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Czech mate


The Czech Republic's Skoda brand will return to Australia in October.

But you can forget those clunky yet sturdy Eastern European Skodas of the Cold War period.

The new Skoda is owned by Volkswagen and with the disciplined German parent comes Teutonic know-how, engineering and quality standards.

In Australia, the new-look brand will be distributed by Volkswagen Group Australia, after its debut at the Sydney Motor Show.

Sales will kick off with the mid-size front-wheel-drive Octavia sedan and wagon and a funky-looking five-door wagon-cum-people mover called the Roomster, both built at a modern plant at Mlada Boleslav near Prague.

Topping the range will be the high-performance 147kW, 2-litre FSI turbocharged Octavia RS.

The line-up will be fleshed out next year with the VW Polo-sized Fabia, which has just been revealed at the Geneva Motor Show.

By early 2009, the next-generation version of its long-wheelbase Superb sedan should be available.

Skoda's key selling point will be prices, expected to start from about $16,000 for the Fabia, up to the mid-$40,000s for the Superb.

Though it uses VW engines and components, being built in low-cost Eastern Europe means Skodas are 5 to 8 per cent cheaper, yet bigger, than their equivalent Volkswagen models.

Volkswagen Group Australia executives believe this makes them particularly appealing for cost-conscious Australian buyers who hanker for a European car.

Originally, Skoda chairman and chief executive officer Detlef Wittig had hoped to get the brand into Australia last year, but pricing and local identity issues delayed the plans.

Now these hurdles have been cleared, the company is moving ahead quickly.

Volkswagen Group Australia general manager, press and public relations, Matthew Wiesner has been appointed head of Skoda Australia and it's his job to relaunch the brand.

At first the Octavia and Roomster will be sold through 15 existing VW dealerships.

Wiesner emphasised that Skoda and VW would be distinct, even more so than BMW, which sells its Mini brand through associated dealers.

"You won't see shared Volkswagen-Skoda showrooms. We've got to give them more separation," he says.

"Obviously we need to protect what we've done with Volkswagen, but at the same time grow the Skoda branding."

Eventually up to half of VW's 56 dealers nationally could sell Skodas.

"By the end of 2008 we'd like to have about 25 dealers," he says.

"The regional-rural side of the business will be very important, particularly with Skoda's turbo-diesel line-up."

With VW's well-developed network and highly trained technicians, servicing and logistics should not be a problem.

Wiesner is mindful that the company's lack of profile will need to be addressed. Skodas have not been sold here for almost 25 years.

"We've got to be creative about how we sell the Skoda message. We need to reasonably clever in how we go about it," he says.

"It's a pretty congested market, so we have to come up with a reasonable answer to the question of why you would consider a Skoda."

He is not about to spill the beans about just what he has in mind, at least until the cars go on sale in October.

He is also aware of other brands such as Renault, which has struggled to regain ground in our market when re-launching in 2001 after being popular here in the 1970s.

The French company has poured millions into Australia over the past six years trying to get traction for its products.

Australia is one of the most congested new car markets in the world, a fact that Wiesner is acutely aware of.

He describes himself as "cautious but optimistic" about Skoda.

Today there are 41 different passenger car brands seeking a slice of the sales pie and Skoda must find its place in an ultra-competitive market.

Ultimately, too, if the Czech is a success it could cannibalise VW sales.

`Yes, we have to be mindful of that," Wiesner says. "That's why it has taken such a long time to put this together.

"We need to be very careful how we approach both marques, because there's no point robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"You get one opportunity to do it properly."

Wiesner conceded that positioning Skoda and not sacrificing VW sales was one of the hardest aspects of developing the new business.

Ultimately, the spin doctors, through print and television advertising, will be working overtime to tell consumers that each brand is distinct.

"We're hoping the Skoda buyer will be an aspirational European buyer who might not have been able to stretch themselves before," Wiesner says.

"They might always have been Japanese buyers who have aspired to Europe and hopefully we'll give them that opportunity."

Last year VW Group Australia had a stellar year, selling more than 20,000 vehicles, so the arrival of Skoda presents a real threat to VW's continuing local growth.

Apart from Skoda, Fiat and Dodge are recent returns and the prospect of China-sourced cars arriving soon courtesy of Ateco Automotive will add further sales congestion.

