We return to the bustling core of the European car market for this week’s road test subject. In spite of all the strategic plans for decarbonisation of model lines both great and small, and everything else going in more rarefied parts of the market, the petrol supermini remains an absolutely central player in our consumption of the new car. Four of the UK’s 10 best-selling cars in 2021 were superminis. On the European continent, it was five in 10.
The inexorable rise and rise of the electric car, and of SUVs and SUV-alikes, might have pulled the rug out from underneath any number of more traditional vehicle classes, but our appetite for the sort of compact, functional new cars that provide freedom and mobility at lower prices hasn’t been dulled one jot by any of those new sales phenomena.
Skoda is now betting on that enduring appetite – and bidding, even, to serve a bigger share of it – with a model that has appeared among Europe’s best-selling new cars on only a couple of monthly occasions in the entirety of its 22-year history: the spacious, unpretentious and inexpensive Fabia. Having been routinely outsold by the bigger Skoda Octavia hatchback for three full model generations of its life so far, the car now comes to us having been made bigger of footprint, more sophisticated of aspect, and more stacked with active and passive safety technology than ever.
This is the last of the Volkswagen Group’s core superminis to switch onto its MQB-A0 platform. It’s almost five years behind both the Seat Ibiza and Volkswagen Polo in making that switch, and more than three years behind the Audi A1. So has this car somehow become the black sheep of the VW Group’s supermini family? Or has Skoda instead profited by being last to the platform technology buffet table, and wound up with a better small car as a result?
The Fabia line-up at a glance
The Fabia keeps it relatively simple, with no diesels or hybrids. The bulk of the range is made up of 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrols. The MPI versions are naturally aspirated and the TSIs are turbocharged. A 1.5-litre four is set to join the range in the spring in a range-topping Monte Carlo trim and with a seven-speed dual-clutch auto (DSG) as standard. The 110PS engine gets either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed DSG. The other three-cylinders always have a five-speed manual.
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The Fabia has always been one of the larger superminis and has often been styled in such a way as to make that pretty evident from the kerb. The memory of the first-generation car’s slightly dumpling-like looks were at least partly banished when the third-generation version appeared in 2014, though, and they’ve now given way to an even more sharply drawn design in this fourth-generation model.
Some of the car’s soft-jawed, friendly old visual charm has certainly gone, too. It could be argued that the Fabia is now like a car that, without its glossy wide radiator grille, could be inserted into the current VW, Audi or Skoda showroom line-up without anyone really noticing. But the car nonetheless looks very smart, modern and presentable – if a bit modern-VW-Group-generic.
It has grown more than any Fabia iteration before it: by 111mm in overall length, in fact, to 4108mm. That makes it the biggest car in its class and the only one longer than 4.1m – the kind of length you generally need a Nissan Juke-sized crossover to breach. Indeed, Skoda reckons those who need more space will opt for a crossover, so the estate version will not return for this generation of the Fabia.
The car’s width (without mirrors) is 1780mm, making it slightly wider than Britain’s best-selling Vauxhall Corsa (1765mm), but quite a bit wider than Europe’s best-selling Renault Clio (1728mm). It’s still easy enough to squeeze into the average parking bay, though.
The MQB-A0 platform has made for plenty of higher-strength steels in the new chassis, though, so the weight gain of the new bigger model, Skoda claims, is negligible. Suspension still comprises steel coil springs, with MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear. For brakes, the car uses ventilated discs at the front and drums at the rear, although rear discs are an option.
Skoda offers a choice of five petrol engines in the Fabia: two normally aspirated MPI 1.0-litre triples (64bhp and 79bhp); two 1.0-litre TSI turbocharged triples (94bhp, as tested here, and 108bhp); and one 1.5-litre four-cylinder TSI turbo with 148bhp and 184lb ft of torque (which will be branded Monte Carlo rather than vRS). There will be no mild hybrids or diesels.
Our mid-spec 94bhp 1.0-litre TSI weighed 1117kg on Millbrook’s scales, against an official claimed kerb weight of 1067kg. Not the lightest car in the class, clearly, but neither is it the heaviest – and considering the Fabia’s size, that’s no bad start.
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The Fabia is still the most affordable of the Volkswagen Group supermini quadruplets and nowhere are you reminded more clearly of that fact than in the interior. The only soft-touch materials in our mid-range SE Comfort test car are the seats, carpets, gearlever, steering wheel and little patch of fabric on the door card arm rest. The £2000-more-expensive SE L does add some more decorative fabric to the dashboard.
