Skoda has seen huge success in the market over the last 20 or so years, following their acquisition by the VW Group and the introduction of new models which used a lot of VW technology under the skin but with a style all of their own and whilst no longer quite the bargain basement pricing that the marque used to offer, still offered at value pricing. Add in generous levels of equipment, good build quality and a reputation for reliability and excellent customer service from the dealers and Skoda models have featured very highly in consumer surveys as JD Power. The first success came with the mid-sized Octavia and this remains the marque’s best-selling model on a global basis, but it was no surprise that when it was joined by a smaller B-segment car, the Fabia, it quickly also became very popular. The third generation Fabia was launched at the 2014 Paris Show in October 2014 and went on sale almost immediately afterwards. Like the car it replaced, it was offered as a 5 door hatch or – unusually in this class – a practical 5 door estate. New and sharper styling made it easy to tell the new car apart from a quick glance, and it also had plenty of styling cues that left you in no doubt that this was a Skoda product. There were also major changes under the skin. This version of the Fabia is based on the PQ26 platform: a mixture of the PQ25 platform used by the VW Polo from 2009–2014 and the MQB platform, used by seven Volkswagen Group models. The chassis was modified by becoming 90 mm wider and 30 mm lower, and although the car was 8 mm shorter, thanks to an extended wheelbase, it offers more interior and boot space. The new Fabia was well received by the press at launch and in the UK it was was the “Overall Winner” and “Best Small Car” in the 2015 What Car? Car of the Year awards. Sales have been strong right from the outset and the car is quite a common sight on British and European roads. There are plenty of Skoda models in the Hertz UK fleet at present, so it was perhaps only a matter of time before I managed to get a Fabia to test. Finally the opportunity came when I arrived back in the UK after my September 2018 US trip, when a relatively new 2018 model year car was allocated to me. It was a glorious sunny morning, and so I hastily loaded up and headed off to a photographic location en route home. I had the car for a few days before taking it back to Heathrow, which gave me ample time to test it out and form a conclusion on its merits.
The test car had the 95 bhp 3 cylinder 1.0 engine, a unit which replaced the earlier 1.2 litre engine as part of series of changes in 2017. It has the same power as its predecessor, but more torque and lower emissions. There’s keyless starting, and when you press the button that is in the same place on the steering column as where you would expect to insert a conventional key, and the engine burst into life, your ears will tell you more or less straight away that this is indeed a 3 cylinder unit, with the characteristic sound of such engines. It is actually quite muted, and even as you accelerate hard, the noise never gets unduly intrusive, a far cry from the first 3 cylinder VW Group car I drove around 10 years ago. It is willing and eager, giving the Fabia decent performance though you would never really describe it as fast. To make the most of it, you will need to use the gears quite a lot. In the case of the test car that meant a manual gearshift, with 5 forward ratios. First is very short and only really useful to get you underway. The gearchange is good, with a nice positive feel as the lever slots between the ratios, with just enough of a clunky feel to it that you could feel confident the lever had gone in the place you intended, though reverse did prove somewhat more difficult to engage. Once you reach a steady speed, overall noise levels are low, and indeed the engine is spinning over at just 2800 rpm at 75mph, so there perhaps is not the real need for the sixth ratio that you might have been expecting to find, after all. There is a Stop/Start system, which worked well, firing the engine back into life very quickly once you put your foot back on the clutch. I covered 380 miles in my time with this Fabia and needed to put 8.7 gallons in to fill it up, which computes to 43.68 mpg, a decent result.
The other driving dynamics are good, though not quite as focused on the sense of fun as you will find in a Ford Fiesta. Nevertheless, there really is little to complain about here. The steering is light, especially around the straight ahead position, but there is some feel to it and it does gain weight as you turn the wheel. Roadholding is good as is grip, though if you were really to push hard, then you would eventually find moderate understeer, but really, a car with just 95 bhp does not really have enough power for you to get into trouble unless you do something particularly ill-advised. Perhaps more important is the ride comfort which is excellent, with relatively soft suspension which seemed to absorb the bumps and potholes well, without feeling at all wallowy. Couple that with the overall refinement and low levels of noise and this is a small car which you will be quite happy to take on a long journey. It will not challenge you in town, either, where the car proves to be very manoeuvrable, easy to position on the road and easy to park. All around visibility is good, and judging the back of the car is easy. My notes also record that the headlights were particularly good on main beam. It was also nice to find a conventional pull-up handbrake fitted between the seats, always preferable to the electronic versions of this feature especially when combined with a manual gearbox.
Open the door and look inside and you will be greeted by a nicely finished interior. It’s not plush, but the quality of the materials used is good and temptation has been resisted to over-adorn or over-embellish with unnecessary fussiness. In this trim there is a chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel and there are dark grey inlays on the dash. The upholstery and dash moulding were black, so some may feel it is a bit sombre, but I appreciated the simple uncluttered design. And it looks like it was all designed as a whole, rather than having after-thoughts added, so the touch screen for the infotainment system is neatly integrated into the middle of the dash. There are two large and clearly marked dials for speedometer and rev counter with smaller fuel level and water temperature gauges inset in the lower portion of the larger ones. A simple trip computer display area sits between the two dials and you can cycle through the displays by pressing buttons on the right hand steering wheel spoke. There are two column stalks for indicators and wipers, with lights operated by a rotary dial that is on the dash to the right of the wheel. The touch screen for the infotainment system is high up in the centre of the dash and there are a number of buttons underneath it for commonly used audio functions. DAB radio is included as standard, but in this trim you don’t get navigation, so the screen is largely used for its audio functions and some car settings and configurations. Lower in the centre of the dash are knobs and buttons for the automated climate control system. And that is basically it. All very simple to use and by eschewing a stylised approach, easy on the eye.
