When reviewing a hot hatch, there's one test that can be conducted before a wheel is turned. In fact, you can make up your mind even before you get out of bed. I'm referring to the bed test, or more specifically the out of bed test. If a car creates enough anticipation and excitement to make you spring out of bed before dawn, then it is off to a flyer. If, on the other hand, you wake and set the snooze button for another two hours, then it isn't all that.
Based on the bed test, the Skoda Fabia vRS made a good start. The alarm went off at precisely 05:02 and by 05:04 I was already downstairs and making my first coffee. By 05:44 I was sat within a vRS-emblazoned sports seat and preparing to get going. At least that was the plan but I hadn't banked on the winter's first frost and associated iced windscreen. Drat, not the start I had in mind. But with coffee inserted into one of the three cup holders I engaged D on the Fabia's DSG gearbox and headed out in the darkness. Every dawn raid needs to start with refuelling, so it a quick detour via the local V-Power stockist was in order. Of course, as every petrolhead knows, a real test of a car's styling is just how good it looks under the lights of a garage forecourt. I may perhaps be in the minority here, but I happen to think the Fabia vRS is a fine looking machine. Whilst it may not have the visual impact of the Citroen DS3 or the Fiat Abarth 500, the Fabia is well proportioned and neatly packaged. The optional Rallye Green metallic paint is a worthwhile extra at £410.
But back to the dawn raid and therefore onto the A30 and the 100 mile journey to Lands End. Being honest, after about half an hour of endless dual carriageway driving, my enthusiasm and appetite for the morning was beginning to wane. Sitting in 7th gear, optional cruise control set at a shade over 70mph and with Aled Jones giving it large on the impressively simple stereo, I was wondering whether this was all worth it. I needed an injection of motivation but at Silly o'clock in deepest, darkest Cornwall, there are no coffee shops to be found open. But I needn't have worried as the Fabia had an ace card up its sleeve and it arrived no sooner had I negotiated the Penzance bypass.
Just past Newyln, the A30 turns back into a single carriageway road and passes through the rather aptly named village of Drift. Switching the sublime DSG gearbox from automated to manual tiptronic quite literally transforms the Fabia from docile A-road cruiser into a veritable B-road assassin. As the sun rose behind me, turning the previously dark skies to pink, the drive illuminated. It was now time to have fun. It is a long time since I've driven for the sake of driving and here I was, at the crack of dawn, driving with butterflies in my stomach. But this wasn't the Alps or the French coast. This was the A30 and I was in a Skoda!
This was the first time I'd had the chance to really play with the DSG and it soon became an essential part of the morning's workout. The final few miles of the A30 before it disappears into the Atlantic are simply delightful. A combination of left and right hand bends, interspersed with a series of straights, with only the occasional rabbit or pigeon for company. The way the Fabia moves through the gears is enthralling. Third and fourth quickly become your best friend, with third gear propelling the Fabia out of the corners with a real sense of purpose, before a quick flick of the righthand paddle instantly switches to fourth. Arriving at the next bend, the inevitable downshift to third is more down to the sheer exhilaration it brings rather than the necessity. The Fabia's excellent brakes do the rest, breathing confidence into a spirited drive. It is all delivered with a gloriously throaty noise that belies the relatively small engine size.
The reason for the drive to the westernmost tip of Cornwall was to enjoy what is arguably one of nation's greatest roads - the B3306 from St Just to St Ives. The distance of 26 miles makes it effectively two laps of the Nurburgring and it is no less exhilarating. So after a quick stop off at Sennen Cove, it was time to peel off the A30 and head up to St Just. The B3306 ribbons along the stunning North Cornwall coastline, presenting a route that would make a lap around the 'ring seem rather tame. But you need to have your wits about you as the road often throws up a surprise or two. Like a narrow section between two roadside farmhouses or a camber change halfway through a rather splendid hairpin bend. But none of this seems to matter in the Fabia as you always get the impression that the car is working with you as opposed to against you. Not that this means the car is particularly soft, but it perhaps lacks the out and out rawness of the class leader, the Renaultsport Clio.
With stunning views across the Atlantic, it is no surprise that a spirited drive along the B3306 is often ruined by dawdlers or those more interested in admiring the vista rather than perfecting their heel and toe technique. Fortunately for me, on this particular occasion I had the entire 26 mile stretch to myself. Nothing in my way and nothing coming the other way. By the time I reached St Ives I was almost emotional with the quality of the drive I'd just experienced. I gave the Fabia a tap of appreciation and ventured down into St Ives for an impromptu photo opportunity. At this point any visions I had that Skoda were on to a surefire winner with the new vRS were quickly dispersed. Setting eyes on the Fabia, a wheelie bin collector with a very strong Birmingham accent shouted, "you know the biggest problem with that car? The badge". Any attempt to win the man over with my tales of taming the B3306 were quickly lost beneath the sound of wheelie bins being emptied into the back of the truck.