It’s not a plush cabin by any means, but it manages to feel cohesive. The design is modern, everything feels solidly put together and it appears the stylists were let off the leash a little bit with the plastics’ textures, whose geometric Saffiano style is an interesting change from the usual fossilised elephant skin.
The usability is almost beyond reproach, too. All the major controls are adjusted by using chunky physical buttons and dials. A digital gauge cluster is available on some versions, but the beautifully clear analogue gauges fit in perfectly with the back-to-basics theme. The small black and white screen between the dials is the only thing here that feels outdated, but at least it’s easy to navigate. In all, the Fabia will appeal to those irritated by all the – occasionally frivolous – tech that’s becoming common even in small cars.
Whether the Fabia still counts as a small car is debatable, though. The current generation’s growth spurt is particularly evident in the interior. The old Fabia was already one of the roomiest superminis and the new one successfully defends that title. In fact, it’s spacious enough to trouble the smaller end of the segment above, offering more leg room and boot space than the Renault Mégane.
While the rear leg room is slightly more generous than all rivals bar the Honda Jazz, the boot is vast for a supermini, at 380 litres. It’s practical, too. Our test car had the Simply Clever Package 1, which we reckon would be £190 well spent, as it includes a mat that’s carpeted on one side and rubber on the other, various hooks and movable dividers, a net and a sort of hammock. Annoyingly, to get a variable boot floor – which creates a flat load bay when the rear seats are down – you have to upgrade to the £300 Simply Clever Package 2.
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Our test car had the 1.0-litre turbocharged triple with 94bhp – the version that was the most popular in the outgoing model – and it’s always coupled to a five-speed manual gearbox. If you want a sixth gear or the optional dual-clutch auto,you need to upgrade to the 108bhp model.
Those five gears are long to benefit economy, but that’s par for the course with today’s WLTP-dictated powertrains. Below 2000rpm, it grumbles unhappily as 129lb ft tries to persuade 1.1 tonnes to get moving, but it feels slightly less strained than the Volkswagen Polo with the same drivetrain.
Once above that, though, it’s hushed enough that you need to look at the tachometer to know when to change gear. To get any meaningful acceleration, the engine does need to be revved fairly hard, but it seems happy to be taken to 6000rpm, emitting a muted and not unappealing three-cylinder thrum as it does so, before the soft limiter starts to call time from 6200rpm.
You wouldn’t call this a quick car in the slightest, but the Fabia proved sprightlier than the Renault Clio TCe 100 (which has since been superseded by the less powerful TCe 90) and marginally quicker than the mechanically similar Polo and Seat Ibiza.
The gap with the Fabia’s VW Group cousins widened for the in-gear acceleration figures. We suspect that’s largely due to more appropriate gearing: the Fabia has a shorter final drive but a longer fourth and fifth gear than the other two to compensate. That means motorway RPM in fifth is roughly the same, but first to third are effectively shorter, making the Fabia slightly more tractable in everyday driving. The Hyundai i20 is a tad more elastic still, thanks to its mild-hybrid system providing some low-rev torque.
The gearchange is typical for a VW Group car. The throw is neither short nor long, the gate is well defined and there’s just enough feedback to let the driver know the gear has engaged, but not enough to actually be engaging for the driver. The clutch, meanwhile, is feelsome enough for easy driving without being heavy.
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The engineers have opted for a remarkably supple set-up, one that makes the Fabia one of the best-riding cars in its class. Of course, that does mean the handling suffers, but not excessively so.
The Fabia exhibits a fair bit of body roll in corners and lacks the precision that characterises a driver’s car. Because of the 185-section ContiEcoContact 6 tyres, ultimate adhesion is also limited.
At 2.7 turns lock to lock, the steering is neither particularly quick nor particularly slow. It offers a touch more weight for the driver to push against than some of the over-assisted racks found in small cars and it further weights up a little in corners, too. However, to say there’s genuine feedback would be an exaggeration.
When pushed on the Millbrook Hill Route, the stability control turned out to be quite clever in some ways and a little crude in others. Traction control can be disabled, but the stability systems always remain on and they deal with the beginnings of lift-off oversteer in a slightly heavy- handed manner, with brusque brake applications. It gets the job done, but it’s not as refined as some.
The computers are more adept at dealing with understeer. From the moment the front axle starts to wash wide, the system very gradually limits power to bring the nose back into line. In other words, even if the driver misjudges a tight, slippery corner, the Fabia will try its hardest to round the corner with as little drama as possible.
