Following long-established Czech brand Skoda’s acquisition by the VW Group in 1994, work started on creating new models, with the plan to use VW platforms and mechanicals, but clothed in distinctive looking Czech-designed bodies. The first such car was an addition to the range, the Octavia hatch. Although based on the same platform as the Golf, this was somewhat larger than the VW, with room inside to rival those in the D-Segment, but at a price that looked definitely more C-Segment like. It was a winning formula and as production ramped up in the late 90s, so sales deservedly took off. Next new car in the range would be based on the Polo, and was called Fabia, giving Skoda a highly competent entry in the B-Segment or supermini class. With these as the anchor points of the new range, it was no surprise that Skoda then created a larger model, the Superb, and then something more versatile, the Roomster, which gave them coverage of a large slice of the overall market. But the markets sometimes struggle with any car which is not direct comparable with all is rivals, so as the Octavia headed upmarket with every evolution, it became clear that there was a gap opening in the range between it and the Fabia. Skoda addressed this with a new model that was presented at the 2012 Paris Show, which they called Rapid, dusting off another name that they had used once before. The Rapid, and its sister car, the Seat Toledo, had dimensions which made them more direct rivals to the likes of the Focus, Astra and Golf, though, slightly surprisingly, the platform underneath was actually based on the same one as underpinned the VW Polo. The first Rapid looked very much like a shrunken Octavia and although it had a stubby tail that suggested a saloon, it was in fact a hatchback. A year later, a second model joined the Rapid range, more obviously a hatch in appearance and this one was given the name Spaceback, to denote the extra cargo capacity and versatility. The two cars were identical as far as the B pillars, but the rear end of the Spaceback was new. In place of the regular Rapid’s long rear overhang, flat rear deck and long, flat boot, the Spaceback has an extended hatchback-style roofline, a D-pillar and a more upright hatchback boot. It’s 180mm shorter than the regular Rapid and, up to the window line, the boot is some 135 litres smaller. Both are available with a range of petrol and diesel engines, all of them familiar from other applications across the VW Group. Initial reviews of the Rapid were a bit lukewarm in their enthusiasm, though there was no doubting the roominess of the car or its value for money. The customary mid-cycle facelift duly appeared in 2017 with a new front design that only the trained eye could tell was different from the earlier version, equipment levels were revised and the engines were updated, with a three cylinder 1.0 TSI unit replacing the larger 1.2 litre 4 cylinder one which had featured in the least powerful models in the range. Sales of the Rapid have been strong in parts of Europe, notable its native Czech Republic and also in Russia, where the cars is built in addition to the Mlada Boleslav plan in its home country, but in the UK it never took off as strongly as the Fabia and Octavia have done. I noticed that Hertz have now added some to their fleet, to join the other Skoda models that have featured for some time, so when I took back the Astra, as the combination of a low rental price and fabulous sunny weather persisted, I arranged to rent a Rapid Spaceback for a few days to see what I thought.
The test car featured the 1.0 TSi 3 cylinder engine, and in this guise it generates 109 bhp, the more powerful of two outputs available from the same engine. The last time I had sampled a VW Group 3 cylinder car was in a Polo, and it sounded like an angry swarm of bees was under the bonnet, but that was back in 2009 and things have moved on a lot since then. You will certainly notice the different engine note as soon as you fire the Rapid up, and the characteristic sound of a 3 cylinder is evident most of the time, but the noise is much better suppressed now and the engine scores pretty highly on refinement. It also sounds more interesting than the still more common 4 cylinder. Once underway, the Rapid goes quite well, with ample power to allow you to make good progress. You will have to use the gears quite a lot to get the best out of it, but that is normal in smaller capacity petrol engines these days. Unlike the 95 bhp version which retains a five speed box, there are six gears here and the shift between them is crisp and positive. Sixth is definitely for steady speedy cruising, and really only intended for the motorway. The engine protests if you try to hold in sixth at 50 mph, so as you go through those average speed camera monitored road works, fifth it is. There’s not a huge amount of acceleration even from fifth at the end of the road works stretch, so down another gear it is. Noise sources are well suppressed, so this is quiet on the motorway with little interference from not just the engine, but also the wind and the road. There is a stop/start system fitted and it worked very efficiently, restarting the engine as fast as I needed it to do. I drove the Rapid 245 miles in the time I had it, and it needed just 21 litres of fuel to fill it up, which calculates to 52.97 mpg, a very impressive figure indeed.
You are not really going to select a Rapid if you are looking for a car that is fun to drive, and indeed that is not really the target market. The steering was a bit too light, vague and over-assisted feeling and even at moderate speeds it was obvious that the car was on the verge of understeer and body roll will feature. Grip levels were good, though. Perhaps more importantly, the combination of a relatively long wheelbase, soft suspension and relatively high profile 215/45 R16 tyres meant that the Skoda rode well, with a nice compliancy and ability to smooth out the worst of the rough surfaces of our road network. Combine that with the low noise levels and this would be a restful car for a long journey. There were no concerns with the brakes which did their job as expected. A traditional pull-up handbrake is fitted between the seats. The Skoda is easy to position on the road, one consequence of it being only supermini-sized in width. All round visibility is good – rather better than in the Liftback version, as there is a third side window as opposed to a thick C pillar – with the Spaceback rear making it easy to judge the back of the car when manoeuvering, though if there was any doubt then the parking sensors that were fitted to the car would provide additional guidance.
