I’ve been having a Skoda-infused week and am rather enjoying it.
Much of the time has been spent driving a brand new Fabia Monte Carlo, with a gaudy interior and a sweet, 89bhp 1.2 TSi petrol engine. My wife drives ‘an 08 plate, previous generation Fabia 1.9 diesel estate, and much to my motoring writing friends’ amusement, I own an ’89 Skoda Estelle.
This is one of those square little rear engined saloons that many people thought were beyond awful when they were new, but sold well and earned the grudging respect of many critics when they finally expired. Around this time VW bought Skoda and turned it from car making underdog into a successful mass-market brand.
This year is actually the Estelle’s 40th anniversary. Early ones were tinny and horribly tail happy, but Skoda’s Communist era engineers improved it enormously as time went on. Mine is actually weirdly fun, and although most of the interior fittings are cheap and flimsy –as proved when a sun visor snapped off recently- it’s more comfortable than it looks and has an endearing, ‘what more do you need?’ honestly.
My partner’s Fabia is vastly better-made. In fact Skoda has some of the newest factories in the VW empire, and this is reflected in the car’s fit and finish.
I think the styling is a little awkward. Narrow and a bit dumpy. The ride is fidgety and the steering light and lifeless, but my wife, who uses the car for her job, couldn’t care less. It’s a workhorse that’s quiet and comfortable on motorways, lively the rest of the time and very economical, and bar a couple of electrical niggles has proved impregnably reliable. As it heads for 90,000 miles the car feels little changed after six years of hard work.
Which brings us to the Monte Carlo, which is notionally the most ‘sporting’ Fabia you can buy, as Skoda has given up offering genuinely quick vRS versions of the car.
Available as a hatch or estate, the Monte Carlo has jazzier alloy wheels, garish trim, a big glass roof and other ‘go faster’ ad ons, but is actually no quicker than Fabias that do without this stuff.
The body sort of retains the previous car’s profile, but there are fewer curves, and to my eye this rather angular car is tidier and better looking.
Once again it seems very solid, something that extends to the interior, which won’t win any originality awards, but feels like it will last for years, and is thoughtfully designed. The only criticism I’d make is that, at nearly six foot tall, when I’d adjusted the driver’s seat to a comfortable position, rear legroom was rather restricted.
I liked driving the car, which is actually fun, in a low-key sort of way. The five-speed gearbox is slick and nice to use, the brakes very good indeed, the steering quick and communicative. The ride is a bit jiggly on poor surfaces, but otherwise fine.
There are two power outputs for its 1.2TSi petrol engine, and my car had the milder, 89bhp motor and really I can’t see much justification in something bigger. This unit was mostly quiet and refined –almost inaudible when idling- and employed a stop/start system that was fast an unobtrusive. This engine punted the car with genuine verve on minor roads and was smooth and relaxed on motorways.
This Fabia feels a bit German, which given that it’s closely related to the VW Polo is hardly a surprise. It’s modern, capable and engaging, but there’s still an essential honesty about it that people who like Skodas have come to appreciate; something it shares with its two rather different predecessors. For this reason, Skoda has little cause to feel embarrassed about its past.
If I was in the market for a new car, the current Fabia is the sort of thing I might actually buy.
All images: Martin Gurdon