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Is the Skoda Fabia good enough to challenge for top slot in a sector packed with talented competition?

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Did you hear the one about the Skoda? It was in 2000, when people told Skoda jokes and still thought them funny. Then along came the Skoda Fabia, built on an all-new platform, a platform so new it had yet to find its way into any VW-badged product.

The Fabia was good – so good that overnight those jokes seemed outdated. People stopped laughing and started listening; Skoda was suddenly a serious player. Now, the challenge facing Skoda is to keep that momentum going, to elevate the brand from challenger to conqueror.

It would be a major upset if the new Fabia wasn’t a thoroughly decent car

It would be a major upset if the new Fabia wasn’t a thoroughly decent car. But is it good enough to challenge for top slot in a sector packed with competition as fresh and talented as the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa and Volkswagen Polo? If anything, the second-generation Fabia is less radical that the first, its platform an updated version of the previous generation's with the same MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam rear axle. This tweaked platform is also found in the current Volkswagen Polo which, again, received it after the Skoda, and in the Seat Ibiza and Audi A1.

Body styles are five-door hatch or estate car, and the engine line-up is standard VW Group fare with power ranging from the 1.2-litre, three-cylinder engine's 69bhp right up to the 178bhp of the turbo- and supercharged TSi unit of the 1.4-litre vRS hot hatchback. Other petrol and turbodiesel engines inhabit the space in between, including the 1.4-litre, naturally-aspirated, 85bhp unit of our test car.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Skoda badging

Although wearing the same quirky, beak-like face as the Skoda Roomster, the Fabia treads a more conventional styling path. From some angles it references the original Fabia; from others it is reminiscent of the Suzuki Swift or even the Mini, particularly the black window pillars that give the appearance of a separate, blade-like roofline.

Despite its inherited underpinnings and identical wheelbase, the new Fabia’s basic dimensions differ considerably from the outgoing model's. Although it's narrower, taller and longer, the overall effect is of a smaller, nimbler car. This is a clever visual trick, because the new Fabia is more spacious in every respect. The greatest gain comes in the 47mm increase in height, bringing objective benefits in extra headroom and subjective benefits in perceived spaciousness. Rear-seat passengers are the greatest beneficiaries of this; there’s now enough headroom and legroom to accommodate 6ft adults.

There’s headroom and legroom to accommodate 6ft adults in the back

INTERIOR

Skoda Fabia dashboard

With the capacity to seat four, or five at a pinch, it’s a boon to find also that the Skoda’s usefully shaped boot swallows 300 litres, 40 litres more than before and ahead of anything else in the class. There are no clever new storage solutions, but the Fabia’s boot does have useful shopping bag hooks, a basket for loose items and two positions for the parcel shelf.

The rear seats lower to a true horizontal, but require two-stage operation (the squabs must first be folded forward and the head restraints removed) and there remains a lip between boot floor and lowered seat backs. The driver’s seat adjusts for height and the steering column for both reach and rake. This is nothing new, yet as all our test drivers found a naturally comfortable, relaxed seating position, we can’t help but conclude that Skoda has excelled in this most basic of areas. Our only criticism is the seats’ lack of lateral support.

In ambience and finish the new Fabia betters the previous VW Polo by some margin

The cabin architecture draws heavily on that of the Roomster, which means familiar VW-sourced switchgear, arranged efficiently but with a shade more idiosyncracy than you’d find in a Volkswagen Polo. Everything is clear, easy to use and inoffensively designed, with touches of aluminium-look paint around the vents, dials and gearlever to lift the otherwise dark cabin. On close inspection, it’s clear that money has been spent on the tactile surfaces, while in other less conspicuous areas (the roof lining, for instance) the finish is less convincing. That said, in ambience and finish the new Fabia betters the previous VW Polo by some margin, squeezes ahead of the Renault Clio and comes close to unseating the Corsa as an optimum supermini interior, even if it lacks the flair of a Ford Fiesta's.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Skoda Fabia side profile

Engines-wise, Skoda offers a 1.2-litre three-cylinder with 69bhp and a 1.4-litre four-cylinder with 85bhp, both naturally aspirated, plus 1.2-litre turbos with 84 and 103bhp – plus that potent 1.4-litre vRS unit. Diesels are a 1.2-litre, 74bhp, three-cylinder unit for the high-economy Fabia Greenline, or 1.6 TDIs ranging from 74bhp though 89 to 104.

Although our heavily-optioned, 1.4-litre, 85bhp test car tipped our scales at 1134kg, Skoda’s own figures put the 1.4 model at 1060kg, four bags of sugar lighter than the model we tested in 2000, and among the lightest in the current class. Given the Fabia’s grown-up feel and solid construction, this lightweight structure is a major achievement.

