Skoda entered India in 2001, and revolutionised the luxury segment with the Octavia, which was launched the following year. The brand quickly became synonymous with driving pleasure and a muscular build but poor after-sales service meant it couldn’t tempt customers even though it had strong products like the Superb and the Fabia.
In 2018, Skoda reimagined its business model, with its parent company VW India committing a billion euros to ensuring a customer-centric focus and affordable, low-cost products made in India for India. The Kushaq, which means emperor in Sanskrit, is the first outcome of this renewed India focus. Set to hit roads in June, the Kushaq aims to rule the segment currently cornered by the Korean cousins, Hyundai Creta and the Kia Seltos.
Are the emperor’s new clothes good enough? Well, it is quite the eye-catcher with lots of styling details. The split lamps, headlamps on top and daytime running lights (DRL) below have stylish Skoda crystal lighting elements. They flank a very wide double-bar grille surrounded by chrome. The chin wears a large air dam underlined by the skid plate for added strength. The overall lines are upright and give it the look of an SUV, and it sits on an attractive set of alloys.
One finds the intricate crystal detailing in the split design tail lamps as well. The contouring makes the rear attractive looking too. The Kushaq catches your attention from any angle, and is quite the stunner. But it takes more than looks to be the king—it needs strength from the core, which the Kushaq has.
Built on the robust MQB AO IN platform—introduced by Volkswagen in India in 2019 as modular platform on which to build its automobiles—it stands on a competent base. The exterior dimensions may not be best in class, but it does open up the best amount of space between the wheels and translates into enough room for a six-footer in the comfortable back seat. The issue, though, is the width. The cabin is narrow, and despite Skoda flattening the central tunnel, three in the back would be a squeeze. However, rear passengers get their own set of AC vents and an armrest. To carry luggage, there is a practically sized 385-litre boot.
What impresses is the interior styling and quality. There is a richness to the layered dash that feels premium. The 10-inch touchscreen, the two-spoke steering and feather touch controls make for a modern-looking cabin. Though neatly laid out, the dials aren’t digital, so they stand out in the otherwise modern cabin. However, the Kushaq isn’t skimping on features. You will get ventilated seats, ambient lighting, cooled glovebox, six-speaker system, internal memory storage, connected car tech, wireless smartphone connectivity, sunroof and a host of safety features like six airbags, ISOFIX child seat mounts, auto headlamps and wipers, hill hold control and electronic stability control.
I got a chance to drive the pre-production version in sunny Goa. The narrow winding roads allowed me to test the dynamics, and I have to say Skoda has done a stellar job of balancing ride and handling. It could very well be the segment best. It feels as strong as an ox, and the assured manner gives you an immense feeling of security.
While the experience behind the wheel is one of confidence, at the same time, it keeps the back seat passengers comfortable even on bad sections of road. The Kushaq will be an excellent SUV for those long highway drives, as well as comfortable in city conditions with the steering feeling light enough to manoeuvre through tighter spots. The 205/55 tyres help take the edge off bumps in the road too.
To power it, the Kushaq will have two petrol engines: the 1.0 TSI litre will have a six-speed manual and a six-speed torque converter auto, and the 1.5 TSI will get a six-speed manual and seven-speed automatic DSG. I drove the 1.5 auto first, and the gearbox is one of the smoothest I’ve experienced. It shifts up rapidly, ensuring the engine ticks over gently but works just as well when you push your foot to the floor for that urgent overtake. There is the characteristic DSG hesitation, so don’t expect it to be as good as a manual, but it kicks down quick enough and provides the power. The engine feels strong and responsive, and in combination with the auto, it works well to span city and highway driving pleasure.
The surprise, though, was the 1.0 TSI, and I drove the manual version. Some may wonder if 1.0L isn’t too small, but as they say, good things come in small packages, and this is one shining example. The wide torque spread means there is a strong surge when you power on. It is only when you drop below 1800 rpm that you can feel it lacking a little especially if you demand a sudden burst. Be gentler with it, and it will leave you pretty amazed with what it can do. This engine doesn’t feel small at all.
Can it be king? Going by what I’ve seen, the Korean cousins should undoubtedly be worried. Still, there are other things to be considered besides a strong product. Skoda needs to price it right—and whispers tell us it will be competitive, so all they need to do is convince the consumer that they will get a new and improved 2.0 after-sales experience. If Skoda manages that, the Kushaq is all set to recreate the magic the Octavia sparked 20 years ago.
The writer is editor, Autocar Show