Who’s laughing now? Natalie Wallis explores the fall and rise in Skoda’s fortunes and puts the cars to the test – Focus on: Skoda – a look a the history and reputation of Skoda Automobilovy Koncern Ltd

Who’s laughing now? Natalie Wallis explores the fall and rise in Skoda’s fortunes and puts the cars to the test – Focus on: Skoda – a look a the history and reputation of Skoda Automobilovy Koncern Ltd – Brief Article

Natalie Wallis

Some things are particularly hard to shift–red wine stains, uninvited guests at parties, copies of Jeffrey Archer’s autobiography and bad reputations, such as Skoda–the butt of jokes for many years now. But after suffering at the hands of every budding stand-up, particularly during the 1980s (I remember the would-be Russ Abbotts at school having a complete repertoire of anti-Skoda gags), the Czech manufacturer has rejuvenated its position as a quality car manufacturer. However, behind that green and black badge that has suffered such a tumultuous ride, Skoda still has a few surprises that many people know nothing about.

One little-known fact is the company’s history of success in motorsports, in which it has over 100 years’ experience of active participation in international competition. Today, Skoda is highly involved in world rallies, both the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) with its Octavia WRC and the Kumho National Rally Championship in its Fabia Group N rally car.

Another revelation to many people is that Skoda has a long heritage of producing high-quality cars. Its origins extend back to 1895 when Vaclav Laurin and Vaclav Klement developed a joint venture to produce bicycles and later branched into motorcycles then subsequently cars. In 1925 Laurin & Klement sought a merger with Skoda, Bohemia’s largest industrial machine company, as a means of injecting capital into the operation to invest in more advanced and cheaper volume production. The merged entity went on to make many renowned cars, including Hispano Suiza’s luxury saloons, which were produced under licence in the Czech Republic, plus the original luxury model Superb. Since its debacle in the `80s and its absorption into the Volkswagen Group, Skoda has been working hard to overcome its brand prejudice in the UK, while other European countries, such as Germany, Slovakia, Poland, have always remained loyal.

These days, Skoda mainly causes surprise over the quality and performance of its latest models. Despite lingering doubts over quality, there are few people that can fail to be impressed by Skoda’s range of vehicles–their combination of a classic yet stylish exterior, highly specified and comfortable interior and, above all, all-round handling and performance has helped put them ahead of a lot of their rivals. Even the former problem with low residual values is gradually being rectified.

In fact, the only criticism left open to grudgebearers these days is not the quality of the badge but rather the design of the badge itself! I have to concur with this–it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing of images. However, I was surprised to discover that the icon of the winged arrow with three feathers was first filed as a registered trademark as far back as 1923 and that the design is very significant: the flying wing denotes technical progress while the arrow symbolises advanced production methods and quality control, and the eye in the arrow represents Skoda’s future vision and technical alertness.

In reality, any inadequacies of the badge’s design are more than compensated for by the sheer look of incredulity on people’s faces when they equate the badge with what lies behind it. This was evidenced when tested the Fabia, Octavia and vRS. With these three cars, as well as the Superb (see the launch report on page 14), Skoda shou]ld have something to suit all tastes.

Fabia Elegance 1.9 TDI

When the Fabia was launched in 2000, it opened a new chapter in the Skoda story. It was the first car to be built on the Volkswagen Group small car platform, which it shares with the VW Polo and Seat Ibiza, and it is currently going from strength to strength in the supermini class. Multiple accolades have been bestowed upon it: What Car? Car of the Year 2000 and Best Supermini 2000, 2001 and 2002, Auto Express Car of the Year 2000 and Best Supermini 2001, and it was also one of five cars shortlisted for the European Car of the Year award.

From the front and side, the Fabia has avoided the cute curves employed by other superminis, such as the Clio, C3 and Saxo, to go for a more classic look that emulates models from the next two segments up, particularly the Octavia. This image is enhanced by a longer wheelbase that sits at the top of the class at 2462mm. The front is dominated by a dramatically swooping nose, high waistline and muscular haunches and is flanked by Skoda’s trademark grille and trapezoidal headlights, while the tailend is more compact and rounded. Body-coloured bumpers and door mirrors, 14in alloys, rear-mounted roof aerial, rear tailgate spoiler and tinted glass on the Elegance trim complete the look.

I found the interior on the Elegance to be especially striking although one passenger was not so keen. The upholstery is finished in beige, complemented by two-tone effects on the dash and interior panels and a chrome-plated gear and handbrake lever, creating a stylised, chic ambience. This was added to by the dashboard, which uses slush technology to create a tactile effect. Dash controls were basic but user friendly, with Skoda’s almost trademark slatted air vents.

Interior space is also impressive–the longer length wheelbase generates plenty of legroom while head and elbow room are also to be praised.

A choice of four engines–two petrol and two diesel–and three trim levels of Classic, Comfort and Elegance are offered. The 1.9 TDI uses Volkswagen’s 100bhp Pumpe Dase technology, which is an advanced injection system that feeds fuel to each cylinder via its own combined injector pump and nozzle to improve torque and fuel performance (an average of 56.5mpg for the TDI) and reduce emissions. Performance was certainly present with all the torque you’d expect from a diesel and then some, while handling was very sure footed. For those testing the handling just that little bit further, electronic traction control systems comprising Electronic Differential Lock (EDL) and Anti-Spin Regulation (ASR) are standard on all Elegance models, while the brakes offered pin-sharp performance.

