
- 5LED lighting technologyThe Karoq is available with full-LED lighting tech, and as we find out, the intelligent system enhances safety
- 6UK specs and pricesKey spec differences separate UK Skoda Karoqs from those on sale elsewhere. We find out why
- 7Meet the customersOur reader jury test team casts a critical eye over the replacement for the Skoda Yeti
- 810 things you didn't know about the Skoda KaroqThink you know everything about the Skoda Karoq? Think again...
- 9Skoda Karoq: 1,500-mile road test - currently readingWe test the new Skoda Karoq to the limit, packing it with kit and driving it across Europe from its Czech home to the UK
- 10Buy a Skoda Karoq onlineWe visit Skoda’s Live Tour, the online showroom helping people get an insight into the Karoq