Top Gear’s great big family SUV test
Skoda’s Kodiaq has given the crossover market a shake-up. Time for a group test
Just how far have we come to get to this point? I’m not thinking geographically, but philosophically – the geography of this morning’s 90-mile drive to Salisbury Plain has merely provided the evidence. It’s early summer and every farmer is tooling between fields in a battered Daihatsu Fourtrak, Defender or rusting pickup. The Plain itself echoes with the rattle and clank of heavy armour, but in the dust kicked up by each tracked vehicle lurks a Land Rover, aerials waving, suspension jouncing. It’s the cement that binds the military machine together.
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Agriculture and warfare – the two furnaces in which our love of the SUV was forged. How much hammering on the anvil has it taken to get us to the Skoda Kodiaq? The Mini Countryman? Can you imagine either loaded up with sacks of fertiliser and collies? Of course not. We are the great pretenders, and car manufacturers have repurposed the rugged utility vehicle to match our hearts’ desires. These are family cars. It wasn’t departure angles and diff locks that governed their design, but refinement, visibility and easy-folding back seats. You don’t even have to have 4WD – all four, even the Nissan X-Trail, can be had as front-drivers only.
I say ‘even’ the X-Trail because that’s the one that used to be different. Used to be a bit of a workhorse with a wipe-clean plastic bootfloor and so on. But the success of the Qashqai and Juke means Nissan has started to see the light. The process isn’t over – this one still has lockable diffs and a rugged attitude, the 2.0-litre diesel chunters noisily and it lollops along. This jars with the safety warnings, panoramic roof and power tailgate of this top-spec Tekna model. A facelifted version is due very shortly, and we know which direction it will be heading in, don’t we? Better infotainment, better plastics.Advertisement - Page continues below
You’re thinking I’m being derogatory. I’m not, this cultural shift is only right and proper. Cars have to move with the times, to give the populace what they want. I don’t mean to make them sound like a political movement, but I don’t want an old Defender to shift my family around in. I want a Skoda Kodiaq. Honestly, it’s so civilised. There are smart plastics up front, generous legroom in the back, and a boot of unmatched square footage. It cruises comfortably and this one is sporting the latest must-have accoutrement: a petrol engine. A mere 1.4 litres, for heaven’s sake.
To deal with this confluence of crossovers, a proper introduction is needed. Thirty grand is the sweet spot for do-it-all family cars these days. Or, expressed in a more relevant way, about £300 per month for a car that’ll commute quietly, soak up endless school sports bags, handle the camping holiday to the Lakes, deal with that awkward kerb at the entrance to the supermarket and make the Zafira-equipped neighbours spit feathers with envy. Your first answer to this conundrum might well have been Discovery Sport, but then you saw the price, so now you’re turning Japanese. Or Germano-British. Or Germano-Czech.
What makes the Skoda Kodiaq so instantly appealing is the knowledge that it’s, well, a Skoda. These days, that means a VW with added space and value, and, hey, that sounds like a pretty good premise for a family SUV. It’s largely the same as a VW Tiguan underneath, but the MQB platform’s wheelbase has been stretched by over 100mm. For under £30k, you can have a 150bhp petrol 4x4 in high-spec SE L trim with seven seats, although I’d be tempted to stay within budget by dropping a spec level, adding a DSG gearbox and switching to diesel. I know, controversial.
So that’s why we wanted the Kodiaq as a petrol representative here. What’s it like compared with a diesel? How efficient? How torquey? Has the time come to abandon oil-burners? More on that soon.
As already discussed, the X-Trail is more traditional and looks set to be given a hard time by the new Mazda CX-5, which seems good value at £28,695 in 2WD 150bhp Sport Nav trim – the 177bhp 4WD Tekna X-Trail tested here retails at £35,055, but step down a trim level or two and you’ll reach a point where the kit/cost trade-off makes much more sense.Advertisement - Page continues below
Then there’s the maxi-Mini. Based on a BMW 2-Series Active Tourer, don’t forget. It’s the shortest and lowest here, so makes no great play for practicality, but if driver enjoyment features anywhere on your radar… well, £29,565 buys you a 190bhp Cooper SD and a 0–62mph time two secs quicker than anything else.
Now, we need to talk about roofboxes. Because if you’re considering the Mini Countryman and you have a brace of children, you’re gonna need one. In fact, even with a 500-litre Thule on top the Mini still doesn’t have as much capacity as the Kodiaq. Or the X-Trail. The boot is not only small, but awkward to load in the pinch zone between sloping tailgate and reclined back seat. Spend £300 on the sliding rear seats if you must, but all you get is an either/or solution. Passengers fare better than luggage, but any that had sampled one of the other cars here would be unlikely to return to the Mini.
