It's comfortable, it's practical, it looks great and it has a wonderful future. And, of course, it's a Skoda. James Ruppert re-evaluates a much-maligned marque
A BILLOWING blue curtain. Dry ice. Strobe lights. Thumping music. A large, impatient crowd pushing forward for a closer look. After all, this is the Frankfurt Motor Show and the unveiling of a brand new car. No surprise there, then. What is surprising is that the car the crowd is awaiting so eagerly is a Skoda. If you find that funny, then you have not been paying attention for the past few years because smart people now buy Skodas.

Skodas were never that tragic, even in the bad old Iron Curtain days. Technically interesting and original, the rear-engined Estelle coupe was Porsche 911-like for entertainment value. They were cheap, practical and pretty reliable, but for some reason the abuse stuck. The really big automotive joke was actually the hapless Russian carmaker Lada, whose reheated Sixties Fiats were abysmal - cheap, cheerless and awful to drive. At least Skoda had a rich and respectable past. Now, thanks to Volkswagen, which bought the company in 1991, it has a wonderful future.

No one has driven the Fabia yet, but it is bound to be good. We know that because the underpinnings will be the basis for Volkswagen's forthcoming Polo and SEAT Ibiza superminis. The Fabia will be a sort of super dooper mini, specifically designed to be larger and more practical than its rivals. The interior dimensions are very generous and the trim quality is remarkable. Equally pleasing are extremely comfortable seats and a clearly laidout dashboard and controls. UK specifications, for when it arrives in the early part of 2000, are not finalised. Expect prices to start at pounds 8,000. Here's a fascinating fact. The Fabia's Belgian stylist Dirk van Braeckel is now in charge of design for Bentleys. So you know what all Bentleys will to look like. Skodas.

If that does not convince a sceptic that there has been a Czech revolution, maybe the Skoda Octavia will. Launched in 1996, this turned most doubters into converts. Underneath the stylish body is a Volkswagen Golf, which is reassuring. Intended as a mid-sized family hatchback, it has been incredibly successful. The Octavia is spacious, well built and reliable. Even the galvanised steel body is guaranteed not to corrode for 10 years. The interior is functional, with the plastic feeling slightly more plasticky than other VW Group products. But what an impressive package. There is a wide range of VW engines, from a 1.4 petrol to a turbo diesel, and generous levels of specification - air conditioning, an electronic parking sensor and cruise control . The estate is probably the best value and most versatile model. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to drive the 4 x 4, which will hit Skoda showrooms in early 2000. It has all the off-road ability any of us will need. The brutish and oversized 4 x 4s that clog up our urban streets are not as agile, accomplished or versatile as the Octavia. It has a useful 23mm extra ground clearance and the clever four-wheel drive system makes its presence felt only when necessary, as driving conditions deteriorate.

If you really want to know what old Skodas are like, try a Felicia and get a very pleasant surprise. It will not be replaced by the Fabia immediately and is likely to be available until 2001. An update of the old pre VW Favorit, it is still highly practical transport for those on a budget, with prices starting at pounds 6,999. I last drove a diesel model when my VW was in for a service. Unfortunately, the service receptionist apologised for having to loan me a Skoda, proving that there is still some work to do among Skoda staff.

So Skoda is the practical good value buy. SEAT is the sporty choice, VWs are the conservative high quality brand, while Audis are the aspirational executives. Confusing for some. VW is either being very clever or playing a dangerous game. What Skoda must not do is lose touch with its loyal UK fans, who want no nonsense, good value cars.

Eventually I find Lada's stand in a quiet corner at the Frankfurt Motor Show. With its cars no longer imported into the UK, Lada has finally dragged itself into the 1980s. The styling is dull and the interior is so tacky I feel sick. The contrast with Skoda's bustling stand is very apparent. Anyone spending their own hard-earned cash on a new car should look no further than a Skoda.