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Car reviews - Skoda - Superb - 5-dr sedan range

Our Opinion

We like
TwinDoor tailgate, huge cargo area, massive rear legroom, lots of standard features, diesel/DSG combination of performance, economy and refinement, soft ride, competent handling balance, cabin design and finish, bohemian appeal
Room for improvement
High-set rear seat, poor rear vision, dowdy styling, expensive options, unknown resale value, silly name

Skoda logo16 Jul 2009

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

IT IS like virtually every teen movie in history: New student with braces/weird hairdo/strange clothes/homely features seems unlikely to fit in … until plot turn reveals special trait that sets newbie on a spectacular path to popularity, culminating in prom night glory.

And so it is with the Skoda Superb, which – at this stage of the plot – has only just saddled awkwardly alongside large car class luminaries as diverse as the Honda Accord, Holden Commodore and Volkswagen Passat.

And what a misfit this Czech newcomer is, with its oddball styling, strange name and uppity aspirations. But the Superb has a string of talents ready to wow the jaded or unsuspecting.

So many, in fact, that this unlikely … err, sedan with blue-blooded German parentage, has what it takes to live up its name.

Where do we begin?

Superb. Grandeur. Excel. It’s not a great group to be associated with (sorry Hyundai), especially considering Skoda’s lofty aspirations, nor a good start in Australia, even if the name has been around sporadically since the 1930s elsewhere. Who cares over here though? Superlative nomenclature with no historical reference makes the Skoda simply sound pretentious.

Annoyingly, Skoda has placed the name prominently on the boot lid, as well as in the front indicator housings, so there’s no getting away from it, either.

Like this one, the last Superb was based on the Passat, but the good-looking previous-generation model. Launched in 2001, it didn’t take Europe by storm but Volkswagen – sorry, Skoda – has persisted with it anyway.

Our test car was the mid-range 2.0 TDI Elegance, fitted with beautiful two-pronged five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels and finished in a lustrous white duco that really lifts the looks considerably.

We grew fonder of the styling the longer we kept it. What we initially thought unfortunate now seems merely a bit goofy. At least the car’s upright roofline adds a formal, limousine-esque look to the clean and attractive profile. Chauffeur drivers, here is your new car!

Visually, the Superb straddles a fine line between three-box sedan with a big bottom, and liftback with a saggy behind.

But nobody new to the car could possible be prepared for this Skoda’s great party trick – a boot lid that turns into a great big hulking hatchback at just a press of a pair of buttons at the trailing edge of the tailgate.

Dubbed TwinDoor, it can flummox the uninitiated: Press the right button first, wait until the high-mounted LED brake light flashes to the whirring of latches, and then press the left button. It is quite a performance, and one that always elicits an incredulous response from onlookers.

But is this TwinDoor feature a gimmick?

We think not, despite the complexity and potential added rear-shunt expense such a complicated set-up brings. One advantage is that occupants do not have to be subjected to the exterior environment if only the boot is used, while having the option of a tailgate greatly increases the utility of the Superb. This really is best-of-both-worlds stuff.

Long, wide and low, the 565-litre cavity hides a 16-inch steel spare wheel under the flat floor, while a couple of lidded side storage bins, a pair of shopping hooks and a 12-volt outlet round out a massive boot. Fold the split/fold rear seats and suddenly you have a 1670-litre space to throw stuff in – like a small country.

Having been impressed by the boot, the back seat is our next port of call. Large, solid rear doors open wide, aiding entry into an unexpectedly spacious back seat area, complete with limousine levels of knee and legroom as well as plenty of space for shoulders.

The rear bench is firm, nicely angled and amply accommodating, but it is set too high. We reckon Skoda has missed a trick here, because a lower cushion would liberate more headroom for the 195cm-plus passengers whose scalps scrape the ceiling, to make the Superb a true limousine.

This is a shame because the hindquarters are quiet, refined and well fitted out.

Besides side pillar air vents, a centre rear armrest with retractable cupholders and door pockets, there are heated outboard seat cushions (the hapless centre-rear person – who has to be fairly short in stature to sit there, gets nothing but a good view out ahead), an external temperature gauge, individual lighting, another 12-volt outlet, side windows that drop fully, and – joining the Rolls-Royce Phantom – a dedicated umbrella sited within the left rear door.

It’s a nice place to be out back in a Superb.

But the front is better still, thanks to nicely bolstered electrically adjustable heated seats with lumbar support. They slide further back than even Andre the Giant would like, and support backs and backsides in all the proper areas, even after a long journey.

Happily, the dashboard is all a bit Golf VI in its look and presentation, and this should not come as a shock considering that the PQ46 platform that underpins the Superb and Passat is in fact spun off the evergreen hatchback.

It’s all about symmetry and simplicity in here, from the nicely tactile and effective climate control air-conditioning system to the electronic touch-screen audio controls that dominates the upper console fascia.

Diehard detail queens will relish the perfectly sited and smartly angled speedo and tacho binnacles that evoke 1960s Italian classics from Lancia and Alfa Romeo. They boast chromed finishes and a striking font design that suits the Superb’s upmarket positioning.

Both dials contain analogue fuel and temperature gauges respectively, and flank a simple LED screen housing various trip computer and odometer functions, which are controlled in typical VW-style by a knob on the smooth and slick but somewhat ugly steering wheel.

