The arrival of the Skoda Rapid in May 2014 could well represent a coming of age for the Czech-based carmaker in Australia. While there have been around half a dozen previous models since the company returned here in 2007 most have fallen in the ‘quirky' category and haven't really left their mark on the sales charts.
By contrast the Rapid, or Rapid Spaceback to give it its full name, is a mainstream small-medium five-door hatch that is taking on the big guns in that category including Mazda3, Toyota Corolla and Hyundai i30. The ‘back' in the name refers more to rear passenger space which is quite expansive rather than storage space which is average for the class.
Interestingly the Rapid name isn't new, having been first used back in the 1930s when Skoda was a stand-alone manufacturer rather than the Volkswagen subsidiary that it is now. Two variants are available here, Ambition and Elegance, with prices ranging from $18,990 to $23,750 before on-road costs.
While other Skoda models such as the original Roomster and the Yeti SUV attract attention, and divide opinion, styling of the Rapid is far less noticeable with lines which are neat and compact but conservative. Having said that the addition of a panoramic glass roof, part of the optional Style Pack ($1800 in the Elegance and $2100 with the Ambition) adds an extra dimension. The red Elegance with black roof and rear window that we tested attracted quite a bit of attention.
The non-opening glass roof comes with a manually-operated blind which reduces sunlight although we still prefer the option of being able to shut out the sunlight altogether.
It's in the rear of the passenger compartment rather than the storage area that the Rapid Spaceback lives up to its name with excellent leg and headroom As is the norm with press test cars Skoda loaded the Rapid with plenty of options, adding the Sports Pack to the aforementioned Style Pack. Ranging from $1000 in the Elegance to $1600 in the Amibition (or $1400 with the Style Pack) the Sports Pack adds a range of extra features both inside and out including front sports seats, stainless steel pedals, privacy glass and rear parking sensors.
At 384 litres the boot is around average for the class but is deep and easy to load. There's also a retractable cargo blind that can be stored vertically behind the back seats and so eliminate the common problem of storing the cover or leaving it behind when carrying tall loads. Another neat feature is an insert that turns one of the two front drink holders into a mobile phone holder. Unfortunately it blocks off access to the second drink holder so you can't use both at the same time.
ENGINES / TRANSMISSIONS
Two engines are offered, both modern direct-injection turbocharged petrol units. The smaller 1.2-litre peaks at 77 kilowatts of power, and 175 Newton metres of torque from 1550 to 4100 rpm; the 1.4-litre reaches 90 kW, and 200 Nm between 1500 and 4000 rpm revs.
Both engines are available with the Rapid Ambition, the Elegance is powered only by the 1.4-litre 90TSI unit. The 77 kW unit comes only with a six-speed manual gearbox beside it, the 90 kW has a seven-speed DSG automatic.
Rapid gets the expected five-star ANCAP rating courtesy of standard safety features that include front, side and curtain airbags; ABS brakes; Electronic Stability Control with Hill Hold; ISOFIX child seat anchorage points; and Daytime Running Lights.
Elegance adds front fog lights with a cornering facility and Light Assist, a clever and sensible feature that includes automatically turning on the headlights when it enters a tunnel or when the windscreen wipers are activated.
Some cost-cutting is evident with the infotainment system which is quite basic. There's no touchscreen and everything operates from a small screen next to the speedometer and/or steering wheel mounted controls. The menu system isn't at all intuitive leading to a very frustrating Bluetooth pairing operation. Our early production test car had a non-standard USB socket but we've been assured that it has now been replaced and now accepts the common USB cable.
The front sports seats that came with the Sports Pack in our test car were a tad too firm and narrow for this writer's buttocks making for discomfort in trips of any significant length. While this clearly isn't Skoda's fault it would be nice to get the adjustable bolsters offered elsewhere, although of course that would come at a cost.
Our car had the 77 kW TSI engine, a little gem that performs well above what most would expect from a 1.2-litre. But such are the benefits of turbocharging that it's likely to cater for the needs of most urban owners with the 90 kW there if they plan to carry heavy loads and/or use it in hilly conditions.
It's competent on the open road in the typical European manner, with nice chassis balance and good feedback through the steering. Suspension is firm with precise and safe cornering. Fuel consumption on our test was impressively low. We averaged 6.0 litres per 100 km, or about 10 per cent over the official 5.4 L/100km on a similar combination mix of urban and motorway conditions.