Car reviews - Skoda - Fabia - 81TSI
Great design inside and out, roomy and spacious interior, dash layout, comfy seats, gutsy and frugal powertrain, plenty of features, five-year warranty
Room for improvement
Turbo and DSG lag at take-off, firm ride on sports suspension/17-inch alloys, some road/tyre drone, cruise control optional
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22 Mar 2018
IN NOVEMBER 2017, Skoda quietly modified the likeable Fabia supermini with an 81kW/200Nm 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo-petrol engine installation, taking over from the smooth 81kW/175Nm 1.2 four-pot turbo.
With more torque and better economy, it provides yet another reason to revisit one of our favourite B-segment hatches. Here’s the base 81TSI DSG with three specific options, but we’d truly hesitate to recommend one of them.
Price and equipment
To three or not to three!With apologies to Shakespeare, here’s the model year 2018.5 Skoda Fabia 81TSI, the base auto brandishing an all-new 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine in place of the sweet 1.2-litre four-pot turbo.
Aimed at the up-spec Mazda2 Genki and Suzuki Swift Turbo, the Czech-built five-door hatch has some serious competition to contend with, but the fresh heart transplant gives the existing generation (launched almost three years ago now – a facelift is coming in the fourth quarter) a welcome fillip in terms of performance as well as emissions.
For $19,990 driveaway, the 81TSI DSG represents strong value, with a dual-clutch auto, autonomous emergency braking, six airbags, multi-collision braking (which applies the brakes after the first impact to help stop further collisions), a hill-hold system, reverse camera, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, central touchscreen, Bluetooth telephony and audio streaming, MP3/USB/ AUX/SD card compatibility, trip computer, leather-clad wheel, a boot net, flexible storage compartment, idle-stop and powered and heated exterior mirrors.
Our car was also fitted with $2190 worth of extra goodies, including $390 cruise control, $500 metallic paint and $1800 Sports Pack.
The latter consists of 17-inch alloys shod with Bridgestone Potenza RE0507 215/40R17 tyres (replacing the 15-inch steelies), front LED daytime running lights with projector headlights, sports suspension (firmer and lower-riding), rear parking sensors, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, privacy glass and a front centre armrest.
Total cost: $22,680 driveaway. With a five-year warranty to boot. This Fabia looks and feels like a posh pint-sized luxury proposition.
Skoda’s contemporary, chunky exterior styling themes are mirrored inside, making the Fabia’s cabin one of the more practical as well as elegant options at this price point.
Largish doors open up nice and wide to a glassy, airy and solid interior that’s both inviting and comfortable. Deep windows afford excellent vision all round the driving position is first class, aided by ample seat and steering-column manipulation the cushions and backrests up front do a great job supporting their occupants the dials are clear and attractive nobody ought to complain about where to put their everyday items and a pair of Isofix fasteners are present and ready for child seats.
It’s like a mini-Golf, but with the Czech rather than German brand cues to differentiate the marques.
So, the plastics aren’t quite as squidgy touchy-feely the front passenger seat isn’t height adjustable you won’t find flocked door-bin linings the (optional) front centre armrest won’t slide the (also optional) cruise control switchgear looks very Passat circa-2000 the central screen isn’t quite as sophisticated to the touch and there may be less sound insulation than in the Polo equivalent.
It’s that old not-quite Volkswagen sensation that most Skodas seem to have.
Presumably to cut costs and not step on any Wolfsburg toes.
In this case, however, who cares? Because it’s easy to fall the for the Fabia’s friendly working-class character. From the instrumentation font and brushed aluminium inlays to the cheery seat pattern and three-spoke wheel, everything gels together stylishly.
Functionally as well, thanks to thoughtful touches like overhead grab handles and reading lights for all outboard travellers, an under-seat storage tray, dinky waste bin, windscreen-sited ticket holder and sunglasses repository. It’s the little things.
Rear-seat riders have much to appreciate too, like surprisingly generous head, knee and legroom, windows that lower all the way down, seat-back map pockets, side-seat phone holders, and actual views forward and out so as to not seem as claustrophobic as in, say, a Mazda2. Thoughtful details abound.
Finally, there’s the boot, which is low, wide and hungry due to its 305-litre capacity (stretching to 1150L with the split/fold rear backrest folded flat).
Frankly, the Fabia’s interior is tricky to fault, but the two main issues we experienced in our 81TSI had to do with the $1800 Sports Pack – namely the occasionally jarring ride and two-inch larger wheel/tyre upgrade, which also led to some excessive road-noise intrusion.
Oddly, the spare remains a 15-inch steel item despite the 17-inch rubber that our car wore as well.
