Budget Conscious

A brief look at two other super mini models from the VW Group stable …

In addition to the super mini models offered by Volkswagen and Škoda, namely the Polo and Fabia, the group also offers direct competition from Audi and Seat. Recently, the Audi model, known as the A1, has undergone a minor mid life facelift whilst the Ibiza from Seat is now in need of a major update or even replacement.

The main difference between the A1 and the Ibiza is on price. Whilst Audi carries a premium associated with its badge, the Seat is priced at the lower end of the market although their sporting derivatives do command a relatively high price.

Both models share the basic platform of their sister cars from VW and Škoda although the new Fabia does benefit from modular improvements to the platform which contribute to a reduction in kerb weight. The A1 has been modified after four years of availability but retains its smart looks, build quality and handling capabilities. It benefits from a restyled radiator grille, new headlamps, front and rear bumpers, plus improved interior trim and in-built safety features. However, the main changes are a modified platform and the introduction of a 1.0 litre three cylinder turbo petrol engine providing power output of 94bhp. This engine will replace the less powerful 1.2TFSI unit whilst also offering increased fuel economy. It should be noted that this three cylinder unit is available in both the Polo and new Fabia but not currently offered in the Ibiza.

Besides this new engine, the model also offers three more petrol units plus two diesels, all of which Audi claim have been heavily modified for the revamped model. Availability of these engines will depend upon which model derivative is chosen as not all are available across the model range. Specification for all models includes alloy wheels, air conditioning, remote central locking, electric front windows and door mirrors, iPod connectivity and a 6.5″ retractable display screen.

There is little doubt that the A1 is a premium car at the upper end of the super mini price spectrum. It is reassuringly safe in all weather conditions and the interior trim is first class. The model is available in both 3-door and 5-door styles, but I think it looks best in 5-door form which carries a £620 price premium over the 3-door. Prices are estimated to start at £14315 for the entry level 3-door to a whopping £26110 for the S1 5-door when the revised model becomes available next spring!

Desirability is the key word with regard to the Audi A1 and most buyers won’t be budget conscious, thereby happy to pay over the odds for the badge! As with the new Škoda Fabia, the A1 can be customised with a different coloured roof and rear pillars, helping the car to further stand out from the crowd. At the other end of the price spectrum is the Ibiza, which has been the best seller in the UK for the Spanish manufacturer until recently. The model has now been usurped by the Seat Leon!

The Ibiza is offered in three distinctive body styles, namely a 3-door sport coupé, a 5-door hatchback, and unusually in the super mini category, an estate variant. However, Škoda also offer an estate derivative of the Fabia which is considerably more practical than the Seat offering. The Ibiza offers a touch of design flair, especially in the coupé version, and handles well overall. Currently it doesn’t offer the latest engines from the VW stable, instead relying upon older but trusted units. The entry level model is sparse and powered by a 1.2 litre 12v engine proving a lacklustre 69bhp. There are considerably more powerful engines available as one moves up through the range of model derivatives on offer.

The car was revised in 2012 with extras fitted as standard, thereby increasing its appeal. Suspension is quite firm compared with the Polo which does contribute to its general sportiness. It is well built although there are cheap plastics inside, has a good driving position, and in lower priced models offers excellent value for money. Luggage space is about 290 litres with the rear seats in place, increasing to 847 litres with the rear seats folded. This is far less than the space provided by the new Fabia though. The Ibiza estate offers a total 1164 litres of luggage space with the seats folded. At the time of writing, list prices start at £9910 rising to £18980 for the top of the range Cupra model.

As can be seen, the Audi stands out in a class of its own price-wise. Whether or not the car is worth so much extra money is a matter of personal choice but much more spacious and equally reliable cars are available for the money commanded by the A1. Whilst the lower specced Ibizas should be avoided, the model offers a very attractive financial proposition in mid range. It will be interesting to see what the model replacement is like once the manufacturer announces a replacement.

SEAT Ibiza Estate
SEAT Ibiza Estate
Skoda Fabia Estate
Skoda Fabia Estate
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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.

A Bumper Year Ahead

To compensate for regrets in not pursuing journalism as a career I present yet another blog entry with a motoring theme …

It would appear that 2013 is going to be a bumper year for new model launches from several leading manufacturers as they strive to retain market share and offer ever-increasing fuel and emission efficient engines. As I have a preference for vehicles from the VW Group, once again this article focuses on upcoming new models from that stable.

