The concept of Skoda actually struggling to sell its cheaper cars is something of a mind-bending one for those of us old enough to remember such models as the Rapide, the Favorit, and the early Felicias.
The whole point of Skodas, back then, was that they were cheap, they were cheerful and they were sturdy.
Since then, the sturdiness has been retained but everything else about the brand has changed. Sophisticated cars such as the Octavia and Superb have arrived, and Skoda’s image and brand have both risen in the public’s estimation.
Sales have taken a similar trajectory but the problem now (if problem indeed it is) is getting the buying public interested in the firm’s more workaday models.
Indeed, as Mark Mulvaney, PR & sponsorship manager for Skoda Ireland told The Irish Times: "We had the new Karoq SUV, and the Kodiaq at a recent event, and you would think from the way some people are talking that we don't actually make any other models."
Of course, this could be all part of Skoda’s cunning plan to rid itself of cheaper, lower-profit margin models and focus on the fat of the Czech land. . .
That could well be an issue, then, for the Citigo and Rapid, both revised and updated and relaunched on the Irish market here. The Rapid in particular is Skoda as she used to be spoken: a simple, useful, practical, and rugged car that majors on space and a sharp price, but which is perhaps lacking a little in sophistication.
It’s based on a mish-mash of old Golf and Fabia parts, and when it was first introduced, in 2012, it was pretty horrid. Built down to a bargain price, and feeling every inch of it, it majored on rear legroom and a big boot, but lacked cabin quality and had appalling rear suspension that skipped and hopped over surface imperfections.
That suspension was largely fixed with a minor facelift in 2013, and now the Rapid has been back to the plastic surgeon for more. It gets a new grille and tweaked lights, the option of some high-end new touchscreens for the cabin, and some connectivity options such as Skoda Connect, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto.
You can have it as a fastback saloon, or a rather pertly attractive "Spaceback" hatchback, but the problem is that the price has ballooned for both. €19,595 is now the cheapest sticker for the Rapid, up from about €17,000 when it was first introduced. Okay, so inflation strikes everywhere, but while at €17,000 the Rapid was a useful Dacia alternative, at €19,000 it has bigger problems.
The biggest problem of all is the Skoda Octavia, a bigger, vastly more sophisticated car which frankly often outpaces its progenitor, the VW Golf, and not just in the value stakes. The cheapest PCP plan available for the Rapid works out at €219 a month. The cheapest PCP plan for the Octavia works out at. . . €219 a month, so is there any point to the Rapid?
Not really, no. Space-wise it occupies the ground between the Fabia and the Octavia, and it is reasonably spacious. There’s copious legroom in the back seats, and in the saloon version a whopping 550-litre boot.
Up front, the dashboard looks a little old-school and the plastics, although generally fine, are from a previous generation. You do get nice, clear dials and the front seats are decently comfy but for the same money, the Octavia is not just from another class, but from another planet.
That goes equally for the driving experience. Fitted with the 1.0-litre three-cylinder TSI petrol engine with 110hp, our test Rapid Spaceback at least had the advantage of a truly excellent engine, and it once again begged the question of why we went for diesel in the first place. It’s refined, has excellent low-down punch (the Rapid’s trim 1,170kg weight helps here) and is generally quite lovely.
For the most part, the Rapid is perfectly pleasant to drive. The steering is a little over-light and short on feel, and the suspension occasionally shimmies and sways in a manner that reminds you it’s still a lowest-bidder beam axle at the back, but overall it’s competent and confident. Again, though, an Octavia feels like a Rolls Phantom in comparison.
Joan Rivers treatment
Will the little Citigo fare any better? It ought to, although the market for titchy 1.0-litre cars is as small as the cars themselves. The Citigo has been in for the Joan Rivers treatment too, limited to some tweaks to the bumpers and lights, and there’s a new system that replaces a touchscreen with a mount for your smartphone of choice and an app that connects it to the car’s systems. Simply clever, as they like to say ‘round Skoda way.
The rest hasn’t changed, and didn’t need to. Our Monte Carlo-spec test car (sporty graphics and wheels, €15,000 price tag which is a bit steep, but it did have the pokier 75hp 1.0-litre naturally-aspirated engine) looked great, and there’s just enough width in the cabin for two full-sized chaps to sit elbow-to-elbow. There’s also reasonable space in the back seats, and a decent 251-litre boot.
And it’s lovely to drive. The engine is willing, peppy and tuneful and it’ll cruise all day on the motorway, at an indicated 120km/h, mixing it with the sales reps and the truckers, and return 50mpg while doing so.
Then you can slip into the tiniest gaps in town, and feel smug about the smallness of your motor tax bill and general running costs. Irish buyers tend to trade up to the larger Fabia-Fiesta-Yaris class, but those who don’t need the extra space are missing out. It’s a delight.
Sadly, it's probably already consigned to the same litter bin of yesteryear Skodas as the Rapid, at least by Irish buyers. The Celtic Tiger may be stuffed and mounted, but the affordability of PCP deals (however sand-like some of their foundations may be…) is driving some serious snobbiness among the car-buying populace these days. Haven't you heard? Skoda only makes posh SUVs now. . .
Skoda Rapid Spaceback 1.0 TSI 110hp Sport
Price: €24,165 as tested. Range starts at €19,595.
Top speed: 200km/h.
Claimed economy: 61mpg (4.6 litres/100km).
CO2 emissions: 106g/km.
Motor tax: €190.
Verdict: Perfectly pleasant until you see the price. Then you buy an Octavia instead.
Our rating: 2/5
Skoda Citigo 1.0 MPI Monte Carlo
Price: €15,450 as tested. Range starts at €11,595.
Top speed: 173km/h.
Claimed economy: 64mpg (4.4 litres/100km).
CO2 emissions: 101g/km.
Motor tax: €180.
Verdict: Small and sweet, but will buyers take note?
Our rating: 3/5