Engine and transmission
The good news is that the 81TSI now offers 25Nm of extra torque as well as the same amount of power, even though the engine is one cylinder and nearly 200cc down on the previous 1.2 blown four-pot.
On the official combined average fuel run, it also uses 0.2 litres per 100km less premium unleaded, at 4.6L/100km. No doubt the idle-stop system helps here.
However, despite the obvious advances such technological brings, the driver must contend with a frustrating delay due to lag from both the turbo and seven-speed dual-clutch DSG transmission. It’s only a second or so, but there isn’t the satisfying instant response that most good torque-converter autos (like in the Mazda2) offer at take-off. As a result, zipping in and out of traffic-jam gaps is a jerky and often fruitless affair.
Once that initial hiccup is overcome, the thrummy 1.0-litre turbo triple really belts along strongly as the revs rise effortlessly (to 6200rpm), resulting in eager and spirited acceleration, accompanied by a distinctive, sporty exhaust note.
The DSG shuffles between all seven ratios seamlessly, making for exceptionally slick progress. Skoda says 196km/h is possible, while the 100km/h mark is reached in a spirited 9.8 seconds flat.
Learn to drive around the lag, and the Fabia can be a fast point-to-point runabout, particularly out on the open road, as well as a delightfully frugal one. Like most Volkswagen-based vehicles, the 81TSI/DSG combo offers both an effective sport mode and a Tiptronic-style tip-shift for manual selection, though by 6200rpm the transmission flicks up to the next ratio by itself.
Having said all that, it’s a pity no manual is available with the 81TSI. Buyers can save $3000 and choose the lesser-powered (and way-less laggy) 70TSI five-speeder and revel in changing their own gears. This, folks, would solve all the delay issues, and make the Fabia even sweeter and more fun to punt along.
Ride and handling
Our previous experience with the old 81TSI on standard 15-inch wheels and tyres makes the optional Sports Pack, with its firmer suspension, seem totally redundant, because the standard set-up is both agile and comfortable.
On the plus side, the Sports Pack and 17-inch Bridgestone Potenza pairing equal surprisingly sharp handling, backed up by excellent body control, plenty of grip and four-wheel disc brakes that wash off speed very effectively. Thus equipped, the 81TSI’s agility and road-holding put it in the warm-hatch class, with classy looks to boot.
But the crashy ride over larger bumps is the price to pay for such athleticism and aestheticism, as is the aforementioned road/tyre-noise booming inside the otherwise serene interior. Smoother roads rarely reveal such anomalies, and if that’s all you’re likely to drive on, the Sports Pack’s visual and dynamic upgrades are probably worthwhile.
Otherwise, the standard Fabia suspension set-up’s inherent suppleness is whittled away to the point of it being at-times annoying, if not downright uncomfortable. Our advice would be to save the $1800 and forgo Sports Pack (but do tick that cruise control box and see if you cannot have that centre armrest fitted anyway). An aftermarket 16-inch alloy-wheel upgrade would also improve the looks.
Safety and servicing
The Fabia scores a five-star ANCAP crash-test rating, aided by its AEB and other safety features fitted as standard equipment.
Warranty is for a five-year, unlimited kilometre period and includes a roadside assistance program. Intervals are at 15,000km or 12 months, with capped-price standard servicing published on the company’s website for the first six years.
Skoda also offers a three-year/45,000km service pack for $1100 or a five-year/75,000km regime for $2200.
The Fabia 81TSI is one of those cars that proves less is more.
Fewer cylinders and capacity improve the performance, efficiency and emissions output, making for a better overall proposition.
Additionally, don’t be tempted by those handsome 17-inch alloys and Sports Pack suspension, because the comfort compromise is too much, especially around town.
Unfortunately, you’ll need to learn to live with that laggy DSG auto, but even then, our less-is-best advice has an answer for that too. Choose the terrific 70TSI five-speeder instead and save $3000. Easy.
Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo from $22,990, plus on-road costs
Suzuki’s all-new Swift hits the ground running hard with great styling, a sporty yet comfortable chassis, high spec levels (including adaptive cruise control) and a cracking three-pot turbo with no lag due to its six-speed torque-converter auto. Go for it!
Mazda2 Genki from $20,690, plus on-road costs
The Mazda2 offers striking design, sharp handling, excellent safety and an appealing cabin layout, backed up by exceptional reliability and thrifty fuel economy. Only some road-noise intrusion mar an otherwise smart and sensible buy.
Renault Clio Zen from $19,990, plus on-road costs
Still attractive despite its age, the Turkish-built Clio four-pot turbo remains a compelling proposition, with space, verve and comfort in spades. But the dual-clutch gearbox suffers from interminable lag, so go for the zesty three-cylinder turbo manual instead.
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