Motoring: Skoda's new Czech mate

It won't make the men at BMW nervous, but your bank manager will approve. Michael Booth on the new Skoda

Skoda wrote to me recently. "Skoda," the letter said, "has joined forces with top fashion designer Paul Costelloe for its new range of corporate business clothing. The clothing will be worn for the first time by Skoda staff manning their stand at the London Motor Show."

In reality, I found myself in a more privileged position still, invited to the Czech Republic see the corporate business clothing before it was unveiled to the public at a select viewing attended by representatives of the British fashion press.

The viewing was to take place in a restaurant in Prague, with top fashion designer Paul Costelloe as well as senior Skoda staff present. Anxious to learn more about Skoda's new clothing designs and whether they came with wine, I RSVP'd immediately and spent the flight a week later attempting to spot my fellow travellers, members of the fashion press. It wasn't difficult. Club Class felt like a Harvey Nichols window display - a refreshing change from the usual motoring herd in their freebie cagoules and Aviator sunglasses.

The window display changed dramatically for dinner in Prague that night, and I spent a rather awkward evening opening every new introduction with "Hi, I'm from the Independent on Sunday, but they didn't tell me to bring a suit". Luckily attention was distracted from my Pret a Jumble by the two models on hand displaying the new outfits which, to my keen fashion eye, looked like pleasant enough business suits whose only concession to the Skoda theme was that their collars matched the green of the brand's bonnet badge.

Paul Costelloe arrived, and the assembled throng quizzed him on his choice of fabrics and the "synergy of his design concept" (yes, I did overhear that phrase coming from the mouth of one of the Ladies Who Launch). I found myself cornered by Dermot Kelly, the enjoyably frank director of Skoda (pronounced "shhhkodah"). Sensing a cynic, Dermot set to work on me with some FACTS, namely that they'd quite like it if we could stop making those Skoda jokes now, if we don't mind.

"It was suggested that we change our name at one point," Dermot confided when I raised the subject of Skoda's image in this country, "but 98 per cent of the British population know that Skoda make cars. They may not think we make good cars, but that awareness alone is still worth pounds 350m to pounds 400m, we reckon. So, if we can change that image - as we are trying to do by working with Paul, and reminding people of our history with the new museum - we can unlock that pounds 350m. The values that we're looking to create are solidity, reliability and safety. In a way, we're almost moving towards the position that Volvo used to occupy."

Had I looked, I think I would have seen Dermot crossing his fingers at that point, but several consumer surveys actually agree. In the Top Gear JD Power survey of all new cars (the largest of its kind in this country), Skoda's small hatch, the Felicia, came fourth in its class in terms of customer satisfaction. And overall, Skoda scored higher than BMW, Jaguar and Porsche. Elsewhere, the European Customer Care Survey voted Skoda into number one position; and now even my parents are thinking of buying one.

Of course, it helps that Skoda have acci- dentally let slip (repeatedly) that their new Octavia shares a platform with both the new Volkswagen Golf (Volkswagen own 70 per cent of Skoda) and the Audi A3, hinting that, in effect, what you're getting here is a bargain German. "Well we can't stop that knowledge being in the marketplace," conceded Dermot, "And we could get hung up on the fact that we've got the 20 valve, 1.8 litre engine and, yes, it comes from the factory as Audi's ... " Whoops! There they go again.

"But what about the car?" I hear you ask. Well, the next day the fashion posse and I visited Skoda's newly opened museum, about a half hour drive from Prague. Outside were examples of the recently launched Skoda Octavia, which is already on sale in Europe, and should be available here some time next summer (prices for the basic 1.6 litre model should be under pounds 11,000).

But before we were to be let loose on them, a guided tour of the new museum revealed a few more surprises about Skoda, a company which started out making bicycles in 1895. At one time, it turned out, Skoda built Hispano Suizas, the glamorous continental Rolls-Royce rival, under licence. What's more, also on display was one of two delightful Maserati-esque single seaters from 1957, along with various exhibits testifying to the company's impressive rallying heritage. But, rather awkwardly for the public relations people present on the tour, as we progressed around the museum, the fashion press became rather more taken by some of the 1960s models on display than by the new Octavias parked out front.

Neither were they too keen to brave the Czech traffic for a test drive. I did, and found the Octavia to be everything you would expect from a new pounds 11,000 car loosely based on a Volkswagen, but with a less handsome interior. The Skoda Octavia is a not unattractive, medium-sized, five- door saloon (think Rover 800 after a Slimfast diet). It's nothing to make an appointment with your bank manager over, but it's probably more than adequate for any purpose for which you or I might employ it.

The engine in the 1.8 litre that I tried sounded a tad harsh, the steering wriggled a little upon hard acceleration and then went dead and, more seriously, the rear spoiler obstructed my view out of the back window. Compared with Skodas of the memorable past, it was a motoring advancement akin to the Moon Buggy. Compared with the rest of its class, it just looks like good value.

A couple of weeks ago at the Motor Show in Earl's Court, I finally caught up with Paul Costelloe. Paul didn't exactly seem incapacitated with longing either. "They're pretty nice cars, I don't think there's anything wrong with them," he shrugged. So what exactly is he doing here? "I suppose my association with Skoda comes because my customer base is a fairly conservative woman, she's not a fly by night. Skoda's image ties in fairly well. It's good value, it's well made, it's uncomplicated. And it's not a BMW." I couldn't have put it better myself.

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