Skoda's mantra for some time now has been 'simply clever', and its vehicles have gained quite a loyal following from people drawn to the quirky badge and inherent practicality that has become a trademark.
Furthermore, while the VW sub-brand remains a minnow in Australia compared to its European heartland, range-toppers such as the Octavia RS and Superb have achieved a genuine air of desirability. There's nothing quite like them.
But does this magic dust trickle down to the brand's entry point?
Today we're having a look at Skoda's smallest and most affordable vehicle available locally, the Fabia. We don't get the Citigo here, which is essentially a rebadged Volkswagen Up!, so it's this Polo-rival that's our entry point.
Why the revisit? Well, for the 2018 model-year the Fabia range switched out the old 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo for a new 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo engine, available locally in 70kW and 81kW trims – just like the mill it replaces.
What did change in terms of output was the torque figure for the more powerful unit, rising from 175Nm in the old car to 200Nm in this updated model.
On test we have the latter, called the Fabia 81TSI, which comes as standard with the Volkswagen Group's seven-speed DSG transmission and starts at $19,890 before on-road costs – $400 pricier than the model before it.
Standard kit includes a rear-view camera, 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, AUX, USB and SD card inputs, manual air-conditioning, a six-speaker audio system, heated electric side mirrors, power windows front and rear, 16-inch steel wheels, leather trim for the steering wheel, handbrake and gear shifter, along with chrome interior highlights.
There are a few options fitted to our tester, including the Quartz Grey metallic paint ($500), Sports Pack ($1800) – which adds 17-inch 'Clubber' alloy wheels, projector headlights with LED daytime-running lights, sports suspension, rear parking sensors, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, privacy glass and a front centre armrest – and cruise control with speed limiter ($390).
So, with all extras included, the as-tested price for our Fabia 81TSI sits at a rather exxy $22,580 plus ORCs.
That's getting to the premium end of the light car segment, on par with top-spec versions of the Mazda 2, Renault Clio and the related Volkswagen Polo, which is set to enter a brand-new generation from next year but which is currently on runout at bargain prices.
However, in order to get higher-end items like climate control, automatic headlights and wipers, along with adaptive cruise control, you have to shell out an additional $1800 over the Sport Pack and opt for the Premium Sports Pack ($3600) which adds the aforementioned extras as well as DAB+ digital radio, front fog-lights, keyless entry and start, along with driver fatigue detection.
Other options include in-built satellite navigation ($950), a panoramic glass sunroof ($1000), and contrasting roof and wheel finishes which Skoda calls 'Colour Concepts', though these can be incorporated into the Sports or Premium Sports Packs.
Those who want an even sportier look and feel, can step up to the Fabia Monte Carlo (from $23,990) which gets a unique body kit, black exterior highlights, red/black/grey interior trims and alloy sports pedals.
So, right off the bat, the Fabia isn't what you'd call 'cheap'. In fact, it's one of the more expensive offerings in the segment, despite Skoda being pitched as the more affordable brand compared to Volkswagen – although we're sure the forthcoming new-generation Polo will move a little further upmarket when it arrives early next year.
It seems a little silly that something as common as cruise control requires ticking an option box, and a fully-specified base Fabia will surpass the $25,000 mark before on-road costs – which is excessive.
Visually the Fabia isn't as striking as a Mazda 2 or Renault Clio, but there's an understated look to the exterior, thanks to its clean lines and boxy shape. The grey exterior finish of our tester is a little boring, though it will appeal to those who like to blend in.
Meanwhile, the interior is less impressive in terms of its execution. The design and layout is fairly conventional and ergonomically sound, though you won't find any soft-touch materials anywhere bar the fabric-trimmed centre armrest and door inserts where your elbow rests.
It's actually really disappointing, especially when you think for a couple grand more you could have an entry-level Volkswagen Golf with far nicer cabin trims. This reviewer would go as far to say that Skoda has used the plastics from a Volkswagen Caddy or Transporter commercial van – in case you're wondering, that's not a good thing in this different application.
Despite the average interior trims, though, everything at least feels very well screwed together, and the doors close with a solid thunk in typical Volkswagen fashion.
The driver is also treated to a lovely sports leather steering wheel with perforated trim, along with comfortable seats that don't have a lot of bolstering but still manage to offer good thigh and back support.
Our tester's Sports Pack doesn't include the climate control air-conditioning of the more expensive option package, meaning you get manual dials that look rather low rent, though the brushed metal-look fascia on the dashboard looks and feels nice.
The 6.5-inch infotainment system is a little on the smaller side compared to rivals like the Mazda 2 and Kia Rio, though the tech-savvy will appreciate the standard inclusion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It's relatively quick and easy to use, with physical button shortcuts on the borders of the display make navigating the system's various menus a cinch.
Having the smartphone mirroring tech at this price point would lead us to recommend not shelling out the extra $950 for in-built satellite navigation, though if you frequent areas with low cellular reception, that might be a good option.
