Skoda, the Czech car manufacturer, now a full member of the Volkswagen Group since 2000, started as a bicycle manufacturing business in 1894 and the links to cycling continue today with vehicle support for the Tour de France, Tour of Britain and most recently Ride London.
After bicycles came motorcycles in 1900, cars in 1905 and trucks in 1924. Various production partnerships kept the Skoda brand going through the period where comedians used the Skoda products as their source of material with models such as the Estelle, Rapid, Favorit, Felicia and Octavia of the 70s/80s, until VW Group took full control in 2000.
Since then the brand, using VW production expertise and components, has not looked back and global new car sales last year were just under one million units. In the UK Skoda sales reached an all time record in 2011 with just over 45,000 new car registrations. Another record followed in 2012 with over 53,500 UK sales and the first eight months of this year over 40,000 new cars have been sold, an increase of 15% with a record market share of 2.8%. Around 45% of Skoda UK sales this year have been to fleet and business customers. The UK is Skoda’s fourth largest global market with sales through a 134 strong dealer network.
Globally Skoda sold 598,000 cars in August alone and China has emerged as one of their strongest markets with 1 million Skodas produced there so far.
The trophy cabinet at Skoda’s UK headquarters in Milton Keynes is bursting with awards from motoring publications and also includes numerous Towcar of the Year trophies. They have collected J D Power customer satisfaction awards on a regular basis as a new generation of buyers, who know very little of the brand’s past. They see today’s wide ranging products as cost effective and fit for purpose as the brand’s value has gained respectability through its association with its parent Volkswagen Group.
UK customers still tend to be older buyers, 50-plus, but their age is coming down as the brand establishes its credentials with a wide range of models and sporting sponsorship activities and involvement. These include WRC rallying and the Goodwood Festival of Speed which has been used to promote their vRS performance models which first appeared as a sporting sub-brand in 2001. The latest vRS models are the 2.0-litre, turbocharged petrol 220PS and 2.0-litre TDI diesel 184PS Octavia vRS hatchback and estate versions which joined the range in July this year. So far 200 of these vRS cars have been sold equating to 7% of Octavia UK sales but the expectation is 10% of Octavia UK sales will be vRS models.
Today’s Skoda ‘magnificent seven’ range includes the Citigo city car, Fabia supermini sized hatchbacks and estates, Rapid family hatchback, the larger Octavia hatchback and estate, the even larger Superb hatchbacks and estates, the Roomster MPV and the Yeti crossover SUV.
To come is the new Rapid Spaceback arriving in January 2014 with its USP of a huge panoramic glass roof and elongated tailgate window. Also in January comes the Yeti facelift but with two styling options, the off-road and city looks. Next new model along will be the Octavia Scout in March, an all new Fabia range in July and a new Superb at the end of 2014.
Part of the Skoda turnaround success story can be attributed to their proactive Marketing and PR activities where independent editorial coverage has played a large part in changing public perceptions of the Czech brand.
To this end I recently attended a West Country automotive media event and although my path to Skoda has not regularly been used I took the opportunity to try two vRS models, the Fabia five door supermini sized hatch and the much newer and larger Octavia five door hatchback. Both ranges have vRS estate versions as well.
The Fabia vRS hatch is powered by the VW Group’s 1.4-litre TSI turbocharged petrol engine which produces 180PS (178bhp) and 184lb ft of torque giving it a nifty top speed of 139mph with the standstill to 62mph acceleration period taking an acceptable 7.3 seconds. The Fabia vRS models come as standard with a 7-speed DSG auto gearbox. This performance is not obtained at the expense of dismal fuel economy and high CO2 emissions. Officially this model will return 45.6mpg and in real-life, during a short but enthusiastic drive around the A/B winding Cotswold roads, the computer showed exactly 36mpg. The CO2 figure is 148gkm which means road tax is £140 a year. Insurance is rated a group 27E.
Showing Skoda’s winning hand for performance at a reasonable price the vRS Fabia hatch costs £17,150 which is a bit of a bargain when you consider it has the latest 7-speed DSG sports transmission. But as normal with VW Group products there is a range of options which will push the price up still further, in this case to £19,045, still acceptable but I would object to paying £50 for a set of floor mats from what is a highly rated customer satisfaction brand. The Fabia vRS estate costs £18,000 plus options.
