The third-generation 2015 Skoda Fabia is headed to Australia around the middle of next year with the promise of greater practicality, performance and — perhaps most importantly — fun factor.
In Australia, it will enter a light-car segment that has dropped appreciably this year, but that is projected to bounce back with the arrival of new-generation stalwarts such as the new Mazda 2 by year's end. Likewise, it will battle micro Euros such as its VW Polo sister, the Renault Clio and the Peugeot 208.
This new Fabia is just that — new. Almost nothing is carried over from the old version, and much of the car is based on Volkswagen's MQB modular matrix architecture, common with cars such as the Golf and Octavia among many others. The rest of the car’s bits come from the current VW Polo.
As such, the engines, electromechanical steering and a large part of the electrics (electrical architecture such as ECUs, the instrument cluster, infotainment and assistance systems) are all MQB. This is more than we thought before attending the car’s launch, we confess.
Perhaps the chief benefit adoption of much of the MQB of this is weight reduction. The new Fabia is up to 65 kilograms lighter than before, and the base European-spec three-cylinder model tips the scales at 980kg. Lightness means greater agility.
The new Fabia is also 8mm shorter, 90mm wider and 31mm lower than its predecessor. This helps the design’s proportions.
A suite of five engines are available globally, but Australia will get just two, both of them 1.2-litre turbo petrol units familiar from the Polo. There is insufficient demand for a diesel locally, Skoda says, though two are available in Europe.
While the same capacity as the engine in the outgoing Fabia, the 1.2 petrol is a fundamentally new unit, and is shared with the newly updated Polo.
It will arrive in Australia in two states of tune, The entry model gets a 66kW (at 4400-5400rpm) and 160Nm (at just 1400rpm) version matched exclusively to a five-speed manual gearbox, while the next step up gets 81kW and 175Nm (from 1400rpm), and either six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG transmission options.
The 66kW version will naturally serve as an entry point to the range, but since Australians prefer autos the 81kW offering will be the bigger seller. Skoda does not offer a DSG with the 66TSI anywhere, unlike Volkswagen.
In Europe the Fabia is sold as a budget offering, reflecting Skoda's brief there to serve as the entry brand of the Volkswagen Group. In Australia, Skoda is likewise heading in that direction, though VW is aggressive with its own pricing here.
Given the Polo now has a list price kicking off at $16,290, expect the base Fabia to start somewhere around between $15-$16K. The current model is $15,990, though Skoda admits rivals are sharpening their pencils, so...
The flagship 132kW RS will not be replaced this time around, though a new version of the Monte Carlo will premiere in Europe mid-2015 and Australia by early 2016, at least bringing something with sportier styling to the table.
Right off the bat this Fabia is better placed to make more of an impact on a style-driven segment of the market. While still a conservative design, the new model looks less awkward and more planted than before.
Furthermore, the buffed-up shoulder line and contoured bonnet give it some presence the outgoing model lacks, while the multitude of contrasting colour options — different coloured wheels, mirrors and roof — add some welcome character.
The cabin is likewise a significant step up in both design and execution. While there remain some cheap plastics lower down the fascia and around the gear shifter, it feels more premium than the underwhelming outgoing car.
Stylistically, it's Volkswagen to the core. Everything is eminently logical and sensible, but despite the availability of some interesting trim options, it's also a little lacking in flair. At this end of the market, some pizzazz is a key purchasing factor.
The swipe-operated touchscreen unit is very good for the class, but the nifty Mirror Link software that basically turns the screen into your phone, is Android only, though Apple CarPlay compatibility will become available next year.
At this stage, unfortunately, until the full suite of phones are compatible either through Mirror Link or CarPlay, Australia will not get any form of this advanced phone connectivity. We think Skoda should bite the bullet and offer it regardless. What's the harm, if it is possible?
One area where the Fabia excels is practicality. It's 330-litre boot (1150L with the back seats folded 60:40) is equivalent to some cars a class larger (the Mazda 3, for example, has a 308L cargo hold). In terms of usability of space, possibly only the Jazz has it beat at this end of the market.
The cabin has a number of clever storage options too, including big pockets in the doors and ahead of the gear shifter, fold down centre console and even nifty little nets running along the side of the front seats.
Likewise, space in the rear seats is decent. There's room for two adults in the back, provided the front seats aren't pitched too far back. Thanks to the boxy design, headroom is outstanding, with or without the optional panoramic glass roof.
In addition, those large windows give excellent outward visibility, a key to parking and changing lanes in a bustling city. The large side mirrors amplify this.
On road, the Fabia feels like an appreciable step up over the outgoing model. The steering is light and quick, ideal for twirling about in laneways and car parks, though it also offers acceptable feedback during sportier driving.
It isn't as nimble or sharp dynamically as a Ford Fiesta or outgoing Mazda 2. It lacks the razor-sharp turn in and body control of those class-leaders, but much of this is down to the fact the Skoda has calibrated it for comfort rather than cornering cachet.
It offers a relatively plush ride. Road imperfections from cobblestones, potholes and bridge joiners are dispatched with little fuss. Remember also this car will be popular in a number of markets with patchwork roads.
It's also a commendably quiet and stable cruiser, feeling planted even at higher European motorway speeds that would get you arrested in Australia. Wind noise is evident, but road noise is kept well under control especially on the base car's higher profile tyres.
Both engines are ample, with the 66TSI belying its modest outputs courtesy of the low-end torque offered by the turbo. This means it's responsive even without overt revs, though it's happy to be wound out.
We were pulling 120km/h-plus up a steep hill in fifth gear and still accelerating without issue, at which time it remained quiet and refined. The wheel and seat remained free of any buzziness. At Australia highway speeds of 100km/h, we were seeing revs of about 2200rpm.
The gearbox lacks a ratio, but the fifth is tall enough to cruise along at motorway pace, and the shift is light and precise.
The 81TSI feels stronger, especially in the mid-range, and offers greater punch off the line. The DSG is generally intuitive in this application, and the option of seven ratios when some rivals still have four naturally helps refinement. It's also more decisive and less jerky at low speeds than the previous iteration.
Skoda claims a 0-100km/h time for it of 9.4 seconds compared with 10.9sec for the 66TSI.
That said, while the 81kW engine offers more punch, the 66kW unit is more than adequate, and if you're willing to change your own gears it might be the value pick.
Either way you'd be buying an excellent city car. We'll withhold our final judgement until Australia pricing and specifications are revealed. The market is so cost-sensitive, and Skoda must be aggressive to get traction.
Ultimately, the Fabia could probably use a little more pizzazz in its design inside and out, and the lack of an auto option on the 66TSI is a shame given its sales potential. It's also not as fun to punt around as a Ford Fiesta, though it's certainly above the class average.
What it does offer is practicality, refinement and comfort at levels rarely seen in a car so small. If the price is sharp it could prove a great buy. It's certainly a big step up over the current car, and just unusual enough to stand somewhat apart from the masses.