The majority of occasions when I have rented a car from Hertz in the UK were as one way transport to or from Heathrow airport, so when I was “repatriated” to a UK based job at the start of 2010, the need for this sort of rental largely went away. Since that time, Hertz’ fleet has changed quite significantly, evidently reflecting the sort of volume deals that they have struck with manufacturers and importers, with the result that I have little or no experience of almost anything in their current fleet. With a 2 week business trip out of the country, I clearly could hope to get to sample two of the current fleet, or so I thought. Despite trying to engage the Hertz counter rep in a discussion on what he had available, I found that I was simply given “a car” for the outbound journey, but when I finally saw what it was, I was happy to take the opportunity to sample what I was being offered, even when I noticed the rather significant dent on the trailing edge of the offside rear door and wing. It was, after all, with this car, albeit in its first generation guise, that Skoda’s transformation finally came good in the eyes of the public and the Czech brand began to be taken seriously as a maker of good quality vehicles offering excellent value for money. Indeed, rumours abound that there are those in high places in the Volkswagen Group who are sufficiently irked that Skoda has done so well that they may have plans to ensure that future models are not “too good” and too much of a threat for the VW brand. My own experience of driving a couple of Octavias is nothing but positive and I am very impressed by the Yeti, even if, like most people who admire it, I have yet to get my hands on one. So, what of this test car, the Fabia?
The second generation car was launched in hatchback form at the Geneva Show in March 2007, and went on sale a few weeks later. An estate model followed a few months after that. Although the first generation car had previewed a new platform for the Polo which followed a couple of years after the Skoda’s launch, when this car appeared, it remained based on the same PQ24 platform, rather than the underpinnings which came under the new 2009 model year Polo. Many people, me included, were perhaps slightly disappointed in the new look, as the car appeared either too tall or too narrow, with slightly awkward proportions, Coupled with a slight increase in length, this was intended to make the car more roomy. At launch, the Fabia engine range comprised a mixture of familiar VW Group power plants and some carry overs from the outgoing model. As with all VAG cars, though, over time a bewildering array of models emerge and this would certainly now seem to be the case, as for 2010 a revised range of engines was offered, when the latest turbo petrol engines and the common rail diesel units were introduced. My test car featured the 1.6 litre common rail TDi engine, in its least powerful 75 bhp format. Hertz classify this car in Group Z, which is usually the preserve of the Ford Focus 1.6 Estate and Kia Cee’d 1. 6 CRDi, both of which are larger and more costly (vastly so in the case of the Ford), and rather more powerful. Both are excellent cars, though. Time to find out whether I had been short-changed by being given the Fabia instead of either of these worthy machines.
Given the ever increasing weight of modern cars, 75 bhp is not a lot to power even a relatively small car, so you could be forgiven for being fearful that this model of the Fabia would be an embarrassment, and yet, most of the time it actually acquitted itself quite well. Acceleration from rest was not initially a strong point, as first gear seemed both very low and also very short, necessitating an almost immediate upshift into second, at which point the rather more plentiful levels of torque cut in and the Skoda could then gather rather more momentum. The other gears seemed well spaced, and provided the right balance between relaxed cruising and yet still providing mid-range acceleration. Of course, against the stop watch, this is not a fast car, and were it to be fully laden, I think you really would feel that spending the extra money on the more powerful 90 or 103 bhp engines would have been wise, but it was fine for the test that I conducted. The Fabia is fitted with a 5 speed gearbox, and the gearshift is very typical of the latest generation VW Group car. That is to say that it no longer baulks and shows the resistance that used to dog these ‘boxes, but it still feels just slightly clunky even though the lever slots readily from ratio to ratio. Fuel economy over a test distance mainly comprised of a journey along the M4 averaged out at 51.4 mpg which is good but not stunning. This proved to be yet another car where the steering was so unbelievably light, vague and feel-less than I wonder if the focus groups are all telling manufacturers that this is what we want. Although the set up did gain a bit of weight as you put on more lock, it really did spoil the car and would cause me to question if I could live with something so imprecise. This lack of feeling had a knock-on effect on the handling, because with so little indication where the wheels were pointing, I did not feel like adding to the existing dent on the door by taking a corner too exuberantly and coming off the road. I am sure that the handling is fine and that there is plenty of grip, but finding out where the limit lies is not something you do when headed to the airport to meet a client and to fly overseas! No problems with the ride, though, which seemed to be suitably tolerant of the varied surfaces of Britain’s roads. The brakes were fine, although there was quite a bit of travel on the pedal to start with. A conventional pull-up handbrake lever is located between the seats. The traditional diesel noise was well muted, even with the window open, but there was a certain amount of wind noise and some tyre noise, but even blessed with this, cruising on the motorway was far from unpleasant, and was a revelation compared to the standards of only a few years ago for a car of this size and price. Needless to say, all round visibility was good, with no challenges on placing the car on the road or deciding where the extremities were.