The standard vRS spec includes multi function sports steering wheel with gearchange paddles, handling and traction control functions, on-board computer, red brake callipers, sports suspension, alloy wheels, steel sports pedals and vRS body kit and sports seats. It’s a neat package, ideal for the young, or most likely from my experience, the older buyer who is still young at heart. It’s neat and nimble, agile with needle sharp steering and the suspension is not too firm and uncompromising.
Although the Fabia range is due to be replaced mid 2014, there is lots of life left in this go-faster hot hatch. But vRS models this year only account for 3% of 13,800 sales total Fabia UK sales up until the end of August so time is running out for it. Be sure the next generation will probably be a shade faster but somewhat more expensive if Skoda follows the VW Group route for the pricing of new models.
The Skoda Octavia vRS five door hatchback and estate models offer a wider choice of versions for buyers who still want more sporty large cars for business and family use. There is the choice of the latest 2.0 TSI turbocharged 220PS (217bhp) petrol engine with manual or DSG auto gearbox options and the 2.0-litre TDI turbodiesel 184PS (181bhp), manual or DSG transmission powertrains, both used in the very latest VW Golf GTI and GTD models.
This shows Skoda’s access to the very latest VW Group technologies and not just second generation hand-me-down parts. The vRS Octavia hatchback prices range from £22,990 to £24,650, vRS Octavia estates from £23,790 to £25,325, all less than the new but smaller ‘hot’ Golfs. This again shows what a bargain Skoda cars can be over the family member brands of VW, Audi and in some cases SEAT.
I briefly got behind the wheel of the Skoda vRS Octavia hatchback with the 2.0-litre TSI turbo 220PS petrol engine with a 6-speed manual gearbox priced at £22,990, which is £3,510 LESS than the smaller new Golf GTI five door with the same engine, DSG transmission and latest MQB platform. For the price this 152mph, five door large family car offers remarkable value for money, really the price of a small family C-segment car. The zero to 62mph acceleration time is impressive at 6.9 seconds but none of this performance comes at a high fuel cost. Officially it will return 45.6mpg, on a spritely test drive my average figure came in at 40.4mpg. Emissions too are competitive with 142g/km so VED road tax is £140 a year and company car drivers will get away with 20% Benefit-in-Kind tax.
The handling for a large car is taught and predictable, the suspension compliant and not too firm despite its sports suspension set-up. The 258lb ft of torque available from 1,500rpm gives it real punch out of corners or for overtaking traffic quickly yet in sixth gear it becomes a relaxed cruiser and helps its impressive fuel economy.
The spec is good and includes 18-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, electric windows and door mirrors, rear parking sensors, computer, Bluetooth, DAB radio, eco/comfort/sport/custom driving modes, lane assist, LED rear lights, Bi-Xenon front lights, stop/start function and much more. There is of course a range of options, mats not shown as one of those for this vRS, but a temporary space saver spare wheel will be an extra £75 please!
Inside the design looks very Audi-ish with more or less the same instrument and controls layout plus the brightwork to lighten the generally black finish of the trim. The plastics feel a bit hard and perhaps of lesser quality than an Audi but all appear to be well put together.
Of the 17,000 Octavia UK annual sales, vRS models are expected to be chosen by10% of buyers this year. Clearly more people looking to brighten their driving lives without spending too much money need to consider the vRS versions of the very roomy new Octavia models.
Extolling the virtues of my recent Skoda vRS Octavia experience, a 52 year old friend of mine with a senior engineering job who travels many daily work miles in his BMW 3 Series was less impressed, “A Skoda – I’m not that old” he said - still more good work to do by Skoda PR/Marketing on their brand image I feel.
MILESTONES. Skoda Octavia vRS 2.0 TSI 5-Door Hatchback. Price: £22,990. Engine/transmission: 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder, direct injection turbocharged petrol, 217bhp (220PS), 258lb ft of torque from 1,500rpm, 6-speed manual. Performance: 152mph, 0-62mph 6.9 seconds, 45.6mpg Combined Cycle (40.4mpg on test), CO2 142g/km, VED road tax £140, BIK company car tax rate 20%. Insurance group: 29E. Warranty: 3-years/60,000 miles. For: A roomy and very fast five door, five seater hatchbacks for family and business duties, brilliant value for money, first class to drive, easy on the pocket for taxes, uses the latest VW Group drivetrain components. Against: Skoda still lacks the brand desirability for some but increasing UK sales show they are on the right track. Miles Better News Agency