I thought I'd report on my time with a 2004 Skoda Fabia 1.4 16v Comfort automatic recently. I had the car for just over a week and in that time travelled over 750 miles.
Let me firstly say that the jokes about Skoda are now well and truly over. They began to die out around 15 years ago when the Favorit was released - here was a modern(ish) front-wheel drive hatchback from the purveyors of the funny air-cooled cars with the engine in the back. While that first Favorit lacked a bit of polish (it was plagued with typical Eastern-European fit and finish), Skoda attracted the attention of VW who injected large amounts of cash. To begin with there wasn't much to show for it (although the build quality of the Favorit did improve over its' six year life), then in '96 they gave us the Felicia - fundamentally the same car but with rounder edges, and a half-decent interior.
Then, in '98, the masterstroke - the Octavia. Based on the current Golf, here was a Skoda that owed very little to the old school, except for competitive pricing. Quality-wise, styling-wise, engineering-wise it was on a par with the other VW group products. VW obviously had faith in Skoda, because when it was time to launch the Mk4 Polo, they chose to release the oily bits first in a new Skoda - the Fabia.
So we all know the Fabia is fundamentally the same as a Polo - and it's none the worse for that. Upon first impression, the car looks solid and quite classy (although mine was a rental and had no wheeltrims, so this was diminished somewhat). It's big for a supermini, being some 12' long, and quite high. Personally, I find the all-in-one colour bumpers a bit heavy-handed (not to say how much they would cost to replace in a bump, given they have no rubbing strips on this model), but it's generally very modern and inoffensive.
Inside is where the surprises start. I mean, the dashboard is VW-quality, and therefore up there with the best, with soft-feel plastics abounding. A million miles away from the Estelle and Favorit of yore. It's all very similar to the Polo or even the MK4 Golf (although it misses out on the neat touches of that car, like the dampened action of the grab handles). It's easy to get a good driving position as the seat height can be adjusted on a ratchet mechanism, and the steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach. Instruments are clear and concise. The only things I didn't like were the fact that the clutchfoot rest wasn't quite long enough for my size 11s, and the heater controls were too far down the dashboard - to change temperature with a passenger would get raised eyebrows as they thought you were trying to grope their knee! Between the stereo (more anon) and the heater was a cubbyhole for bits and pieces about 3 inches deep - why not move the heater controls up here instead?
Rear seat space seemed pretty good to me, although I didn't spend any time there, and the chairs themselves were quite comfortable. The boot was of a reasonable size - you could get a good few shopping bags in there or a set of golf clubs easily enough, it was much bigger than (for example) the old Metro but obviously not as big as the Accord I'm used to, where you could live in the boot. Full marks for the grab handle on the inside to shut the boot without getting your hands dirty, but I'd have liked to be able to open the boot from the driver's seat - you only have the fuel flap release there.
Another surprise is the equipment level. OK, ignoring the fact that only a few years ago Skoda put out real bargain basement machines, this is more indicative of supermini specs improving beyond all recognition in the past 10 years anyway, but even with a mid-range model like this there was air conditioning, electric heated mirrors, electric front windows, ABS, front foglights, power steering, remote central locking, CD stereo, and my personal favourite, the trip computer. Remember the Golf GTI Mk2 had a trip computer in the digital clock that you activated the functions using the column stalk? Well, it's alive and well in the Fabia. I had great fun with this, especially the 'current MPG' feature (apologies to everyone stuck behind me as I treated the accelerator like an eggshell). The only thing I couldn't fathom out was the stereo, it only had 10 buttons but I still couldn't get it to stop putting the Traffic Report on. Maybe at 27 I'm past it? (Lord knows what the average Skoda owner at 50+ makes of it)
What was it like to drive? Well, the ride and handling were pretty impressive if you remember Eastern European cars of old. This one is right up there with the competition, if not quite as compliant as the French rivals in the suspension department. My only gripe was the steering - the power-assistance was very high, and there was less 'feel' than in my Honda Accord, which was surprising (Japanese manufacturers are famous for building power steering systems with no road feel y'see). However, when parking (coupled with the large areas of glass) there was no problem placing the car at all.
