Thursday, May 15, 2014

Skoda. The Opposite of Vulgar.

When I created Aodhghán Feeley NT, the veteran defender of “Irish family values” in The Sunday Tribune, I gave this ghastly man what I considered to be an appropriate car: a Morris Marina.

Now, bear in mind that this was the mid-1990s, so it became increasingly implausible that a Morris Marina would have survived that long. Surely it would have decomposed by about 1985?

So, I dispatched the Marina with the help of Aodhghán’s wife, the lovely Breda, who "accidentally" cut the brake fluid line with a bread knife. I nearly dispatched Mr Feeley too, of course, but he had a miraculous escape on the Mullingar by-pass.

I replaced the Marina with a Lada Riva 1600 in a fetching shade of beige and Aodhghán would occasionally mention the car’s “1600cc’s of silken power purring beneath the bonnet” on his long trips to Knock and various anti-divorce rallies around the island.

I could, of course, have given him a Skoda but I’m not sure any of them had survived at that stage. And they would have been a bit rakish for Aodhghán anyway. We are talking of the Skoda S110 that I think was knocking round during my last couple of years in secondary school. One of my father’s friends had a 1963 (or thereabouts) Octavia which I thought, as an infant, rather cooler than our neighbour’s Renault Dauphine. (I still think it looks better. By a short head).

That Lada Riva of Mr F’s was based, loosely, on the Fiat 124 of 1966 but with additional Russian undependability and a weight that owes much to the Soviet bloc’s liberal attitude with steel. The Skodas of the same vintage may have been a bit of a joke (especially the coupés) but they had some degree of…okay, not elegance, exactly, but a certain je ne sais quoi. Or to,co nevím, possibly.

Skoda is one of the five oldest car producers, alongside Tatra, Daimler, Opel and Peugeot. Or so Wikipedia tells me, but it has the ring of truth.

Before World War II it produced some glorious machines, like the Skoda Popular Kupé of 1934 and Skoda Rapid convertible of 1935. Even Communism didn’t entirely destroy the brand but by the 1980s it was the butt of jokes.

Much of the smirking stopped in the year 2000 when Skoda was bought, as every schoolchild knows, by Volkswagen. Indeed, VW had taken a stake in the company soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I have, like the Skibbereen Eagle, been keeping an eye on Skoda for two decades now. I’m not sure what kindled the initial attraction – perhaps a perverse enjoyment of going against the flow – but what started with a few flirtatious glances has ended up as a full-blown love affair. Especially since the current range of grilles were introduced. I know. I am a bit superficial.

One catalyst in the thing was the reaction of a friend of mine (who has a trust fund and a Range Rover Sport, ‘nuff said) when I told him that I quite fancied an Octavia Combi (as we Skodaheads must refer to the estate version; it's a silly word for a serious thing). “Oh,” he said. “Well, if you got one of those I would have to avoid you in public places.”

Yes, even in 2013 (this happened last year), people like that think like that, and I suspect they will continue to do so. They don’t sneer at Audis, of course. They tolerate Volkswagens. They are aware of SEATs. But they still look down their noses at Skodas.

Well that’s part of the appeal for me. It’s the pleasure of driving a car rather than a badge. A feeling of tremendous smugness at having dispensed with the bullshit and concentrated on what matters. How the car performs. And how it looks, of course. I refuse to drive ugly cars. There’s enough ugliness in the world without adding to it by going around in, say, a Nissan Tiida. God forbid.

I liked the Skoda Octavia Combi 1.6 diesel and its combination of practicality and frugality. I got something in the mid 60s in terms of m.p.g. (that’s around 4.3 l/100km) but the 105bhp engine meant that I spent a lot of time shooting up and down the 5 forward gears. It was not a car that brought out the enthusiastic driver in me but it certainly had capacity – with decent legroom in the back and a huge load space behind that. I was constantly surprised that people tend to speak of the Octavia in the same breath as the VW Golf.

It was black and looked absolutely lovely in my humble and possibly skewed opinion. I adored the curious fold lines on the tailgate (although I must confess I got a bit of start when I noticed them, in low light in a car park and feared the worst.

