Baby, you can drive my Skoda!

New body. Fresh faced. The revamped Skoda is in town. Richard McClure tests Felicia's pulling power
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"My job is to convert people," says Eilish O'Shea. It is no small task, for Eilish O'Shea is PR manager for Skoda UK, the company with an image problem to rival that of, well, Lada. Since the first Skoda was assembled in the Czech town of Mlad Boleslav in 1925, the firm has had an unhappy history. Even the company's own publicity literature concedes that under Communist rule "it slipped behind improving Western standards in productivity and quality of product".

In 1977 the Automobile Association declared the Skoda Estelle "inherently dangerous", with a tendency to be thrown around by strong winds. Just two years ago, Which? magazine remarked that the wheels on the oxymoronic Skoda Rapid had a habit of falling off when driven at speed.

But the Skoda driver has always laughed in the face of danger, scorned the vicissitudes of fashion. "Our loyalty rating is second only to Mercedes," proclaims Ms O'Shea. "They keep coming back for more." There are currently about 156,000 Skodas at large in the UK, driven by people whose average age is 52. And now, fuel-injected with pounds 1.1 billion of Volkswagen cash, the company is targeting the under-30 market with a new image and a new model, the Felicia.

The car has been introduced flamboyantly to the company's dealers in Florida and, rather less flamboyantly, to the motoring press in Telford. This week, it's on sale to the public, supported by an advertising campaign that runs: "We've changed the car. We've changed the company. Can you change your mind?"

The Daily Star certainly has. On Wednesday it offered a "sexy Skoda" as the prize in a readers' competition. "Once the butt of drivers' jokes, Skodas are now considered to be really romantic motors," said the Star. "They are also a great talking point, as you try out your best chat-up lines." When one of the newspaper's Starbirds, Sam Coles, took the Felicia for a spin through London, "she was picked up, literally, by a gang of burly workmen. When they caught sight of Sam's stockinged legs, the lads lifted the Skoda into the air to stop her driving off!"

I am not expecting such a positive reaction when I pick up my Felicia from the Skoda nerve-centre in Milton Keynes on a dismal Tuesday evening, but I'm hoping it will at least bring me respect, rather than ridicule, from other road-users. Over the years I've often provided light relief on the highways. When you've driven a Hillman Avenger with a beige vinyl roof, Skodas are not to be feared.

The Felicia is quite an upgrade from my current car - an ailing Hyundai Pony. As a result, my quality standards are less than exacting. I have no concern for the finer points of the suspension system; all I require are those features missing from my own motor: wing mirrors, a horn you can actually hear and a passenger door that opens without a fight. The Felicia doesn't disappoint.

Yet as I manoeuvre my Nigel Mansell-sized arse into the driving seat and lurch out of the car park, I feel slightly despondent. Despite its tumescent scarlet bodywork, the Felicia is by no means a racy car. No one gives it a second glance. Not even the realisation that this is the actual car in which Starbird Sam was hoisted skywards can boost my testosterone level.

Nor am I entirely sure what I should be evaluating. I have never road- tested a car before. Usually it's the preserve of menopausal male speed merchants: Judge Pickles, Brian Sewell. Not people like me, who crack when interrogated by AA men, who suffer huge guilt trips when driving over the remains of Twyford Down.

"Road handling" is the only test category that springs to mind, not something that's easy to judge in the linear, human-free habitat of Milton Keynes. With no sharp corners to swerve around, the best I can manage is negotiating a tricky chicane at the drive-thru McDonald's next to Shoe City.

Zooming down the M1 without once taking refuge in the crawler's lane, I arrive in London for my first opportunity to test the car's acceleration. Even to my untutored eye, the manual's figure of 0-62mph in 14 seconds seems a bit feeble. Clearly, I'll have to choose my competition with some care.

At traffic lights at the Hanger Lane roundabout, I ease alongside two women deep in conversation in a battered Escort and a pizza courier on a scooter. Amber and I'm off, all burning rubber and frenzied gear-changing. First, second, fifth. Oops! Driver error. Too late. The pizza man powers past me.

Back at my flat, I decide to enlist some parental assistance and call up my father. His abiding interest in fuel consumption is one of life's constants. "What are you getting to the gallon?" has been his regular, if unanswered, refrain for more than 10 years. This time I'm ready for him. "Urban: 38.2 mpg; 56mph: 51.4mpg; 75mph: 37.7mpg," I reel off. "That's not bad," he says. I go to bed with the rare pleasure of having fulfilled my filial duty.

The next morning, the photographer, Dave, arrives to capture the Felicia in motion. He tells me he's recently been looking to buy a new car. As we take a turn round Ladbroke Grove in the rush hour I wait in vain for an insight into gearbox ratios and maximum torque. "These doors make quite a lot of noise when you shut them," is all he volunteers in half an hour.

The test-drive over, I cannot help feeling the Skoda has lost its charm. Admittedly, no one has been clutching their sides in hysterical laughter, but nor has anyone been consumed with envious admiration. I'm just one more anonymous commuter.

Returning the car later that day, I spy a building site and my last chance of making an impact. I cruise past the workmen three times, allowing ample opportunity for them to flag me down and raise me and the Felicia up in exultation. But they keep their eyes on their spades and I drive off into the rain.

Tomorrow: Dermot Kelly, our man at Skoda, in `Weekend' Motoring.