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…

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