I liked the solidity, the amount of stuff shared with VWs (virtually everything you can see from the driver’s seat) and – this may surprise you – the Skoda typeface that appears, for example, on the speedometer. I like its distinctive sans-serif elegance. It’s called Skoda Pro and you and you can have a dekko here:

However, when I had to hand it back, I didn’t yearn for this Octavia because, the simple truth is, I found it under-powered, with 105bhp. Not by much, but by enough to take the sheen of the experience.

Then, a few weeks later I tried the 2.0 litre version (delivering 148bhp) with the added bonus of 4-wheel drive. And a 6-speed gearbox. The difference was vast. The same solidity was there and all the other virtues noted in the weaker sibling but this car had capability. The 0 – 62 mph figure of a little over 8 seconds (bearing in mind that this is a practical car, not a performance one) seems modest, oddly enough, when compared the lively sensation when you’re actually driving it. And I mean really lively.

And then came the cavernous, capacious Skoda Superb Combi 2.0 TDI 4 x 4 about which, to be honest, I was a little sceptical at first. It has 633 litres of load space, 1,865 litres with the seats down. There ‘s all manner of clever touches in the loadspace from tethering points, luggage belt to a way of compartmentalising the area.

And this car sure has presence. Very considerable presence.

Well, my scepticism lasted just until I took it on to the M50. How, I wondered, would a 2 litre engine manage to haul such a behemoth around without flagging?

I need not have worried. The 140bhp engine was more than adequate for the job (so much so, I wonder what the 170 bhp version would be like; or the 260bhp petrol version which, somehow, I can’t see selling very well).

In terms of the usefulness of the 4 x 4, it’s a very sure-footed beast. I took it off-road in the Knockmealdowns for a few miles and where a normal car, even a substantial one, might have slid occasionally or fought for grip, the Skoda was a steady as a rock. In fact, as an occasional Land Rover driver, I had to remind myself that the Skoda is just a car and therefore pretty close to the ground. You could get into trouble.

We’re talking permanent 4-wheel drive here, of course; there’s no diff lock or anything to confuse anyone who has never driven a proper Land Rover. And it’s the Haldex system that goes into the stupidly expensive Audi Allroads and the Volvo XCs. Essentially, it delivers power mainly to the front wheels in normal driving conditions but will compensate for any slippage by dividing power according to where it is needed.

The car tested is known as the Ambition (a step up from the entry level Active) and it has quite a few extras from fog lights with corner function and heated front seats to tyre pressure monitoring and parking sensors. All for under €35,000. The Octavia Combi 4 x 4 with its more powerful engine weighs in just under €31,000. It would be a tough choice for me, to be honest; they are surprisingly different cars but equally attractive.

Anyway, as Top Gear summed it all up very neatly “More car, less badge.”

Actually, that doesn’t quite sum it up for me, although I know what they are getting at. Skoda is a badge that does it for me: quality, decent prices, understated elegance, efficiency. When you think about it, this is the opposite of vulgar. And it’s pretty darn confident too.

And now I really want to try the Yeti 4 x 4…

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Á la Récherche des Citroens Perdus...

I think I can pinpoint the time when my fascination with the internal combustion engine started. I was about six and I had been invited to a friend’s birthday party at Dublin Zoo, which was pretty exciting in itself.

But further excitement was provided by the fact that his father would drive us there – something that I found terribly exotic because my father, a somewhat eccentric Luddite, refused to have a car.

The apogee of excitement, however, came with the car that my friend’s dad was driving. It was a black Citroen DS, sleek, futuristic, with a ride as smooth as velvet and – this was the thing that captured my imagination – it rose up when it took to the road and, in a sense, knelt down when it poured forth us very little boys at the gates of the Zoo.

The friend’s dad was, I seem to remember, an architect. He wore a bow tie and smoked what I later realised were Gitanes. The Citroen DS, with its positively space age technology and that seriously funky steering wheel, was just the car for such a bloke.

