Motoring: What do you call the new Skoda?

The new Fabia supermini. And that's not a joke. Indeed, thanks to the influence of Volkswagen, this chunky, and classy, new model should lay the sneers to rest once and for all.

Specifications

Rivals

Model: Skoda Fabia 1.4 Comfort

Price: pounds 9,300 approx (including three years' servicing)

Engine: 1,390cc, four cylinders, 8 valves, 75bhp at 5,000rpm

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 104mph, 0-60 in 13.4sec, 37-43mpg

(all with five doors, all with 75bhp except Yaris)

Fiat Punto 1.2 ELX 16V: pounds 9,995. Perky and well-equipped, with sharp looks and a good ride.

Ford Fiesta 1.25 Zetec: pounds 9,850. A facelift of a facelift, but still fun to drive. Cramped in the back.

Peugeot 206 1.4 LX: pounds 10,445. Roomy and comfortable, bold styling; fun to drive, but rather expensive.

Renault Clio 1.4 RT: pounds 10,605. Not as spacious as the ads suggest, and dull to drive. Lots of equipment.

Toyota Yaris 1.0 GS: pounds 8,995. Car of the Year, with 67bhp from a tiny engine and a clever, futuristic cabin.

Here, before you, is the new Volkswagen: that's a statement guaranteed to annoy both Volkswagen and the owners of its cars. It might annoy the makers of the car pictured, too, whose creative independence might be deemed belittled. Annoyance, however, is not intended. The Skoda Fabia is much too good for that.

Modern Skodas, backed by the Volkswagen Group, are far beyond the outmoded Skoda jokes. They are stylish in a chunky, functional, timeless and classless way; they are well engineered and well made, yet they are inexpensive. They do the job that Volkswagens might once have done. And Skoda's new Fabia supermini does that job the best of all.

Detlev Wittig, the German vice-chairman of the Skoda board, says that today's Skodas are "smart buys" - cars for people with the wit to spot bargains and rising stars. The eastern European customer base has changed as secondhand imports from the West chip away at Skoda's past territory, and in western Europe the "last car" clientele, retirees buying a car to see them out, is dying off. So the Fabia is cool, clever, modern, capable. And sufficiently appealing to make it through to the European Car of the Year final.

By supermini standards, the Fabia is very roomy. The old Favorit was designed to let Party members travel without removing their hats, but the Fabia's loftiness has no such purpose. It folds people up and positions them in an upright posture, fitting plenty of people-carrying capacity into a compact car.

There's something almost retro about the snub-nosed front view, with that upright build, a bold radiator grille and wheel-arches that hint at an old car's mudguards. Maybe this is why Skoda's styling chief was recently seconded to Rolls-Royce and Bentley, a further-flung part of the VW empire. Inside, though, the look is uncompromisingly modern, and almost stark with its straight lines and knobbly textures. You're more aware of hard plastics than you would be in a Polo, but there's no painted metal - even in the basic Classic version. Other trim levels are Comfort and Elegance. Just like a Mercedes-Benz.

Underneath lies the Volkswagen Group's new small-car substructure that will appear under the Polo and the Seat Ibiza in a couple of years. That it's under a Skoda now is less to do with giving the Czech maker a leg- up than with fortunate timing, but the benefits are considerable, as we shall see. The bodywork is galvanised, with a 10-year guarantee against rust, and the two lowest-powered versions, of 1.0 and 1.4 litres, use not the expected Volkswagen engines but developments of Skoda's own, long- serving unit.

There are also a 1.4 16-valve with 100bhp, a diesel and a turbodiesel, all Volkswagen-derived, and a 2.0-litre will follow. A sporty RS derivative is planned, too, plus saloons and estate cars, but not a version with that brilliant three-cylinder turbo-diesel from the Polo. "It's too expensive and too high-tech for the moment," says Wittig, "but we'll see what the future brings."

It takes about 200 yards to realise that a Fabia is a more pleasing drive than a Polo, even a facelifted Polo. The new platform, with its improved suspension, is why; it's supple over bumps but steady in bends in a way that the bouncy Polo can't emulate. We're talking Peugeot 206 levels of comfort here. If there's a downside, it's that the steering's power assistance, fed by an electrically-driven pump, is too strong at speed. The action is very precise, though.

More of a downside comes with the 1.4-litre, 68bhp, eight-valve engine that's at the heart of the range. At least it did with the early example I drove. Fabia engines use a "drive-by-wire" accelerator with no direct connection between pedal and engine, and it can be disobedient. The main problem is its inability to respond to rapid accelerator movements, so you end up craving L-plates to save embarrassment.

Otherwise, the 1.4 is adequately smooth and tolerably perky. I then tried a 1.4 16V Elegance, which both sounded and felt more sporty and had a more biddable accelerator, but it wasn't quite right. Wittig agreed: "There is a lot of variation between examples," he said, "but we know about the problem and it is being fixed." By next March, when the Fabia comes to the UK, it's promised to be fine.

I finished with the 1.9-litre SDI diesel. It was quite noisy and not a turbodiesel, but was the most pleasing of all because it did as my right foot told it to do. Thus coordinated, I could confirm what an enjoyable and intelligently-designed car the Fabia really is. Perhaps one day, in about 2020, this clever car will merit an owners' club. Maybe the founders should call it the Fabian Society.

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