Remember the time when you bought sport utility vehicles because you needed them? These were the original “off-roaders”, boxy beasts with live axles, low-range gearboxes, locking diffs and other very masculine stuff that’s perfect for adventures that require a farm tractor to rescue you from the mud. It was also very practical, because it basically looked like a huge box on wheels, with a smaller box in front for the engine. It was great.
When I think of an off-roader, I think of the Jeep Cherokee, before it became a jacked-up Alfa Romeo hatchback devoid of manly stuff like big levers to select 4WD modes. It even rides comfortably, which, of course, means it is a piece of junk, since it won’t be able to go rock-crawling and it won’t show your pals that you are the manly man by being noisy and uncomfortable.
Fortunately for us Europeans, we can buy something which works much better as a Cherokee replacement than the actual Cherokee. It is boxy, which makes it look kinda butch, and it has high ground clearance with short overhangs, which makes you actually believe it may be useful off-road. Also, it is unbelievably spacious for its diminutive size. So, it basically doesn’t matter that it’s basically a last generation Golf underneath. Which should mean that it basically sucks outside of paved roads.
This time, I didn’t have time or courage (because I suck at it) to really try the Yeti off-road. But when I drove the pre-facelift one, we staged a comparison with UAZ Patriot, which is some kind of Russian pseudo-military Land Cruiser wannabe, with all the manly stuff the proper off-roader should have. We took it to a highway construction site, where we tried to climb slopes and drive through stuff. Several times, I was totally convinced that I would get stuck, or that I’ll hopelessly slide back, maybe even rolling the car in the process. In fact, had it been mine, I would never attempt most of those stunts – I wouldn’t dare, fearing that I break something. But only when I went several levels above my comfort zone, I managed to get it stuck, having to back down the steep slope. And when I did, I was a few feet higher than the UAZ besides me, trying to do the same thing.
Which basically means that if your average driver, driving a non-rental, non-press-fleet car, you stand very little chance of finding the Yeti’s off-road limits. While it lacks all the cool levers and pieces of machinery, the Haldex four-wheel drive in connection with the DS fake limited-slip diff (and short overhangs) will get it to places where you wouldn’t expect it to go (well, just watch out for uneven surfaces – the smell of burning clutch with XDS active is a bit alarming).
So, you can concentrate on the really important stuff. How does it drive in day-to-day use? To get a rough idea, imagine a Golf VI on stilts. And made a bit more boxier than it already is. The boxiness allowed ŠKODA to put three individual rear seats with the clever VarioFlex system (allowing them to individually slide and be folded), and gave the car enough room for four large adults. Only the trunk is still about the same size as in the Golf – the price you have to pay for short overhangs.
It also drives a bit like a Golf – just a significantly higher one. It leans significantly more when cornering, but even to achieve this level of stability, it required a bit stiffer suspension. Which means that on 17” wheels, it’s not especially comfortable. Even compared to the much cheaper Rapid family liftback I tested last time, the Yeti’s ride is quite jittery on rough surfaces, and leaving pavement for really broken dirt roads forces you to slow down to a crawl out of fear that you destroy your expensive wheels. Not very off-road like, to be honest.
But otherwise, it’s just a typical VW product. Nicely weighed steering, well-made interior that looks just like a European VW, or a slightly worse Audi (I guess it’ll be on par with US VWs). You just have to avoid the fake wood, probably made off some 1990s leftovers. But you get lots of clever details, like wastebin, warning vest holder etc. The Yeti clearly doesn’t like driving fast very much, but if you push it, it is quite competent.
Only other problem comes with the fact that Yeti is high and boxy. Even with famed 2.0 TDI engine and 7-speed DSG transmission, it is quite thirsty. If you’re going for SUV because of practicality, you’ll be disappointed – the Yeti is significantly less frugal than, say, a Octavia or European VW Passat wagon, which both offer significantly more interior space. Most of the time, it gets about 30mpg and reaching advertised 37mpg is possible only with real light right foot. Also, the Yeti isn’t exactly cheap – although one would hardly call it “expensive” either. Spec-for-spec, it’s always a bit more expensive than the Golf and the Octavia. Base price for this version, the top Elegance trim level with highest powered 2.0 TDI/170hp with DSG transmission and 4×4 is roughly $30k excluding VAT. The “journo-spec” car I tested, complete with panoramic roof, automatic parking and other goodies is closing $40k. A base 4×4 with manual transmission and 110hp diesel will cost about $21k excluding tax, the poverty-spec FWD with 1.2 TSI/105hp engine can be had for about $14k without taxes – which is about the price of a base Golf.
Jeremy Clarkson once, probably only half-jokingly, called Yeti the best car in the world. I disagree with him – it takes one of the most universal cars in the world, the VW Golf, and makes it even more universal, but it also makes it worse in some areas. You won’t have any fun driving it on the road, and it will cost you more to run. And if you wanted an SUV just because it looks cool, it isn’t worth it (although it’s still better than buying an Audi Q3, in which you won’t fit). But if you need SUV to actually go off the road, the Yeti makes fantastic sense. It works 90% like a Golf, and it just happens to be quite a bit more spacious, and hugely competent off-road to boot.
It’s the car the new Jeep Cherokee should’ve been.
@VojtaDobes is motoring journalist from Czech Republic, who previously worked for local editions of Autocar and TopGear magazines. Today, he runs his own website, www.Autickar.cz and serves as editor-in-chief at www.USmotors.cz. After a failed adventure with importing classic American cars to Europe, he is utterly broke, so he drives a borrowed Lincoln Town Car. His previous cars included a 1988 Caprice in NYC Taxi livery, a hot-rodded Opel Diplomat, two Dodge Coronets, a Simca, a Fiat 600 and Austin Maestro. He has never owned a diesel, manual wagon.