Those with long memories will recall Skoda's last Rapid. This one is nothing like it. Jonathan Crouch reports on Skoda's family hatchback contender.
Ten Second Review
In an ambitious bid to double its sales over the next few years, Skoda has re-focused itself on the family hatchback segment with this Rapid, bigger and better value than most of its Golf and Astra-sized competitors. Rapidity may not be high on this car's agenda but with proven mechanicals and a refreshing lack of gimmickry, it aims to appeal to an assured kind of buyer who doesn't need to hide behind a badge to impress others. In other words, the kind of person who's traditionally bought a Skoda will probably very much like this one.
Back in the 1930s, the Skoda Rapid helped its Czech brand to become one of the largest automotive makers in Eastern Europe. And, with history repeating itself as it often does, this car, another Skoda Rapid, aims to do exactly the same thing. Which will mean a lot if the company can manage it. Eastern Europe, after all, is these days where virtually all the market's increasingly strong-selling budget brand cars are built, with Hyundai, Kia and Dacia factories respectively churning out i30, cee'd and Sandero models all aimed at the Focus-sized family hatchback sector which this Rapid arrived to target at the end of 2012.
This was a segment Skoda used to serve with its Octavia model, but with that becoming much larger and medium range Mondeo-sized in third generation form, a gap opened up in the marque's line-up that this Rapid slots right into. Not that this is a conventional offering for Focus folk. Developed alongside SEAT's virtually identical Toledo, it's true to Skoda's core values, costing you a little less yet offering you a little more, with starting prices pitched a shade below the family hatchback norm and cabin space, particularly in the boot, a little above it.
'Effective' is a word you keep coming back to after a drive in this car. There's nothing particularly enjoyable about the way it goes about its business, but most likely buyers don't seek that in an affordable five-door family car. In any case, there are plenty of other attributes on offer that target customers will probably value more highly. They might find the ride a little on the firm side of comfortable but they'll very much like the narrow body that makes parking and road width restrictions easier to negotiate aided by the excellent all-round visibility, the light, consistently-weighted controls and the simple switchgear that, thank goodness, features a proper conventional handbrake.
And under the bonnet? Well you can't go too far wrong provided you don't opt for the entry-level 75PS 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol unit. It isn't really up to the task of moving a car of this size along and is far less economic than the four cylinder 86PS 1.2-litre TSI petrol engine that isn't much more expensive and should really form the starting point of the line-up. Rest to 62mph here occupies 11.8s on the way to 118mph and if that's not fast enough, you can opt for this engine in turbocharged 105PS form, in which guise the figures are improved to 10.3s and 121mph.
More mature urban-bound motorists might like to consider the other petrol choice, a 122PS 1.4-litre TSI derivative, just about the only variant in the range not to be limited to a five-speed manual gearbox: 1.4 TSI Rapid buyers only get 7-speed DSG automatic transmission. Otherwise the main remaining Rapid option has a 1.6-litre TDI diesel, which with 105PS, will take you past 62mph in 10.4s on the way to 118mph.
Design and Build
I'll need to tell you that this car was styled by the same man, Jozef Kaban, who penned the million pound Bugatti Veyron supercar, for it's not something you'd guess on first acquaintance with this smart, clean but rather conventional shape. Actually, it's not very conventional at all by class standards, at around 4.5m long and under 2m wide significantly longer but slightly narrower than the Focus-sized family hatchback class norm.
Out back, you lift a wide-opening tailgate that rises to reveal a simply enormous 550-litre boot, extendable to 1,490-litres and with a clever (but optional) double-faced floor carpet option that almost all owners will want. In other words, you're looking here at the kind of carriage capacity you'd get from a typical estate bodystyle in this segment. That's why, in contrast to rivals, the Rapid range doesn't need to offer one. It does however, include a slightly smaller but arguably more stylish Spaceback five-door hatchback variant - but that costs slightly more.
