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Car reviews - Skoda - Rapid - range

Our Opinion

We like
Punchy turbo drivetrain performance and efficiency, fun steering, cabin space efficiency, city-friendly narrowness, massive boot
Room for improvement
Rear a little choppy over bumps, some road-noise intrusion, some key missing options like rear camera and sat-nav, premium fuel requirement, no diesel

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Skoda logo17 Nov 2014

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

SKODA’S model portfolio has long been like Papa, Mama and Baby Bears’ porridge, chair and bed that variously vexed then invited plucky little Goldilocks.

If like more Australians every year, you were after a straightforward small car like a Toyota Corolla or Mazda3, you might have found the previous Octavia too big, the current Fabia too small and the now-discontinued Roomster just too… well, weird.

Never to be seen as conforming, Volkswagen’s Czech value brand nevertheless seems to have understood the problem here, and its solution is – once again – something outside of the box.

And for that at the very least we should be grateful, since at last count, under-$40K small-car buyers have around 30 options and counting.

After all, Skoda could have merely re-skinned a Golf like VW’s Spanish subsidiary SEAT has over the last 15 years with the Leon.

Instead, what we have in the all-new NH-series Rapid Spaceback – besides a car with a name that sounds like a remedy for shoulder pain – is a European-built five-door hatchback with entry-level pricing, a five-star ANCAP safety rating, heaps of rear-seat legroom and a cavernous cargo area that absolutely shames a Corolla’s.

The catch? Well, the Skoda’s a wee-bit skinnier in both body and stance – though we’re only talking mere centimetres here – so the three big kids that you might want to fit in the back will be a bit more bunched up than in, say, a Ford Focus… or the brand’s latest Octavia.

But that may be a bonus if you’re one of the increasing numbers of inner-urban commuters and inhabitants where space is a premium.

Indeed, from the front seat, ahead of what is a typical quality dashboard design and layout with clear instruments, superb ventilation and plenty of storage areas, even tall folk will find ample comfort and support – though larger types might wish for a bit more of the latter since the seats themselves seem quite little.

The Rapid’s rear seat is arguably even more impressive, not just in terms of effortless entry and egress as well as cushion and backrest accommodation, but also for the details like overhead grab handles, a reading light and map pockets even in the entry-level model.

Anyway, the fact is, the Spaceback is roomy, long and tall enough to fit most small-car buyers’ requirements, and that’s a fact.

So is the point that the Rapid’s base is that of a stretched Polo’s, and that brings further rewards like a lighter-than-usual chassis and smaller-than-normal drivetrain choices for optimum efficiency without a performance sacrifice.

Headlining the latter is a duo of familiar direct-injection turbo TSI powerplants from parent company VW.

In the case of the base Spaceback Ambition 77TSI, it’s a turbocharged 1.2-litre unit with 77kW and 175Nm – somewhat down on a normally aspirated 1.8L Corolla’s 103kW output, but 2Nm better on the torque-max front, especially when the Skoda is about 100kg leaner.

Result? Thanks to a good power-to-weight ratio, the 77TSI is a spirited accelerator, launching off the line quickly and cleanly and then maintaining the rage as the revs rise ever higher.

Coupled with a slick-shifting six-speed manual and quite reactive steering, the outcome is an eager and enjoyable driving experience.

You can zip the Spaceback at speed though smooth corners knowing that it can be placed precisely where you need it to be, backed up by copious amounts of grip and lots of body control courtesy of the tenacious 215/45 R16 Dunlop SPs.

However, rougher roads do set the rear off course slightly for a bit, with the bumps and noise transmitting inside in a way that no recent Golf owner would ever recognise. That's the torsion beam setup talking, we guess.

And though we never had the chance, we fear that filling all five seats and that huge hatch with luggage will see that peaky little engine’s tacho needle needling the redline with (premium-unleaded) fuel-sapping regularity. At least you’ll have fun – something you cannot accuse some of the Rapid’s vanilla rivals of offering.

For more oomph there is always the 90TSI.

We drove the ‘flagship’ Elegance on lower-profile Continental 215/40 R17s, which conspire to hold that road surface even more, for even faster cornering shenanigans.

The 1.4 turbo’s extra 200cc, 13kW and 25Nm also pay dividends in the ease of the 90TSI’s performance delivery, particularly as the accompanying DSG does its best to speed things along with exceptional smoothness.

Again, the Spaceback comes across as a quicker and more enjoyable car than its specifications suggest, though that 90TSI’s rear end also feels a little skittish as well as a tad too firm when the road starts to deteriorate.

To sum up then, the latest Skoda has an unexpectedly playful nature, since it’s up for a bit of fun, but without skimping out on safety, smooth-road refinement or practicality.

That said, the lack of sat-nav and reverse camera availability rankles. In base Ambition 77TSI manual guise particularly, it bridges the gap between Fabia and Octavia (or even Yeti) with some confidence and style.

On the other hand, the exxy 90TSI Elegance is too close to cousin Golf’s territory to be considered good value, so – like Goldilocks – you might want to settle for the Baby Bear Spaceback… or move up to that Octavia after all.

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