Are we there Yet-i?

Monday, 15 February 2010

Skoda has given an abominable name to an engagingly effective new soft-roader, writes DAVE MOORE.

Skoda has given an abominable name to an engagingly effective new soft-roader, writes DAVE MOORE.

Designed for its native European market as a versatile car for young, active families, it won't surprise me if the new Skoda Yeti finds itself other niches to feed on in New Zealand.

Middle-aged dog-lovers form one niche, retired couples with attitude and plenty of friends will be another, while the small business brigade is always ready to pick up on a sexy- looking new car on which to stick their logos and attract attention.

With its new Yeti soft-roader, Skoda appears to have taken packaging cues from its cleverly arranged, but polarising Roomster model - my absolute favourite family car - and toughened everything up a tad for occasional forays off road, wrapping it up in a far more acceptable skin, that's chunky, solidly finished and, yes, for me at least, sexy-looking.

Like the Roomster, the Yeti isn't built from a single existing platform. Instead, the front part of the design's underpinnings come from the Octavia II, with the rear part coming from the 4x4 Golf V 4-motion.

This clever play on platform engineering was proven very effective with the cavernous Roomster, which by combining Fabia and Octavia underpinnings was able to end up with exceptional space, unique looks and a chassis of such comfort and precision that it surprises most that drive it for the first time.

The full range of Yeti models, which has yet to be finalised for New Zealand, will not be available until June or July. But for driving impressions, demonstration and press purposes, a small fleet of 103kW six- speed manual turbodiesel Yetis has been brought in to give those interested a taste of things to come.

Skoda's New Zealand chief for European Motors, James Yates, is keen to look at even a two-wheel- drive version of the Yeti, if it's priced right. And it should be, as one 2WD Yeti employs the VW group's outstanding new 1.2 TSi petrol engine, with a seven-speed two-pedal transmission and should sit easily in the mid-40 grand bracket.

For the current pre-launch Yeti imports, the manual 2.0-litre turbodiesel is flagged at $49,990 for the manual, with another $2500 added for the DSG version.

Mr Yates said final pricing when the proper New Zealand market units arrive might be a little different. For the sake of market positioning, I'd like to see the Yeti 1.9TDi at under $50,000 with DSG, as the floated pricing above places it too close to a similarly-sized and equipped Volkswagen Tiguan for comfort.

Big enough to accommodate four big adults with a flexible fifth person in the centre-rear row seat, the Yeti also fronts up with enough volume, seats-up for 415 litres of luggage space, without stacking things higher than the seat backs.

This grows to 1760 litres if you fold the rear seat row, and any or all the rear seats can be removed if you're really serious about luggage.

Like the Roomster, the centre-rear seat can be removed and the outer pair moved a little closer together to give two biggies lots of shoulder room.

On the road, the Yeti is a remarkably sharp handler. My evaluation model was shod with 17-inch wheel rims and pleasingly grippy tyres which gave the car as astonishing a set of road manners as those that charmed me with the Roomster two years ago.

With faithful, telegraphic steering, the Yeti feels as well-planted as many warm hatches and its accuracy in responding to driver input is better than any of the usual Japanese suspects in the five-seat light SUV market segment.

The Yeti does not follow normal SUV traits when pressing on, on the road. It's not as tall as most in the segment and it appears the heavier bits are mounted sensibly low, so body control and general handling are not affected by weight shift and any lack of security. As with the Roomster and Fabia models, Skoda's chassis people have spent much time getting the Yeti right for its most common purpose - being used on the road.

Despite its lowish-profile wheel and tyre combination, the Yeti rides fairly decently too, although I can't help thinking how an inch less in rim diameter and an inch more in air and rubber volume would do to improve that ride, as the car I drove was pretty firm at times.

Yeti's four-wheel drive system is based on the Octavia Combi and Scout 44's, with an electro- hydraulically controlled Haldex multidisc clutch in situ with the rear axle final drive and the rear differential.

In the dry, only 4 per cent of drive goes to the rear wheels, but if the electronic-control unit and its various sensors detect a difference in speed between the front and rear axles, the clutch diverts up to 90 per cent of available torque to the rear. The limited slip rear differential also ensures that torque is distributed evenly from side to side, improving grip and stability further.

The Yeti's four-wheel-drive works with the ABS and ESP systems to ensure that safety and stability is maintained in different conditions. Thus, when the ESP system is engaged, it takes over control of the Haldex clutch, and when ABS is called into action, the clutch is decoupled.

Skoda makes an optional off-road mode available for $200, where a dashboard-mounted off-road button is prodded and the ABS, TCS and EDL systems switch to a special off- road setting, where the throttle response is sharpened and the operating protocols for the pulling- away assistant and hill start are widened.

For all that equipment, don't expect the Yeti to exactly rock-hop across impossible terrain. I found the car was just a little short in terms of clearance (180mm) and wheel-travel for that, for instead of groping down into divots and holes on the grass, gravel and mud-surfaced hillsides I tried the car on, it tended to rock into and out of the depressions as a whole.

It wasn't held-up exactly, but it's like other light SUVs: for fishing, towing and picnics at most.

The car would have been better with a DSG gearbox to be honest, as in manual, do-your-own clutchwork form, the Yeti was easy to stall off- road, especially when on full lock, with the power-steer sapping engine power.

The Yeti's intended standard kit includes at least seven and the option of nine airbags as well as the ABS, ESP, and TCS systems and it has already gained a five-star NCAP safety rating. Parking radar at the rear is handy - visibility is a slight issue here - as are rain-sensing wipers and roof rails.

Standard fog lamps are part of the standard Yeti package too, as well as electric, heated, folding, auto-dimming mirrors with boarding spot lamps.

MP3 player and iPod auxiliary access is part of the Yeti specification, as well as a 6 Disc in-Dash Touch Screen Stereo CD player with SD card reader and 8 Speakers. We also get a chilled glove box and centre armrest cool box and dual-zone air conditioning.

Even with such equipment as standard, Skoda's initial accessory list shows that by ticking the boxes for the company's sat-nav, leather trim and panoramic glass and shade roof, it's possible to spend more than $60,000 on a Yeti.

I don't think I would, but with standard trim, DSG and diesel power for something around or preferably under $50,000, I'd call it the best five- seat light SUV on the market.

Over all I'd say that Skoda has balanced the intended use of the Yeti remarkably well for the car's setup.

I could drive the car all day on the road without wishing for a quicker, more conventional car instead, and I know that despite my misgivings about its ability off road, that ability is nonetheless still better than my natural reticence.

SKODA YETI

* Drivetrain: Transverse 4WD 1968cc Turbodiesel 16-valve four, producing 103kW at 4200rpm and 320Nm at 1750-2500rpm. Six-speed manual or DSG.

* Performance: Max 190kmh, 0 to 100kmh 9.9 secs, 6.1L/100km, 159g/km CO2.

* Dimensions: L 4223mm, W 1793mm, H 1691mm, W/base 2578mm, Weight 1525kg, Fuel 60L.

* Pricing: 2.0 TDI Yeti manual $49,990, DSG version $52,490.

* Hot: Styling; road manners and handling; space, packaging, equipment and attention to detail.

* Not: Pricing; needs higher- profile wheels and tyres; DSG can't come soon enough.

* Verdict: Skoda does it again - a brilliant light SUV that drives as well as it looks.