As a child of the late 1970s, Saturday early evening television always holds a special place in my formative memories. No, not the football results coming in on ye olde videprinter with a dot matrix printer sound track but rather the acting ability of the late Bill Bixby, waiting for him to be tormented to the brink of becoming The Incredible Hulk.
I’ve always preferred that old TV series to the later feature films, even though much to the chagrin of purists, the small screen version deviated further away from the Hulk’s comic book origins. There was something about Dr David Banner being a relatively ordinary guy who was suffering persecution as he marched on with his quest to return to normality that really grabbed my attention. Which is quite a bizarre thing to consider as I was six years old at the time. There were more obvious attractions to the programme too, the most celebrated of which was the dramatic metamorphosis into Banner’s angry, green alter ego.
Škoda’s Fabia is a bit like David Banner. Sober suited, mild mannered and inoffensive the majority of the time but it too has a meaner, more powerful doppelganger – the vRS. I guess that means if the Fabia’s David Banner, then that must make me intrepid reporter Jack McGee…
Unlike the unfortunate doctor’s transformation, the Fabia’s most sporty variant is not the result of a failed gamma ray experiment in laboratory conditions but instead by virtue of the fitment of the Volkswagen Group’s vaunted 1.4-litre TSI motor, mated to a 7-speed DSG gearbox.
Just 1390 cubic centimetres of displacement, with the suck-squeeze-bang-blow cycle being amplified by both a turbocharger and a supercharger, produces an impressive 178bhp. In the Fabia’s light chassis, that double surge of power and torque is particularly evident, producing smiles and hilarity as flooring the throttle at junctions generates copious amounts of wheel spin, flickering the traction control warning light into life with great regularity. It’s fun up to a point but on roads which were perpetually wet and greasy during my week at the wheel, you begin to appreciate that throttle modulation from standstill, without inducing a scrabbling pair of front tyres, is an art form worthy of lottery funding.
Around town, the sporty little Škoda takes the David Banner analogy a bit too literally. Using the double-clutch gearbox as a conventional automatic is an obvious solution to dilute the drudgery of urban driving; it’s smooth, free of transmission shunt and never seemed to be hunting around for the right ratio, the seven on offer being so well spaced. The only negative was a momentary hesitation to actually move off from a standing start, especially when cold.
In the cityscape, the Fabia vRS offers only one hint of its performance credentials, via its firm ride setup. It’s not so hard that you’ll see more of your osteopath than your family but it feels at odds with its potential as a small, urban-focused car, where compliance and comfort are generally higher priorities. The steering’s light with a tight turning circle and with the self-changing gears it’s easy to drive. It’s just too sedate at sub 30mph speeds.
Get the vRS into its more natural B-road habitat though and its abilities are all the more apparent and the whole package suddenly makes much more sense. Think of Bixby doing that look back to camera as he’s on the turn, pale contact lenses in situ as he’s reached the point of no return and you’re in the right area. The acceleration and rapidity of gear changes is intoxicatingly ferocious; the rev counter and speedo revolve clockwise almost in unison so quickly does it thrust forwards, bursting to 60mph in just 7.3 seconds.
The dramatic speed is accompanied by a melodious mechanical whine and growl as the small four-cylinder unit revs happily through its range. It sounds like a proper motorsport engine, its whooshes and pops echoing off the trees during blasts through wooded areas. Škoda have long been experts at linking their rallying heritage to its road models but having the street version sound like its rallying cousin is a master stroke. Thankfully the vRS stops as well as it goes, proving the merit of those big red callipers beyond pure kerbside appeal.
Beyond this, whilst the vRS is fast, whether it’s desirable will depend upon your particular preferences for the setup of your pocket rocket of choice. Mechanically it’s the same as the Ibiza Bocanegra I drove back in October but even in Hulk-guise, David Banner shines through in the Fabia. Somehow it felt slightly less involved than its SEAT cousin; the steering, whilst accurate and with impressive grip and turn in, there was noticeably less ‘feel’ through the leather-wrapped wheel. The same subdued sensation is evident in the overall handling experience which has transmogrified into a chassis setup that still inspires confidence and cranks up the fun factor, yet doesn’t feel as frenzied as the Ibiza.
A further quandary may surface for potential customers over the sticky subject of gearboxes. Or rather gearbox, as there’s only one on offer. Not offering a conventional manual in a hot hatch may seem risky and will doubtless rule the Fabia vRS out completely for some buyers but if you haven’t noticed from other road tests and comments, I’m a fan of DSG and automatic gearboxes generally, so it’s actually a plus point for me. The lever itself has the regular automatic selection junctions, together with an ‘S’ location for sportier, reviver changes, as well as a manual override for sequential changes. These can also be actuated via the small paddles on the back of the steering wheel as is common place in 2012.