Open the door of the Fabia, and the impression you get is of a decent quality interior. The plastics are soft to the touch and the fit and finish is good. Although many of the base components used are shared with VW, an effort has been made to reinforce the Skoda brand, with the marque name appearing even on the VW Group audio unit. There are just two dials, in a single cowl in front of the driver comprising speedo and rev counter. A bar graph fuel indicator is to the left of the rev counter, and there are warning lights for other things, including the slightly worrying blue temperature light that goes out once the engine has reached operating temperature. There is also a very discrete gearshift indicator in the top of the display area, which seemed far less intrusive (or ill advised in its recommendations) than the one I experienced in the Audi A4 TDi. The dials are clearly marked, though I did find it odd that the speedo had gone through a huge arc to get to 80 mph, causing me more than once to think that I was going far faster, even when I knew I was not. i guess this is simply a case of being so used to the relative position of the needle in many cars being the same and nearer to the 12 o’clock position on the motorway than the 3 o’clock as was the case here. There are some info display functions which can be cycled through by pressing a button on the end of the right hand column stalk. Those stalks are definitely out of the corporate parts bin, with the same graphics on them as I found on the 2011 Passat and the A3 Sportback I drove a few weeks ago. A rotary dial to the right of the column operates the lights. The air conditioning controls are mounted up high in the middle of the dash. It turned into a blisteringly hot day when I had the Fabia, yet the system readily kept me cool. There is a Skoda audio unit with single slot CD and MP3 capability also mounted higher than is often the case. There is no pretence at luxury in this car, and fortunately no-one has been tempted to try to jazz it up with fake wood or plastic-minium, but it does mean that the overall effect is a bit sombre. I personally did not mind this, but there will be those who use words like funereal, no doubt.
Fabia is available in several trim levels. The test car, an SE model, is one above the base. The S model has clearly been built to offer a value entry point to the range. Paying the extra for an SE nets you, among other things, electric front windows, air conditioning, tinted glass, a cover for the glove box, a leather covered gear knob, pockets in the rear of the seats and a storage tray in the boot., as well as the trip computer The SE Plus gives you different seat trim, air con for the glove box, a height adjuster for the passenger seat, and storage boxes under the front seats. Upgrade to the Elegance, and you get climate control, heated door mirrors, a leather trimmed wheel and an upgraded trip computer. There is also the option of the Scout model, with its raised ground clearance, and the sporty vRS. Needless to say, there is an extensive options list so you can personalise your car, as well.
It was with the launch and ensuing success of the first generation Fabia that the market for small estate cars seemed to be regenerated, and now the Skoda has to battle against the Peugeot 207SW, the Clio Estate and in-house competition from the Ibiza ST, as well as a number of super-mini sized people carriers such as the Meriva, the Modus, the Verso S and the C3 Picasso. As such the car needs to score good marks for practicality and it does not disappoint. The boot area is a decent size, bearing in mind the compact dimensions of the car. There are a couple of cubby areas for small items between the back of the rear wheel arches and the rear of the load area, leaving a regular shaped boot. More space can be created by cantilevering the rear seat cushions forwards and up and then dropping the rear seat backrest onto the resulting space, creating a long and flat load area. The rear seats are asymmetrically split. The rear seats are ample for two passengers and could accommodate three at a pinch. Legroom will be determined by how far back the front seats are. Sitting behind someone like me, and there will be few complaints, but with a tall front seat passenger, there may need to be some level of compromise. Odds and ends could go in the door pockets, the glove box or a large cubby cum cup holder area in front of the gear lever. The moulding in the door pockets is designed to hold a bottle, as well.
I liked the Fabia. I did not like the steering, but apart from that, it had no significant weaknesses. For anyone who planned to carry a full complement of passengers or luggage, I think that paying an extra £600 for the 90 bhp engine or even the further £225 premium for the 103 bhp engine would probably be money well spent. I have not yet driven any of the Fabia’s direct competitors in estate car guise, but every review I have read suggests that the Ibiza could be a strong competitor, the Clio a moderate one, and the 207SW a no-hoper. That rather means that for those looking for a small estate, this could be the car to select.