Car reviews - Skoda - Fabia - RS
Distinctive looks, wagon practicality, sparkling engine and transmission combination, quick steering, no (initial) waiting list, outside charm, excellent seats
Room for improvement
Overly firm ride, road noise, no manual gearbox, cheap-feeling cabin plastics, lacks Polo GTI’s touchscreen, optional media device interface, large steering wheel
20 Jun 2012
NINE months after it first dipped a toe into the Australian light car segment, Skoda has broadened its Fabia range with a series of additions, headlined by the RS hot hatch.
The recipe is a simple one – take the funky Fabia hatch and unusual wagon, stuff them with parts from the Volkswagen Polo GTI, price them sharply and emphasise a quirky ‘outsider’ charm.
Despite commonalities, the Czech company assiduously avoided comparing the RS to the Polo GTI at this week’s media launch, instead opting to compare the RS to a more eclectic batch of rivals like the Suzuki Swift Sport and Mini Cooper S.
This, of course, will not stop prospective customers cross-shopping between the two models. Sure, the Polo has a newer platform, but the guts of the Fabia come straight from its better-known sibling from Wolfsburg.
Under the boxy exterior sits the same 132kW/250Nm twin-charged (turbocharged and supercharged) 1.4-litre petrol engine matched to the same slick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with steering wheel paddle-shifters.
But for all the mechanical similarities with the Polo GTI, the fizzy little Skoda does offer some key points of difference.
Significantly, and unlike big sister Volkswagen with the Polo GTI, Skoda claims RS customers will not have to endure lengthy waiting lists of six months or more.
Then there is Skoda's increasing focus on ‘individualising’ its products, something it admits to have borrowed “unashamedly” from BMW-owned brand Mini, with the Fabia on offer with up to 26 colour combinations, contrasting roof hues and various alloy wheel finishes.
Finally, there is the oddball and – for the Australian market – completely unique RS wagon, an elongated version of the hatch that combines the same sizzling powertrain with class-leading cargo space.
Skoda Australia says that around half of total enquiries for the Fabia RS range so far have been pertaining to the wagon, and it is easy to see why. It is with this variant that Skoda really establishes its point-of-difference, because there really is nothing else quite like it.
As in the Polo, the 1.4 engine delivers a level of punch that belies its compact capacity and the sort of linearity not generally expected of small, forced induction powertrains – a result of the supercharger operating at low revs and the turbo taking over closer to the 7000rpm redline.
The engine pulls strongly all the way through the rev band, and is an excellent match to the transmission, which offers lightning fast changes in manual mode and is generally intuitive in automatic mode.
We would still like to see a manual gearbox option, however, which would not only appeal to boy-racers but give Skoda an extra point of difference to the DSG-only Volkswagen.
Skoda has, incidentally, belatedly added the same transmission (minus paddles) to entry-grade 77TSI hatch and all-new wagon variants to sit alongside the existing five-speed manual gearbox.
The peachy 77kW/175Nm 1.2-litre turbo drivetrain is more than up to the task of lugging around either body-style, with the hatch making a competitive case against the likes of the Polo and Ford Fiesta, and the wagon standing along as the only load-lugger anywhere near its price bracket.
As with all Volkswagen Group DSG units, there is a tendency to hesitate and jerk at lower speeds and when taking off, although activating the automatic sport setting or flicking it to manual mode irons out some of these kinks.
While the base Fabia is no slouch in the cornering department itself, the RS – both hatch and wagon – takes it up a notch or three courtesy of firmer shock absorbers, higher-strength springs and a stiffer front axle.
As with all Fabias, the chassis is well sorted and the electric steering is weightier and more communicative than most – although the somewhat cumbersome steering wheel design undoes some of the tactility.
Wider 205/40 tyres and VW’s excellent XDL electronic differential lock system – which brakes the inside front wheel to negate understeer – further add to the experience, giving the determined little Skoda excellent levels of tenacity and grip, plus a fast turn-in.
The fun factor is aided no end by the excellent front sports seats that offer lots of side bolstering and back support.
Indeed, you could say it is a little too composed in the twisty stuff, with the car refusing to flick out of line or lose grip even with the traction control switched off – what a spoilsport.
The trade-off for all this stiffening and lowering is a harsh ride – also a bugbear in the Polo – and an unusual amount of tyre noise, especially over rougher bits of tarmac. The wagon body style was the bigger offender here, with road noise echoing around the larger cargo area.
Despite the Fabia RS’s wide range of abilities, that pesky Polo GTI remains the elephant in the room. The equivalent five-door hatch version may be an extra $1000, but it feels worth it.
The interior of the Fabia, while well-made and free from rattles, does not feel as tactile as the Volkswagen, with harder plastics, and an inferior sound system that – unlike the Polo – lacks a standard (or even optional) touchscreen.
A USB plug is an extra-cost option, which in this day and age is really not good enough, especially considering Skoda's positioning as a value-oriented brand.
For our money, it is really only in wagon form where the RS makes a knockout case, because – odd exterior proportions aside – there is no other company offering anything quite like it.
That approach seems to make a lot more sense for a brand doing its level best to distinguish itself from its more famous big sister. If you don’t need the space of a wagon, and can handle a wait, the Polo still tops it.
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