Here’s the rub though – I found the paddles unnecessary in this application but pleasingly they’re small enough to not get in the way. Equally, I only used the regular lever in the to-fro motion to see how it worked and felt, because beyond that it felt anaesthetised. One thing I will agree on with manual gearbox supporters is that lack of feel as you swap cogs with the DSG. Yes, a great manual transmission is smooth, precise and snicks beautifully between the gates of the gearbox but there’s a sensation present as you’re in tune with the mechanical activities beneath your left hand. You don’t get that here, so best to leave it in ‘D’ or ‘S’ depending on your mood and the roads ahead and leave it be.
So does that mean it’s not really any good? No, not at all. After all, we all have different tastes and things we enjoy – it doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s better than the other but it’s not the wild beast the advert suggests it might be. Think of the vRS as a madras to the Bocanegra vindaloo. Each has its place.
So it can shift but does the Škoda Fabia vRS look the part?
Looks are always subjective but I’ve not warmed to the second generation Fabia as much as I did the 2000 original. Personally, I find the styling accentuates the height and narrowness of the small Škoda making it look decidedly unsporty.
The vRS transformation has its work cut out then but the bright two-tone paint scheme, with a white roof on this example that doffs its cap in the original Mini Cooper’s direction, help set the scene. Multi-spoke 17” alloys fill out the wheel arches nicely and those aforementioned red brake callipers look like they’ve been lifted from something much more expensive. But there’s little else of note. The front valance has been beefed up with a lower splitter sticking out, Jimmy Hill style, and there’s a vRS badge at either end but that’s about it.
Open the tall and upright doors and you’ll be greeted with a sombre cabin ambience that treads a fine line between sporty and stark. All the plastic fittings, trims and even the headlining are somewhere on the greyscale between dark and very dark, with some occasional red accents and a bevy of vRS logos.
Aside form the optional colour touch screen infotainment and satnav display, the dashboard itself looks like it could be from a base model rather than the fast flagship. Manual air conditioning controls may be effective but they looked more entry level than special purchase here and the general level of standard equipment felt less than generous – manually winding rear windows in a £16,500 car?
That aside, the cabin is spacious enough for four adults, the high roof providing plenty of headroom and upright seating ensuring legroom is fine too. Although the rear bench has three conventional seatbelts you’d be hard pressed to install three child seats side by side, the middle position in particular being narrow between the buckles. The boot has a useful 315l capacity with the seats in position, extending to over 1000l when it’s tumbled; there’s also a retaining section to help keep clutter rolling around the cargo area.
Should you require a larger, more practical proposition but are still swayed by the Fabia vRS’ charms, then you’re in luck, because the mechanically identical estate model is available for £17,265.
Like the majority of recent Škodas, build quality was impressive but at the cheaper end of the market buyers are treated to much less in the way of soft-touch plastics and trim damping. The doors are a good example – they’re solid and free from rattles and squeaks but they felt tinny when slammed shut. The internal release pulls are fashioned from a downmarket plastic rather than the chromed finish of larger models from the Czech brand.
Škoda’s Fabia vRS is a hot hatchback with many strings to its bow, not least that wonderfully sonorous little engine which blesses it with really impressive performance, that’s a fine match against the majority of competitors in this class. The handling is precise and secure, allowing for high speed traversing across winding roads and is genuinely good fun. Equally, it’s simple and easy to drive around town, proving totally painless providing you can forgive the jiggly ride set up.
At £16,415 it’s remarkably good value against its key competitors too, including those from within the Volkswagen group that share the vRS’ drivetrain. That bargain basement price is partly achieved by the specification count that includes a few of the essentials like air conditioning but if you’re expecting automatic lights and wipers, electrically folding door mirrors, climate control and even a front arm rest, then be prepared to start ticking the option boxes or look elsewhere.
But don’t be confused by the paucity of equipment, because what the Fabia vRS isn’t, is a stripped-out lightweight special that’s been honed to generate an exhilarating driving experience that would feel equally at home on the road or rally special stage.
Škoda customers aren’t typically speaking that hardcore, hence the visual make-over from lesser Fabias is relatively tame. This is not the sort optical riot that’ll make the chavved-up patrons of McDonald’s car parks up and down the land drop their Big Macs in open-mouthed awe. Instead, meet them on a suitably absorbing length of asphalt ribboning across the countryside and it’ll show them a clean pair of heels.
The Fabia vRS doesn’t shout too loudly about its performance making it the perfect pocket rocket for those who don’t need to drive an extension of their egos. It’s not perfect or instantly desirable but as you become more in tune with what it’s about the Škoda becomes ever-more endearing and engaging. Buy one and you’ll bask in the knowledge that you’ve purchased a performance bargain.
Thumbs Up: Great performance, flexible engine, smoothness of DSG transmission, fine handling, price.
Thumbs Down: Paucity of standard equipment, styling too mature for some hot hatch buyers, lacking the wow factor
Model Tested: Škoda Fabia vRS 1.4 TSI 180PS DSG
Top Speed: 139mph
Average fuel consumption: 45.6mpg
CO2 emissions: 148g/km
Engine size: 4/1390cc fuel injection turbocharged and supercharged petrol
Boot space: 315-1180l
Kerb weight: 1243kg
Price: £16,415 (November 2011)
All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2012