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Car reviews - Skoda - Yeti - 103TDI 5-dr wagon

Launch Story

10 Feb 2012

THE temperature is creeping towards 40 degrees outside but thanks to dual-zone climate-control, only our palms are sweating as we grasp the comfortable leather-clad, multi-function steering wheel.

Our perspiration is directly related to the anticipation of exasperation as we sit in a car that for the past 120 bitumen kilometres has demonstrated impeccable road manners, but is now preparing to cross several hundred metres of soft sand as we enter the dry bed of one of Earth’s most ancient rivers.

Magnificent, strong-looking wild horses look on, disturbed from their grazing by the surprisingly sporty sound of Volkswagen Group’s 103TDI diesel engine sustaining high revs as the first set of journalists attempt the crossing.

The cute-looking Skoda Yeti ahead of us zooms off. This city-bound, jacked-up shopping car from the Czech Republic looks out of place here, surrounded by the red escarpments, huge skies and sparse plant life typical of Australia’s Outback, as a fighter jet would if parked by Gate 3 at Sydney airport.

Rooster-tails of sand fire off in all directions and half way across, the little Skoda enters what looks to be an irreversible tank-slapper, weaving from side to side.

We can feel the look of consternation crossing our faces until we realise they made it to safety and are waiting on the stable rocky surface of the opposite bank. Now the pressure is on – if we fluff this now we can’t blame the car.

The sage advice provided by the Skoda support crew was rather blunt: “Nail it and don’t hold back – do not lift off or you will get bogged”.

Selecting sport mode on the six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission to ensure it holds onto higher revs for longer, we deactivate the electronic stability control and mash the throttle.

Life goes into slow-motion and starts to resemble a computer game. It is surreal enough to be out here in a compact SUV that will probably never see this kind of terrain in the hands of a customer but the heavy throttle inputs and the vague relation between steering feel and direction of travel are straight out of the virtual world.

We re-enter reality through the sensations brought by the same tank-slapper experienced by the previous driver. It is now clear that the grooves left by those who went before are causing us to weave and all we can do is hang on until it’s over.

Once we reach the other side we realise what light work the Yeti made of the sand crossing, a good thing as there would be plenty more to come before we reached our overnight camp spot.

Skoda’s decision – some say courageous, some say foolhardy – to launch its Yeti out here meant we did not have much time to evaluate its on-road characteristics, nor did we have the chance to try a $26,290 (manual) or $28,590 (seven-speed DSG) petrol-powered, front-drive 1.2-litre 77TSI base model, or the time to drive a $35,690 manual transmission variant of the diesel flagship.

We cannot recommend customers try to reach remote spots in their Yeti – or any other soft-roader for that matter.

We were able to do so with the safety blanket of a support team equipped with three Volkswagen Amarok utes sporting recovery gear like winches, snatch straps, sand ladders and shovels.

Not that most customers will care. The Yeti uses a fourth-generation Haldex part-time all-wheel drive system but does not have locking diffs, low-range or even particularly high ground-clearance at 180mm.

Although on the way back to civilisation, the chopped-up surfaces caused many drivers in the stock-standard Yetis – fitted with road tyres – to get bogged, all it took was a sand ladder and a good old-fashioned push to get them moving again.

The Yeti’s light weight helped here, but the vehicles were only loaded with two occupants and a couple of overnight bags – whereas a journey like this would usually see the back crammed with a couple of hundred of kilos of camping kit, survival gear, food and water.

Extra stability and traction on wet roads, the relative ease of negotiating the odd kerb in city driving, a raised driving position and ease of entry or egress is what sells this type of car, along with the SUV lifestyle image.

So why should you wander into a Skoda showroom and take a look at this intriguing new car, named after a mythical, snow-dwelling Himalayan ape-man?

Firstly, Skoda has eschewed the showy or aggressive styling commonly used on this type of vehicle, for a down-to-earth look that can be customised with the application of a contrasting roof colour, just like the brand’s smaller Fabia – not to mention premium vehicles like the Mini and Audi’s A1.

Secondly, the Yeti is the only vehicle in its segment that introduces people-mover-style rear seating that can be easily and individually tilted, folded or completely removed as per the brand’s van-like and temporarily-withdrawn Roomster, which is coming back to Australia next year.

Three individual seats make up the rear bench, and all can be slid forwards to liberate more boot space with the backrests adjustable from upright to recline as a way of achieving a compromise between comfort and luggage capacity.

Unlike many left-hand drive biased European cars, which have the 60:40 split rear seat with the wider portion behind the driver’s seat, each of the Yeti’s rear seats can be individually folded to suit a range of load shapes.