Fill the Fabia to capacity and the pace drops markedly

On first inspection this 1.4-litre 16-valve engine’s power appears less than impressive, with some same-capacity rivals providing more poke. Look closer, though, and you’ll notice that the Fabia’s peak power is produced earlier, as is the decent 97lb ft of torque. Smooth, linear and equally happy at either end of the rev range, the 1.4’s weakness is a more audible voice than some rivals, but with a breathy, encouraging note, even this is not a significant issue.

On the Millbrook mile straight our 1.4 hit 60mph from rest in 11.5sec, quicker than Skoda’s own claims and as quick as anything in its class. Around the bowl the Fabia just clicked into triple figures, before losing the fight to aerodynamic drag at 104mph. One caveat, though: fill the Fabia to capacity – four adults and their luggage – and the pace drops markedly, leaving you working both gearbox and engine hard to achieve even quite moderate speeds.

The 74bhp diesel Greenline Fabia certainly makes you work for its claimed 83.1mpg. Its three-cylinder 1.2-litre diesel is unrefined and requires plenty of revs to keep pace with traffic, meaning real-world economy tumbles. Emitting only 89g/km is fantastic if regular trips to London are planned.

Although the Fabia’s 256mm front discs threatened to bonfire themselves after only three major stops, they brought the car to a halt from 70mph in an impressive 47.0m. In conventional driving perform well, with excellent pedal feel.

RIDE & HANDLING

Skoda Fabia rear cornering

Unintimidating, spacious and reassuringly simple to use, the Skoda Fabia feels like a trustworthy travel companion even before it has turned a wheel. This impression is validated within your very first mile; each of the Fabia’s major controls moves with measured linearity, alluding to solid, dependable engineering and endowing the Fabia with the feeling of a larger car.

The steering requires more wheel work than some rivals, being less eager to react off centre, but it has among the most feel of the electric systems that now dominate the class. Similarly, the five-speed gearbox (a DSG auto is available for some models, and is obligatory in the rapid vRS) is light to operate, accurate and satisfyingly mechanical. The first three ratios are low – convenient for nipping around town – but thankfully fifth is longer-legged to give a more relaxed touring attitude. Motorway travel is impressively free of wind and road noise, but with its tall, narrow stance the Fabia is susceptible to crosswinds.

The Fabia rides as well as anything in the class

The sense of maturity continues with a ride that confidently smooths over the worst roads, passing unfazed over high-frequency ridges and adeptly cushioning occupants from the severest of potholes. At speeds below 20mph, sharper-edged manhole covers cause the suspension a little trouble, more audibly than physically, and with little actual movement translated into the cabin. This small criticism aside – which may have been caused by our test car’s optional 16in alloy wheels – the Fabia rides as well as anything in the class.

The secret to that winning ride becomes apparent the moment you arrive at a corner with any gusto, the Fabia’s soft springs providing a cornering approach very much in the classic French supermini style. It won’t roll like a Citroën AX, but be prepared for greater cornering angles than you’ll get with a Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio or Corsa. Other than through the most severe compressions, where the Fabia can run into its bump stops all too easily, this soft set-up is in itself not a problem, but with the seats' lack of lateral support, enthusiastic cornering can send you sliding from your perch.

Persist and you’ll discover the Fabia possesses admirable handling and decent grip. It is – to the extent an 85bhp hatchback can be – fun to drive, feeling faithful to your inputs and providing a sense of connectivity with the road absent from Renault’s and Vauxhall’s superminis.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Skoda Fabia 2007-2014

Since the 2000 Skoda revolution, value for money has been at the heart of the brand’s revitalisation. But more recently, starting with the Roomster, Skoda has indicated a desire to move its pricing closer to the established competition. A keen eye is therefore turned upon the Fabia’s equipment tally. Even the most basic S-spec Fabia offers front and side airbags, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, central locking, electric front windows and radio/CD with an aux socket – a tremendous amount of stuff for the money.

The Fabia SE spec of our test car adds useful functions like air-con, halogen lights with directional adjustment, 15in alloys, four more speakers and an alarm. That said, the current Fabia is no longer the bargain the model once was. Fuel economy should fall in line with, or marginally above, the class median, with a realistic average of 32.4mpg.

If the previous Fabia is anything to go by, residuals should be among the best in class

Our experience suggests the Fabia Greenline presents too great a compromise as an everyday prospect in chasing ever-greater mpg figures. At £13,875, it is more expensive than the cheapest 104bhp 1.6 TDI. This larger engine still emits only 109g/km, and is far easier to live with day-to-day.

Finally, if the previous Fabia is anything to go by, residuals should be among the best in class.

VERDICT

4.5 star Skoda Fabia

Compared with the revelation of the first Fabia, this new generation of Skoda supermini isn’t the huge forward leap of the original. But the new Fabia offers class-leading space, a well-finished interior and mature road manners. Some rivals might sneak ahead on refinement and solidity or be more satisfying to drive, but if it’s good-value space that counts, then the Skoda is the best of the lot.

The Fabia offers class-leading space, a well-finished interior and mature road manners

Skoda Fabia 2007-2014 First drives