One of the many cars that had a long gestation, thanks to the world turning turtle in 2020, the Skoda Kushaq first started its life in the public eye as the Vision IN. Shown at the Auto Expo 2020 with radical material choices, bold colour palettes, and a “made-for-India” promise, it’s finally here in production form.
Sure, it’s been tamed to appeal to more than just auto-journos and ride on roads that aren’t paved with illuminated marble, but in essence, it looks remarkably similar to the concept car. Especially in the shade of Honey Orange which is currently an exclusive only for the Indian version of the Kushaq!
As has become the norm, engine and transmission choices are aplenty, with both the 3-cyl 1.0L TSI and the 4-cyl 1.5L TSI petrol engines available with 6-speed manuals or automatics. The 1.0L gets an all-new 6-speed torque converter AT, again making Kushaq the first car from the VW group to get this gearbox in India and the 1.5L gets a 7-speed DSG that does duty on numerous other cars from the brand.
For this test though, I took the smaller capacity 1.0L TSI out for a day and in its top-spec trim, the only real difference is in the power output, not the feature list. It’s a compact car no doubt and with taut, clean lines, it looks even more purposeful and functional, rather than ostentatious. The split headlights with the DRL, new Skoda butterfly grille and the skid plate make the front look distinctive but it's the side profile that blunts its character a bit. Sharp-looking tail lights give the rear end a classic European look and it wears the Skoda family genes with pride and proportions intact.
Stacked and packed
Three trim levels will be on offer - Active, Ambition and Style, where the 7in infotainment screen on the base variant gives way to the new generation 10in unit that is crisp with large touchpoints that make it easy to use while on the move. Even its positioning is set low in the dash so as to not obstruct outward visibility and looks smartly integrated into the dash. What’s not as intuitive is the volume control that sometimes is a two-tap process and I’d still have preferred a good ol’ knob for quick changes. Anyway, touch is the new norm and even the climate controls get a slider that responds to your fingertips. Makes for easy wiping for sure, but not as satisfying as a clickety dial.
Skoda India has also developed an app store specifically for our audiences, with four apps available in the first phase and more will be added in the future. Gaana, Audiobooks, Booking and Sygic make their debut, and the navigation gets powered by a Jio 3-yr subscription with OTA map updates. For the rest of the apps, the system still relies on your phone data. Skoda has also lent a keen ear to customer needs and added indulgences like ventilated seats, ambient lighting, wireless charging along with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and courtesy lights that follow you home and welcome you too. Touches like a warning if your phone slips off the induction coil on the charging mat are good to see and shows attention to detail.
Sound is handled in-house this time with a 340-watt, “Skoda Sound” branded 7-speaker system that includes the usual 2-way component speakers (tweeter+mid/bass) in the front, full-range speakers in the back and a subwoofer in the spare wheel well. Overall sonic balance shows emphasis towards the frequency extremes but can easily be kept in check with the use of onboard EQ. Even though it’s punchy and can get loud, it lacks the level of finesse and depth that the Bose system possesses in the Kia and Hyundai cars of the segment. In the Style variant, you get four USB-C ports all over the cabin so every passenger can be self-sufficient, as long as you don’t mind the cabin resembling a server room. The Sygic map is clutter-free, easy to understand and the system is responsive enough to not cause any frustrations, but eventually, it’s Google Maps that will be used on a day-to-day basis I presume and the wireless phone mirroring is a big item ticked on the feature list.
Then, there is the MySkoda Connect app that lives on your smartphone and offers the usual vehicle tracking, speed tracking, SOS services, reminders and Trip Insights amongst other features. Another level of added functionality has been included in the separate Valet Mode that can be accessed from the infotainment screen and as is obvious, it lets you know if anyone has opened the doors/hood/trunk of your Kushaq after you’ve handed over your keys to them or, what speed and how far they’ve ventured. Connected car item box, checked!
True to Skoda’s tagline, there are clever utilitarian touches all over the car like a ticket holder on the A-pillar, rubberised cup holders for better grip, phone pockets on the back of the front seats, reflective stickers on the bottom of the doors and more. But it’s when you first settle behind the gorgeous-looking two-spoke steering wheel that it feels like a proper European car. The chrome dial controls on the steering spokes reek of quality, the doors shut with a solid thunk and the layered dash design instantly catches your fancy. The use of 3D patterns on the floor mats and the dashboard trim makes it look fresh and unique.
Sadly though, your eyes quickly get locked on the dated analogue instrument cluster which is clear and legible, but also looks like it’s from 2011. Even the MID sandwiched between the dials is monochrome with an 8-bit display that reminds you of PacMan from the 90s. Guess the VW cousin will get the swankier virtual cockpit option. Plastic quality is patchy with some good bits and some not so much. The top of the dash doesn’t have the richness to the texture like the Kia Sonet does, for example. Elsewhere, things like the low-res rearview cam and cheap-looking gear knob with its flimsy fit seem out of place in a Skoda, but the door cards, steering feel and seat comfort is top-notch.
Small and feisty
Floor the throttle and the sprightly 115bhp, 3-pot motor comes to life without a fuss, avoiding the dreaded dead spot at low RPMs. The 6-speed auto masks the build-up really well and even the paddle-shifters help in keeping the engine on the boil. The 178Nm of torque starts building at 1750rpm which is better than the other 3-pots out there and simply decimates the competition when it comes to drivability and fun factor.
The planted feel of the chassis, direct steering and the responsiveness of the engine make it enjoyable to push this compact SUV to its redline and never get bored doing it. The raspy engine doesn’t sound too strained or in discomfort pushing till 6200rpm constantly and the slick gearbox makes it more involving than the Sonet or Venue’s 3-cyl engines. Using the paddle shifters and transmission in Sport, you can use engine braking while keeping the Kushaq in its fun zone and make rapid progress, no pun intended. Kick downs happen with snapping your neck, but rather with a gradual and linear build up of momentum and power.
It’s a smooth all-day drive if you want to just get from point A-B too. It’s low speed ride is firm and let’s in sharp thuds into the cabin, but pick up pace and it settles into a comfortable groove, more comfortable for the occupants. Safety in both passive and active forms also is well attended to with hill-hold assist, traction control (even in the base variant), brake assist and even an Octavia RS inspired advanced differential lock system that keeps things tidy when the conditions aren’t.
NVH levels are kept well in check, the refinement and smoothness of the engine at idle never giving away its small capacity nature. It lives up to the TSI legend and should be the single biggest factor to choose the Kushaq over the competition. Where it may lag behind the competition is ground clearance, although it did manage to clear every pothole and speed breaker I encountered during my day out with it.
Getting a headstart over the VW Taigun will prove crucial to Kushaq’s success. They might be the same car underneath, but the styling and slightly different feature sets could swing the result one way or the other. The Skoda offers a lot in terms of features, comfort, engineering and tech. It may not be as flashy as the Taigun (in pics at least), but it does offer a non-controversial design, 17in wheels that look the part and small-engined fun which will bring more smiles per mile than the competition. If the Kushaq has to bear the weight of revitalising brand Skoda into its second innings in India, it does that with aplomb.