It’s fair to say 4×4 vehicles are largely underutilised here in the UK. Most are confined to a school run rather than dirt tracks they’re so well capable of handling. And when winter brings a brief splattering of snow that sends the whole country into a meltdown, these cars are often parked on driveways as owners claim to be ‘snowed in’ so they don’t have to go work.
Well, car manufacturers think broader than the UK fortunately, meaning four-wheel-drive technology often far exceeds the capabilities needed on our shores. Which brings us to Rovaniemi, Finland, a stone’s throw away from the Arctic Circle with the latest from Skoda’s now-vast range of four-wheel-propelled cars.
The plan was to test the capability of the Czech manufacturer’s four-wheel-drive technology in a variety of challenges designed to push it to the limits in some of the most extreme, icy conditions imaginable.
First up, we took on a small circuit with the Karoq and Kodiaq SUVs, pitting the normal vehicles’ settings against both cars’ dedicated snow mode. Even in standard, both vehicles had little issue dealing with the snow-dusted ice with traction remaining consistent and plentiful – a testament to the core 4×4 system, perhaps aided by the addition of studded tyres – although a strong sense of caution was still required to avoid the large snow banks either side.
A switch to snow mode made all the difference. Steering becomes heavier to allow for more consistent input making for easy, tarmac road-like driving despite the slippery surface. Pair this with a more responsive throttle, and you have a recipe for near-perfect car control (you can even get a fair amount of angle through corners like this, although of course, we wouldn’t suggest doing that on public roads).
What if things are getting a little rougher, though? Well, our next challenge answered this – taking on a tricky track using the same models, but this time, with off-road mode enabled. To little surprise, Skoda’s system made mince-meat of the affair, without even so much as any excess wheel spin, until faced perhaps the toughest part of the course – a pretty steep uphill snow bank, with a drop of an identical magnitude.
The view from behind the lead instructor’s Karoq wasn’t exactly convincing. Piloted by a professional local rally driver, it made quite a theatrical attempt of climbing the colossus – eventually creeping over the other side.
Fair to say we were a little concerned. If a Finnish rally master had a struggle, how would us simple motoring journalists fare? It was time to put that out of mind and go for it in our identical car. Foot down, we charged at the snowy mound, straggling about halfway up before… stop. We’d dug ourselves in at a 45-degree angle.
As this point, it’d be easy to blame the car – but the only problem was our throttle control. Back down we went, and – following the fast Finn’s instructions – up we went, this time not burying the throttle enough to plant a Skoda-shaped flag in the hill, gliding over the other side faultlessly. On we went, finishing the course without much more than a touch of wheel spin.
Next on our agenda was to see how Skoda four-wheel-drive tech faired against two-wheel-drive counterparts in – naturally – a drag race, to demonstrate the levels of grip offered by the system from a standstill.
Of course, you’d expect four-wheel-drive to consistently triumph here and, well, it did. Despite the frozen ice below us, launching the 4×4 vehicles from the line proved effortless, regardless of a manual gearbox or using the launch control system on the DSG automatics – with the two-wheel-drive vehicles regularly trounced in the short, straight-line race.
Onwards to our penultimate task of the day – drifting. Sure, nobody in their right mind would ever take a Kodiaq for some extreme sideways action on a daily basis but it was a good chance to test the level of control offered by the 4×4 system. Oh, and have a lot of fun too.
With all the electronic safety systems on, it proved pretty hard to kick the tail out – which is reassuring for general road use. Switch these off though, and the family SUV felt like it could hang with the best drift-built machinery – assuming it was covered in ice. Despite being tall and not exactly a powerful machine, the four-wheel-drive system allowed the car to glide along the slippery surface with little input yet maximum control. Perhaps the strongest testament is its ability was that it made motoring journalists look like professionals.
Wrapping up the event was a small handling course designed to bring everything we had learnt during the day and apply it all in one fell swoop. This time, we took the wheel of an Octavia Scout and headed around the circuit with no guidance other than “stay between the snow banks”. Easy enough, then.
We took our first few laps at a steady pace, feeling our way into the circuit. Again, the 4×4 system made this a piece of cake, providing almost tarmac levels of traction. Time for us to turn it up a notch then, and switch to ESC Sport mode – the closest you can get to no electronic safety assists bar pulling the fuse out.
To no surprise, the grip offered by the system meant we were in total control around the circuit, with little struggle from the Octavia. Admittedly, a couple of meetings with one snow bank in particular did occur – but that was mostly down to our poor attempts at a Scandinavian flick. For a family saloon, we remained impressed by just how well it coped with the treacherous conditions.
You may never encounter frozen lake-like driving conditions in your car, but it’s reassuring to know that Skoda’s 4×4 offerings can more than comfortably cope with them. Next time a bit of snow falls before your next supermarket trip, don’t be afraid to go for the drive if you own a Skoda – there’s more grip on tap that you may have expected.