The seats are upholstered in the sort of cloth you get in cars of this price. There is slight patterning to the overall black trim which does provide a bit of visual variety. There is a wide range of adjustment for the seats. It is all manual, as you might expect, but there is a height adjuster on both front seats. There is a telescoping steering wheel, which goes in/out and up/down, so it was easy to get a comfortable driving position. The seats proved well shaped, with support in all the right places, and there is a feeling of space which belies the compact dimensions of the Fabia. There is a swivelling central armrest.
For a relatively small car, those in the back are well provided for, too, with a good amount of leg room unless the front seats are set well back, and there is ample headroom. The Fabia is not quite wide enough for three adults to fit across the car comfortably for long. The central console unit extends well back, almost to the rear seat, so a middle occupant would need to straddle this. It contains a useful stowage recess, to complement the map pockets in the back of the front seats and the door pockets. Seeing manual window winders was a reminder that at this price point, you still don’t get electric operation.
There is a good boot, as well, one of the largest in its class, beaten only by the Honda Jazz and the Seat Ibiza. There are plenty of side trays to provide places for odds and ends leaving the main floor area clear. The rear seats are asymmetrically split and the backrests simply drop down onto the rear seat cushions. The resulting load area is not flat as the rear seats are raised compared to the boot floor. A space-saver spare wheel is offered as an option. Inside the cabin there are door pockets, a good-sized glove box and a sizeable recess in front of the gear lever which includes a pair of cup holders.
Skoda have made a number of changes to the model mix during the three year life of this generation of the Fabia. Estate versions largely mirror the choices offered in the five door hatchback. Some of the petrol engines were changed in 2017 when the 1.2 TSI unit was replaced by the 1.0 TSI unit, offered in a choice of 95 or 110 bhp outputs, the same as before but with more torque and lower emissions. The 110bhp engine has a choice of 6 speed manual of the DSG Auto box, the less powerful one has a 5 speed manual. Beneath these are 60 bhp and 75 bhp MPI versions of the engine, and there are also a couple of diesels. Both use the same 1.4 litre TDi unit, with outputs of either 90 or 110 bhp. As of 2018, there are four standard trim levels: S, SE, SE L and MonteCarlo, though there have been limited edition models, too, such as the Colour Edition. The S is very much the bargain-priced entry level model, and is probably a bit too basic for most people, with only the 60 bhp version of the 1.0 engine, with steel wheels and no air conditioning, though it does have a DAB radio with 4 speakers, accessed using a rather basic looking 5″ touchscreen and electric front windows as well as electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors. Customers stepping up to the SE model can choose from all drivetrain options and gain front fog lights, 15-inch alloy wheels, an upgraded six speaker audio system with a 6.5″ touchscreen which includes DAB radio, and Skoda SmartLink which enables Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, height adjustment for the front passenger seat, an auto up/down function for the electric windows, a multi-function steering wheel, and leather wrapped steering wheel and gear lever as well as rear parking sensors and an alarm. Customers opting for the SE L benefit from an even more significant equipment boost, coming as standard with the same Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system as SE models. To that they add cruise control, a front armrest, climate control instead of manual air conditioning, LED daytime running lights and keyless start. You still have to pay an extra £500 for satellite navigation, however. The Fabia Monte Carlo joined the range a little after the launch of the rest of the third generation Fabia models. It built on the already comprehensive standard equipment of the Fabia SE by adding 16-inch Italia black alloy wheels, a black radiator grille and black door mirror caps, body coloured rear spoiler, front fog lights, LED daytime running lights, sunset glass, Monte Carlo badging on the B-pillar and a panoramic glass sunroof. On the inside, additional equipment includes bespoke front sports seats, front and rear floor mats with red stitching, black decorative inserts, a cherry red centre console, Monte Carlo pedals, a multi-function sports steering wheel, pearl grey roof lining and carpet, and Monte Carlo badging on the front door inserts. The Fabia Monte Carlo Estate also comes with black roof rails.
I was very impressed by this Fabia. It drove well, proving nippy enough, decently economical and pleasant to drive. Although a bit dour inside, it is nicely finished and it is spacious and comfortable. I even think it is one of the neatest looking cars in the class. Factor in the legendary Skoda value for money, and there is no doubt that this is an impressive proposition. Were I in the market for a car of this class, the Fabia would be very high on my shopping list. Very possibly at the top of it, in fact. For sure, the Fiesta is more fun to drive, but the extra practicality and lower costs of the Skoda would probably mean that the Fabia is the more rational choice for most people. Under the skin, of course, the Fabia shares much with the VW Polo and Seat Ibiza, and whilst I’ve not driven either of them in their latest form, I’m not sure that the extra costs that both would incur would be worth it, as you are really only paying for a different style and what in the eyes of some is still a slightly more prestigious badge. Cast your snobbery aside, and there is no reason to eschew the Skoda at all. There are currently quite a lot of them in the Hertz UK fleet and I can certainly suggest that if you are renting a car of this class, where your alternatives are a Corsa, or a Corsa or perhaps a Clio, this is most definitely the car to ask for.