Click to follow
THE CURRENT ad for the new Skoda Felicia shows what a hearts-and- minds campaign the Czech company is now conducting in the West. "We've changed our car," the slogan reads, "Can you change your mind?" In that plaintive query echo decades of weary resignation at being the butt of every motorway breakdown gag ever to oil a saloon-bar conversation. I can't remember any of the dime-a-dozen Skoda jokes I've heard, but I can still remember a journey from Brno to Prague in a Skoda in the 1960s which gave me a distinct twinge in the lower back. It could have been the roads, of course.

The Felicia should be the car that finally turns the tide. Over the past five years Volkswagen has taken a significant financial, technical and strategic interest in the company. It shows in the cars, and Skoda is ramming home the point by describing the transformation in detail in its ads. "Before we changed the car," they say, "we changed the company. We revolutionised our quality control systems. Totally revised our design processes. Everything was scrutinised by Volkswagen, everything. We turned the company around." If ever there was a neat symbol of post-Cold War enthusiasm in the West for undeveloped East European industrial muscle, the Skoda story has been it - all the way down to enthusiasm for a Czech factory worker's average pay packet, which is about a sixth of a Westerner's and largely accounts for the Felicia's entry price of just pounds 6,000. Higher- spec models are in the pounds 7,500-plus bracket.

For all the improvements at Skoda, the Felicia doesn't add up to a middle- range hatchback at a bargain-basement price. Its appearance is more stylish and well-honed than any Skoda before it, and it doesn't look aesthetically outclassed by its small-car rivals from Peugeot or Renault. But the high- pitched vibration of the metalwork when you slam a back door (compared to the deep, reassuring thunk of a VW Polo's) is a reminder that the Czechs are being a little more sparing with the raw materials.

The interior is well-designed, and fashionably curvaceous. The controls are simple and easy to reach, and though the car has no power-steering it is untroublesome to drive and as responsive as its honest-to-goodness 1.3-litre eight-valve engine can make it. Skoda has issued all launch cars with its own perfectly nippy and quiet petrol engine (only when the starter is turning over does it sound disconcertingly like sand being shaken around a tin bucket), but in the autumn the Felicia will appear with VW's petrol and diesel power units. Interested parties might consider waiting until then to sample the difference.

This is an ingeniously conceived and executed low-price car with good handling, ride, build quality and body rigidity. At this end of the market, it's going to make all the running. Strange, though, to ponder changes in European fortunes over a century. In the 1920s, the Skoda factory used to build Hispano-Suizas - the continental European equivalent of the Rolls- Royce.

GOING PLACES: Workman-like though buzzy 1.3-litre, 68bhp engine giving 0-60mph in approx 14 secs, 40-70mph overtaking in approx 12 secs in fourth. Gearshift clangy, awkward selecting reverse, but town use nippy and untiring.

STAYING ALIVE: Surprisingly good handling stability and grip, but steering rather inert. No anti-lock braking or airbags (due in the autumn) but servo brakes improved. Body rigidity good, safety standards well up to EC specs.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Very comfortable ride at the price, though jiggly over potholes. Extremely roomy for a small hatch. Plenty of cabin storage space; voluminous boot, split folding rear seats in top-range GLXi model.

BANGS PER BUCK: Height-adjustable seatbelts, rear wash/wipe, child safety locks and delivery plus six months' road tax in the all-in price, even on the pounds 6,000 basic LX. Sunroof, immobiliser and central locking on the pounds 7,700 GLXi. Fuel economy good on all models at an average 36mpg. Two- year warranty, six-year anti-rust, two years' free recovery. Price: pounds 6,849.

STAR QUALITY: Big improvements due to VW input. Excellent chassis.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: No power steering or airbags, and a coarse engine.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Peugeot 106 1.1 (pounds 7,440) - better looking, better chassis, faster; VW Polo 1.3L (pounds 7,849) - the class leader now, great appearance, build quality, handling and finish; Ford Fiesta 1.1 CFi (pounds 6,995) - chassis not half as reassuring, but roomy and reliable.