The only real downside to the car was the engine/gearbox combination. Given that it said '1.4 16v' on the back I assumed that it was the 100bhp unit used to great effect in the hot Lupo, but according to Skoda you only get this unit with the 5-speed manual. This unit is detuned to 75bhp when coupled with the 4-speed auto, and according to Skoda's website will do 0-62mph in 17 seconds. It never felt that slow to me (and that IS slow), but it makes a lot of strange noises when accelerating which sometimes put me in mind of a diesel - very thrashy. The gearbox is OK, but hunts around a bit on hilly sections and doesn't do a lot for the economy - according to the computer I was seeing around 38mpg overall, and that included a lot of motorway cruising. It does rev quite a bit (3500rpm) at 70mph though. I will give praise for the gear selector on the instrument panel, although I can't help feel that electronics are beginning to go a bit far in new cars. This one made lots of bing-bong noises - when it was running out of fuel, when the outside temperature dropped below 4C, when the radio couldn't find the Traffic Report. I'm just a luddite at heart.
So would I buy one with my hard-earned? Not this combination of engine and transmission to be honest (although it does seem good value at a shade under £10,000), I would either go for the basic 1.2 6v 3-cylinder (which still has air conditioning, ABS, power steering, twin airbags and a CD player) for £6,995 or the hot new vRS diesel if I was feeling flush. The cars are attractively-priced, well-built (from what I can make out) and Skoda dealers still tend to be small family-run affairs in my area, so you should get good service. The joke is finally over - the Fabia is a good little car in it's own right.
UPDATE: In October last year I put my money where my mouth is, and my girlfriend and I purchased a Fabia 1.4 16v Comfort manual. 3 months and 9,000 miles on, it's exceeding all our expectations and returning between 46 and 51 miles to the gallon. It's a great car!
Listen, I am NOT a petrolhead, so don't expect lengthy run-downs on how the car develops powerful low-end torque and so on... What I will say is IT'S ACE! Admittedly my previous car was a Citroën Visa Diesel, and so pretty much anything on four wheels would have represented a step up...but I have driven a lot of so-called "superminis", including the market-leading Polo (my fiancée has one), and the Fabia takes a lot of beating. OK, so everyone's first reaction is "OMIGOD IT'S A SKODA"...but thanks to a clever advertising campaign this is soon followed by "WOW IT'S A SKODA!", and then by "ARE YOU SURE IT ISN'T A VOLKSWAGEN?" And admittedly it is, more or less...but the emphasis is certainly on the less - mine is 10 months old (and had been a Skoda UK demo car, so had only done 5000-odd miles in that time and been well looked-after...) and cost me about £2-3000 less than the equivalent Polo. Plus I got the much-vaunted 3 years free servicing with which Skoda launched the Fabia when it became Car Of The Year in 2000. Better than a poke in the eye with a blunt (dip)stick, I hear you cry! The best way I can describe driving it is "what a giggle!". It's a real point-and-shoot car, with the wheels right out at the corners, which makes cornering a real joy. If anything it takes a little too long to get into its stride in 2nd and 3rd, but once the revs are up, it shifts very nicely thankyou very much...and it makes a lovely noise! I have never owned a car with aircon before, and my purchase happened to coincide with the heatwave...what timing! NOW I have a car with an air-conditioned GLOVE BOX! I ask you! What hedonism! Plus there is a little cubby hole on the driver's side for putting a drink in which is ALSO air-conditioned! Blimey! Have the Czechs/Germans thought of everything? Well, I've only had the thing for 5 days, so I can't
really give you a long-term view, but I'll keep you posted. As far as first impressions go, though, this is definitely the car to go for if you want style, solidity, comfort and (not to be underrated) £2000 pounds less out of your bank account than its immediate rivals! ........STOP PRESS....................... Have now had the car for a little over 2 weeks, have down about 1000 miles including M-way stints, a bit of good old nose-to-tail stuff in London and some rather more fun windy B roads down in Dorset...Handling and ride continue to be a real delight. As far as fuel consumption goes, the Fabia has consistently returned figures well in excess of 40 mpg and often over 45 on soft-pedal days (!). Refinement-wise, it's in a different league from any other small car I've driven (and like I say, I've been a Polo driver for 4 years or so...) One minor gripe is a split second delay in throttle response when accelerating in 1st gear, but I'm told this is because the Fabia has been set up to comply with 2005 emissions legislation. And anyway, if you keep the revs a little bit higher before letting in the clutch there's no problem. I stand by everything else I wrote before - definitely worth a look if you are buying a a small car right now, and certainly NOT a bit dear for what it is...what it is is Car Of The Year 2000! Czech it out for yourself (Ouch! Sorry about that one!)