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There's a lot to like about the idea of a small wagon. Subaru won plenty of fans in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the Impreza hatch, and now, arguably one of the most 'Euro' of European small wagons, the Skoda Rapid Spaceback, has been has been updated for 2016.
Spend $22,990 (before on-road costs) and you get the same 81kW/175Nm Euro 6-compliant turbocharged 1.2-litre four-cylinder and six-speed manual transmission as the base model.
Lash out the $25,790 (before on-road costs) for the Steel Grey car pictured here, though, and you step up to a 1.4-litre Euro 6-compliant turbo-four with 92kW of power at 5000rpm and 200Nm between 1500-4000rpm. You also gain an extra gear, with the larger capacity engine buddied up to a seven-speed dual-clutch DSG automatic transmission.
Despite the auto’s higher outputs, the dearer 92TSI returns a fractionally sharper claimed fuel consumption figure than the manual 81TSI – 4.9 litres per 100km versus 5.0L/100km. And while both engines feature fuel-saving stop-start technology, perhaps more significant for some buyers is the DSG’s 0.8-second faster 8.9-second 0-100km/h claim.
Powerplants aside, opt for a Monte Carlo Skoda Rapid and standard equipment includes automatic Xenon headlights, fog lights with cornering function, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, rear parking sensors, hill-hold assist, rear privacy glass, and a panoramic glass roof.
A six-speaker Arkamys stereo with Bluetooth connectivity and audio streaming is standard too, along with a five-inch touchscreen, USB and AUX inputs and an SD card slot. The Rapid also has a five-star ANCAP safety rating, six airbags, outboard ISOFIX child seat anchorage points, and multi-collision braking (a system that applies the brakes following an airbag-firing collision, to prevent or mitigate any subsequent impact).
Helping the top-spec model stand out are Monte Carlo ‘reminders’ on the B-pillars and door sills, a carbonfibre-look dashboard insert, black 17-inch alloy wheels, and a black grille, front lip, side skirts, rear spoiler, rear diffuser and heated side mirrors.
Tick the box for the optional ‘Tech pack’ ($1800) fitted to our test car and equipment levels rise to include keyless entry and a push-button start, LED daytime running lights, automatic climate control, and front traffic assist with city emergency braking.
The nice bonus of a small wagon, compared with your regular small hatchback, is boot space. And with 384 litres available (expandable to 1349L), the 4.3-metre-long Rapid not only betters the rear-end seat-up capacity of the longer Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Golf (308L and 380L respectively), but also the 340L (and 771L maximum) of the 4.4-metre-long five-door Subaru Impreza.
The Czech Spaceback can’t, however, match the load space of the similarly sized Hyundai i30 Tourer – a model with a massive 528L on offer (expandable to an even more impressive 1642L).
Hunkered down into the comfortably bucketed black, grey and red cloth front sports seats, cabin space up front in the Rapid is good, with ample headroom.
A red-stitched, predominantly perforated, leather-appointed flat-bottom sports steering wheel feels nice in the hands and is complimented by identically tactile material on the gear selector and manual handbrake and neat looking sports alloy pedals at your feet.
Standard Skoda elements such as little rubbish bins tucked into the decently-sized door pockets, a specific phone holder, and mini seat pockets on the inner shoulder flanks of both driver and front passenger seat continue to be clever inclusions but obvious cost-saving measures remain.
Only the driver’s power window is auto up and down, the panoramic roof’s two individual blinds are manually operated, and harder, scratchier dash and door-top materials continue down onto the centre console.
It’s a Skoda, so while there are tidy touches such as nicely damped indicator and wiper stalks, simple climate and stereo controls and some lashings of chrome, it never quite feels ‘premium’. That said, the main instruments are clearly laid out, the navigation system is easy to use, and the responsive Volkswagen Group touchscreen works well.
Making rear seat access a breeze, the Rapid Spaceback’s high roofline also helps provide loads of rear headroom, teaming with a basic but comfortable rear bench to make time in the back row no chore – as long as you raise the rear seat headrests so they’re not pushing you in the back.
Yes, rear air vents are missing, however, second-row occupants do get two map pockets, cup holders, grab handles and individually controllable reading lights, four coat hooks and reasonable door pockets. That, plus there is simply stacks of leg and toe-room – even for those north of six-foot.
And while there’s no fold-down centre-seat armrest, the 60:40-split rear seats do fold forward. The catch? Dropping the seats increases flexibility but leaves you with quite a high lip between the boot floor and the rear seat backs (annoying if loading in longer or larger items).
Pop the not-too-heavy glass tailgate and the parcel tray lifts up nice and high to reveal two large luggage hooks, two cubby-style cut-outs and four tie-down hooks. There’s also a space saver spare tucked under the floor and a handy pull-down strap that means you can avoid leaving fingerprints on your tailgate.
Riding on none-too-chubby 215mm-wide 40-aspect Bridgestone Potenza tyres, the 1156kg Skoda Rapid Monte Carlo’s ride/handling balance is largely commendable. It can get a little fidgety over consistently choppy or patchy surfaces, though, and the rear end can thump a touch over speed humps. Various surfaces will also see road noise penetrate into the cabin.
Steering is consistent and nicely weighted, with a little resistance teaming well with good feel and accuracy. The Rapid’s 10.2-metre turning circle is another plus, particularly when getting around town.
With an expansive glasshouse, comprising rear quarter window cut-outs and a wide rear hatch, vision out of the Rapid is excellent, though oddly, the rear-view mirror is rather slim – an area where the inclusion of a reversing camera would certainly be helpful.
The biggest disappointment, however, is reserved for the dual-clutch DSG gearbox.
With peak torque available from as low as 1500rpm, the Rapid’s engine – while perhaps not as brisk as the model’s name might suggest – is reasonably flexible and responsive… provided you’re in ‘Sport’ mode, that is. And this is where the key issue with the car lies.
In short, left in ‘D’, the transmission – in our test car at least – is laggy, slow to react and slow to respond. The situation is made even worse with the car’s engine stop-start system activated, but even with it off, the DSG unit is downright painful to live with. And it’s not the first time we’ve experienced such traits in a modern DSG-equipped Skoda.
Luckily for the wee little Rapid, there is a way around the problem: slide the gear lever down into ‘D’, then tap it down once more to select ‘Sport’ mode.
Short of completely transforming the car and the driving experience, the mode shift all but eliminates the aggravating delays, instead replacing them with a responsiveness that can make the Rapid a largely fun and entertaining package on the right roads. It even improves the reaction speed of the stop-start system.
Sure, Sport mode is accompanied by longer holds of gears, which could impact fuel economy, but it’s the only way to drive the thing without going insane.
The 2016 Skoda Rapid Spaceback Monte Carlo might not be a spirited rally special – as its name may suggest – but overall it does a lot of things rather well. It lacks the polish and outright practicality of its bigger umbrella-brand sibling, the Volkswagen Golf Wagon, but you can get into one for as much as $5000 less, which is surely tempting to the right buyer.
That said, if space is as big a priority as compact dimensions, the Hyundai i30 Tourer should also be on your list.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Skoda Rapid Spaceback Monte Carlo images by Tom Fraser.