There is a big but, however, which comes in the shape of a full-size spare wheel that ultimately compromises a clever design by occupying a large box, creating not only a big step between the boot floor and the space vacated by the rear seats, but a four centimetre gap behind those seats into which all manner of small items could disappear.

It is obvious the Yeti’s Varioflex seating system was conceived to work without a tyre in the back and the oddly-shaped rigid parcel shelf also seems too low with the spare wheel present, causing a slightly claustrophobic boot-loading experience.

However, with seats configured for the smallest boot capacity, there is room to carry at least two suitcases of the maximum size permissible for airline hand luggage.

There are also plenty of thoughtful touches in there, like generous under-floor storage areas flanking the spare wheel, a couple of cubby holes to stop smaller items rolling around, a cargo net and a pair of rails onto which hooks can be positioned for securing items such as shopping bags.

Another plus point of the Yeti is the good all-round visibility that aids manoeuvrability and easy parking – a good thing as parking sensors are a $640 option for the rear or $990 for both ends – and plenty of natural light brightens up the generally easy to use, attractive cabin that feels solidly built in the manner expected of a Volkswagen Group product.

We can recommend ticking the $1490 panoramic sunroof option, which is decently wide, with a large front area that can be opened for wind-in-the-hair driving.

A perforated blind blocks heat when closed while still allowing extra light to enter the Yeti’s interior.

It is quick and easy to get comfortable inside, the seats just on the cusp of being too firm but adjustable in most directions, while the steering column adjusts for both reach and angle.

With the front seats positioned for six-foot occupants and the rear seats slid all the way back and fully reclined, a similarly tall passenger’s knees will brush the seat in front, meaning tall families will be looking to trade in their Yeti once their offspring reach mid-teens. However, the Yeti’s high roof means front and rear headroom is generous.

Occupants feel safe in the solid feeling, easy-to-drive Yeti, which has a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating and comes with seven airbags plus lots of electronic safety aids.

Standard kit includes alloy wheels, air-conditioning, cruise control, an eight-speaker MP3-compatible sound-system with Bluetooth and auxiliary input, four electric windows, electric mirror adjustment and a cooled glove compartment.

The $37,990 top-spec, six-speed DSG automatic diesel Yeti we drove – a mid-spec all-wheel-drive petrol with a 1.8-litre 118TSI engine is due next year – comes with goodies like dual-zone climate-control, automatic wipers and headlights, a six-CD touch-screen entertainment system, 17-inch alloy wheels and front foglights – plus under-body protection (which we gave a good workout).

A taut chassis that provides refined and stable road manners translated to the odd wheel-in-the-air moment and some crashiness on rockier sections of our outback expedition.

On the limited sealed roads we experienced, the Yeti was smooth-riding, but with a disappointing build-up of wind noise at highway speeds and too much tyre roar on some of the – admittedly very coarse – road surfaces, although things do quieten down a lot on smoother bitumen.

The type of roads between Alice Springs and our off-road expedition did not provide a great insight into the Yeti’s full range of driving characteristics but the 103kW/320Nm103TDI engine tested is smooth and refined, with plenty of pull across a broad rev-range that provides point-and-squirt confidence for zipping into gaps or overtaking.

At idle (the Yeti has no idle-stop function) or crawling speeds the diesel engine identifies itself aurally as an oil-burner but underway it is almost silent, reduced to a distant churning sound unless revved aggressively, as we did repeatedly to negotiate sand, at which point it provides an entertaining note.

When the electric steering loads up on bends there is an artificial, rubbery sensation transmitted through the wheel, but the Yeti, with a wheel at each corner, generally feels safe and secure.

With the ESC turned off, we could feel the Yeti’s rear-end zip round bends behind us on some off-road sections, suggesting a potentially fun, tail-happy drive on AWD models at least.

Driving hard on a roundabout revealed a pleasing level of agility and grip, no doubt helped by the AWD set-up. Compared with some competitors, the Yeti always feels small, nimble and truly city-friendly.

While Skoda’s launch program did not reveal too much about how the Yeti drives in its intended world (read: the city) or whether the competitively priced base model is any good, much can be taken from the fact that on inspection after a gruelling drive, the only work required on the entire fleet of about a dozen Yetis was to replace one damaged tyre.

Skoda’s entrant is different enough and priced competitively enough to disturb the compact SUV vanguard while being user-friendly and cute enough to tempt people away from small cars.

In fact, until Skoda’s next-generation passenger cars come along in 2013, the Yeti SUV doubles as the brand’s small car entrant, much as the Dualis does for Nissan.

The robust, characterful little Yeti will bring a new, younger audience to Skoda, and should provide them with many miles of smiles.

As such, the new Yeti makes shopping in the highly competitive, choice-overloaded compact SUV market that little bit harder.

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