As is the case with all other Skoda models, there is a neat and quite simple looking interior. Although a lot of individual components are shared with the rest of the VW Group, Skoda have adopted a style all of their own which extends beyond the steering wheel boss with a large Skoda badge in it. Whilst overall quality is good, it is not up to VW standards, and one suspects that this is deliberate, so there are some hard plastics used in places, but you do also get faux metal inlays and in this trim a leather wrapped steering wheel. A simple cowled binnacle houses the instruments which comprise two large dials, for speedo and rev counter, with the smaller ones for fuel level and water temperature gauges inset in them. Between the dials is a central digital display for trip computer functions and you select the display options for this from a button on the right hand steering wheel spoke. You will also find audio repeater controls here. Twin column stalks are used for indicators and wipers and lights operate from a rotary dial on the dash. There are central air vents in the upper most part of the middle of the dash, relegating the colour touchscreen for the SmartLink infotainment system to a middle position. The graphics on this were clear and the system was easy to use. It included both navigation and a traffic alert system. There are selection buttons to either side of the unit. Below this are a mixture of buttons and knobs for the climate control system.
Upholstery is cloth as you might expect, with a number of different sections of varying shades of grey providing some visual variety. The seats have manual adjustment, with a bar underneath for fore/at and levers on the side for backrest rake and seat height. There is a telescoping wheel with in/out and up/down movements, so I was able to get a good driving position. The seat proved comfortable. For a car of this size, space in the back is impressive, with generous amounts of leg room, even when the front seats are set well back. Although there are seat belts for three, the Rapid is relatively narrow so three adults here would be a tight squeeze from a width point of view. Headroom is more than ample.
Noting the narrow body which limits width somewhat, the boot is also a decent size, at 415 litres notably bigger than that of the Golf, for instance even if the Spaceback is somewhat down on the impressive 550 litres of the Liftback version. Also included is a double cargo floor which can be used to create an extra compartment, ideal for smaller items that you’d like to leave in there on a more permanent basis. A double-sided floor cover with one carpeted side and the other a rubber like material that is dirt and water repellent. Ideal for carrying wet or muddy dogs or any outdoor gear that may damage the carpet otherwise. There’s also an array of hooks and nets available to help stop your shopping from rolling out during the drive home from the supermarket. There is a spacesaver tyre under the floor and you could tuck in a few odds and ends around it. More space can be created by dropping down the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests and the resulting area is both long and flat. Inside the cabin the glovebox is somewhat limited by the location of the multimedia unit in it, and there are pockets on the doors, as well as an armrest cubby and a sizeable recess in front of gearlever with cup holder mouldings. Rear seat occupants get map pockets in the back of the front seats. There’s also a host of self-aggrandisingly titled ‘Simply Clever’ features. There’s an ice scraper that slides into the inside of the fuel tank filler flap and even a removable rubbish bin in the door pocket meaning that you should always have a tidy interior.
Following the 2017 facelift the range of available engines comprise the 1.0 TSi unit with power outputs of 95 and 105 bhp, as well as a 1.4 TSi petrol unit with 125 bhp and a couple of diesels, the 1.4 TDi with 90 bhp and the 1.6 TDi with 115 bhp. This was something a reduction from the early days of the Rapid when there were 3 different power outputs to to the 1.6 litre TDI (90, 105 and 115 bhp), and 1.2 petrols in 75 and TSi 85 bhp as well as a variety of Greenline models optimised for better fuel economy and lower emissions. There have been various trim versions of the Liftback, with the early cars available as S, SE, Elegance and Sport as well as some intermediate steps including an SE Connect (which added navigation and parking sensors) and SE L (which included standard metallic paint and an upgraded audio unit). Available trims for the Spaceback are slightly different to the Liftback model, with just three offered in the UK. Start point is the S. This covers all the essentials, but you may think it a bit spartan and with steel wheels, you won’t fool anyone that this is anything more than the cheapest point in the range Standard in S models are central locking, curtain airbags, an alarm, daytime running lights, a 6.5″ audio display screen with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, heated door mirrors, reach/height adjustable steering, height adjustable driver’s seat and electric front windows, but it lacks a trip computer and even a glovebox. Upgrade to the SE Tech trim and you’ll find additions such as 16in alloy wheels, front foglights, rear parking sensors, body coloured door mirrors and handles, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an upgraded Infotainment unit which includes sat nav, Bluetooth and a DAB radio, and automated climate control, a trip computer, a glovebox, electric rear windows and cruise control all come as standard. The Sport trim, available only with the top of the range 1.4 TSi engine and the DSG gearbox adds in 17″ alloys, sports seats and a panoramic sun roof as well as tinted lights and privacy glass. among the available options is the Style Pack which adds gloss black detailing, a panoramic glass roof and extended tailgate glass. This brings the rear window down to the top of the number plate recess – it’s certainly a talking point, and some may think the Spaceback looks a bit plain without it. The test car was in SE Tech spec and would seem to be the best compromised between standard spec and value.
In the UK, the Rapid has enjoyed only moderate success, with the car finding particular favour in the taxi and mini-cab sector, where its roominess combined with a low purchase price is particularly compelling. It certainly has not troubled the established C-Segment big-sellers, Golf, Focus and Astra, but then given its design brief, perhaps it was never likely to. But for those who are looking for a straightforward family sized car that delivers on value, roominess and practicality as opposed to style and image, the Rapid Spaceback has much to commend it. That it proved good to have a sparkling engine that delivered really impressive economy at the same time was perhaps a bit of a surprise. I rather liked it.