Key to these new products is the VW Group new MQB platform. This supports the three models featured and in the near future will be used for updated VW Tiguan and Touran models. A slightly stretched version will accommodate the all-new Škoda Octavia when it is launched in 2013 as this car will be targeted at the market currently served by Ford’s Mondeo and GM’s Insignia.

First model to be launched on the MQB platform was a revised Audi A3. This model is perceived as being head and shoulders above its stablemates but in reality it is mostly an over-priced derivative and offers little enhancement in performance. For some buyers of course it is all about prestige rather than value for money, but savvy customers will not be hoodwinked by such blatant badge engineering. Whilst the A3 will hold its value well, this must be considered in conjunction with the initial cost. As a simple example, an A3 costing £20000 and retaining 50% of its value after three years will be worth £10000. An identically engineered SEAT costing £16000 and depreciating by 55% in the same period will be worth £7200. The total loss on the Audi is £10000 but only £8800 on the SEAT.

There is little doubt that the A3 is a refined vehicle and is built from first class materials. It boasts both aluminium and high-strength steel to minimise weight and has a delightful interior ambience. It offers three suspension settings but whilst the sportier ones give sharper handling, the ride quality suffers. Accommodation is more than adequate upfront but rear legroom suffers and the VW Golf offers more space. Currently the new A3 is only available in three door form which always hinders rear access. The boot is very practical with an adjustable floor to provide a level loading area when the rear seats are folded.

Hitting the streets within a matter of weeks will be the seventh generation of the VW Golf. The current version has only been in production for four years and this boasted many improvements over the Mark V version. So just what could be done to improve this very successful car further? Firstly, it’s lighter, more efficient and offers greater practicality than the exisiting model. New high-strength steel and other weight-saving measures used in its construction will enhance overall fuel efficiency. In addition, with new improved engines and aerodynamics, CO2 emissions have been reduced by about 14%.

Highlights of the new Golf include a progressive steering system to aid both low-speed and higher speed manoeuvrability. Most models will benefit from four driving modes which adjust the air conditioning and engine management systems accordingly. An electric parking brake is standard across the range. Also standard is Bluetooth connectivity and a DAB radio with touch-screen versatility. It also boasts an emergency braking function which utilises sensors to detect an imminent collision and at speeds below 19mph automatically applies the brakes. Such technology is an extra cost option on the A3. Overall accommodation for passengers has been improved in both the front and rear whilst boot space has also increased by 8%. As in the A3 a two-position boot floor is standard.

Overall the new Golf offers more refinement, economy, technology and sophistication over the outgoing model. Remarkably, prices are not expected to increase and should start from around £16200. This is certainly not cheap but considerably lower than the £19200 starting price of the equivalent Audi.

The final new car launch is the SEAT Leon. The current car is certainly getting long in the tooth and way overdue for replacement. The 2013 version has a much more aggressive stance that will stand out from the crowd. Of the three different marques the Leon will offer the sportiest stance. In line with its stablemates, the new Leon will be considerably lighter than the current model and up to 22% more fuel efficient. It will share many of the engines offered in the Golf and far more choice than the Audi A3. Ultimately buyers will have a choice of five petrol and four diesel variants.

Deserved criticism of the Leon in the past has been the inferior cabin compared with many of its rivals. The new Leon hopes to address these concerns with a more premium feel and improvements in both the quality of materials and attention to detail. A highlight of the Leon will be the availability of full-LED headlamps which is a first in this vehicle category.

Whilst the outgoing model has only been available as a five door, both three-door and estate derivatives are expected in due course. The anticipated starting price for this model will be circa £15000 and much in line with the current car. This represents a saving of over £4000 on the entry level A3 and whilst individual specifications do vary, these cannot justify such a price difference. All these cars share the same major components so ultimately any decision as to which one to buy comes down to aesthetics, snobbery or the size of one’s wallet!

Finally a preview photograph of the new Škoda Octavia seen here in estate form which, as mentioned earlier, will be moving upmarket.

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.

Style v Practicality

Six months in the waiting but now the promised in-depth look at three popular small hatchbacks from the VW Group.

