No-joke Skodas are cheap and respectable. But is it worth paying extra for a frugal diesel engine?

Roger Bell thinks not.

Anyone in the market for smart, mid-range wheels will soon need to shortlist an unfamiliar name: Skoda. The Passat-based Octavia promises the same unbeatable value - if not the same street cred - in the Ford Mondeo's class as the Skoda Felicia does in the Fiesta's. Record sales of 16,560 last year reflect the growing popularity of Czech-built, no- joke Skodas in Britain.

The Felicia is not a great car. There are trendier, more able five-door superminis. There is, though, nothing of comparable size, accommodation and quality to match the cheapest Skoda's price of just over pounds 6,000. Five- door Fiestas start at pounds 10,395, Fiat Puntos at pounds 8,328, Nissan Micras at pounds 8,535, Peugeot 106s at pounds 8,425. As products of the VW Group, the Skoda Felicia is far from shoddy, though. No car with a three-year, unlimited- mileage warranty is innately unreliable.

The cheapest Felicia is the spartan 1.3L, at pounds 6,299 inclusive of number plate, delivery charge, fuel, tax disc, even three years' roadside assistance. The latest model in a line-up of six hatchbacks and five estates is the 1.9D GLi, powered by a coarse but clean VW diesel engine.

Although some new-generation diesels are good enough to win the respect, even the cash, of die-hard petrolheads, the old-school Skoda's is more likely to fuel prejudice. Start-up is accompanied by a dreadful clatter, despite extra sound insulation. Fortunately, the racket subsides as you climb through the gears, and it disappears altogether when cruising. Acceleration is on the right side of sluggish, but the absence of a turbocharger is betrayed by tardy midrange thrust. Unlike some rivals, though, the Felicia does not discharge mucky black smoke under full throttle.

Felicias ride calmly on softish springs, and the front seats support well. The handling is tidy rather than crisp. Power-assisted steering is standard on the diesel, but cornering grip is restricted by skinny tyres. If you're after a chic funster that will scuttle through roundabouts like a Mini, look elsewhere.

At pounds 8,899, the diesel 1.9D GLi costs pounds 2,600 more than the base L. More to the point, it is pounds 700 dearer than the nippier petrol 1.3 GLi. Worth the extra? Unless you're a high-mileage user (unlikely in a Felicia), probably not. I calculate you'd need to cover more than 56,000 miles to recoup the extra outlay in fuel savings. And that doesn't take into account the extra oil/ filter changes required. No, the smoother, quieter 1.3GLi is a better bet.

Skoda Felicia 1.9DGLi, pounds 8,899. Engine: 1,896cc diesel, four cylinders, eight valves, 63bhp at 4,300rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual, front- wheel drive. Performance: top speed 97mph, 0-60mph in 16.5 seconds. Fuel consumption 46.3mpg.

Rivals

Fiat Punto 70tdSX five-door, pounds 10,407. Pricier of two diesel Puntos is more powerful, faster than Felicia diesel, and just as frugal. Turbo makes the difference. Roomy, well-packaged, high-style supermini that looks better than it is to drive.

Ford Fiesta 1.25LX five-door, pounds 10,395. Sweet petrol engine, smoother, quieter, nippier than Felicia diesel's - and almost as economical. Fun- car handling came with last major makeover. Sluggish diesel costs pounds 9,195.

Nissan Micra 1.3GX five-door, pounds 10,145. Noddy-car looks no longer an asset. Otherwise, nice to drive, petrol engine sweet and peppy. No diesel option, but 1.3 available (for steep premium) with excellent CVT automatic transmission.

VW Polo 1.9DL five-door, pounds 10,320. Powered by same engine as Felicia diesel. Classy looks, high build quality - but pricey. Petrol 1.4 better value.

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