Special mention to the X-Trail for its stadium seating, which places rear-seat occupants a tier higher. Lanky adults might complain about a lack of headroom, but junior travellers will love the height and view out. The Mazda? Not as big as the X-Trail, and darker in the back due to those small quarter light windows. The Kodiaq? Well that has the potential to change the face of this class. Not just because it’s the biggest and best packaged but as an object it’s more desirable than the others, more modern, better thought out, better quality. What does it remind me of? An estate. Just one you get across into, not down into.Advertisement - Page continues below
It’s the lack of compromise that sets the Kodiaq apart as a static object. It’s just more habitable than the Japanese, doesn’t see any reason to pretend it has off-road roots. Meanwhile, the Mini can’t get over the fact it’s a Mini. It’s there in every toggle switch and chrome swish. But these design tropes sit awkwardly in what feels like it ought to be a relatively grown-up and mature car. It just looks and feels a bit… wrong. Juvenile fun for the family man, a pastiche of practicality.
So, confronting them all in the showroom, I think you’d come away thinking “As a sensible family type who wants an affordable, well-built, spacious and desirable family SUV, why wouldn’t I have the Skoda?” It just feels very complete.
And it’s the same when you start driving. They’re all wholly predictable, in fact. The Mini is a jiggly, stilted thing. It rides like it’s running along hot coals – on tiptoe and slightly anxious. If you like that, plus the significant extra speed, sharper steering, sense of energy and so on, then go for it – just two words of warning: car sickness. I’m not convinced your passengers will enjoy the experience as much as you. Why even bother trying to get some sporting satisfaction out of an SUV? It’s a compromise that’s doomed to fail. Better to all be in it together, surely?
As mentioned earlier, the Nissan comes from the opposite angle. It tries to put on a sheen of civility, but it looks out over the grass and fields and mud with a sense of yearning. Its boot craves the echo of yapping collies. But it’s a halfway house, neither fish nor fowl. A full suite of lane keep this and radar that attempts to convey the impression the X-Trail really cares about your family’s safety, but the driving impression is of a rolly pudding of a thing with a droning diesel, a ponderous manual gearbox and an inability to achieve 40mpg or anything close to that. Around 35mpg overall.
You could bash about in the Mini (bash being the operative word, given the ride’s attitude to comfort) and not drop below 42mpg. The Mazda spurned fuel even more assiduously, returning 46mpg. But here’s the key point: the petrol Kodiaq bettered the X-Trail: 38mpg, even though it needed to be worked hard. Because no matter which way you cut it, a 1.4 pulling along 1578kg of seven-seater is going to be working up a sweat. Imagine what it’s like with a full load on board.
Because that’s the thing. Yes, the petrol is smooth and quiet, the fuel is marginally cheaper, and you get to feel good about your low particulates and the fact that you won’t be locked out of London when the emissions police start clamping down. But what you really need when you’re hauling the family about is good ol’ torque. Plenty of it, low down. So our advice would be to forget the doom mongers, don’t panic about the future – no one’s going to ban diesel when there’s millions of them on the road – and do what’s right for you. They’re pretty much the same money, but the diesel has an extra 66lb ft and will probably knock along at 46–48mpg. Your call.
But even with a petrol engine, the Kodiaq is no disaster. You might have to get busier with the gearlever (this one’s a manual – only the Mini wasn’t), but it’s light to drive and has no vices. It deals with everything road-related with reasonable dexterity. Only reasonable, though, because it’s up against the Mazda. The CX-5 is unnecessarily talented in this department. Its diesel is pretty much as hushed and good-natured as the Skoda’s petrol, it controls all its movements very ably, even when you lob it at a roundabout, it has the best ride of them all, the most accurate steering, the most communicative responses, is the easiest, the airiest to drive. The Skoda’s good, but the Mazda’s better.
Good enough to be placed second overall, with a star against it informing you that if you’ll never need seven seats or more than 1,620 litres of space, if you’re not fussed about simplistic infotainment and scratchier plastics, it might well be your top choice. Cheap to buy and run. Shows the Mini and Nissan the way home. The Nissan feels old and off-target for the family demographic, the Mini is – still – too small, firm and cartoonish. Nothing changes.
Except the Skoda. It wins. It’s the best car here, a contented, capable seven-seat SUV that’ll fit into your family planning a treat. No ifs, no buts, it works. But. Not no buts, but one: Skodas used to be individual, have a USP – there was nothing quite like a Superb, a Yeti, even an Octavia. But the Kodiaq, bar an umbrella in the door and an ice-scraper in the fuel filler flap, is very like a Tiguan, or an Ateca. It’ll be even more like them when the LWB three-row Tiguan Allspace arrives in a few months. The VW empire’s Borg tendencies have struck. Skoda has been assimilated.