Model: Skoda Fabia 2 1.4 TDI
Engine: 1.4 litre diesel
Performance: 0-62mph in 13.2 seconds, 61.4mpg
Worth considering: Renault Clio, Seat Ibiza, Volkswagen Polo
The job of a motoring writer has to be one of the best around, but it does have a big drawback: people are inclined to press you for car-buying recommendations. This is deeply hazardous territory. The consequences of lumbering a friend or even a total stranger with some fast-depreciating dud on the basis of favourable impressions gathered during a vaguely remembered road test are too awful to contemplate.
If it really is impossible to wriggle out of making a concrete recommendation, though, I say the same thing every time get a Skoda Octavia. I make this suggestion, firstly, because of this: most people who know anything about cars are aware of Skoda's transformation from market also-ran to front-runner, and are usually prepared to consider buying one but there's still a chance that they will be persuaded not to follow my advice by their auto-illiterate other-halfs or their brand-obsessed teenage children, getting me off the hook.
But the second reason I recommend the Octavia is that I that know anyone who buys one will end up secretly congratulating himself on a great choice every time he drives it, because that car represents a unique sort of budget-premium bargain that other manufacturers find it hard to match. Volkswagen technology and quality, combined with keen pricing and an exceptionally wide model range, means that there's an Octavia for everyone.
So what about the latest version of the Fabia tested here? In most respects, the Octavia's smaller stablemate reaches a similarly high standard. It shares many of the larger car's most desirable characteristics great build quality and practicality, for example and adds a few of its own; its upright packaging, for example, which makes it one of the easiest small cars to get in and out of, and its funky styling, similar to that seen on the innovative Roomster, are just two.
Quibbles? Well the mid-range "2" trim level of our test car had a two-tone interior colour scheme that features a lot of light grey plastic the all-dark grey dash of the "1" and "3" variants looks a lot more tasteful. Also, the diesel engine was a three cylinder unit personally I'm a big fan of the characterful engine note this layout provides but not everyone else is. Overall, though, it's still a great car.
If there's a real snag with the Fabia, it's not so much with the car itself but with Skoda's strangely compressed price structure. Our test car cost 11,175; that's a fair price against its competitors, but you could get an Octavia for that. I apologise for the monotony of my recommendations, but if you're looking for a bargain, the Fabia's bigger sister really is hard to beat.
David Healey, 49; Euan, 9; Calum, 11. David is a charity manager, Sutton Coldfield
Usual cars: Golf Mark III 1.9 diesel, Zafira 2.0 diesel
The Fabia's driving position was good, and the height-adjustable seats and steering wheel were welcome. Equipment, radio and trim are good quality, the controls clear and easily accessible. It has a sensible sized boot, but after the family Zafira my boys found the rear space cramped. I liked the turbo-diesel engine's torque, acceleration, excellent economy and low emissions, but the three-cylinder engine is noisier than a four, especially at low speed. This is, overall, a likeable, economical small car, but I'd shop around to see if I could find a bigger engined and thus quieter diesel for the same money.
Luke Noonan, 33, company director, Hemel Hempstead
Usual cars: Mercedes SLK, Peugeot 206
Although I know Skoda is owned by VW and has a reputation for quality, I did not expect to get much from this car, and I didn't. The diesel engine has a reasonable amount of poke initially but it loses interest when you push the revs up. The gearbox is sloppy at best, but worst of all is the interior. Simply and clearly laid out, yes, but the colour scheme and the plastics are dreary. On the plus side, the handling is firm and the car feels solid on the open road. I also noticed the MPG gauge on the dash moving into three figures on the motorway. Someone wanting a solid, value, small car with low CO2 emissions could consider this, but there are better, more attractive cars in this class.
Richard Wilkins, 43, IT consultant, London
Usual car: Skoda Octavia
From the outside this car looks fairly small, but once inside there was little difference, space-wise, from the larger model Skoda model I'm used to driving, even in the rear seats. Not having driven a diesel before, I did find the Fabia quite noisy at first, although, after I'd had it running for a while, it blended in with the inner-city noise and this was not so noticeable. The car handled well around the town and effortlessly climbed up local hills. Having lived for a time in Prague, my overall impression is that the Fabia is much like the Czech people who build it. It does an excellent job with the minimum of fuss, which, for a non-petrolhead like myself, is all that is needed from any car.
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