That behaviour typifies the Fabia’s viceless but bland handling. There won’t be a vRS version of this generation of the Fabia and that makes sense. Not because the MQB bones preclude it, but making the Fabia engaging down a B-road would have to be such a change of character that the family connection between the vRS and the cooking model would become rather tenuous.
Assisted driving notes
Other than the government-mandated automatic emergency braking, active safety features are still by no means commonplace in small cars, so the Fabia distinguishes itself by making most of them available. It gets autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and lane keeping assistance as standard. We didn’t experience any false activations of the emergency braking, and the lane keeping assistance wasn’t particularly intrusive. Both can easily be disabled using the buttons on the steering wheel.
A full semi-autonomous adaptive cruise control, with lane following and speed limit recognition systems, is optional, but at a not inconsiderable cost. Adaptive cruise is available on TSI engines in SE Comfort spec and above for £470, while Travel Assist, which includes adaptive cruise control and adds in lane following and digital gauges, is £785 but it’s available on only upper-level SE-L trim cars.
Comfort and isolation
The Fabia may not entertain in the corners, but that end of the market is well covered by the Ford Fiesta and Seat Ibiza. The other upshot of the Fabia’s soft suspension is that it rides particularly serenely. Especially with the 15in wheels and 65-profile tyres, it takes some truly nasty bumps for harshness to filter through to the cabin. Longer-wave bumps are simply shrugged off.
The seats contribute to the high level of comfort in the Fabia. They’re largely standard-issue VW items, but that’s no bad thing. They’re quite soft yet supportive, and the driver’s seat adjusts for height as standard. SE Comfort trim and above even gets manually adjustable lumbar support.
It’s easy to find a comfortable driving position and long drives are not an issue. If we’re nitpicking, a bit more adjustment in the steering column would benefit tall drivers.
So in terms of comfort, the Fabia feels similar to a Volkswagen Polo, except that it has an even smoother ride than the already compliant VW. The only area where the Polo still has a major advantage over the Fabia is in noise insulation. Whereas the Polo’s levels of road noise are more akin to a car from the class above, the Fabia is one of the noisier superminis at motorway speeds. It’s on a par with rivals at speeds of up to 50mph, but at 70mph most are a few decibels quieter.
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There seems little sense in resisting the familiar old connection in buyers’ brains that ‘a big car is a safe one’ – particularly if you’re launching the biggest car in its class. Suffice to say that Skoda hasn’t. The Fabia gets front, side and curtain airbags as standard and becomes a rarity in the supermini class by making rear-seat side airbags available as an option.
The car’s showroom fortunes are likely to hinge on competitive personal finance. Competitive list prices, equipment levels and residual value forecasts help there. Those don’t make the Fabia a bargain as such. Both a similarly specced Seat Ibiza and Renault Clio are slightly cheaper. A Kia Rio is cheaper still, but the Skoda’s practicality, maturity and safety credentials could easily make the small premium worth it.
With Skodas, it is worth taking care with the options. Lower trims, like SE Comfort, are reasonable value compared with rivals, even with a smattering of options, but it is mildly frustrating that some essentials, such as wireless phone mirroring and cruise control, are not standard.
At the higher end, with SE-L trim, it’s possible to option up a 95PS Fabia to well over £25,000. That’s a lot of money for a supermini, but not entirely unreasonable given features like adaptive cruise control, rear side airbags and matrix LED lights aren’t available on most rivals. You could also have a Skoda Octavia for that kind of cash, though.
Skoda is rightly proud of the 0.28 drag coefficient for the new Fabia and that appears to pay dividends in fuel consumption. Even including performance testing, we averaged 50.6mpg during our test. For a car with no hybrid assistance whatsoever, that’s very impressive.
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A relatively basic Fabia like our test car is what Skoda does really well, providing no-nonsense transport with first-rate practicality and above-average comfort.
In some ways, the new Fabia appears set up for mediocrity. Its technical make-up is as conventional as it gets, with not even mild-hybrid power on the cards, and its looks are as forgettable as its dynamics.
However, it excels in some important areas: the ride quality is exemplary, it’s the most spacious car in its class and it makes the most of that space with useful storage solutions. Furthermore, while the Fabia’s interior doesn’t have much in the way of material plushness, it looks modern and is supremely easy to use because Skoda has resisted the temptation to replace buttons with touch-sensitive panels. It’s not as cheap as Skodas have been in the past and some options can make it downright expensive, but lower-end versions still offer solid value.
The Fabia doesn’t tug at the heartstrings, and ultimately we would prefer a more charismatic small car, but there is no doubt it’s an impressive package.