As well, there's virtually no waiting list, but you wait months for a Polo GTi. Sure it doesn't have the badge cachet of the VW or Audi but don't underestimate Skoda, which is making inroads in Europe and doing extremely well in Australia.
National sales are healthy, up 86 per cent for the year from 1418 sales to 2636, with the Fabia third most popular after the Yeti and the Octavia. My first official drive of the brand is the Fabia RS light car hot hatch. Last year I hired a Superb which amazed me with its refinement and room.
There's lots of gear in the RS, including power steering, six airbags (dual front, front side and curtain airbags) and remote central locking, reach and rake adjustable steering column, height-adjustable driver's seat, electric front and rear windows, 60/40 split rear seat, an integrated CD player with a 3.5mm jack input for MP3 devices, a three-spoke leather steering wheel with radio and phone controls, multi-function trip computer, cruise control and Bluetooth connectivity.
The RS also has some extras to give it the edge over lesser models and to justify its $31,500 drive away price tag. It has 17-inch Gigaro silver alloy wheels, Climatronic airconditioning, front lip spoiler, red painted brake callipers, black highlights on B-pillar and door mirrors, chrome trim on the radiator grille, power-heated door mirrors, chrome double exhaust pipe, rear black diffuser and body coloured spoiler, front sport seats, stainless steel pedals and scuff plates.
Under the pert bonnet is the same 132kW/250Nm twin-charged (turbocharged and supercharged) 1.4-litre petrol engine matched to the same slick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with steering wheel paddle-shifters as in the Polo and A1. The 1.4-litre engine is a punchy operator, completely belying its compact capacity and the sort of linearity not generally expected of small, forced induction powertrains, a great combination of the supercharger operating at low revs and the turbo taking over closer to the 7000rpm redline.
The engine pulls strongly all the way through the rev band and is an excellent match to the transmission, which offers lightning-fast changes in manual mode and is generally on the mark in auto. It's a pity there's no manual to give the Fabia RS an advantage over the VW and Audi and more of a sporty edge.
The DSG tends to hesitate and jerk at lower speeds and when taking off, although activating the automatic sport setting or flicking it to manual mode sorts that out. The firmer shock absorbers, higher-strength springs and a stiffer front axle provide the RS with the right chassis set up to cope with the fizzy powertrain.
It is well sorted and the electric steering has more weight and communicates better than most.
Wider 205/40 tyres and the XDL electronic differential lock system, which brakes the inside front wheel to negate understeer, add to the driving dynamics, giving the little hatch Skoda high levels of tenacity and grip, plus a fast turn-in. The fun factor is aided by the great front sports seats that offer lots of side bolstering and back support.
The styling is different, not as suave as Polo GTi or Audi A1, but there's a certain charm to the boxy exterior that gives it a point of difference. Skoda’s been growing an increasing focus on individualising its products, something it admits to have borrowed from BMW-owned brand Mini. The Fabia offers up to 26 colour combinations, contrasting roof shades and various alloy wheel finishes.
Then there is the completely unique RS wagon, an extended version of the hatch that combines the same sizzling powertrain with class-leading cargo space. Skoda Australia says half the interest has been for the wagon.
In the twisty stuff, particularly up the Gillies Range and across the undulating and tight corners of the road between Walkamin and Dimbulah; it was a delight, refusing to flick out of line or lose grip even with traction control switched off. It just keeps on gripping with tenacity and plenty of grunt to make the drive a lot of fun.
There's a fair bit of noise though from the tyres on coarse bitumen and wind roar through the A pillars, no doubt exacerbated by the door mirrors.
When I started last weekend's drive, the trip computer was recording mid-12 litres/100km. By the time I finished on the journey from Cairns to Yungaburra, Atherton, Walkamin, Mareeba, Kuranda, the Northern Beaches and back to Cairns consumption had fallen to 10.2.
The spirited drive up the Gillies and on the Dimbulah must be taken into account as well, but there is plenty of room for improvement. I believe it can achieve a lot better than that, particularly with Skoda claiming 6.3 litres/100km. Some have been critical of the RS ride, but I did not find it harsh at all and a lot better than some.
FABIA RS VS POLO GTI
There's no doubt the Fabia RS is a fantastic hot hatch and it has just come second to the Polo GTi in Motor magazine's Bang for Your Buck awards. Sure the Fabia is $1000 cheaper and there's virtually no waiting list, but I believe it should be even cheaper.
The interior of the Fabia, while well-made and free from rattles, does not feel as tactile as the Volkswagen, with harder plastics and an inferior sound system. But the Fabia RS provides a point of difference, particularly in wagon form, and it won't be as common as the Polo GTi.
It has distinctive and charming looks, is practical with a sparkling engine and transmission combination, quick steering and great seats. On the downside, there's too much road and wind noise, the cabin plastics are a bit cheap and there's no manual gearbox.
Overall, Fabia RS is a charming addition to the tiny hot hatch brigade that provides some driving excitement as well as being a delight to tootle around town in.
Skoda Fabia RS
Price: from $27,990
Warranty: 3 year roadside
Engine: 1.4-litre 4-cyl petrol 132kW/250Nm
Dimensions: 4247mm (L); 1642 (W); 1494 (H)
Transmission: 7-speed automatic, FWD
Thirst: 7.7L/100km; 148g/km Co2