Miniature SUVs with raised driving positions might be the flavour of the moment, but there remains a cheaper, lower-slung alternative with (in some cases) even greater interior space.
European-style wagons are little more than niche players in Australia, and in the light-car market, nearly non-existent. Except for the second-generation Skoda Fabia wagon, a little brother to estate versions of the Octavia and Superb.
It’s suitable that Skoda is the brand that defines this niche, because the Czech-based arm of the mighty Volkswagen Group trades on being both practical and slightly different.
Around the world, no miniature wagon has sold better since 2000 — a period over which Skoda has delivered more than 1.1 million units the car it calls the Fabia Combi in Europe.
The recipe is a simple one. Take the Fabia hatch — which is about the size of a Volkswagen Polo — and stretch it. The result is a little wagon with almost as much storage space as the Honda CR-V mid-sized SUV.
This type of vehicle is more popular in Europe, which remains the stronghold for passenger wagons across the board. Rivals for the Fabia there include the stylish little Renault Clio wagon, which unfortunately isn’t available in Australia.
Last week we spent some time driving the new-generation version, which launches on local shores around July of this year concurrently with the smaller hatch.
The wagon will replace the outgoing version that sells from $16,990 plus on-road costs. Expect a similar price for the new model, making it thousands cheaper than a higher-riding crossover. It will also command about a $1200 premium over the Fabia hatch.
The new Fabia in any guise is a pretty classy little car, especially compared to its dated predecessor. This new one is 90mm wider, 10mm longer and yet a touch lower than before, and as a result its proportions are so much more pleasing to the eye.
It’s not quite ugly duckling to beautiful swan, but the design of this new Fabia wagon is almost certain to appeal to a wider section of the market.
Compared to the new-generation Fabia hatch, the Fabia wagon is 265mm longer, though it sits on the same wheelbase meaning all the growth goes behind the rear axle.
Under the bonnet Australian versions will be an entry variant called the 66TSI, powered by a 1.2-litre turbo-petrol engine with 66kW (at 4400-5400rpm) and 160Nm (at just 1400rpm), matched exclusively to a five-speed manual gearbox unlike the same engine in the Polo. A price-leader, then, and knowing Australian buying habits, one that won’t really sell.
Skoda doesn’t produce a DSG automatic version of the 66TSI. To get that you’ll need to buy the 81TSI, powered by a more potent 1.2 engine with 81kW and 175Nm (from 1400rpm), to be matched exclusively to a seven-speed DSG.
Three diesel engines are available in Europe, but again Skoda Australia has decided to keep its line-up simple and go where it believes the demand is locally.
Likewise, it has discontinued the hot RS version globally, which is a shame. Volkswagen covers this niche already with the Polo GTI, and it wants to ensure ample points-of-difference with the more practical Skoda brand. But an RS wagon would be in its own class.
A new version of the Monte Carlo will go on-sale in Europe mid-2015 and Australia by early 2016, at least bringing something with sportier styling to the table.
Being a European launch that we drove the Fabia on, only manuals were available, meaning we drove a six-speed self-shifter in the 81TSI. Both produce peak torque from low in the rev band, giving them a strong initial surge with minimised lag, and deceptive muscularity.
Each is also refined at the top end — the tall fifth in even the 66TSI allowed us to sit at 130km/h on an Autostrada below 3000rpm. Road noise, from both the tyres and wind over the A-pillar and mirrors, is relatively well controlled for the class.
The general road manners are pretty solid, as we found when drove the hatch last year. Skoda has seemingly calibrated the Fabia to ride a little softer than a Polo, meaning over the odd gnarly bit of B-road it can float about a touch and feel a little underdamped.
It still feels more tied-down than an average longer-legged small crossover SUV, of course.
Anyway, it was designed to carry stuff to a degree that other small cars are not, so the rationale for this is obvious. It also means the Fabia coasts excellently over the lower speed, sometimes broken urban roads that serve as its more natural habitat. It’s also got surprisingly decent clearance.
Skoda does not entirely use Volkswagen’s MQB architecture for the Fabia, but it does feature parts from this ‘toolkit’ including a new electro-mechanical steering system that is light and simple to twirl about, but also direct and fast enough in the rack to make up for its numb on-centre feel.
The Volkswagen Group’s XDS+ system that can brake the inside front wheel to reduce understeer also features on the Fabia, having tricked down from performance cars such as the Golf GTI in previous generations.
The Fabia’s cabin is the embodiment of the brand’s focus on utilitarian comfort, symmetry and simplicity. All the auto and ventilation controls are laid out simply, and all the styling consists of straight lines — technically edgy then, though not in the figurative sense.
The practicality is excellent. There are decent cupholders, large door pockets, a glovebox that will hold a 1.0-litre bottle, clever little nets on the sides of the front seats to hold stuff and big bottle holders for rear occupants.
Both spec levels we drove were fitted with an MQB infotainment system, meaning a 5.0-inch touchscreen with a much-improved swiping interface, like your phone. The Fabia will also be among the first cars to get Apple CarPlay, along with MirrorLink, from launch in Australia. This was not to be the case originally. That's fantastic.
Space both front and rear, even with the optional panoramic roof, is strong for the class. The rear seats have sufficient space for two 180-plus centimetre occupants, or three at a short pinch, while occupants at the other end of the size spectrum benefit from two ISOFIX anchors for child seats.
The straight window line, large side glasshouse and small-ish pillars also means outward visibility is also strong. Skoda’s cabins benefit greatly from the fact that simple, clean design is a brand epithet.
Standard are six airbags — the hatch gets a five-star Euro NCAP rating — and VW Group features such as Multi-Collision Brake that stops secondary movement in the event of a rear-ender. You can also option low-speed autonomous braking.
Australian specifications have not been released, but the local range will be limited to a single spec in each engine guise. Upper-spec features should include keyless start, rain-sensing wipers and climate control. Our testers also had front and rear parking sensors, which we found to be a little hyperactive.
Perhaps the only immediately noticeable sore spot inside the Fabia was the cheap-feeling plastics which, while a step above its predecessor, are less tactile than some. Should be easy to clean though, and the build quality is typically strong.
The starring element is the deep, wide and low-lipped cargo area. There is a staggering 530 litres of cargo space with even five passengers aboard, 25L more than before. Flip those rear seats and you get a 1.6-metre load length and 1395L of space — with a full-sized spare wheel as standard. Payload is 530kg.
In this class, only the Honda Jazz could claim similar practicality, while this figure ousts many small and even medium-sized SUVs.
It’s a small shame that when you you flip said rear seat based up, to accommodate the backing to fold flat, the cheap-looking foam is exposed. It’s a small piece of cost-cutting, but still, cost-cutting nevertheless. We’re being a little picky there.
There are also features such as an adjustable false boot floor, numerous bag hooks in the rear, a stowable cargo cover and netting. The tailgate also opens to 1.9m high, meaning most people will avoid bashing their foreheads on the lip.
We can think of nothing much more practical for the money — ok, we don’t know exact local pricing, but it should by all rights be well under $20,000 at entry level.
By defining a niche and doing it well, the Fabia wagon deserves to find more homes as it enters its latest generation. If you need maximum space for minimum money, and are not married to an SUV’s higher driving position and higher rear seats, then this might be your ideal next car.