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The Skoda Roomster shows that practical needn’t mean boring, and makes for an interesting alternative to the traditional estate

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The foolish could easily dismiss the Roomster as just some novelty niche irrelevance that Skoda could do without. Foolish, because the Roomster represents a milestone in the rejuvenation of the Skoda brand, and is exactly the type of car Skoda needs to be making – cars that show practical needn’t mean boring, and cars that are much more than just watered down, re-badged VWs.

It is in fact a model for how platform sharing should work. Yes, there are the economies of scale of lower parts costs and component modularity (the chassis mixes original construction with parts from the Fabia and both new and old Octavia).

The Roomster represents a milestone in the rejuvenation of the Skoda brand

But this is combined with intelligent, consumer-focused design. Your preconceptions are most likely informed by the quirky exterior and similarity to MPV-from-a-van rivals from Citroën and Renault, but these are turned on their head by a surprisingly good drive, with genuinely practical design reinforcing this feel-good factor.

You realise that what you thought was either frivolous or functional is useful, enjoyable and desirable.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Skoda Roomster front end

Where the Skoda Roomster really excels is in the interweave of functionality and originality, a fluid mix that flows throughout the car. In profile, the Roomster’s swooping curves and disjointed window lines may appear clumsy and without purpose, but in truth these inject interest and differentiation into a shape that is necessarily boxy and slab sided. The windscreen and pillar treatment, for example, are almost Saab-like.

Likewise, you might reasonably question the mismatched door lines, but the excellent access the higher rear door provides justifies the unusual design. The design is not fault free – the swooping B-pillar exaggerates your blind spot, and the boot door is so long and low-reaching that it can’t be opened in restricted spaces. But overall it wins more battles than it loses.

The excellent access the higher rear door provides justifies the unusual design

It's interesting to look at the original Roomster concept sketches, though, which show something very different from the van-shaped reality. Much lower and sleeker, they treated the windscreen and front door windows as one piece of glass, and had the driver at the head of what are now the rear side doors' windows. It was more Ferrari Breadvan than Skoda people-van. As topological distortions go, it's a big one.

As with its Fabia and Octavia siblings, the Roomster is offered with a pseudo-4x4 Scout option. The ride height is raised by 43mm and plastic cladding replaces the bumpers to complete the off-road look.
 

INTERIOR

Skoda Roomster dashboard

The theme of originality continues inside the Roomster where Skoda’s interior design and feeling of quality approaches that of offerings from parent VW. While we experienced a few niggling issues with our two test cars – a small buzz emanating from the dash in one, and an ill-fitting glove box in the other, the fit and finish generally exceeded expectations.

There is nothing complex or fussy about the forward cabin, just thoughtfully placed, simple and stylishly designed controls. Our mid-spec Roomster 2 added metal-effect door handles and vent surrounds, a welcome contrast with the otherwise sober dash.

Cabin fit and finish generally exceeded expectations

Although the front cabin is awash with neat storage ideas, such as the elasticated straps that run across the top of the door bins to secure maps, the real trickery is behind the driver. After you’ve found the hidden door handles and stepped through the large rear doors, it’s immediately obvious how much higher the rear passengers sit that than their companions in the front. Assuming you’re not sat behind some freakishly tall driver, you should have a clear view of the road ahead, boosting the sense of spaciousness.

Accommodation in the rear consists of two outer chairs that both slide and recline, and a more occasional fixed middle seat (although it does fold forward to act as a centre arm rest, complete with cupholders). Unsurprisingly given the roofline, headroom is capacious, though legroom for adults is merely adequate, the seats’ travel limited by rear wheel intrusion. Reclining the seats improves the situation and few will complain over moderate journeys.

If there is a comfort-related criticism, it is that shoulder room is tight, but Skoda has a solution for this as well: if you’re travelling four up, remove the middle seat and you can slide the two outer seats inwards for more shoulder room.

With seats up the load capacity is still impressive at 530 litres (just 30 litres less than an Octavia hatch). If you have bigger loads to carry, you can fold down any of the three rear seats. If you need even more room, each unit can be independently pivoted forward and held in position with a bungee cord (which conveniently can also secure items in the boot). Still not enough? Each seat unit can be removed completely to give an uninterrupted flat floor, 400mm of extra load length and a total volume of 1780 litres.

