19 Nov 2013

Skoda Rapid Spaceback Review

Alex Wakefield reviews the Skoda Rapid Spaceback SE 1.2TSI 105 6 Spd Man and 1.6TDI 90 DSG 7 Spd

Skoda Rapid Spaceback

Over the last few years, Skoda has been frantically trying to increase its market share, by attempting to fill every possible automotive niche, between city car and luxury saloon. And to the most part it has worked. In the UK we love Skoda; so much so that we are now their fourth largest market behind China, Russia and Germany. This year alone, more than 55,000 cars have found new owners, and 45% of those are fleet buyers.

The past twelve months have seen six model launches, and the range has picked up awards across the spectrum from City Car of The Year, to Tow Car of the Year. With a market share of 2.8%, the brand is now a common sight in the UK, although with one exception it seems. Last year the Rapid hatchback was introduced, along with an almost identical Seat Toledo sister car, and both remain quite a rarity.

In theory, the immensely and deservedly successful Octavia hatchback and estate fill the compact family car segment for Skoda, but the Octavia is slightly larger than the Golf upon which it is based. If you look at the model line up, it makes sense to slot in a slightly smaller car to compete further down the price range. That’s where the Rapid comes in but until now, appeal has been limited on account of the car being very obviously placed in the budget car category. The driving experience and interior quality is not quite what we have come to expect from Skoda.

The new Rapid Spaceback changes this. Despite appearances, this is actually quite a different car to the conventional Rapid, being 180mm shorter, whilst at the same time boasting of a greater amount and use of, interior space. In side profile, it resembles the current Audi A3 Sportback, although the Skoda designers were at great pains to point out their new ‘crystalline’ design lighting and ‘four leaf clover’ inspiration on the front end. The treatment given to the Rapid in Spaceback form gives it a much more handsome, almost muscular appearance. It looks fresh and sculptured, especially when compared to the frumpy conventional car.
Skoda Rapid Spaceback

You can specify your Rapid Spaceback with a large panoramic glass roof which extends rearward down, over and into the tailgate. It’s probably worth spending the extra on the glass, because it gives a pleasant sensation of increased headroom and personal space that goes well with the Spaceback’s liberated rear passenger and boot area. Even with the dark interior trim fitted to our first test car, the difference between this and metal roofed cars was noticeable.

Skoda says that this car is aimed squarely at the Golf/Focus segment of the market and if rear passengers have any say, they’ll want the driver to choose a Spaceback, because legroom and head room is well above average. Behind them is a class leading boot space with 415 litres volume when the rear seats are up, and 1,380 litres with the seat backs folded down. The latter position would be a lot more useful if the rear seat cushions all folded forward, making a fully flat space, but they don’t, and this seems like a wasted opportunity on a car that sings loudly about versatility.

The boot has a couple of nice touches including a double sided false floor with carpet and wipe clean options on either side, but the opening is quite small, with a high lip and, unless the rear shelf is removed, it would be quite difficult to load anything long or bulky. The Spaceback is aimed at young families, but they would have difficulty getting a typically cumbersome modern pushchair in and out. Compared to the current Ford Focus, there’s plenty of space in the luggage compartment but it’s a shame that the rear design couldn’t have taken into account the practicalities of actually using it.

The dashboard and interior generally have been treated to a few upgrades over the standard Rapid, including new trim around the entertainment and ventilation systems, and a new three spoke steering wheel . However, the plastics used throughout much of the rest of the car still feel disappointingly low quality, particularly the lower dash and interior door trims. The materials used do feel well screwed together though, and should resist the worst ravages of the youngsters whose parents were firmly in the sights of Skoda when this car was first envisaged.

Drivers with large feet might find the pedal box a little cramped, particularly in cars with manual gearboxes, and it can be difficult to acquire a perfect driving position, the gear lever always seeming just a little too far down for comfort. The optional sat-nav and Climatronic air conditioning controls are also a little fiddly to operate, with an infuriatingly slow-witted touch screen on the former, and small buttons just outside of easy reach on the latter. However, one nice feature on the entertainment system was the inclusion of DAB radio, with a combined radio preset system that incorporates all bands in a collection of favourites, such that it is not necessary to switch between DAB, FM and MW to select your preferred station.
Skoda Rapid Spaceback

There’s the usual iPod and USB connectivity, controlled through a multi function steering wheel on SE models and above although the controls on that wheel feel brittle. In general then, despite there being a decent amount of room, the interior does disappoint somewhat, especially in cars without the glass roof and tailgate, which feel really rather conventional and dull.

We tried two engines at launch, although five flavours are available, together with manual and DSG automatic transmission options. There’s an 86BHP 1.2TSI petrol, or a 105BHP version that was in the mid range ‘SE’ specification car we tried. Many have commented on how impressive this engine is, and in the Spaceback it’s no disappointment. True, it has to be worked quite hard to deliver the power but there’s decent mid-range torque which means gearchanges are not as common as they might be. The 6 speed manual ‘box has a light action, and the ratios are chosen well, to take advantage of the small engine up front and preserve momentum. It’s a little noisy when worked hard, but it’s difficult to see why you might need the 1.4TSI 122BHP, especially when there are tax advantages to the 1.2.

The well known VW group 1.6TDI diesel comes in two versions, a 90BHP and a 105BHP, both with particulate filters. We tried the 90BHP with the VW 7 speed DSG gearbox. There are no gearchange paddles behind the wheel although if you shift the lever across to the left, you can manually override by pushing back and forth. It’s probably best not to bother for the most part as changing through the seven ratios can be quite frenetic as you work the narrow torque band of this turbocharged diesel engine. The motor itself seems very noisy at idle and is extremely vocal at higher revs. It doesn’t suffer from turbo lag but delivery comes in two forms – ‘some’ or ‘all.’ This may be a quirk of the gearbox but if you want to do more than trickle through traffic, you must be prepared for some jerkiness.

Ride quality on cars fitted with the larger 17 inch wheels was firm, although not unacceptably so. The diesel car we tried with the heavier engine up front, and smaller wheel rims gave a smoother experience and mopped up imperfections in the road surface more readily. The steering feels vague once up to speed, a typical characteristic of the electrically operated systems now commonplace. However, it weights up on fast cornering, and the introduction of feedback to the driver is quite a shock. What it tells you is that the front end has a real tendency to plough straight on once the grip of the tyres has been exhausted. This is not a car that will be noted for particular finesse although behaviour will be acceptable to the vast majority of customers.
Skoda Rapid Spaceback

Prices for the Spaceback range begin at £14,430 for the basic S model with a manual gearbox and the 86BHP 1.2TSI engine, through to £18,640 for the 1.6 TDI Greentech Elegance. On paper those prices look very competitive, but the lovely glass roof and tailgate combination will set you back another £1,100 in conjunction with some other trim items. If you want DAB radio, you’ll need to specify it with the touchscreen satnav for another £550. Our mid range SE test cars hovered around the £20,000 mark and that puts the car into the incredibly hotly fought Golf and Focus sector, and both of those have a great deal of pedigree. It also pitches the car into the same section of the market as Skoda’s own brilliant Octavia.

Despite this, the car is likely to have a lot of showroom appeal, especially with the stylish panoramic roof and tailgate. Skoda can expect to generate a lot more interest with this car than the Rapid saloon, from all sectors of the marketplace. In the right colour combination, it looks striking, but it is conservative enough to attract existing owners looking for a little more space, or even those downsizing from further up the range. For most, that will be enough to place an order, but in going to the extent of extensively redesigning the car, it’s just a shame that the interior could not have been given more flexibility, or made to feel a little more special.

Review by Alex Wakefield