Most of us consider value for money to be a top priority when choosing a new car, but I think I've just found the best there is. And yes, it's a Skoda. But don't let the name, the badge or the rather odd looks deceive you, for this is one seriously clever little car that comes rammed to the hilt with technical and engineering goodness. And, for once, it all combines to make the driving experience a markedly improved one.
It's unfortunate for Skoda that the latest Fabia (it's new to the UAE but has been around in other markets for a year now) has taken a retrograde step in the exterior design department. The previous generation was quite a pretty little thing but not this one. It's a bit slab sided, it's too narrow, too tall and the wheels look a bit lost in its profile. But there are still nice touches, such as the aggressive front valance and blacked-out trim. The upside, though, of its odd looks is that inside there's no shortage of space - it feels light and airy, despite the prevalent blackness of the trim.
This is the Skoda hot hatch. The previous Fabia RS was diesel-powered - an odd combination of brilliant fuel economy and boy racer charm, it was quick enough and entertaining to drive but the fact it was an oil burner did little to enhance its essential street cred with the kids. This one's different, powered by a feisty 1.4L engine that utilises not only a supercharger, but a turbocharger as well. And you're probably wondering, as was I, why on earth it needs one of each. We'll come to that later; first we'd better look at what you get for your money.
For starters, you get five doors, which makes this a practical car. You get body-hugging sports seats; parking sensors; daytime LED lights; a multi-function computer display screen; Bluetooth; a multi-function steering wheel; electronic stability control; an electronic limited-slip differential; and, last but not least, a seven-speed DSG transmission. For Dh84,450, that's an impressive array of technology.
You're also getting the benefits of Skoda being part of the Volkswagen Group. This translates into extremely high levels of build quality and control - in fact, it's probably best viewed as a VW in disguise, albeit a far less expensive one.
Getting behind the wheel, it's immediately obvious that it's a VW. It's a little bit bland, the interior, but the gauges, the instrument binnacle, the infotainment system and the gear shifter are all standard Volkswagen, and there's nothing at all wrong with that. But don't expect to find soft-touch plastics because everything's a bit hard on the fingers. It still feels well constructed, it's just that it's also a bit low-rent - understandable, given its sticker price.
With a twist of the key, the rorty 1.4L motor jumps into life. The exhaust note is a bit muted but it still manages to sound like a hot hatch. Engage drive, floor throttle and whooooaaah! This thing can't half shift. And this is where its engine's twin-charger set-up makes a case for itself, because the supercharger (being mechanically driven) provides boost from the outset, between tickover and 2,400rpm, after which the turbocharger takes over, boosting power to the red line of each gear. The transition from super to turbocharger is seamless.
Getting to a long, straight stretch of the E11, the Fabia RS manages to make mincemeat of everything else. What other drivers cannot fathom, it would seem, is what this little red car actually is. But while they don't recognise it, the one thing nobody can deny is that its pace is quite extraordinary. When I compare it to my daily driver, a Scirocco 2.0TSI, there's very little discernible difference in its power delivery.
Around town it can be a bit of a handful, though, because that power is there, ready to be unleashed, at all times. You need to be light with your right foot if you're to remain composed, especially as the supercharger appears to react to throttle inputs quicker than the transmission. The seven-speed DSG, especially when used with the paddle shifters, is superb, but it has a tendency to come across as a bit slushy at times. I think the six-speed unit would be more sporty but that would be at the expense of fuel economy.
Speaking of which, this tearaway has a combined thirst of just 6.2L/100km, will do 225kph flat out and reach 100 from rest in just over seven seconds. And it can keep you entertained in the corners, too. The electronic driver aids do just that: they apportion power to the wheels in a way that brings a smile to the face, allowing the driver to throw it into a bend, pile on the power and keep it there with the bare minimum of dreaded understeer.
All in all, this is a brilliant little car. It's packed with tech, it's fun to drive, cheap to run and is built to VW's exacting standards. If you're looking for an inexpensive, reliable, fun mode of transport then nothing can touch this for the money.