So with harbour-side shot in the bag, I ventured out of a rather sleepy St Ives and made my way around the coastline and onto the local roads through St Agnes, Perranporth, Newquay, Mawgan Porth and eventually Padstow. But in truth, by the time I reached Mawgan Porth the rest of the world was waking up and the dawn raid was over. At 09:32 as I followed yet another slow-moving Nissan Micra, I was admitting defeat. Time to head home for breakfast and start to reach a conclusion.
In short, my conclusion on the new Skoda Fabia vRS is that it has a personality that mirrors that of Superman. No, I'm not saying for one minute that the Fabia is about to take flight and attempt to save the world from impending disaster. No, I'm thinking more of Superman's personality. You know the type. The shy and retiring guy who sits in the corner of the office, never late, wouldn't say boo to a goose and goes by the name of Colin. But at the weekend , Colin is a bit of an animal. Extreme drinking, extreme sports and extreme living. A real Jekyll and Hyde character. The Fabia vRS is like this. One minute it is cruising quietly on the A30 listening to Radio 2. The next minute it is dropping a cog or two, tearing past a slow moving tractor, all guns blazing. You wouldn't be at all surprised if the Fabia was wearing a pair of pants over its trousers.
The thing is, you can't help but be impressed with the Fabia vRS. It has the highly acclaimed Volkswagen 1.4 TSI engine. It has the remarkable 7-speed DSG gearbox. It delivers 180bhp and will propel you to 62mph in a little over seven seconds. To top it all, it undercuts the Polo GTi by some £2,000. On the evidence of the dawn raid and my whole week with the Fabia, it really deserves to succeed. Sure, it isn't likely to steal buyers away from Renault as the Clio 200 delivers a more focused package and will suit those looking for out and out thrills. But the Fabia's offer is compelling. An incredibly easy car to live with, but with hidden talents for those moments when the mood takes you and the road allows you to have fun.
But the Fabia isn't without its problems. For example, the most noticeable cost savings seems to have been achieved in the interior and quality of trim. The plastics are a level behind that of a Volkswagen or Audi and it has do without the neat touches such as dampened grab handles. Little things mean a lot, especially when you're asking upwards of £15,000 for a supermini. The steering is a tad too heavy and a little light on feel. And the first gear is so short, it almost renders the paddle shift next to useless when attempting a spirited turn out of a junction. The stick shift or switch to automatic is the only option. But none of these niggles can dampen my enthusiasm for a talented and likeable supermini that will win you over with its honesty and willingness to perform.
But my worry for Skoda is that the new Fabia vRS will fail to win as many hearts as the previous generation model. By having the ubiquitous 1.9 TDI engine, the vRS had a unique selling point. It reached out to the doubters and said, "OK, so you may not be totally convinced by the badge, but look at the cost savings". A hot hatch that had a cool effect on the wallet. And whilst the 1.4 TSI lump is perhaps the greatest modern petrol engine in the world, it may not be enough for buyers. The market has moved on. Citroen now has the fashionable and talented DS3; Fiat gives us the 500 and competes with the Mini; Renault continues to deliver what is arguably the greatest hot hatch with the Clio; whilst the VW Polo GTi, Seat Ibiza Cupra and forthcoming Audi A1 offer the same package without the stigma of the badge. I know, I know, it is a tragedy that the review should come back to the badge, but the sad truth is that the UK still has an issue with it. I've found myself defending the little Fabia for the entire time I've had the pleasure of 'owning' it.
But you know what? Although Skoda will hate me for saying this, there's a little part of me that hopes everyone else does look elsewhere. It then leaves the intelligent and canny buyer to pick up little gems like the Fabia vRS. But that's me being selfish. Truth is, the Fabia vRS is a cracking little hot hatch. Go on try it, you might just like it.
Thanks for the memories Superman. Or should that be Colin?
- Skoda Fabia vRS
- Engine: 1.4 TSI twincharged / petrol
- Power: 180 bhp
- Transmission: 7 speed, DSG (automatic/tiptronic)
- Basic price: £15,700
- Price as tested: £16,995
- Available: Now