An Average Newcomer

A new traditional hatchback in the popular medium-sized family car sector hits the roads …

In October 2012 Škoda launched their new Rapid hatchback model (see blog entry for July 2012). As with most cars from this manufacturer, it bucked the trend in its overall style and more closely resembles a saloon. This approach offers more flexibility and space but it is difficult to draw direct comparisons with traditional hatchback models. The Rapid has hardly been a major seller since its launch but Škoda have now introduced a new derivative of the model to run along side the current car and are calling it the Rapid Spaceback. To many, the concept of a spaceback is an estate car design so the name is rather odd especially as it offers less luggage capacity then the car on which it is based. As I’ve previously blogged about comparable vehicles from the VW Group, this review looks at hatchbacks from other manufacturers who offer direct competitors to the Rapid Spaceback. It will also illustrate that I am not entirely biased!

With a range of engine options similar to the standard Rapid, the Spaceback has good handling and road characteristics although there’s considerable road and wind noise at motorway speeds.The steering is both accurate and reassuring following complaints about the standard Rapid. However, overall the car lacks refinement and ride comfort suffers when travelling on poor road surfaces. Lower aspirated versions of engines can sound rough and require considerable hard working to achieve performance. Emissions and economy fail to match either the Škoda Octavia or other models within the VW Group stable as the latest versions of engines have not been fitted. The cleanest diesel emits 104g/km of carbon dioxide whereas the larger Octavia only emits 99g/km. Whilst it is obvious that Škoda are building this car to a price, it actually costs more than the standard Rapid. However, all expected safety features are provided including six airbags, stability control, Isofix child seat mounting points and an alarm.

Unlike some of its competitors, Škoda sticks to a traditional dashboard layout which is well assembled despite the intrusion of some hard plastics. Controls are all logically laid out and the layout is very similar to the sister car except for a few trim changes. Luggage capacity and rear legroom are the key elements of the Spaceback and far exceed those of competitors. Access to the boot is via a large square tailgate but in line with other Škodas, the 60/40 split rear seats do not fold to a completely flat position. This model also has the option of a panoramic glass roof running from the windscreen to the rear window!

A long established competitor in this sector is the Ford Focus. However, it is questionable how many private buyers opt for this car from new owing to the price. Many new models are registered to fleet operators so it is more likely to be purchased by private individuals as a used car. It comes with a wide range of engines offering different power outputs with the 99bhp 1.0 Ecoboost an ideal option for local driving. A good all rounder, albeit quite noisy, is the 113bhp 1.6 diesel engine as it complements the overall handling and agility of the car. Comfort is far higher than that of the Rapid, with better seats and an absence of road and wind noise.

With regard to the interior design and dashboard layout, one will either love it or hate it! To me it is gimmicky and fails to put the driver at ease with its array of fiddly buttons. Some of the plastics are hard meaning they look cheap and tacky, thereby diminishing some of the better points of the Focus. There are adequate airbags, electronic stability control, air conditioning plus an alarm in most models. An array of options, however, can escalate the price. Luggage capacity isn’t up with the best although the rear seats will fold flat provided the seat bases are tipped up beforehand.

The final vehicle in this comparison is the popular Astra from GM  Motors. Undeniably, this has to be the best looking car of the three and is priced very similarly to the Ford Focus. It comes with an array of engines to suit most buyers, but again it is a popular fleet vehicle and pricey for the average new car buyer. Heavy discounts can be found to lure buyers but these are reflected in overall poor residual values which are likely to be less than for the Škoda. The vehicle offers an all round smooth ride and generally a lack of road and wind noise, neither of which can be said for the Rapid. However, road characteristics are not so appealing as the Astra suffers from body roll and unresponsive steering.

In line with competitors, models are well equipped with six airbags, electronic stability control, electric front windows and air conditioning. Options include climate controlled aircon, DAB radio and other luxury items, none of which add to the overall driving experience. Like the Focus, the dashboard is rather futuristic and far more design over substance with too many small and fiddly buttons. In reality, these could actually be a deterrent to safe driving as some are not clearly marked. The plastics used are also of dubious quality in places. Despite the curvaceous styling of the Astra, it offers generous passenger accommodation with split folding rear seats and a relatively large boot capacity.

So which car should one choose? Both Ford’s and Vauxhall’s reliability record are questionable though from recent results in the JD Power customer satisfaction survey whilst Škoda constantly excels being in the top four best positions. The Rapid offers by far the best overall accommodation but is let down by mediocre ride qualities.

For the majority of people, price may well be the deciding factor. Once this is taken into account, there really is no question … comparing like-for-like specifications, the Rapid has a retail price of £17265 whilst the Focus and Astra cost £19595 and £19640 respectively! With a potential saving of at least £2300 the Škoda must win the day despite it being a very average car all round. Also one has the satisfaction of driving a more select vehicle not popularised by fleet operators.

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A Rapid Approach By A New Skoda …

… soon to be followed by sister stablemate the Seat Toledo!

After years of waiting, Škoda is finally introducing a compact-sized car to its range. Called the Rapid, this will slot inbetween the current Fabia and the soon to be updated Octavia models. Currently Škoda isn’t directly represented in this market segment which is popularised by the likes of the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra, Peugeot 308, Citroen C4, Kia c’eed, Toyota Auris and Honda Civic. Other manufacturers also offer models in this segment so it is an important step for the Czech marque.

Currently their Octavia model competes in this segment but actually offers more car for the money. However, it’s replacement is likely to be larger and a more direct competitor to the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Insignia, so Škoda are placing great importance on a model that will already have considerable opposition. In line with all their models, the new Rapid will actually be a hatchback but it’s clever styling gives the impression that it’s a saloon.

In brief, the new Rapid is a car that will appeal predominantly to family car buyers. Recent pre-release road tests say that it’s practical, clever, efficient and easy to drive. Whilst it may lack certain current styling trends, it will offer no nonsense motoring at an affordable price and some motoring journalists claim there really will be nothing better on the road. Škoda has decided to be somewhat conservative in the design of this new model but attractive bodyline creases and attention to detail give the car a modern look. In many respects, classic designs stand the test of time far better than so-called experimental ones. The Ford Fiesta for example loses its value like a plummeting stone whilst its competitor the Volkswagen Polo retains value. Similarly the likes of BMW and Audi have a tendency to maintain their conservatism in design and certainly don’t lose market share as a result!

Whilst this new car won’t be available until around late autumn 2012 what can potential buyers expect? The Rapid has well balanced handling and a sure-footed feel on the road, turning into corners well with minimal body roll. The Rapid has clearly been set up to be predictable and easy to drive rather than offering boy racer thrills. The steering is responsive and nicely weighted, the gearbox is accurate and light, and overall performance will be at an acceptable level. Whilst there may not be a sense of real driving appeal, the Rapid is designed for cost-conscious motorists who seek reliability and economy as their main priorities. It will be offered with four petrol and two diesel engines each offering a range of power options. It is envisaged that many drivers may ultimately be attracted back to petrol engined vehicles not only because of the considerable price advantage over diesel-powered motors but also as a result of impending Euro 6 emission laws. These laws will take into account particulate emissions from diesel engines. As is the case with most modern cars today, the Rapid will come equipped with the latest safety features including six airbags, ABS and stability control. The interior layout is traditional Škoda with all controls laid out logically rather than in a gimmicky fashion. Whilst this may appear bland on cheaper models, the option of contrasting colours is available on higher specification models and this creates an ambience akin to more expensive vehicles! One area where the Škoda Rapid excels is its 550-litre luggage space which even dwarfs the Volkswagen Jetta.

So what of the aforementioned Seat Toledo? Mechanically this will be an identical vehicle and only distinguished by front and rear end styling differences. The dashboard is identical but there will be minor changes to door panels. Both cars will be made in the Czech Republic. Ultimately final choice comes down to styling … if I could choose, I would opt for the front of the Rapid and the rear of the Toledo! Prices of both cars are likely to start around £13000 at launch … highly competitive for cars that offer accommodation for five adults and their luggage!

For any doubters, remember that this car comes from the VW Group stable which incidentally owns Bentley! It is a well assembled vehicle built from tried and tested parts, and once again in 2012 Škoda scored very highly in the annual JD Power customer satisfaction survey.