It surely won’t have escaped the notice of anyone who drives today that fuel prices have rocketed in recent months. On average, the price per litre is now at least 25% more than it was just over twelve months ago, attributable partly to profiteering by the oil companies, but also because of hefty increases in fuel taxation and the recent rise in the rate of VAT. Statistics are already showing that people are using their cars less than six months ago. Whilst this can be quite easy to achieve by some, others have little choice but to rely upon their motor vehicle, either for work or simply because they live in rural areas without regular or any public transport facility.

Petrol is now an average £5.80 per gallon whilst diesel costs £6.00 or more. These are staggering prices and for the average income earner, it is becoming increasingly difficult to absorb ever-increasing motoring costs. For many drivers, therefore, fuel economy is becoming the single most important factor in any decison regarding a change of vehicle, and recent sales figures show that the small car sector accounted for about 60% of all new car sales.

Whilst many new vehicles are now more fuel efficient than their older counterparts, it is the small hatchback that offers the best combination of comfort, space and economy. The market is awash with vehicles in this sector offering buyers an almost bewildering choice. Most manufacturers offer a choice of petrol and diesel engines, with some offering selective automatic transmission and sport models. The latter, however, do rather deviate from the economy label, although obviously offer better economy than larger sporty models. Readers will undoubtedly be familiar with the likes of the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa, Renault Clio and the ubiquitous Mini but there are many offerings from Asian manufacturers too. However, this article is focussing on three models from the VW Group, namely the Volkswagen Polo, Seat Ibiza and Škoda Fabia. In engineering terms, these cars are virtually identical, but clever design and styling results in three very different models.

Faced with this dilemma, the final choice as to which to buy can be bewildering. If you are seeking a three-door hatchback then only the Polo and Ibiza offer this facility. If you want greater practicality from an estate version, then your choices are limited to the Ibiza and Fabia. For the sporting enthusiast, you have the choice of a Polo GTi, Ibiza Cupra and Fabia vRS. So… which to choose?

Choice is generally a very emotive subject. Given that overall performance and fuel economy are very similar on all these models if equipped with the same engine, then choice effectively comes down to styling, space and price! The most flamboyant of the three is the Ibiza with its combination of curves and sharply defined edges but this style is likely to date more quickly and possibly reflect in future trade-in value. The Polo is of pure classic design… in fact, it looks very much like a scaled down version of its bigger sister, the Golf, a car that has had phenomenal worldwide sales success. This can only be an advantage and of the three cars, the Polo will retain greater percentage value after three years. The Fabia, on the other hand, is rather box-like although it’s frontal appearance has recently been improved by a subtle facelift. Whilst its aesthetic appearance lacks the charisma of the Ibiza and Polo, it is the most practical of the three comparative models offering greater headroom and luggage space.

All models share the Polo platform and running gear, with engines coming from the VW group. Choice of engine is slightly more confusing however. Of the three models, Škoda offers the greatest range, with almost all engines on offer being the latest versions, including three common rail diesels. Seat also offers a good range of the latest technology whilst the Polo currently offers a limited choice of new engines alongside older and less environmentally-friendly units.

So finally it’s decision-making time! Let’s first take a look at the prices as at February 2011 … undoubtedly uppermost in many potential buyers’ minds:

Seat Ibiza Price range £9925 to £18275
Škoda Fabia Price range £9755 to £16260
Volkswagen Polo Price range £9995 to £18790

The starting price of all models is very similar but standard levels of equipment do vary considerably. However, it is the very top of the range where the price differential is greatest… all three sporting models come with the same 1.4TSI 180PS engine coupled with a 7spd DSG gearbox, one of the best in the motoring industry. Therefore one can save £2530 by opting for the Fabia rather than the Polo GTi if prepared to sacrifice on style yet benefit from more practical and usable space. At the time of writing, both the Ibiza and Fabia are even better buying prospects as purchasers can save 20% VAT on the list prices. There is, however, a downside to this as trade-in values will reduce accordingly. As the saying goes, you cannot have your cake and eat it!

As for my choice, if money were no object and I could increase the specification of the vehicle with extras, I would actually opt for the classic design of the Polo. However, despite all the vehicles sharing common parts, the Škoda continually excels in dealer and driver satisfaction surveys, so this is an important factor to consider.

As an addendum, the other manufacturer within the VW Group is Audi who have just introduced the compact A1 model. This also shares the same platform but with a price range from £13420 to £20705 it is somewhat out of the same league.