Street smart

Baby hatch of­fers more for less, as Czech brand be­gins to kick goals

Herald Sun - Motoring - - First Drive - CRAIG DUFF craig.duff@news.com.au

SKODA has made a se­ri­ous pitch for the crown of bestvalue city car, launch­ing a big­ger and bet­ter Fabia hatch and wagon with pric­ing from $15,990 drive-away.

That is still a cou­ple of grand above Suzuki’s Cele­rio — and only a man­ual is avail­able at that price — but the baby Skoda comes stan­dard with au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing, a big­ger en­gine and a 6.5-inch touch­screen with SmartLink in­te­gra­tion for An­droid Auto and Ap­ple CarPlay smart­phones.

The Fabia is set to con­tinue Skoda’s sales mo­men­tum, which has been grow­ing steadily af­ter a slow start since en­ter­ing the lo­cal mar­ket in 2007. The com­pany’s sales have grown by al­most a third this year — al­beit off a low base — and it is now nip­ping at the heels of Peu­geot and Fiat.

Sit be­hind the wheel of the new Fabia and it isn’t hard to un­der­stand why buy­ers are brows­ing the Czech-built brand.

The in­te­rior is ba­sic but well built. Soft-touch plas­tics aren’t in ev­i­dence and the pad­ding on the door arm­rests isn’t plush but this is a ve­hi­cle about value rather than be­ing in vogue. Ac­cord­ingly there’s rea­son­able rear room for a cou­ple of adults and lug­gage ca­pac­ity that ranges from 305 litres in the hatch to 505 litres in the wagon. The tech­nol­ogy is the big­gest high­light, though it isn’t flaw­less.

Skoda Aus­tralia held out to get the latest 6.5-inch in­fo­tain­ment unit that lets smart­phones con­nect and then uses the mo­bile’s apps — based on An­droid Auto and Ap­ple CarPlay — to op­er­ate most func­tions. The up­side is the $950 sat­nav op­tion won’t be needed and there’ll be no re­quire­ment to pay for fu­ture map up­dates. The down­side is users will need to mon­i­tor the mo­bile’s data al­lowance or they could quickly face a blowout in their monthly bills.

A radar-op­er­ated au­ton­o­mous city brak­ing pro­gram is stan­dard on all mod­els and helped the Fabia achieve a five-star ANCAP rat­ing, but con­tro­ver­sially a re­vers­ing cam­era can’t be had for any money. In­stead, front and rear sen­sors and a sim­u­lated op­ti­cal dis­play deal with de­tect­ing ob­sta­cles.

Stor­age spots are spa­cious and nu­mer­ous from the in­creas­ingly rare glove­box with room for more than gloves to bot­tle and cup hold­ers and a smart rear cargo area with blinds, nets and hooks to se­cure a va­ri­ety of loads.

The en­try car uses a 66kW tur­bocharged 1.2-litre four­cylin­der en­gine matched to a five-speed man­ual gear­box. The $15,990 drive-away price grows by $1500 for the wagon ver­sion, iden­ti­fied by a longer body and sil­ver roof rails. Skoda

doesn’t have the lux­ury of be­ing able to sell the cheap­est model in man­ual and auto guises, de­spite the VW Group fit­ting an auto to the same en­gine in the Volk­swa­gen Polo. That will re­strict the 66TSI’s ap­peal to what Skoda pre­dicts will be 20 per cent of sales.

That leaves the 81kW ver­sion of the same en­gine as the hero of the Fabia range, al­beit at a steep jump in price. Matched to a seven-speed du­al­clutch auto, the 81TSI costs $20,290, the wagon $21,790. Be­yond the driv­e­train, the higher-out­put ver­sion adds a cen­tre con­sole arm­rest, cruise con­trol and al­loy in­stead of steel wheels.

Packs bun­dle the likes of fa­tigue de­tec­tion, up­graded wheels and LED day­time run­ning lights and there’s now a “colour con­cepts” op­tion that pack­ages pre­set con­trast­ing colours on the wheels, side mir­ror caps, wind­screen pil­lars and roof.

ON THE ROAD

Take-offs are smooth in the auto and the seven-cog self­shifter seam­lessly grabs gears as the pace picks up. It’s a dif­fer­ent story when head­ing down­hill on a trail­ing throt­tle as the DSG ’box hangs on to third gear like it is locked in man­ual. It is pre­sum­ably to help en­gine brak­ing when the soft­ware de­tects a de­scent but the Fabia is far from re­fined in this mode.

The man­ual doesn’t suf­fer from this af­flic­tion. Five for­wards gears is about par in the light car field and the Skoda’s turbo en­gine only needs 2000rpm on the tacho to start hus­tling.

Hus­tling is a rel­a­tive term — the auto hits the 100km/h dash about 9.4 sec­onds af­ter launch; the man­ual comes in at a tick un­der 11 sec­onds. Again that’s ac­cept­able at this price and for a car des­tined to spend most of its life in the city.

The Fabia’s han­dling is a les­son for many of the Asian car­mak­ers. The steer­ing is light with enough tac­tile stim­u­la­tion to clearly iden­tify which way the wheels are pointed and there’s sur­pris­ingly lit­tle body roll through the turns. Noise sup­pres­sion is also im­pres­sive, par­tic­u­larly when com­pared with its light car ri­vals.

The au­ton­o­mous emer­gency brak­ing duly alerts the driver with a flash­ing icon and a beep be­fore auto-brak­ing if the hu­man fails to re­spond.

VER­DICT

Skoda con­tin­ues to kick goals and the Fabia is a shiny ex­am­ple of giv­ing more for less. As such it de­serves check­ing out.

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