- Is there any difference between the almost mythical stately homes of the past and our modern cars?
- Geoff Maxted of DriveWrite Automotive Magazine takes a trip across the English countryside to find out.
Just to put the venerable myth to bed once and for all, Great Britain is very much not all deep green forest and verdant, rolling countryside dominated by ancient fairy tale castles. It used to be; once upon a time. Now those castles and manor houses of old are visitor attractions, like Sudeley Castle. We are not tweedy people who like nothing better than to shoot birds from the sky and ride horses, and go for long walks and marry our cousins for dowry. Our children no longer build secret dens and climb trees to shake off the urban stench and grime.
They have Playstation.
To Gaze & Gawp
Sorry for painting a gloomy picture but on the whole it’s true enough. The past as they, and I, often say, is another country and they do things differently there. In this day and age, we like our modest houses and mainstream cars but still try to appreciate our countryside and what our land has to offer; it’s just that now we do it in bite-sized pieces rather than living the rural dream. Fortunately there’s plenty to see. Unlike, say, the vastness of the United States of America, the UK offers much diversity within a small compass.
So what we do now is visit our heritage as tourists to gaze and gawp; and leave litter and picnic in regal gardens (see image) and even sometimes despoil the very thing we have gone to see. Today our castles and manors are rebranded as ‘Stately Homes’. They come in an almost infinite variety; large and small, castellated or discreet, ancient and almost modern. Sudeley Castle fulfills a lot of the criteria by being old, large, part-castellated, and packed with history in the form of information.
To Sudeley Castle
This is the former home of the sixth, final, and surviving wife of the rakish King Henry VIII, Queen Catherine Parr. It’s a 15th Century part-castellated house built on the site of an even older edifice. Catherine lived here with her next husband and her remains are interred in the old chapel. It’s a strange thought to actually be walking in the footsteps of royalty from the days when it was possible, literally, to lose your head over love.
The problem with stately homes is that once you’ve seen one you have pretty much seen them all. The truth is, this writer did not find it that interesting. Few original artifacts remain and the main thrust seems to be the many displays and presentations describing the, admittedly interesting, varied history; but in the end a castle’s a castle. Enter and exit through the gift shop.
Sudeley is only about an hour’s drive from home and does at least take the travellers through some of the best of England’s countryside, including along the Fosse Way, a road established by the Roman invaders of antiquity, better surfaced now but still with the potholes of yore, deep enough to drop a Roman ankle into. Our trusty steed this time was the Skoda Karoq, described by the brand as a ‘compact SUV’. To its credit, one of the UK’s top car magazines anointed it one of their ‘best family SUVs’ for 2019 and what it does, it certainly does well.
So why is this road-tester feeling a bit flat?
The Skoda Karoq
Our variant, seen in the images, was in ‘Sportline’ trim and was equipped with four-wheel drive and plenty of accessories and safety technology. It is comfortable, roomy, economical yet modestly powerful thanks to a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel engine (there’s choice of four engines; diesel or petrol). It accommodated three adults and two children with space to spare. So far so good.
My issue lies with, as I intimated in my last Letter, that under the Skoda skin lies essentially a generic car that is also a SEAT Ateca; and a Volkswagen Tiguan and an Audi Q3. Sure, they vary in looks, trim levels, price and performance, with the more luxurious Audi being the most expensive, but there’s not a huge variation in stylish flair and that is disappointing. None of the above cars feel especially different or unique. They all do the same thing which I guess is what most people want. To me it all smacks of automotive design overseen by gnomish, tight-fisted accountants.
The Yeti Fades Away
The car this model replaced was the much-loved Skoda Yeti; a vehicle with true individuality and a sort of rugged dependability that owners appreciated. This writer recalls, in an episode of the original British TV version of Top Gear, the journalist and presenter Jeremy Clarkson performed a stunt whereby a small helicopter was landed on the roof of a Yeti while in motion. Nobody does that sort of thing any more.
In fact, many reviews have stated that driving this current car is ‘fun’. It really isn’t; statements like that demonstrate the paucity of real driver’s cars in the mainstream UK market. Never mind, the Karoq is a good car and it took us to Sudeley Castle and back in safety and, being red, was at least easy to spot in the sea of similar SUVs parked around it.
The test car offered 148 bhp and 251 lb-ft. of torque, which resulted in straight-line performance that was more than adequate, driving through a smooth six-speed stick shift although this driver would have preferred the slick DSG automatic gearbox. It’s that kind of car. The engine is pleasingly quiet at cruising speeds overall. With the 4×4 option adding weight and five-up with baggage, it needs decent firepower and so it proved.
The Karoq is too soft for this driver, although this makes the ride quality very good. Handling composure remains decent enough.
Leather is nice but for practicality and warmth in winter, cloth upholstery is preferred. Modern materials as found in the Karoq have proved to be both hard-wearing and easy to keep clean; a boon when wrangling children and sundry foodstuffs. The very adjustable rear seats make stowing awkward loads easy and the trunk is a generous size. Overall, the Karoq has a modern cabin with all the now expected technology but there’s no pizazz.
And for the tested car a price ticket of over £34,000 (UK) is getting a bit heavy duty. That’s about $38,500 of your American dollars.
Stately Homes On Wheels
This is the point about the cars of today. They do what they should do and do it reliably, period. They have become the motoring equivalent of stately homes. Nice enough to look at, enjoyable to experience for a short while but ultimately all a bit unsatisfying, over-priced, and where options always cost extra.
If you, reader, are thinking of visiting the UK, there is still plenty to see. We are awash with heritage, art, museums, scenic vistas, and much more but confine yourself to just one stately home venue; say Warwick Castle or Blenheim Palace and move on. Public transport here is inadequate and expensive and targeted primarily at commuter traffic so on these small islands the best way to see the country is from a hire car.
Something like the Skoda Karoq would be ideal.
Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite