x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Czech marque Skoda's first SUV, the Yeti, is a little monster

Road Test Skoda's first foray into the 4x4 market is anything but abominable.

It may not win a beauty pageant but Skoda's first SUV is more than capable off-road and is comfortable and easy to drive on it. Jaime Puebla / The National
It may not win a beauty pageant but Skoda's first SUV is more than capable off-road and is comfortable and easy to drive on it. Jaime Puebla / The National

Bounding over rugged desert terrain and down a steep embankment onto a beach that leads to the glistening Arabian Gulf is an everyday task for a robust 4x4, and one that doesn't raise many eyebrows.

After all, these machines are made for the rigours of off-roading, whether it be scaling over rocky hillsides, crossing through rivers or meandering over the unforgiving dunes of the UAE.

But on this Friday morning, on a Jebel Ali beach popular with jet skiers, the sight of this particular compact SUV does draw the attention of the assembled hordes of outdoor and watersport enthusiasts.

Most are curious to find out just what kind of car this is, so unusual is it to the market here, and all are flabbergasted when they find out it's a Skoda.

Yes, believe it or not, Skoda has a compact SUV, and the Yeti is being touted here as a cheap and reliable alternative to the crossovers that are becoming increasingly popular these days.

For some unwitting motorists, Skoda is a brand forever tarnished by the jokes of the 1970s and '80s, jokes such as, 'how do you double the price of a Skoda? Fill up the tank'. For decades, questions over the Czech marque's reliability and performance have plagued its efforts to expand its horizons in Europe and beyond.

Even now, 12 years after being bought over by Volkswagen, Skoda is still a badge too unpalatable for some to even consider as a viable purchase option.

But those people shouldn't let a name stand in the way of a sensible and affordable automotive investment. Although it still struggles to shake its reputation of old, Skoda today represents everything people think it's not. Its cars are safe, reliable, easy to drive and functional.

Swapping my Volkswagen daily driver for a Yeti at the Skoda showroom on Dubai's Sheikh Zayed Road, I'm immediately struck by how familiar the cabin is. The digital display in the instrument cluster; the steering wheel; the lights switch; the electric window buttons; the cruise-control buttons; the pedals; even the overhead sunglasses compartment; are all exactly the same as those in my Golf.

But the Yeti has even more equipment than my two-year-old pride and joy, with a touch-screen infotainment system that incorporates CD changer, SD card slot and smartphone compatibility.

And this is the main selling point of Skoda today - for the most part, you're getting Volkswagen quality at a knocked down price.

The Yeti isn't going to win many design awards though. Its boxy shape is reminiscent of a Kia Soul - not a favourable comparison - and, despite its little touches of detail, such as its rounded bonnet and the nice sheen of its paintwork, it is just trying too hard to be cool. No matter the number of neat touches, it's the fundamental shape of the Yeti that lets it down in my eyes.

Its high wheel arches look a bit ungainly but, as I found off-road, they give good clearance in compromising situations.

I'm sure at least some of the faces on the beach displayed looks of alarm at the Yeti's appearance as it trundled down the embankment but, even though it's no Range Rover Evoque in terms of class-leading aesthetic appeal, it has so much else going on that its looks can be forgiven. Its turbocharged 1.8L TSI engine produces 160hp and 250Nm of torque, meaning that the Yeti is surprisingly nippy in a straight line, accelerating to 100kph in 8.4 seconds despite a very slight delay and shudder as you go through the six gears of the DSG dual-clutch transmission.

And it shares the same platform as the Audi Q3, Volkswagen Tiguan and Seat Tribu, so you know you're in reliable territory when it comes to build quality.

This is evident when you're cruising around town. There's little road noise and the highly sprung suspension affords a smooth ride that would make you think that you're travelling in a far more luxurious and expensive set of wheels.

A winning feature for my passengers as we drove through Downtown Dubai was the positively huge sunroof that stretches out overhead, giving back-seat passengers the impression they're sitting on an open-top bus. It used to be said that a Skoda with a sunroof was nothing more than a skip but the Yeti proves how wrong this view is.

Admittedly, back-seat legroom isn't fantastic and the Yeti does have a smaller boot space than I'd expected, considering the length of the car, but this is negated somewhat by the fact that the rear seats not only fold down, but can be removed completely, offering a hugely increased space for storage.

I can see a family with small children getting great use out of this car; people unconcerned about public perception who put more of an onus on price, practicality and reliability.

In the UAE the Yeti will go head-to-head with Nissan's Qashqai, among others, and, if marketed correctly, will surely steal a number of sales from its Japanese rival.

Skoda's first foray into the SUV market is a solid effort and if more people can get their head around the fact that the Czechs are in the business of producing quality cars, the looks on the beach may become knowing ones; knowing when someone's bought a great car at an affordable price.

Base price Dh99,500

Engine 1.8L turbocharged inline four cylinder

Gearbox Six-speed DSG automatic

Power 160hp @ 4,500rpm

Torque 250Nm @ 1,500rpm

Fuel economy, combined 8.0L/100km