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Skoda Fabia 2018 review: 81TSI

EXPERT RATING
8
No matter how impressive a small car is, there’s usually a good chance it can be outdone by a Volkswagen equivalent.

No matter how impressive a small car is, there’s usually a good chance it's outdone by the Volkswagen equivalent.

Take the Polo and the Golf, as examples. As good as their opponents are, the Vee-dubs are better. They usually have the better engines, the better chassis and the better driving experience. But factor in their (much) higher asking price and the balance between, say, a Volkswagen Polo and an equally-specced Mazda2 evens out, and making a decision can be tricky.

In comes the updated Skoda Fabia 81TSI: a car that shares many elements with the VW Polo. Except its price.

To see if there were any shortcomings behind the Skoda’s lower price, I decided to take it 350km north of Sydney to my hometown of Lansdowne on the NSW Mid-North Coast. That’s 700km there and back. Big trip for a little car.

SATURDAY:

If there’s anything to note about the Skoda Fabia 81TSI on first impressions, it’s the unique storage solutions and clever use of space. Small cars are renowned for their space efficiency and the Fabia doesn’t disappoint.

In two minutes, I already found a goldmine of pockets, bottle holders, and cubby holes; a storage box under the front seat; grocery hooks in the back for bags of loose shopping; and netting in the capacious boot. No matter where you look, there’s something ingenious to be found.

There’s even a cool tab on the windscreen to hold parking tickets!

  • The Fabia's 2018 update brings in extra tech and an engine replacement. But can it match the Polo? The Fabia's 2018 update brings in extra tech and an engine replacement. But can it match the Polo?
  • This generation of Fabia has been around since 2015. Not that many would know. This generation of Fabia has been around since 2015. Not that many would know.
  • The design works well to hide the Fabia's high roofline. The design works well to hide the Fabia's high roofline.

But behind the small army of clever storage innovations, the Fabia impresses with grounded underpinnings and design you’d expect from a Volkswagen Group product.

On the twisting roads leaving Sydney, the Fabia’s mighty 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine proved to be brilliant. I’d only sunk 20 minutes into my four-hour leg to Lansdowne, but I‘d already started to admire the tiny engine’s mighty flexibility.

There’s 81kW/200Nm to play with in 81TSI spec. And while those numbers don’t sound huge, they can catch you off-guard. The torque figure particularly. It comes on smooth and fast, peaking at just 2000pm and holding strong all across the rev-range.

Plus there are seven ratios in the (optional) dual-clutch automatic transmission, so not only does it (and the 200Nm) make the Fabia hustle along quickly, it also muffles down the characteristic three-cylinder growl to a quiet purring “th-rwurrr” on the highway. The engine turns over at a mild 2250rpm at 100km/h in seventh gear, so long-distance cruising is a breeze. on the highway.

  • The Skoda's cabin is filled with clever innovations, like the asymmetric cup-holder for cups and cans. The Skoda's cabin is filled with clever innovations, like the asymmetric cup-holder for cups and cans.
  • Skoda offers a multimedia holder for cards and phones. Skoda offers a multimedia holder for cards and phones.
  • There's also an umbrella holder under the front passenger seat... There's also an umbrella holder under the front passenger seat...
  • ... pockets on the inside of the front seats ... ... pockets on the inside of the front seats ...
  • ... a personal garbage bin for the front passenger ... ... a personal garbage bin for the front passenger ...
  • ... and a centre fold-down armrest for the front occupants. ... and a centre fold-down armrest for the front occupants.
  • While the Fabia's optional armrest can hold phones and wallets, it comes as an expensive optional extra. While the Fabia's optional armrest can hold phones and wallets, it comes as an expensive optional extra.
  • On top of the cabin features, the boot comes with a 'flexible storage compartment' to hold basketballs and bottles of milk. On top of the cabin features, the boot comes with a 'flexible storage compartment' to hold basketballs and bottles of milk.
  • There's also spare cubby-holes down the side and grocery hooks to hold bags of fruit. There's also spare cubby-holes down the side and grocery hooks to hold bags of fruit.

Abrasive engine vibration can appear under heavy-engine load south of below 1400rpm, due to the three-cylinder engine being inherently ‘unbalanced’, but it's more restrained than most triples.

After meeting up with my mother and her partner in Lansdowne, we decided to head out to the seaside town of Harrington, around 20 minutes away, for a fresh batch of fish and chips. Less than five minutes after I’d arrived, I might add.

  • The Fabia's little turbocharged three-cylinder is an absolute gem. The Fabia's little turbocharged three-cylinder is an absolute gem.
  • The optional DSG-auto can be somewhat unpredictable in low-speed traffic, but it's otherwise fine. The optional DSG-auto can be somewhat unpredictable in low-speed traffic, but it's otherwise fine.

Normally I’d complain about folding back into a city car after a long drive. But there wasn’t a reason to be upset in the Skoda; my upper back had been adequately supported, my ‘lower back’ wasn’t numb and my legs were just as fresh as when I started. The Fabia’s seats are mighty impressive for the class.

There were even decent levels of rear leg, knee, and headroom for my mother’s partner’s tall 185cm frame!

The ride is firmer than you’d expect, however. While the Fabia nails the practicality side of things with generous cabin and boot space (305 litres!), passenger comfort – thanks in no part to the optional 17-inch alloy wheels – isn’t as good as it could be. 

Our car had the optional $1800 'Sports Pack', which gifted the Fabia front LED daytime running lights with projector headlights, rear parking sensors, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, privacy glass, a front centre armrest (what!?), sports suspension, and 17-inch alloy wheels.