The transmission is operated by a precision double cable system, said to result in a light and precise shift coupled with quieter operation. However, although I found the gearstick had particularly good ergonomics, the gears themselves were a bit clunky and I had to hunt for ages to find reverse, which was easily confused with first. The clutch was also rather stiff which certainly didn’t help matters.

Specification is high: power steering, driver’s airbag and a height-adjustable driver’s seat are present on all models. In addition, the Elegance also benefits from heated front seats, alloy wheels, heated washer nozzles, all-round electric windows, remote central locking and an alarm system.

Further novel touches include the extension of air-coditioning in applicable models to the glove and driver compartments, which helps keep food and drink cool. In addition, if the front windscreen wipers are on, the rear wiper activates automatically if the car is put into reverse. On versions with electric remote control for the door mirrors, the passenger mirror can be move in parallel with the driver’s one or adjusted independently.

At 12,055 [pounds sterling] on the road, the pricing of the Fabia, as you would expect for a Skoda, is incredibly economical while servicing requirements are said to be among the best in the industry. The oil needs to be changed every 10,000 miles while an annual inspection must be carried out every 12 months. Skilfully combining this with superior passenger space, high specification and technical innovation, the Fabia has much to offer fleet and private motorists alike.

Octavia Elegance 4×4 1.8 20V

Moving up to the upper medium segment, the Octavia has marked Skoda’s successful entry into this sector. Launched in 1996 and shortlisted for the 1997 European Car of the Year, the Octavia was revised technically and visually in 2000, with the 4×4 hatch tested here introduced in 2001.

On driving the 4×41 was impressed by the Octavia’s impressive performance and high standard of build quality, as you would expect from the VW Group–overall it offers exceptional value for money. The vehicle exhibits a classic design with masculine, stylish lines and body-coloured bumpers. The Elegance trim also includes an electric sunroof and 16in alloys.

The interior, though it wasn’t the most striking, was well designed with a simple, easy-to-use layout similar to the Fabia’s, and a spacious feel with plenty of passenger legroom. This was complemented by a cavernous boot of 428 litres, which uses a space-saving rear suspension design with in-line mounted springs and vibration dampers to maximise boot space between the arches. This, combined with the rear seats folded flat, was particularly appreciated on a return trip from Ikea.

Much more appreciated though was the 150bhp, 1.8-litre 20V turbocharged engine, which provided a long-lived burst of power that aided the smug feeling of accelerating past vehicles of a less tarnished heritage. A speed of 0-62 in 9.1s managed to wipe a few smiles off faces as well!

Although I didn’t thoroughly test the permanently available 4×4 drive in the rough, it evidenced itself on normal roads in superior grip and holding, which was a benefit in the typical wet conditions of a so-called English summer. This was backed up by ABS, EDL (electronic differential locks) and ESP (electronic stability programme) as standard on the 4×4 to provide a reassured yet responsive drive.

All in all, a pleasure to drive–more so when you are reminded of the marque that you are driving.

Octavia vRS

For those wanting to go that extra mile, the flagship of the new Octavia range, the vRS, puts performance back into driving and, with its racy style, certainly ensures a prominent road presence.

The fastest roadgoing car produced yet by Skoda, the vRS is powered by a dynamic 1.8 20V 180bhp turbocharged petrol engine. This assures a 0-62mph figure of less than eight seconds, a top speed of 146mph and an average fuel consumption of 35.5mpg. Performance was certainly flamboyant–once the initial turbo lag up to about 2000rpm was overcome, torque was present right up to top range and the car willed you to push it further.

The styling of the vRS was also impressive. The hatch of the Octavia has been doctored to feature a lowered chassis–resulting in tighter handling and cornering–plus 17in alloy wheels revealing green painted brake callipers, a massive front bumper with large air intakes, tailgate spoiler, wide stainless steel tailpipe and the much sought after vRS badging. If this isn’t enough for the exhibitionists among us, Skoda is only offering the vRS in rally red, black, yellow or silver to maintain its sporting image.

A sporting element has also been added to the Octavia’s simple and classic interior styling, with sports seats in special vRS upholstery plus metal pedals, silver and black trim on the gear lever, chrome dials and a leather steering wheel that is reach and rake adjustable.

Specification includes electric windows, twin airbag, onboard computer, remote central locking, air-conditioning and upgraded sound system.

As with the Octavia, the joy of driving the vRS was exacerbated every time I remembered I was in a Skoda. In fact, the vRS proved so impressive that two guys in a Transit stuck in the lane next to me at a set of traffic lights rolled their van forward as far as they could so they could check out the badge on the bonnet. Much as I would like to pretend that it was me they were looking at, it was clearly the car that was exacting their interest.

But that’s just part and parcel of owning a Skoda these days–being heavily scrutinised by people who are incredulous as to just how much Skoda has transformed itself.

My solution is to smile sweetly and soar on past–it’s Skoda that has got the last laugh now.

COPYRIGHT 2002 DMG World Media Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group