I think you can mount an argument that Skoda’s Fabia Monte Carlo is precisely the sort of affordable Euro-chic city car that BMW’s Mini Cooper ought to be.
The gender-neutral design is quirky without being kitschy, the engine exudes character, the cabin is pared back and practical, and the $25,490 drive-away price somewhat accessible for those after a car with a small footprint but decent features list.
In fact, it is about the same as a top-selling Mazda 2 GT costs on the road.
In the absence of a Fabia RS, this Monte Carlo sits atop the line-up. It’s no hot hatch, sporting the same 81kW/200Nm 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine as the entry grade matched to a seven-speed DSG (double-clutch) automatic transmission.
But it looks the part thanks to 17-inch black alloy wheels, blacked-out bumpers, grille, spoiler, mirrors and pillars, and badges paying homage to the Monte Carlo Rally that Skoda’s been competing in since the 1960s – when it was locked behind Europe’s Iron Curtain.
Our tester’s red paint is free, but if you want metallic blue, dark grey or black it’ll cost you $500.
The engine is typical of three-pots, with a characterful engine note and a penchant for revs out to the 6000rpm redline. It also makes its 200Nm maximum torque output between 2000 and 3500rpm, therefore feeling more muscular than you might expect.
More impressively, Skoda has done a good job ironing out excess engine vibrations through the wheel and seat, indicating it’s well balanced.
The engine is mated to a DSG with manual mode, promising faster shifts than a conventional automatic to eke more from the engine, though you should tweak your driving style around town and apply throttle more progressively, less aggressively, for maximum smoothness.
I’d make a side note here and say that several CarAdvice staffers aren’t as convinced with the DSG in this application as I am, meaning you should take a test drive before signing on any dotted line.
There’s no three-pedal manual gearbox, which would add engagement and cut the price of entry. In fairness, two slightly more affordable rivals – the 1.0-litre turbo three-cylinder Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo (82kW/160Nm) and Kia Rio GT-Line (88kW/172Nm) – are also auto-only propositions.
Given the Fabia’s kerb weight is a pretty low 1097kg, the 0–100km/h sprint time is a respectable 10.1 seconds, but more importantly its rolling response feels punchier again. At the other end the seventh gear is tall, so you’ll sit at freeway speeds around 2000rpm.
Skoda claims fuel consumption of 4.7L/100km, though I managed 5.7L/100km on my combined-cycle 300km drive loop. It drinks 95RON premium fuel like most Euros. The start/stop system is pretty smooth.
Dynamically speaking, its spring rates are designed to give a fairly firm ride, though it avoids crashing too much over cobbles, potholes and corrugations.
The body control through corners is good, with the car staying relatively flat against lateral loads. The electromechanical steering isn’t the last word in feel, but is direct enough from centre and light at urban speeds.
The Fabia strikes a pretty good dynamic balance, really, though if you want something properly agile that carves up corners with more engagement, the Suzuki Swift Sport (103kW/230Nm and available with a manual) is going to be a better bet for similar money.
At the same time, a Volkswagen Polo with the same engine as this Skoda is probably a smidgen more sophisticated in how it drives, albeit also less interesting and distinctive. The VW is so resolved that it becomes somewhat dull as a result.
The Fabia Monte Carlo’s cabin isn’t the last word in tactility or sophisticated modern design, with lots of hard-wearing plastics on the dash and doors. But it’s all livened up by stuff like contrast plastics, bright-red stitching and seat bolsters, a dimpled steering wheel and alloy pedals.
In typical Skoda fashion it is quite practical, with nets in the large 330L cargo areas, a waste bin in the door, an umbrella under the seat, and a decent array of storage cubbies. That high roof and large side windows also make the back seats useable for mid-sized adults.
On a side note, you can get a stretched Monte Carlo wagon derivative for an extra $1500, too, taking cargo space to 530L with five seats in use.
Standard features include a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto phone mirroring, a six-speaker Arkamys audio system, Bluetooth, cruise control with speed limiter and LED tail-lights. There’s no climate control, just manual A/C.
Safety aids include six airbags, a reversing camera, a tyre-pressure monitor, and urban-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB). ANCAP gave the Fabia five stars in a 2015 crash test.
While that $25,490 price is one thing, Skoda will do its best to tempt you with options. The $1800 Tech Pack adds keyless entry, radar cruise control, climate control, DAB+ and rear USB ports.
Then there’s the $1400 Vision Pack with rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, LED headlights and rain-sensing windscreen wipers. You can also buy sat-nav for $950 and a glass roof for $1000.
In that sense it’s not so different from options-happy Mini after all… Indeed, some of these features (thinking LED lights, climate control and DAB+) ought to be standard, since a base Fabia with the same 81TSI engine as DSG is $5500 cheaper and not all that much less well equipped.
From an ownership perspective, Skoda is much more affordable than you might expect. It has a five-year warranty without distance limit, and offers dealer servicing packages that are quite reasonable. A three-year/45,000km pack costs $760, while a five-year/75,000km pack is $1600.
That means it’s cheaper to service than a Kia Rio GT-Line, which also has shorter distance intervals. It’s also cheaper over the first three years, and slightly pricier over five years, than the Mazda 2, which like the Kia has shorter 10,000km intervals.
More tellingly, service plans on a VW Polo with the same engine cost $1208 and $2170 over three and five years respectively.
In summary, I have to say the Fabia Monte Carlo won me over through sheer charm. Its looks appeal, perhaps because of its gender-neutral approach. The engine has zing, the driving experience is involving enough for urban duties, the safety credentials are high, and running costs low.
At the same time, do be aware that it’s a little pricier than its direct competitors, and that Suzuki Swift Sport is looking very appealing given its similar positioning.
I stand by the idea that the Fabia is where Mini should be positioned, though. And if an affordable car with character, but without track-ready performance, is what you’re chasing, it’s a really solid option to shortlist.