Nor is the Skoda boss prepared to predict sales forecasts, saying only that the Skodas would be good value.

"Volume is important, of course, but we're here for the long haul, so that's something we see as a long-term challenge," he says.

"We don't want to place any unwarranted expectations on the brand.

"But we do have to make sure it is accepted in the market place."

Skoda's rise in Europe is a result of the crumbling of the old Eastern bloc countries.

I N 1991 it came in from the cold when Volkswagen AG bought 30 per cent of shares in a newly established joint-venture company.

Later, it increased its holding to 70 per cent and in 2000, bought the remaining shares to assume 100 per cent ownership.

Today Skoda sells cars in more than 90 countries, has plants in seven countries and employs more than 27,000 people.

Last year it sold 549,667 vehicles, an increase of more than 11 per cent over the previous year, a sales record for the brand.

The Octavia was the highest-selling model worldwide at 270,274, outselling the Fabia's 243,982.

From its humble origins, the Czech carmaker has embraced the capitalist West and will soon embrace Australia.

 

HERE IS THE COMING LINE-UP

FABIA

THIS VW Polo-sized light car borrows visual cues from the Mini Cooper and Suzuki Swift.

Launched at last year's Paris Motor Show, it offers ultra-frugal, three-cylinder, High Torque Performance (HTP) petrol and TDI engines, as well as a 16-valve, 63kW, 1.4-litre and 77kW, 1.6-litre petrol models. The 1.6-litre is offered with a six-speed tiptronic automatic. The 1.4 and 1.6 petrol units are likely to come to Australia.

At 3992mm long and with a wheelbase of 2462mm, the Fabia is just 76mm longer overall and sits on a 3mm longer wheelbase than the Polo. It also has 300 litres of luggage space.

Among the car's features in Europe are six airbags, climate control airconditioning and active headlights. But Australia is unlikely to see this level of equipment.

PRICE: From about $16,000

 

OCTAVIA

PEOPLE familiar with the VW Passat recognise the Octavia.

Like the Passat, this mid-size offering is available as a front-wheel-drive sedan and wagon and will be aimed squarely at the premium-priced Japanese models such as the Mazda6, Honda Accord Euro, Subaru Liberty and soon-to-be Ford Mondeo.

In Europe, an all-wheel-drive wagon using a Haldex system is also available.

The three-model line-up consists of the entry Classic, mid-range Ambiente and luxury Elegance. A high-performance RS model is also sold.

The Octavia is powered by a range of petrol and turbo-diesel engines ranging in size from a 110kW, 2-litre FSI up to a 125kW, 2-litre TDI and a 147kW, 2-litre FSI four-cylinder in the RS. In Europe a 1.9-litre TDi is also sold, alongside a 55kW, 1.4-litre and 75kW, 1.6-litre four-cylinder.

There is even a 1.4-litre model available.

Five and six-speed manual transmissions are available along with a six-speed VW-sourced DSG manual.

PRICE: From about $30,000

 

SUPERB

THE Superb is essentially a long-wheelbase version of the Octavia pitched into the higher end of the market.

Offering extra legroom in the back and plenty of leather and luxury, the Superb uses the Passat's older 142kW, 2.8-litre V6 petrol and 120kW, 2.5-litre six-cylinder TDI engines, both available with a tiptronic five-speed automatic.

Apart from the sixes, the long-wheelbase sedan is also available in Europe with a 110kW, turbocharged 1.8-litre and a naturally aspirated 85kW, 2-litre four.

Apart from the petrol engines, European models also offer 1.2 to 1.6-litre petrol and 1.4 and 1.9-litre diesels, though these are unlikely for Australia.

PRICE: About $45,000

 

ROOMSTER

THE Roomster started out as a funky concept car at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show and a production version was unveiled last year.

Distinguished by its high-set, van-like styling, it is a versatile, five-door mini people mover similar in concept to the VW Caddy that can easily be converted from a five-seater into a load-lugging two-seater.

The Roomster Scout adds plastic-cladding around the body to give it an off-road look, though the car remains front-wheel drive.

As with the Fabia, there is a choice of petrol and turbo-diesel engines from 1.2-litre, 1.4-litre and 1.6-litre petrol engines, as well as frugal 1.4 and 1.9 TDI engines.

PRICE: From about $27,000

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