Portugal is a terrible place to be during the winter. The sky is almost always grey, the sun hardly ever shines, the rain comes down only when you’re outdoors and if the mercury dipped any lower, it would be all over the floor. But there’s always that little ray of light that makes a whole trip worthwhile, and this time around it came in the form of a beautiful drive in a new-generation hatchback.
Albufeira, a small suburb near Faro city, was where the international press had descended to drive the 2007 Skoda Fabia. This little suburb is a tourist hotspot during summer, with about a million people flocking here to get the best tan the European sun has to offer. The place looks like a big Lego township, with blue, red and yellow apartment blocks and small cafes and sit-outs dotting every street corner. Come winter and the town looks very Chernobyl-esque – abandoned apartments and cars parked in big lots around every street corner. It’s almost like the inhabitants ran away from the awful winter. No complaints from me though. Fewer people, less cars, better the driving experience, right?
The car I’m driving is the new Skoda Fabia, the successor to one of the most successful superminis in Europe. And from what I’ve read, the outgoing car was such a superb piece of machinery that even in its final year of production, it notched up record sales figures. So Skoda have pretty much stuck their neck out with the new Fabia and hope that buyers will fall for it hook, line and sinker just like they did with the outgoing car.As with the current Fabia, the new car was designed to re-ignite the space wars. No, not of the intergalactic type but for more shoulder, head and leg room. And it’s pretty evident too. The Fabia is the Roomster from the front grille to the headlights and the A-pillar. It’s only when they reached the A-pillar that the designers actually took their sketch pens out. That is one of the reasons why this car could be conceived in a budget (less than 500 million euros) that would fund a wheel-arch project in most other modern cars. Still, the new Fabia borrows a lot from other superminis when it comes to styling and has been re-designed in key areas to earn maximum points in crash tests. In terms of design, the obvious connection is with the Mini’s floating roof while the thick C pillars... very Suzuki Swift, isn’t it? The Fabia’s wide stance and the stylish five-spoke alloys that fill up the wheel wells help it carry off the straight-cut, tall-roof design very effectively – making it quite a beautiful... okay, handsome car.
The drive that Skoda planned was a 140-odd km route through Algarve, the southern-most region of Portugal. It started from Faro airport and passed through some narrow cobbled-street townships, an expressway and a fantastic hill section before winding through a coast-side road and back to the hotel. We were given a plethora of engine options to chose from, right from a 59 bhp 1200cc petrol to a
103 bhp diesel hot hatch. For once, I thought with my head and not my adrenaline glands, and opted for the 68 bhp, 1400cc TDi – the most relevant car around, considering all those diesel launches slated for 2007 back home.
Besides Skoda will be keen to avail of the excise duty benefits, making this and the 1198cc petrol engine the most promising options for us in India. The 1400cc engine – which is actually Skoda’s proven 1896cc inline-four minus one cylinder – is not bad at all, you know. You would expect a three-cylinder motor to be a little unbalanced, leading to plenty of noise and vibes, but Skoda has had enough experience with this motor to ensure it’s refined and well-balanced. Besides, they have also incorporated Volkswagen’s proprietary Pumpe-Deuse technology, which means a more efficient engine to satiate your average Indian question.And you can discount the additional plumbing in the engine bay, if it matters to you.However, it’s pretty evident that the little triple (sounds cute, doesn’t it?) is an oil-burner. Clatter at start-up soon settles down to a drone as the temperature rises. The 1422cc powerhouse packs a decent degree of punch, with max power coming in at 4000 rpm, while the turbocharger ensures that the car is very eager anywhere above idle. It spins out 15.5 kgm of torque right from 1600 klicks onwards, and that too over an adequately wide band which hardly requires any jostling with the gearbox. And if you’re giving the Fabia the stick, as I was, you’ll realise that it can be quite a handful, since the narrow streets in the Algarve almost always have two-way traffic and leave no room for error. Oh, and they do drive on the right side, er the wrong side of the road, which I still haven’t got used to. My enthusiastic co-driver was pretty inclined to see the higher reaches of the speedo (not that I wasn’t) and so on the highway section, he had pedal to the metal until the Fabia saw almost 170 kph. Skoda really puts together cars well, because though it felt like we were going fast, it really didn’t feel like 170 kph. And that’s pretty darn good for a puny diesel motor, ain’t it? And if you’re still wondering why we didn’t get pulled over, it’s because the Portuguese police are short on manpower. It’s true, I looked it up.
While at the controls, the Fabia gives you a big car feel. And the amount of elbow room available will make you reconsider investing in that 1 BHK apartment in Mumbai. Ergonomics are spot-on and so are the features – even the front seats have armrests, not something you would normally see in a hatchback. The car that I drove was of a lower spec, but it was equipped with all those three-letter words (ABS, ESP, SRS airbags and cruise control) that makes the Fabia a whole lot safer. Inside you will find plenty of cubby holes... for your cuppa, your cell phone, your iPod and even one for your mother-in-law. Don’t worry, she’ll be pretty comfortable in there because as usual the plastics in this Skoda are superbly put together and finished. Grab the big steering wheel and you think that it’s a car that you’re going to have to battle rather than drive, but I was quite surprised as the steering inputs delivered a precise response – this I especially noticed on the cobbled streets where the car always feels like it’s doing its own thing.
The new Fabia’s underpinnings are based on the outgoing car and that’s because the engineers felt that it still had a lot of potential if they just adapted it to VW’s wide module system. This system allows them to plug in upgraded components without having to do away with the good stuff. Which is why the new car feels quite sorted in the handling department. Skoda has improved upon the McPherson struts in the front, while the rear gets the twist-beam treatment. As expected the Fabia’s ride is quite stiff, but it does a neat job of not letting the bumps come through. And when I slammed it through the twisties, body roll through corners was minimal – the car felt taut and surefooted, and it had it’s feet, er, wheels firmly planted on the tarmac.
Okay, now to answer the most obvious questions which have been running through your head since the beginning of the story. The new Fabia will officially be launched at the Geneva Motor Show this month and Skodawill bring this car to India as soon as work on their new plant is complete – beginning 2008 being a good bet. Skoda is also very keen to maintain its brand premium status quo, so expect the car to be priced a little over the competition. But the real advantage that the Fabia will have over its hatchlings, the Suzuki Swift and the Hyundai Getz, is the vRS badging. Now that’s the car you’ve got to start saving up for. I’m just going to hope that the drive with that happens when the sun’s out and the surf’s up.