Meanwhile, back seat passengers are also relatively well-catered for considering the Fabia's compact dimensions, with decent head and shoulder room, though legroom can be tight for taller passengers behind a taller driver.
Storage is also pretty good throughout the cabin, with a decent-sized centre bin underneath the armrest, a large stowage area underneath the centre stack, and bottle holders in all four doors. There's even a little rubbish bin complete with a waste bag in the driver's door bin – it's adorable.
Rear seat passengers can keep items secure in the seat-back pockets, and there's also a small tray in the centre. While rear air vents are absent, you'd be hard pressed to find a vehicle in this class that has them.
Behind the second row is a 305-litre luggage area that beats rivals like the Mazda 2 and Volkswagen Polo, though cannot match the likes of the Honda Jazz and Suzuki Baleno. For those who want a light car with the largest boot, there's the Fabia wagon which offers a massive 505 litres with the rear seats in place – a figure that betters most mid-size SUVs costing some $10,000-$15,000 more.
The luggage area also features a basket and luggage net to secure loose items, which can be a lifesaver if you have bags of shopping or delicate cargo you don't want rolling under the seats from the second row. However, there's a decent hump when the second row folds, meaning you can't just slide longer items through say, if you bought some stuff from Ikea.
So that's the cabin covered, but what's it like to drive?
Under the bonnet is a new 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, developing 81kW of power at 5500rpm and 200Nm of torque between 2000 and 2500rpm, which is right up there for the most powerful non-performance engine in the class. Drive is sent to the front wheels via a seven-speed DSG in the case of our tester.
While the outputs are more than plentiful for a car of this size, the Fabia's frustrating transmission is one of the worse examples of that this reviewer has encountered. There's a very noticeable dead spot down low, which can be challenging when driving through intersections or trying to make a gap in traffic.
It has a rather annoying habit of starting in second gear to save fuel, meaning that progress from a standstill seems quite lethargic and jerky, particularly after disengaging the idle stop/start system. The engine does generate that signature three-cylinder note, though you won't hear it unless you really push the Fabia hard – the transmission rarely lets the engine rev above 3000rpm in normal driving.
Foot to the floor, though, and you'll get brisk acceleration in addition to that gravelly thrum that is a trademark of three-cylinder engines, which makes the Fabia feel almost sporty.
There's also fantastic noise suppression from the engine bay meaning the Fabia is impressively refined at speed for a vehicle in this class, once you become adjusted to the powertrain and transmission. In fact, this has to be the highlight of driving the Fabia, it's a very mature drive indeed.
Wind noise is well suppressed, while tyre roar is generally kept to a minimum until you hit the roughest of road surfaces – though a stint on the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Kilmore showed the Fabia produces less tyre noise than larger cars like the Honda Civic.
Once at highway speeds, the Fabia settles into a quiet hum, with the 1.0-litre turbo spinning at around 2250rpm at 100km/h in seventh gear. The ride is reasonably compliant over most surfaces, though it is a little on the firmer side, so larger imperfections can transmit sharp jolts into the cabin.
What's also impressive is how composed the little Skoda feels on the open road. It's planted and confident even at 110km/h on bumpy country highways, feeling like a bigger car than it actually is.
Additionally, the four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated at the front) and predictable stopping pedal inspire plenty of confidence when coming back to a rest.
It's an efficient little thing, too. We drove over 500 kilometres in a mix of urban and highway conditions, and returned an indicated fuel reading of 6.4L/100km. Yes that's a little up on the company's 4.7L/100km official claim, but you'll easily get more than 500 kilometres out of the Fabia's 45-litre tank.
However, unlike most of its rivals, the Skoda has a taste for minimum 95 RON unleaded, meaning you'll pay a little more at the pump per fill.
In terms of ownership, the Fabia is covered by Skoda's competitive five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, with six years/90,000km of capped-price servicing. Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km (whichever comes first), with the first three visits asking for $280, $335 amd $421 – totalling $1036 for the first 36 months or 45,000km.
Over the life of the six-year capped-price servicing plan, the Fabia 81TSI will set you back $2383, which incidentally is cheaper than the manual 70TSI version ($2416).
The longer service intervals make the Skoda more competitive against Japanese rivals like the Mazda 2 or Toyota Yaris, which will require two visits a year if you do a lot of driving, though the Kia Rio is still cheaper to maintain with the same intervals.
Overall, the Skoda Fabia remains one of the more well-rounded offerings in the light car segment, though the mid-life update hasn't really addressed some noticeable shortcomings.
The plasticky interior will be a turnoff for many, particularly if you're after the quality feel that's normally associated with European cars. Additionally, the hesitant DSG transmission is one of the more jerky of its type and exacerbates the turbo lag – which hinders drivability in stop/start traffic, somewhere this car will spend most of its time.
Unfortunately for the little Czech, there's not really any area where it stands out from the pack – the Mazda 2 has more tech at this price point, the Kia Rio is cheaper to buy and own, while the Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo offers better performance.
It's not the stand-out offering that its range-mates are.