The Handling Track at the Natrax proving grounds near Indore is, expectedly, a twisty piece of tarmac. It isn’t terribly long but has all kinds of chicanes, esses (left-right zig-zags) and U-turns. It’s not very wide either. On both sides there are gravel run-off areas and then there’s a drop-off. The track isn’t flat either and has gradients too, although they aren’t particularly sharp.
We were putting the Skoda Kushaq through its paces here. The first half or so after one enters the track, it is pretty quick. A couple of times when we could take our eyes off the tarmac we could glimpse 100kmph or thereabouts on the speedo. But it tightens up rather quickly and a tad unexpectedly in the second half and gets pretty technical.
Carrying a little too much speed into a sharp 270-degree-plus left-hander, we lost the tail that went into the gravel as the car oversteered. However, the front wheels had remained on the track and being the driven wheels of the Kushaq, they managed to get the vehicle back on track with just some gravel spread on the track to mark where we had almost gone off.
Some would consider it not the ideal thing to happen, but then in the spirit of a proving ground we had actually managed to test the limit of the Kushaq’s traction, albeit unintentionally. But, hey, we were wiser for it. The next time round we shifted to manual mode and could use engine braking and better traction in the lower gears to hold a fairly tight line.
Skoda Auto Volkswagen India had invited motoring scribes to sample three of its offerings in India — the big Kodiaq SUV, the smaller Kushaq SUV and the Slavia sedan at Natrax. This is India’s most comprehensive proving ground and has all sorts of tracks and skid pads and so on where vehicle manufacturers can test the ability of their cars in safety or under controlled circumstances that are not available outside.
The High-Speed Track there with banked turns is the longest in Asia at 11.3km. Being more or less in a jungle type of place with a huge area, there is scope to create offroad tracks of varying degrees of difficulty. There is the Fatigue Track and the Skid Pad and a whole bunch of others. We just went on the High-Speed Track, the Handling Track and an offroad route. We also spotted some nilgais on the road and we were warned that they can come onto the access-controlled tracks too. Well, we would have had to do a ‘nilgai test’ — the Indian equivalent of the elk test — in that case.
Back on the Handling track, the Slavia was next up. Sedans are usually better to drive around bends and the Slavia was no exception. It was carrying speed through the turns and flowing into and out of corners very nicely as we held the lower gears. The 1.5-litre turbo petrol was a tad noisy when revved up, both in the Slavia and the Kushaq, but that’s about it. The Slavia had been quite impressive the first time we had driven it a couple of years ago and our impressions did not change this time either. If handling is what you are looking for, it’s the sedan over the SUV any day of the week.
THE HIGH-SPEED TRACK
We’ll take the Slavia over SUVs any day if twisty bits are what we have to tackle
For a comparatively higher vehicle, the Kushaq did pretty decently on the Handling Track
Before going on the Handling Track, we had a crack at the High-Speed Track first in a Slavia and then in a Kodiaq. This was a pretty simple affair compared with what would come next. This is one place where one can literally floor the accelerator pedal and keep it that way with nary a worry in the world as long as the steering is held steady. The petrol Slavia was pretty eager to accelerate up to about 160kmph, after which the climb slowed down till it maxxed out at 203kmph and would go no faster. What was impressive, however, was how steady it was at that speed. Very reassuring indeed.
It was our turn in the Kodiaq next on the same track. Now this one has a bigger 2-litre petrol engine but is heavier as well. We were told that other drivers were able to achieve around 217kmph in it. But, for us, the fastest we could go was 209kmph. The thing about this track is it is very deceptive for those who are used to driving on public roads. The surface is super smooth and it is difficult to figure out how fast you are going unless you glance at the speedo. It feels slower than it is, so one needs to be gentler with the brake pedal than in road conditions.
THE OFFROAD TRACK
The Skoda Kodiaq proved quite capable on the offroad track
Inclines and declines were all tackled in a day’s work by the Kodiaq
During the day at Natrax, the drives got progressively more technical. We started off with the High-Speed Track, which was pretty straightforward. Then went on to the Handling Track, which was more technical. And, finally, we landed at the Offroad Track in the Kodiaq.
Natrax has a wide variety of tracks for testing various aspects of a vehicle. We sampled just three of them
Much to our surprise, it proved a rather enjoyable experience. With 4x4 and a petrol engine delivering just shy of 190hp, the Kodiaq proved quite a capable beast even though we were more or less at a crawl at somewhere around 10kmph or thereabouts. What is more interesting is that despite its size, it was quite manoeuvrable through the course laid out.
There were the inclines and declines that it tackled with consummate ease. Then there was that typical traction thing where the car sort of balances on the wheels at the opposite corners and lifts the other front wheel first and then tips over on it and lifts the diagonal rear wheel and then finds traction and carries on. There was the sideways incline and a place where it was sort of like driving through a ditch with inclines on both sides and so on.
The High-speed Track at Natrax is the longest in Asia at 11.3km and so smooth that it’s difficult to gauge one’s actual speed after driving on public roads
On the High-speed Track, the Kodiaq cooly crossed the 200kmph mark quite easily
The Skoda Slavia proved surprisingly stable on the High-speed Track in the 200kmph speed range. We liked
It was fun. There were three people instructing me on the off-road drive at any given point of time. Two of my instructors were in the car and then there were the spotters outside who would direct the driver at points where the latter couldn’t see where the vehicle was going. Despite that, sometimes one just on reflex trusted one’s instincts and intuition. Most driving is about reflex. And if one isn’t used to suppressing that and doing something counterintuitive, which is required in off-roading, it is sort of difficult to do.
Nonetheless, it ended without incident with the Kodiaq doing a final dip in and out of a, well, hole (we cannot find a better way to describe it) to end the course. And, oddly, even though off-roading isn’t quite our thing, this one proved to be a fairly enjoyable experience. Thankfully, the whole thing was on dry dirt and not muddy and watery! But then, that’s probably not the Kodiaq’s home turf either.
And so ended the Natrax experience, courtesy Skoda India. They didn’t bring along the Superb. Would have liked to have had a go in it on the High-Speed Track. Maybe another time.