Skoda Scala vs. VW Golf, the ‘Trump vs. Obama’ of the automotive scene
Something strange, yet not entirely unexpected has occurred within VW Group and Iain Robertson attempts to unravel the mystery as he tests a mid-range version of Skoda’s latest and ‘long-awaited’ (it says here) Scala, which is not all it seems to be.
In 1996, Skoda unveiled its all-new Octavia model. It needed a number of detail modifications before it might be considered as a hatchback car worthy of exportation from its all-new Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic factory. I was the only UK journalist present at the gig. When I discovered that it was basically a re-clothed Golf, I gulped deeply. It was a lot larger than the donor vehicle. Yet, when I broke the story through several UK newspapers and magazines, I could perceive its potential.
At the time, Ferdinand Piech was the CEO of VW Group, which was buying Skoda in graduated chunks from the Czech government. His insistence was that each brand of the Group (VW, Seat, Audi and Skoda) should retain design and development independence, with responsibility, naturally, to the Group’s main board. Both Skoda and Seat would be the ‘budget’ brands, with VW retaining its everyman status and Audi possessing more stellar intentions. While their underclothing could be shared, for the sake of important cost savings, the engines and transmissions would be ‘badge-engineered’ but otherwise identical. It was an ingenious policy, which had been tried earlier, in the 1960s, by BLMC in the UK, albeit in a much-simplified detail trim and badges form.
When you think about it, the landmark VW Golf of that era was responsible for more new cars than ought to have been possible. Without the Piech strategy, which was in play from 1993 to 2002, we would not have had the ‘new’ Beetle, Audi TT, Seats Leon, Altea and Toledo, VW Eos convertible, Audi A3, or even the Skoda Octavia, among an array of other Golf-based variants. They were all quite different in their stances, appeal and even in their levels of tactility but, more importantly, in their pricing strategies. However, Piech’s reign ended and he was replaced (inexplicably), for just four years, by Bernd Pischetsrieder, a former (disgraced) BMW boss. Martin Winterkorn took over between 2007-2015 but was embroiled in the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal. Since then, Matthias Muller and, since April 2018, Dr Herbert Diess have been in charge.
Piech was right. However, in moves that have been every bit as political as those occurring when Trump took over the US Presidency from Obama, rubbishing the tactics of the past has taken precedence. To be fair, this happens more ‘respectfully’ in the automotive/corporate scene but the implications are the same. As a result, numerous VW Group products look all but identical to their other brand stablemates but worse implications are also inherent. The current Golf lies beneath the new Skoda Scala. Yet, in pre-MQB platform days, the Octavia was Skoda’s slant on the Golf: same platform, bigger, more accommodating bodywork and smaller price tag.
Somewhere in the political mish-mash of the past few years, sometime high-value, budget brand Skoda has been escalated by its VW parent into some form of price parity. In some ways, it is understandable. After all, when VW commenced its lengthy process of acquiring Skoda from the Czech government in 1991, its factory workers were paid just one-tenth the hourly rate of VW employees just across the border. They now have something more closely akin to wages’ parity. As a long-time proponent of Skoda, albeit with access to highly preferential deals, I recall paying £8,500 for my first (THE very first!) Octavia sold in the UK, in 1998. The car tested here, 21 years later, is a mid-range Scala 1.5SE that is listed at £24,390…a smaller model at virtually 200% price mark-up (not strictly true) on my Octavia 1.6SE original.
To be fair, its base price is £21,255, to which are added £415 for the 17.0-inch diameter alloy wheels, £255 for the ‘black dot’ decorative trim, £1,450 for the exterior design pack, £410 for the keyless entry and start/stop, with metallic paint factoring-in another £595. The model is mid-range because it is powered by the first-rate and ubiquitous, 1.5-litre TSi turbo-petrol engine that features two-cylinder shut-off technology and develops a wholesome 147bhp. Emitting just 113g/km CO2 and a readily attainable 45.6mpg (WLTP figures), its 0-60mph time of 7.9s and a top speed of 136mph, driving through a 7-speed DSG automated-manual gearbox (6-speed manual option is now available), are excellent figures for a 4.3m long, 1.3-tonne hatchback.
Scala’s interior consists of a satisfying blend of high-quality, tactile ‘soft-touch’ and textured plastic finishes, with neatly trimmed cloth seat material and bright LED cabin illumination. It is a roomy passenger compartment, matched by 467-litres of boot (expandable to 1,410-litres), with typical Skoda space in abundance. Yet, the car’s exterior design veers on the safe side of anodyne. Remove the brand badges and you might struggle to tell what it is…there are no such issues with the Octavia.
Interestingly, an aspect that I put down to most owners’ mobile-phones having an equivalent app, sat-nav, although available as an extra-cost item, is not fitted to the test car as standard equipment. However, it does feature a decent mix of connectivity options and incorporates lane-keeping tech, low-end LED headlights that are not as good as the potent halogen type that used to be Skoda standard, a multi-function trip computer and manual air-con as part of the package, alongside the ‘Simply Clever’ translucent yellow plastic ice-scraper/tyre tread-depth measure (retained within the fuel flap) and the umbrella concealed within the driver’s door.
While I have zero issue with the high quality of the Scala’s build, as the doors shut securely, its seats are very comfortable and supportive, and it feels utterly superb on-road, while almost every visual element matches that of any current VW-Audi product, the Scala is so devoid of charisma that it makes a Peugeot-Citroen equivalent look and feel positively characterful. I fear that diluting brand presence, as part of that ‘Trump/Obama; Piech/successors’ scenario is already inflicting damage on the VW Group. Just because the administration changes, should not mean that whatever beneficial aspects introduced by the previous management must be considered valueless subsequently.
Conclusion: Consider that a VW Golf Match 1.5TSi is listed at £24,935, you are going to need whatever dealer discounts that can be negotiated to give the Skoda Scala a value-for-money tag but it all depends on how you classify a new car’s image. In Scala’s case, it is good but it is also missing something.