  • Some of the cabin plastics can be gruff, so are the rest of its rivals. Some of the cabin plastics can be gruff, so are the rest of its rivals.
  • Standard tech is a 6.5-inch multimedia touchscreen with Bluetooth, USB, AUX, and SD card inputs. Standard tech is a 6.5-inch multimedia touchscreen with Bluetooth, USB, AUX, and SD card inputs.
  • Manual air-conditioning comes as standard. Manual air-conditioning comes as standard.
  • Rear legroom is surprising, but not limitless. Rear legroom is surprising, but not limitless.
  • The Fabia's 305-litre boot is one of the biggest in its class. The Fabia's 305-litre boot is one of the biggest in its class.
  • The Skoda's boot folds 40/60. The Skoda's boot folds 40/60.
  • The rear seats, unfortunately, don't fold flat. The rear seats, unfortunately, don't fold flat.

While I suspect neither the sports suspension or bigger wheels are to be solely blamed for the firm ride, the combination of the two don’t make an ideal match for passengers. The way the car deals with countryside imperfections isn’t unbearable, just unnecessary.

Neither the chassis or engine spirited encourage hot-hatch dynamism, but rather provide high-speed stability, secure handling and strong power reserves. Why spec the Fabia to do something a Clio does better?

SUNDAY:

After a splendid afternoon at the seaside, we were all mightily impressed with the Fabia come Sunday morning. But that could be due to a small lie about the price...

I accidentally told everyone the car cost around $16,990. Whoops! That’s actually the figure for the 81TSI with a five-speed manual.

My car, with the aforementioned $1800 Sports Pack, cruise control with speed limiter ($390), metallic paint ($500), and DSG-auto cost $22,580. While the Fabia’s initial figure is good value, justifying $22,000+ on a city car is a whole other matter. Particularly when you’ve had to fork out more on basics like cruise control and an armrest.

  • The Fabia felt at home around the suburban streets of Harrington. The Fabia felt at home around the suburban streets of Harrington.
  • If it's value-for-money you're after, a Mazda2 is the better choice. If it's value-for-money you're after, a Mazda2 is the better choice.

Mazda charges you around $19,290 (drive-away) for the same gear in a Mazda2 Maxx. But Volkswagen, with its Polo 70TSI Comfortline, will hit you with a $20,490 fee (before on-road costs). Drive-away? That equates to a not-so-concrete figure of $24,040.

All cars come with six airbags, AEB, a five-star ANCAP safety rating, and five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranties. Except the Polo - its warranty only lasts for three.

After a quick mid-morning Sunday breakfast before my journey back to Sydney, I rushed out the door to catch up with one of my long-time mates.

He’s a Falcon diehard who believes in the old American term ‘there’s no replacement for displacement’; a ham-fisted approach, which states that increasing an engine’s size is the solution to everything. What would he think of my three-cylinder?

  • The Fabia is easy to drive, with light, accurate steering and a good cabin ergonomics. The Fabia is easy to drive, with light, accurate steering and a good cabin ergonomics.
  • The 81TSI variant continued to hold a stable 5.7L/100km, despite the lead-footed driving. The 81TSI variant continued to hold a stable 5.7L/100km, despite the lead-footed driving.

We caught up at our sacred meeting place: a McDonald’s next to the Pacific Highway. Classy, I know, but like most country-town Maccas’ car parks at night, it’s filled with P-platers revving their cars and commenting on each other’s wheels. This afternoon, it was just us and a few grey nomads.

He scoffed at the Fabia’s tiny 999cc engine at first. But quickly saw the light after I took him out for a drive. The engine is four times smaller than his Falcon’s in-line six, but still pulled along pretty well.

We had just an hour-or-so left before I had to cruise back up to Sydney, so we made the most of our time by driving through some of Taree’s more tricky backroads. I already knew how the car handled, but instead wanted some time to reflect on the Fabia.

It’s not as fun to drive as the effervescent Mazda2 or Suzuki Swift, but it’s still very sturdy and planted on the road. It’s also more refined and just as easy on fuel. I managed a pump-recorded figure of 5.7L/100km despite my indulgence with the throttle.

Impressive, even if it does refuses to take anything less than 95 RON premium unleaded.

Verdict

The Fabia 81TSI might come from a manufacturer few people know of, but its attention to detail, practicality and impressive drivetrain make for a tempting proposition.

No, it mightn't have the snob-factor of its bigger German cousin. But when you’re driving around in an equally competent car with a spare $4158 and two extra years of warranty, are you really going to care? 

Comment call to action: Could you see a Skoda Fabia on your drive? Tell us in the comments below.

Pricing guides

$19,990
Based on 12 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$15,980
Highest Price
$21,990

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
70 TSI 1.0L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $9,300 – 13,970 2018 Skoda Fabia 2018 70 TSI Pricing and Specs
81 TSI 1.0L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $11,200 – 16,500 2018 Skoda Fabia 2018 81 TSI Pricing and Specs
81 TSI Monte Carlo 1.0L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $14,100 – 19,910 2018 Skoda Fabia 2018 81 TSI Monte Carlo Pricing and Specs
70 TSI 1.0L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $9,900 – 14,960 2018 Skoda Fabia 2018 70 TSI Pricing and Specs
EXPERT RATING
8
James Lisle
Content producer

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Disclaimer: The pricing information shown in the editorial content (Review Prices) is to be used as a guide only and is based on information provided to Carsguide Autotrader Media Solutions Pty Ltd (Carsguide) both by third party sources and the car manufacturer at the time of publication. The Review Prices were correct at the time of publication.  Carsguide does not warrant or represent that the information is accurate, reliable, complete, current or suitable for any particular purpose. You should not use or rely upon this information without conducting an independent assessment and valuation of the vehicle.