Skoda Fabia RS

Test venue: Shropshire

Since the mid-nineties Skoda has produced a string of excellent road cars, with later Felicia models leading the way for Octavia and Superb brands to push the Czech manufacturer way up the credibility stakes. There are no longer any jokes about Skodas. Volkswagen's transformation of the Eastern European brand is complete, but launching a diesel-engined 'hot hatch' in the form of the Fabia RS was a brave move nonetheless.

Skoda need not have worried. This car is one of the most pleasantly surprising to drive on the road today, despite the fact that you wouldn't associate its 1.9-litre TDI PD engine with brute performance and an exhilarating drive. Besides, the entire package can be yours for an on-the-road price of £11,990.

The Skoda team struggled in the FIA World Rally Championship throughout the 2003 season with the Octavia WRC and the Fabia WRC was launched on the Rally of Germany in July 2003. Instead of opting for a powerful petrol engine for the nimble little road-going derivative of the hatchback, management opted for 130 bhp diesel power, which offers respectable acceleration and staggering amounts of torque.

In fact, the turbocharged Pümpe Düse power unit offers a stunning 310 Nm of torque at a lowly 1,900 rpm. In layman's terms, this is 50% more than an old 3.5-litre SD1 V8 engine - such has been the development of car engine design in the last 15 years - and is enough to propel you through any of the six forward gears at an impressive rate. The gearing of the close-ratio manual transmission is such that you will reach the speed limit in 9.6 seconds, but will only be pulling 1,500 rpm in sixth gear at 60 mph. Top speed is around 127 mph.

Whereas many enthusiastically driven hot hatchbacks will only register around 25-28 mpg on the fuel gauge, I averaged a staggering 52.3 mpg after spending 250 miles with the Fabia RS in a variety of road conditions, which included some spirited driving around Shropshire and Warwickshire.

But aren't diesel-engined cars cumbersome in corners? Don't they suffer from excessive front end weight and inherant understeer? Not the Fabia RS. This model has been fitted with a front anti-roll bar and a thicker rear axle cross bar improves rear stability. The suspension has been lowered to improve handling and cornering, although it does suffer a little from torque steer during hard acceleration. A limited slip differential would be an excellent addition to this model, although RS Fabias are fitted with ABS braking and Skoda's ASR and MSR electronic traction control systems.

The sleek design of the Fabia RS distinguishes it from its stablemates. Like the Fabia WRC we see on the special stages, the front spoiler is integrated into the front bumper and larger inlets act as air intakes for the brakes and cooling system.

The rear is fitted with a spoiler, rear bumper with integrated air dam and a stainless steel exhaust. Sixteen-inch alloy wheels and Skoda's traditional green brake calipers and ventilated front discs complete the sports package.

Other standard equipment includes a driver and passenger air bag, an immobiliser, power steering, trip computer, a split rear seat, full-size spare wheel, central locking, air conditioning, electric front windows, a single CD player and foot pedals with metal covers and anti-slip pads.

The cockpit is neat and functional and figure-hugging sports seats give the driver a performance feel. But it's behind the wheel where the Fabia RS comes to life. The engine is pleasantly quiet on idle, but comes into its own in first, second and third gears. It runs out of steam above 5,000 rpm, but the massive torque curve pushes you forwards in impressive style. It offers ample pull in third gear out of a tight corner and you'll quickly be in illegal speed territory if you don't keep a watchful eye on the speedometer.

Rev the diesel unit hard through the rev range and the exhaust develops a delicious turbine-like whine. The brakes are excellent in all respects and the car only suffers from minimal understeer in greasy and wet conditions. It is fun to drive quickly and, of course, it's very economical.

I remember running a Skoda Felicia for nearly 12 months back in 1997. The car lacked power steering and had a rather crude suspension set-up. It had no air conditioning, was uncomfortable to drive for any distance and rarely turned an onlooker's head. Within the space of six years, the Skoda brand has been totally transformed.

The new Fabia RS is a very impressive car indeed. It offers performance and the 'fun factor' without detracting from excellent fuel economy, style and all-round practicality.

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