The DS came back into my life briefly in the 1970s when I used to travel around the conifer county of Surrey in a venerable sky-blue limousine version (in the front), but that’s another story

As a teenager, I coveted the Citroen-Maserati SM (we tend to forget that Citroen used to own a chunk of Maserati). Citroen did the comfort while Maserati provided the power in the form of a 2.5 litre fuel-injected engine. There was a silver one parked outside the old Royal Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street regularly and I used to drool over it while heading to Graham O’Sullivan’s for coffee, Gitanes smoke (there’s a theme here) and angst-ridden chats with my school mates.

Citroen lost its way in more recent years. After the CX (1974-1991) and the XM (1989-2000) the brand collapsed into blandness, dubious dependability and somewhat tinny build quality. The quirky, eccentric, forthrightly Gallic originality of Citroen’s core values was lost to the likes of the Xantia (which I strongly suspect you can’t picture in your mind; I struggle to do so).

Well, times have changed and Citroen, the old Citroen spirit, is back. I drove three models recently and all of them had, for a start, a solidity and quality of build that had been conspicuously absent from the brand for yonks. I know I tend to go on about it, but when I close the driver’s door, I want to hear a certain sound. Ideally a bass-toned clunk. I got it with all three Citroens.

The new "DS" theme involves Citroen’s renewed embrace of clever, original design to give the models in question a certain extra je ne sais quoi.

First there was the DS3 Cabriolet, a sprightly little 1.6 litre petrol engined  two-door with a roof which retracts the whole way, exposing a great deal of sky above one’s noggin. I didn’t spend a lot of time in this mode, due to the Winter we have been experiencing but I can confirm that you can see a lot of sky.

Whingers have complained that you can’t see out the back window when the roof is fully retracted. I would argue that this doesn’t actually matter, provided you know how to use your wing mirrors.

The 118bhp engine is lively, with a surprising amount of oomph even from low revs and it is certainly a lot of fun to drive. On the flip side, it’s not entirely sure-footed on some of our less than smooth roads and there can be a bit of hoppity, skip and jump when cornering.

This is a small, neat car but nevertheless it gets 5 stars in Euro NCAP crash test and comes with 6 airbags.

Then I switched to the DS5 which is somewhere in the same category as the Passat or, perhaps, the Audi A5. It’s certainly stylish. Those sculpted twin exhausts look wonderful and the cabin feels very much designed as a unit rather than mixed up from standard components. It’s elegant, tactile, with hints from the aviation sector.

The 158bhp 2.0 litre diesel I drove is sprightly too and very much more than adequate to haul the fairly considerable weight. My only real gripe was the ride. It’s probably fine on the smooth roads of European neighbours. In Ireland, and especially outside the city, every bump is acutely felt and, like the DS3, there’s a slight lack of sure-footedness on tight bends where the surface is less than billiard-table smooth.

Overall, including a fair amount of motorway driving, I averaged somewhere in the high 40s in terms of mpg (I think in old money, I’m afraid.)

And then… and then came the revelation, the C4 Picasso (no DS this time) with its Tardis-like qualities. At first glance, it’s a moderately sized MPV. Quite neat, rather understated in terms of design but aerodynamic if deceptively like a normal car sitting on a booster seat.

But inside, it’s a very different story. The C4 Picasso, once you sit into it, is huge. The sense of space is almost bizarre and yet, when you drive it, it handles like the size it really is.

The 1.6 HDi engine, which I expected to struggle with all that, well, all that sense of space is more than up to the job while delivering fuel consumption, in my case at any rate, pushing into the high 60s in terms of mpg.

Being an MPV, you don’t tend to drive it like the other two cars mentioned above but, notwithstanding that, I reckon it has a lot less body roll than most MPVs and the ride is supremely comfortable.

In fact, just to make another foray into my childhood, my uncle had a Rover 3.5 P5 in 1970 and I remember sinking into the seats with a sense of luxury that was rare indeed when one’s benchmark was the Ford Anglia or the Fiat 125.

Well, sitting in to the driver’s seat in the C4 Picasso that memory came back to me. Let’s just say that I was impressed.

And I’m not the only one. The C4 Picasso is Irish Car of the Year 2014.