When discussing brand respect, Iain Robertson possesses significantly less Skoda confusion than VW’s main board, although he wonders if the latest iteration of the popular sub-compact may be going a step too far from its perceived marketplace.
When the Felicia model first appeared, the initial VW-influenced car, it set a fresh precedent for the Czech brand as it emerged from Communist suppression. However, following the genuine curtain-raiser that was the 1996 Octavia, the smaller Fabia that arrived three years later was a real shock to the system. The immense impression made on me by Octavia was side-lined by the newcomer. Having already owned the first Octavia registered in the UK, I traded it in to become the owner of the first Fabia, a 1.4i 16v Comfort.
Styled by the same hand that provided the Bentley Continental with its timeless elegance, the well-proportioned Fabia possessed the magical combination of perfect on-road stance, excellent packaging, sound chassis dynamics and a build quality that was second-to-none. Were it not for its Skoda badge, it could have become a challenger for outright European compact category honours? However, the Skoda brand was in flux; it ought to have been in ascendency but an Eastern European hangover that its owner Volkswagen was only too happy to perpetuate, as a means to remind it continually of its ‘underdog’ status, succeeded in damping any excess market enthusiasm.
VW was only too conscious of allowing its ‘lesser’ brands to gain too much headway. Seat, in Spain, was marketed as a sunny option, while Skoda would be the more industrious alternative. The next Fabia I owned was the dizzyingly brilliant vRS model, complete with its 1.9-litre Pumpe-duse diesel motor that developed 130bhp. It was the perfect niche car and grew Skoda’s first UK waiting list, so great was the demand. It was classy, yet classless and impeccably understated.
When the second-generation Fabia arrived, it was notable that VW Group had demanded that its trim detail be downgraded. The ‘soft-touch’ dashboard that contributed to the first-generation’s overall refinement levels became a hard plastic moulding and the car’s overall styling became more generically non-Germanic. A mid-life facelift reintroduced the vRS model, this time powered by the remarkable but testily unreliable 1.4-litre twincharger TSi engine (featuring both a supercharger and turbocharger for a whopping 180bhp). I acquired an S2000 rally homologation version (one of just 27 of the 211bhp models sold in the UK), which would be my second-last Skoda, as I swapped it subsequently for a loaded black Citigo.
While I admired the square-rigged appearance of the third-generation 2014 Fabia, I was less keen on its plastique-fantastique interior. However, the imminent arrival of the fourth-generation model has reignited my passion, a factor that I thought might occur with the much-vaunted, Golf-sized Scala but did not. In fact, the new Fabia is so worryingly brilliant that I fear it might lead to Scala being descaled.
As an observer, it looks as though Skoda was working away behind closed doors, while VW was preoccupied with its I.D electrification programme. Presenting a complete and timely proposition to the main VW board, Skoda loaded up the ‘Skoda Clever’ items, prettified the Fabia in readiness to do battle with Ford’s vastly improved Fiesta, the uprated Peugeot 208 and Renault Clio, while introducing some pertinent nips and tucks to allow it to secure several category ‘firsts’, as an undeniable ‘honey trap’ to VW’s broader Group aspirations.
Yet, it is a product strategy that is wrought with potential pitfalls. On the positive front, running off the back of significant revisions to both Octavia and Superb, let alone a growing line-up of Skoda SUVs/crossovers, Fabia is on the money and will draw significant new, returning and repeat business to Skoda. However, VW wants to avoid conflict with its Polo model, let alone the ostensibly higher-grade Audi A1, but it has concerns for the Seat Ibiza, a model range that seems to have lost some of its earlier advantages, especially as all branded versions share the same platform. Having signed-off the new Fabia, perhaps under some slight duress, the Group now has to live with the consequences for the next seven years of model life.
There is not even a whiff of vRS being emitted for the new line-up, although the deft application of the 1.5-litre EVO TSi motor, producing a modest 147bhp but featuring the ingenious twin-cylinder shut-off facility for lower CO2 emissions and improved fuel economy, does provide a usefully zesty powerhouse at the top of the range. With alloy wheel options up to 18.0-inches diameter and a factory-fitted lower/stiffer suspension option, at least vRS dynamics are on the cards and I can perceive them being a popular uptake, especially when combined with the ‘black’ trim option.
Spec’ing-up a Fabia is going to appear more closely aligned with the BMW Mini than ever. Of the ‘smart’ options, the sometime Superb umbrella plugged into the driver’s door jamb, the nifty under-parcel shelf storage space and a further 41 in-car practical storage slots, many of which are standard fayre, will have potential owners reaching for the order signing pen. The panoramic glazed roof section, complete with space-saving, tri-folding sunscreen, demonstrates even more attention to detail.
Being dimensionally larger all-round increases an already strong cabin space proposition and whisks the Fabia into pole position, ahead of all of its class rivals. However, the ‘always-on’ connectivity, up-to-the-minute links and the latest ADAS ensure that Fabia is better equipped than cars further up the Skoda range. The balance of the engine line-up consists of four versions of the 1.0-litre ‘triple’, two of which are in tame non-turbo 62 and 77bhp forms, with a pair of gutsier turbocharged alternatives in 92 and 107bhp guises.
Conclusion: It is abundantly clear that Skoda is covering the most relevant bases in its radically improved new Fabia line-up. With prices starting from just below £14,000, rising to £22,000 for the top model, with attractive options that can whisk that to just shy of £26,000, formulating a Fabia to meet almost any demands is going to be child’s play but it could also be Skoda’s most apposite model move.