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It has a body that only an owner could love, but the updated odd-ball Skoda Roomster has many strengths.
With uneven door heights and tall and narrow dimensions, the Roomster is not for the fashion conscious, but it is a very practical car that is also a surprisingly engaging drive.
The unloved Skoda Roomster was one of the first two cars the brand sold when it launched in Australia in late 2007, and was dropped three years later with a paltry sales tally of just 233.
This time around, however, the distinctive wagon has a better chance of survival.
Importantly, it’s cheaper, with a price cut of more than $4000 making the roomy, five-seat wagon immediately more relevant. The Skoda Roomster now costs from $22,490, which means customers could now consider it as a realistic alternative to a regular small hatch such as the Ford Focus or Mazda3.
It also has a good petrol engine. The previous generation’s sluggish 1.6-litre petrol lump has been replaced by a 1.2-litre four-cylinder TSI from the Volkswagen Group parts pantry. This direct injection unit has a turbocharger to offer extra bang.
The Skoda Roomster 77TSI manages to produce 77kW at 5000rpm and 175Nm of torque all the way from 1500rpm through to 4100rpm. The torque figure isn’t impressive, but the on-road experience is better than the figure suggests.
There is reasonable performance all the way through from just above idle to just past 5000rpm. The turbo helps to deliver enough performance to move the Roomster along at a fair pace with two people on board. It’s not a rocket and we’d love just a bit more torque, but it is by no means gutless.
Of course, we’ll have to get back to you on how it goes fully loaded with five people and some luggage.
Now to the bad news. Skoda won’t offer the Roomster with a diesel (as it did previously). Skoda Australia ruled it out because the diesel was only available with a manual gearbox and it reckons the real volume diesel would be an automatic.
That’s a real shame, because a torquey, effortless diesel is perfectly suited to the Skoda Roomster. It’s a car that is happy just loping along.
The petrol engine’s fuel consumption is a more than reasonable 5.9L/100km (emissions are 138g/km), a figure that stays the same regardless of transmission type.
The Skoda Roomster comes standard with a five-speed manual gearbox, while a seven-speed dual-clutch DSG automatic is a $2300 option.
Of course, the DSG means less work for the driver and it changes quickly and neatly most of the time. The downside is that, like other DSGs, this one can be hesitant in traffic, sometimes taking longer than usual to decide on the best gear.
For example, slowing for a turn on the test drive, we were surprised by how long it took after slowing for an intersection and then went to accelerate. We were left thinking: “Pick a gear, any gear” before it eventually dropped it back to second.
One major benefit of the automatic option, apart from the fact it changes gears itself, is that it makes for more serene cruising. At 100km/h, the DSG sits in seventh so the engine ticks over at a smidgeon above 2000rpm and makes little noise.
In top gear of the five-speed manual, the engine is doing 2400rpm and it is a little more intrusive.
While it could do with an extra gear or a higher ratio, the manual is a pleasure to use. Although we found ourselves slipping the clutch ever so slightly to get the Roomster off the line without stalling, this is more to do with the engine calibration.
Skoda changed several parts of the Roomster but maintained the existing platform. That means the front-end architecture from the last-generation Polo and a rear end that’s from the previous (Mark V) Golf.
It might be made from leftovers, but the end result is a vehicle that rides comfortably and yet is surprisingly agile. There is some body roll, but not enough to prevent you having a bit of fun.
The suspension is not overly soft, though there is enough compliance to absorb the nastier ruts and bumps without drama.
The steering is geared more for shopping centres than race tracks. There isn’t a whole lot of feel and feedback, but you soon get used to it.
Skoda upgraded the Roomster’s interior and it has a new dashboard. Not that it looks particularly new. This is typical VW/Skoda fare, with a practical layout and a sensible design. It does look plain, but everything is in the right place and the quality is generally good (forgiving a few uneven section gaps).
There is a large sound system in the centre part of the dash, which is lined with hard plastic. We’d prefer it to be made from the same softer plastic as the top of the dash to better cushion knees that want to rest on it.
The dashboard and trim up to door level is black, but the pillars and the roof are a light grey colour, which adds to the roomy feeling. Not that space is an issue in here.
You could wear an afro wig and still have headroom to spare. The design of the Skoda Roomster makes sense for families and part of its design is particularly child friendly.
The top of the rear doors are particularly low - part of the reason the Roomster looks funny, which allows the kids a clear view of what’s going on around them. We’re told this will also reduce the chances of the milkshake, ice cream or whatever you have just fed them ending up on the seats and carpet.
The Skoda Roomster has the same seating system as the Skoda Yeti compact SUV, which means they can be arranged in many different ways.
All three of the rear seats are tethered separately, so you can adjust them differently. The backrests can be adjusted, you can fold the seatbacks down or you can just remove the seats altogether rather than borrow or rent a van.
The bootspace with the rear seats gone is a massive 1555 litres, which is reduced to 450 litres when they are in place. This figure is a little misleading as the cargo area is so tall, you might not be able to effectively use all of the actual bootspace, but there is still a good cargo area whichever way you look at it. There is also a full-size spare wheel under the cargo floor.
The Skoda Roomster is now considered an extension of the Fabia range, sitting above the Fabia wagon, and as such shares the same front end as that car. It also has new tail-lights that feature a chrome surround.
There is only one specification and most of the gear you need is standard. This includes cruise control, a front armrest, roof rails, 15-inch alloy wheels, climate control air conditioning with manual controls, Bluetooth phone connectivity, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise control buttons.
The seats are lined with cloth and are comfortable enough although not very supportive.
Standard safety gear includes front, side and curtain airbags as well electronic stability control. Options include rear parking sensors, fog-lights, part leather seats, a sunroof and an alternate-coloured roof with customers able to choose from white, silver or black.
While it would be nice if rear sensors were standard in a car that is clearly aimed at families, the Roomster’s level of equipment is good for the price.
The standard gear, new pricing and the innovative design make the Skoda Roomster a remarkably sensible car, especially for small families. If only they could do something about the styling.