SKODA FABIA VRS
John Martin looks at Skodaís hot-hatch - torque is cheap!
Why do manufacturers spend millions on motorsport, only to let their road going vehicles flood off the production line looking like the wheeled equivalent of Iain Duncan-Smith? Hyundai is one example, with its woeful Accent. Itís a similar story at Citroen, although at least they tried with the Xsara VTS.
You could include Skoda in that group. I mean, whereís the bewinged, tarmac-shredding, four-wheel-drive, turbocharged road car? Instead weíre handed a standard looking Fabia with five doors and a diesel engine! This is all very nice, but whereís the Garrett TR30R-fed 2-litre motor and active diff that the World Rally Car promises?
Truth be told, Skodaís hot-hatch effort, the Fabia vRS offers far more fun than youíd expect. The 130bhp, 1.9 TDi might only power the Fabia to 60 in 9.6 seconds, but keep the tacho between 1500 and 2700rpm and youíll be feeling the full force of its massive 310nm of torque (that's 228ft-lb in old money!).
The engine, which has been fitted to everything from the Golf to the A6, is - to be fair - a revelation. Itíll pull hard in any gear, and provided youíre in the power band, itís more than capable of putting a smile on your face. Like most diesels, flooring it right round to the redline is pretty pointless as the power is all low down, so swapping cogs through VAG's proven six-speeder is a must.
Whilst its not usually too high on PHerís list of priorities, the car is amazingly economical. Give it some beans and itíll still cover over 40mpg, but on a motorway run, youíll be looking at the right side of 60 to the gallon. Thatís impressive whichever way you look at it.
The trade-off is that in terms of refinement, itís not up there with the likes of Mercedes or BMW Ė but this is a 12-grand car, not a £20,000 luxobarge. Itís pretty clattery on tick-over and if you, like me, leave your foot gently resting on the clutch pedal and your hand on the gearstick, youíll be complaining of pins and needles before too long.
In terms of handling, itís nowhere near the standard set by the small hot-hatch upstarts, the 106 and Saxo as there is too much wallow in the steering. That said, the steering offers adequate feedback Ė certainly more than the Polo, on which the Fabia is based.
It isnít going to score many brownie points for looks, but we should be thankful that theyíve not made the vRS in the god-awful saloon or estate guise. Skodaís chief designer, Thomas Ingenlath was responsible for the vRSís design and, if you ask me, he's done a pretty good Ė if limited job of raising its design above the pit of mediocrity that afflicts its downmarket siblings.
The front has been equipped with a pleasant front bumper, encasing the now-obligatory mesh vent between two fog lamps. Around the back, youíll find a deeper bumper with a chromed tailpipe poking through off-centre, a boot spoiler and some discreet badging. And thatís about it. Which is all slightly odd considering the in-house design efforts of the World Rally Car, which is really rather handsome.
Still, all this adds up to looking like something ordinary to the casual observer that, if driven right, has the potential to leave Kev and his Fiesta choking on its diesel fumes.
The interior has the same feel as anything to come from the VAG stable. The switchgear has a quality feel and is well laid out, whilst the dials are clear and easy to read. The only indications of this modelís sporting credentials are a set of particularly supportive seats which move every which way, so finding the perfect seating position is a doddle, a bespoke gearknob and a couple of vRS logos on the dials complete the look.
Skoda hasnít been shy when it comes to specking the vRS. ABS, MSR and ASR all help to get that prodigious torque down onto the tarmac, whilst ESP can be added as a cost option. On the comfort and safety front, air-con, electric front windows, single-slot CD player, alarm, remote central locking and driver and passenger airbags all come as standard.
The Fabia vRS is in someways a Jack of all trades and master of none, but somehow it all gels together to become a quite appealing prospect. Pitch it against any number of rivals and youíll find the spec levels higher and in many cases better performance. All indications are that residuals should be pretty good, reliability is likely to be top-notch, it sniffs at the diesel and youíll even have the added benefit that it can still turn heads. No really!
Unfortunately the main thing the Fabia has against it is the badge, which is a real shame because both the Fabia and Octavia vRSís have a lot to offer the average petrolhead. Perhaps Skoda need to rebrand their marque and they certainly need to bin their ĎItís a Skoda. Honestí advertising campaign.
When it was launched a few months ago, there was no fanfare and it just slipped into the showrooms, largely unnoticed. But now people have started to take note. The Guild of Scottish Writers ranked it number 1 diesel car on the road and was a contender in CAR magazineís Performance Car of the Year challenge.
Until my week living with the Fabia, Iíd hardly noticed them on the roads, and lets be honest, theyíre hardly the sexiest thing on four wheels. But in the days since, they seem to be everywhere. In fact, Which? have found the Fab to be the tenth most personally recommended car in the UK. Which is exactly what Iím doing to you. Try it Ė youíll be surprised.