The boot itself offers two bag-hooks, a power outlet, two large side trays, hooks for a luggage net and a bin for loose items or muddy boots. While none of this is individually ground breaking, the practicality count and attention to detail are impressive.

Likewise, each seat control is slick and well placed, our only gripes being the need to slide the seats back before pivoting them forward, and the weight of the seats themselves.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Skoda Roomster rear quarter

Skoda offers six engine options with the Roomster, three petrol units (a 1.2-litre three-cylinder with 69bhp or a 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo TSIs with 84 or 104bhp) and three turbodiesels (a 1.4-litre three-cylinder with 74bhp for the Greenline and a 1.6-litre four-cylinder with 89 or 104bhp.

Whichever you choose, there’s satisfaction to be had from driving a Roomster. The three-cylinder 1.2 makes the deep and sonorous hum typical of that configuration but might struggle on longer trips, especially with the car loaded. However, the sweet, hard working 1.2 turbos will prove well up to the task.

The current lower-power TSi should provide pace with low-end pulling ability and economy

Our test car was actually a non-turbo, 16-valve 1.4 with 85bhp, an engine no longer available in the Roomster but still offered in the Fabia. At the track it achieved a maximum of 102mph, and it proved able to cruise happily at 80mph with power in reserve, although the short fifth gear does translate to a buzzy 4000rpm at this speed.

The current lower-power TSi should provide similar pace with stronger low-end pulling ability and better economy, while the 104bhp version should prove able to beat our test car's 12.4sec 0-60mph time handsomely.

RIDE & HANDLING

Skoda Roomster cornering

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Skoda Roomster comes with the handling, which surpasses expectations spectacularly even though there is nothing innately special about its strut front, torsion-beam rear suspension.

Subjectively it helps that the driving position is set low, although the seats could do with more support, and that the movement of every major control is smooth, light and well balanced. The Roomster’s suspension is firm enough to cope with a payload of 515kg, more than an Octavia estate, yet it doesn't feel that way.

It delivers more smiles than you would ever expect

With its long wheelbase and broad track, the Roomster changes direction eagerly, grips admirably and keeps its composure over undulations. Throw in accurate, nicely weighted steering and supple ride over sharp disturbances, and you have a car that delivers more smiles than you would ever expect.

Unfortunately, the modifications to the Roomster Scout scupper this handling ability. The raised ride height contributes to greater body roll, whilst the combination of longer travel suspension and bigger wheels lends the Scout a choppy ride over uneven surfaces.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Skoda Roomster

Skoda thinks it has struck it right with the Roomster and has priced the range accordingly, but we can't agree. It starts at under £12,000 for the 1.2 Roomster S with 69bhp (electric front windows, curtain airbags and CD player) and peaks at just over £16,000 for the Greenline.

It's hard to recommend the Roomster Scout unless you're really keen on the styling upgrades; it carries a £660 premium over the equivalent SE model.

The Roomster is a versatile and well-made package

In the Roomster's defence, a Citroën Berlingo costs around the same but, in its latest form, has nothing like the Roomster's charm or dynamic appeal.

Today's Skoda brand might not represent the bargain it once did, but the Roomster is a versatile and well-made package – and it's still a good £2500 or more cheaper than a similarly-engined Skoda Yeti, a car which arrived after the Roomster and which some pundits thought might render the subject of this test redundant.

As for fuel economy, our test 1.4 averaged 42.1mpg across our touring route and an economic 36.7mpg overall. If the official fuel figures are a guide (which they often are not), virtually every Roomster in the current range should better that result.

VERDICT

4 star Skoda Roomster

It might look quirky, but this a Skoda with real substance. Bringing MPV versatility, van-like capacity and car-like road manners, the Roomster represents a genuinely new package.

But it doesn’t stop at meeting the functional brief. With good design, comfort and entertaining handling, the Roomster is the most innovative product to come from Skoda in recent years.

The Roomster is the most innovative product to come from Skoda in recent years

Only full fat pricing stands in its way – and, given its slow sales to date, the inconvenient presence of its Yeti stablemate.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Skoda Roomster 2006-2015 First drives