So what else don’t we like about the Superb’s interior?

The Bluetooth integration would constantly and infuriatingly drop phone-call connections rear vision is severely curtailed by that enormous posterior of a boot (necessitating the driver to rely solely on memory, skill and the parking sensor audio and visuals displayed if fitted in the centre console) and even Mr Universe would struggle to lift up the stubborn rear headrests that stick like a steroids scandal.

However, other than the plethora of nicely built but coarse-grain plastic trim swathing much of the dash and doors, there is little to separate the Superb’s cabin presentation to that of a Volkswagen or even lower-rung Audi – except that it is a far roomier proposition inside.

And then there’s the Superb’s value equation to consider.

Standard Elegance model-level features include Bi-Xenon headlights with Adaptive Front Light technology for better night-time vision, cornering fog lights, nine airbags, electronic stability control, ABS, traction control, rear parking sensors, dual-zone climate control air conditioning, a multi-function trip computer, MP3 auxiliary input, cruise control, electrically-adjustable driver and passenger seat with driver seat memory function, an alarm system and a 400-watt 10 channel amplifier with 10 speakers.

Value then, as well as size, is the Czech car’s main catchcry, since you can certainly have the smaller Passat in your driveway for similar money.

And if you have driven a late-model Passat, you should pick the connection between both cars, even though the Skoda – we think – might have the edge on the Volkswagen in a couple of key areas.

Under the bonnet is Volkswagen’s latest 2.0-litre common-rail direct-injection TDI turbo-diesel engine, transmitting drive to the front wheels via a six-speed dual-clutch DSG gearbox.

Honestly, you would be hard-pressed to hear anything ‘diesely’ inside the Superb – that’s how quiet and subdued this unit is. But with 125kW of power and 350Nm of torque on tap, the Skoda does not hang about.

As with all diesel/dual-clutch engine/gearbox applications we have sampled, acceleration from standstill is strong after a slight but discernable hesitation. Don’t be caught out by that when joining rushing traffic, by the way. That moment can feel like forever.

Once on the move, the Superb powers on with a high level of urgency for what is a sub-2000cc engined sedan the size of a Commodore. The 100km/h sprint-time from standstill takes 8.8 seconds, on the way to 220km/h. At normal highway speeds, it is the Skoda’s hushed cabin environment that should win you over.

Being a diesel, fuel consumption is another strong suit, with the Superb averaging around 8.0 litres per 100km over a mixture of city and highway driving. The official average is 6.9L/100km.

Upshifts are ultra-swift and supremely seamless unless you for some reason pump the pedal (in which case the DSG needs time to ‘think’ before a gear is slotted and activated), and the whole drivetrain caboodle is simply a veneer of smoothness and refinement.

Slot the DSG into Sport and gears are held for longer, low-speed response seems faster and overall progress feels more hurried, but normal drive is sufficient. The adjacent sequential shift setting obviously gives the driver manual control of the gears, but this function is unnecessary in a car as softly focussed as the Superb.

Soft focus? There is nothing even remotely sporty about the steering and suspension set-up, even though the Skoda’s wheel feels satisfyingly weighted and progressive in its response, while the chassis turns into corners cleanly and with high levels of grip and poise.

The Czech engineers seem to realise better than most that a large, five-seater, front-drive sedan with a boot the size of Bolivia is not going to be bought for BMW-levels of synaptic steering inputs and F1 racing car heights of body control.

As a result, the Superb has low-ratio steering that calls for calm and gentle turns of the wheel when cornering, yet is utterly rock-solid on fast highway straights for that relaxed and hunkered-down feel. What a joy!

Find yourself on a series of hairpin corners, and you will be working that wheel more than you might in a Ford (let alone a BMW), and you will feel the motion of the body as it ever so slightly leans into each turn you attack, but smoothness is the order of the day, underpinned by competence and comfort. Lovely.

Furthermore, if you traverse a rougher road, or one of those oversized city speed humps, you won’t be rocked or rattled into a nervous wreck, as the suspension gently soaks it all up with a supple pliancy.

You know, the Superb’s well-realised dynamics reminded us of the way French cars in general – and older Peugeots in particular – used to ride and steer. If Skoda fitted fatter and plusher seats that met the rear cushions to turn the cabin into a large double bed, then we would think that post-war Paris – rather than post-Passat Prague – called all the engineering shots here.

Obviously, being a Volkswagen product, the brakes do a great job in hauling the hefty Skoda up in an emergency, aided by the aforementioned standard-issue electronic driver aids, to bring us safely back into the 21st century.

So, after some trepidation, we find ourselves to be fond of the latest large-car contender to be imported into Australia.

It provides acres of space, heaps of standard features, deep levels of refinement, spirited performance, real-world economy, a truly innovative tailgate functionality and the sort of cabin design and ambience that Volkswagen is renowned for.

Yes, we don’t know whether the Skoda will retain much of its value after a few years of ownership, and we must admit that we did expect slightly cheaper pricing from a car that, after all, is based on a four-year-old architecture.

But the Superb brings something fresh and new to its class. All it takes is for Australian large-car buyers to give this Czech newcomer a chance.

Just like they’ve always done in high-school movies.

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