At the wheel, those familiar with the brand will feel quite at home. As usual with Skodas, the design is clean, functional but not particularly exciting, with many of the surfaces quite hard to the touch and things like the unlined storage bins suggestive of budget brand pricing. Still, everything is nicely laid out and seemingly built to last and there are plenty of useful nooks and crannies.
Market and Model
Though list pricing suggests that you should expect to pay somewhere in the £13,000 to £18,000 bracket for your Rapid, I think you'd do better to budget from around £14,000, thereby avoiding the feeble entry-level three cylinder model and allowing for a couple of well-chosen extras on top of the cost of the 86PS petrol 1.2 TSI variant that arguably represents the sweet spot in the range. Look beyond this version and it's easy to see why. After all, some will see getting this engine turbocharged for another £1,500 as unnecessary. And others will think that stretching up to and beyond £17,000 for a 1.4 TSI petrol or 1.6 TDI diesel variant dilutes the value proposition that remains such a compelling incentive for Rapid ownership.
Europe isn't getting the saloon version of this car offered to Chinese and Indian buyers, but British customers do get a choice either of the hatch model we've been looking at here or a more conventionally styled 'Spaceback' version - which is slightly smaller but costs a little more. Either way, there's a range of modestly powered engines. Petrol-wise, that means the three cylinder 75PS 1.2-litre entry-level unit or the infinititely preferrable 86 or 105PS four cylinder 1.2s, with the automatic petrol 1.4 and this 1.6-litre TDI diesel available at the top of the range. Whichever of these you select, all the expected equipment items are in evidence. Though things like air conditioning and bluetooth 'phone compatibility require a mid-range trim level, even the most basic variants deliver, well, the basics - things like daytime running lights, an alarm, remote central locking, a height-adjustable driver's seat, a decent quality MP3-compatible CD stereo and electric front windows.
Cost of Ownership
The most frugal Rapid variant is the 'GreenTech' version of the 1.6 TDI which, thanks to engine stop/start and features like low rolling resistance tyres and kinetic energy recouperation (which gathers in energy that would otherwise be lost when cruising or braking) offers fuel savings of between 5 and 8% and a combined cycle fuel figure of 70.6mpg, though CO2 emissions still can't dip beneath the magic tax-busting 100g/km barrier that some rivals breach - expect 106g/km. An ordinary Rapid 1.6 TDI without the GreenTech gadgets manages 64.2mpg and 114g/km.
But most sales of this car will be made to petrol people. Folk who, as I've been saying all the way through, should avoid the entry-level three cylinder 75PS 1.2 with its rather poor returns (47.9mpg on the combined cycle and 137g/km of CO2). In favour of the impressive four cylinder 86PS 1.2 that as well as being not much more expensive, more refined and considerably faster manages 55.4mpg and 119g/km of CO2. Opt to get this engine in turbocharged 105PS form and the returns don't noticeably deteriorate - expect 52.3mpg and 125g/km. For the sake of completion, I'll also mention the returns from the petrol 1.4 TSI with its DSG auto 'box, these being 48.7mpg and 134g/km of CO2.
Skoda understands its customers. Ease of ownership, value pricing and solid build are all priorities - and all satisfied here by this Rapid. That the brand can deliver more sophistication than this is not in doubt - the larger Octavia demonstrates that. But the point here is that a significant number of customers just don't need it. People being targeted precisely by this car.
It competes against many Focus-class family hatchbacks that feel more sophisticated, drive more dynamically or feature higher-tech trimmings. But almost all of these are smaller, less versatile and more expensive. At the end of the day, it depends on what you want. This isn't a car that'll leap out of a glossy brochure into your mental driveway - but then, day-to-day living isn't really very much like the pages of a glossy brochure. It's a rain-soaked, commuting-congested, family-frantic thing.
After a few days of which, at the wheel of one of these, you might rapidly come to the conclusion that though Skoda's take on affordable family motoring may not be what you once dreamt of, it could actually be what you need. Such is life.