It has, in the company's words: 'a spacious design, up-to-date safety features, a high degree of comfort, the latest technology and equipment levels exceeding what is expected in a car of this category'. When launched in the UK on March 1, 2000, the Fabia will be available in five-door only and with a range of three engines, two 1.4-litre variants and a 1.9-litre diesel and in three trim levels, Classic, Comfort and Elegance. Further engines, including a 2.0-litre turbodiesel injection, will be introduced later in 2000. An estate version is also expected at the end of that year and there is talk of a saloon.
But don't expect the car to be, as vice-chairman of the Skoda Auto board Detlef Wittig put it at its press launch in Portugal, 'cheap, cheap'. 'It will be attractively priced,' he said. 'Between 1% and 6% above the cost of a Felicia.' No prices have been released yet, but Skoda UK marketing manager Chris Hawken said he expected it to cost between £8,000 and £12,000, placing it squarely in the heart of supermini territory.
The Fabia is slightly longer than the Felicia and longer than the majority of its competitors. The front is characterised by a flat radiator grille with wide chrome rim topped by the Skoda badge, giving it a similar front end look to the Octavia. The clear-glass headlights, incorporating the directional indicators, top a body-coloured bumper fitted with protective rubber strips, also found at the rear.
In the Comfort and Elegance fog lights, sitting immediately below the front rubber strips will be fitted as standard. Internally, Skoda says the occupant space is class-leading. Not only does it have a generous wheelbase, but its height means plenty of headroom.
On the press launch, the three engines which will be available at first in the UK - the 1.4 68bhp and 100bhp and the 1.9SDi -were available for testing. The tight-fitting body panels clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of the precision laser welding at Mlada Boleslav. This is not surprising since Skoda says the Fabia exceeds all safety standards for frontal, rear-end, roll-over and side impact in all its markets. It has been subjected to not only the standard 30mph crash tests, but also those at about 40mph.
On the inside, the quality of materials is high. The base level Classic Fabia comes with a reach and rake steering wheel, a warning buzzer if the lights are left on and power steering on the 68bhp and above engines. The Comfort has fog lights, side protection mouldings, body-coloured door mirrors, split rear seat, a height adjustable driver seat and reading lights, chrome-plated interior door handles and a drawer beneath the passenger seat, electric front windows, tinted windows and central locking with security system.
The top-of the range Elegance has electric windows all round, front seat heating, heated windscreen washer nozzles, electrically heated and adjustable door mirrors, automatic air conditioning, remote control central locking and chrome-plated gear and handbrake lever, plus door lock buttons.
Driving the three cars threw up polar opposites. The 1.4 68bhp model was a cracker. It lacks the oomph of the 100bhp version, but this was in fact a good thing. The 100bhp was too flighty and too easy to over-rev. It was always busting a gut to get moving and together with the sensitive power steering did not feel as solid and controllable as the 68bhp version, which was a solid, calm performer with more than enough go on a winding country lane or motorway. Save your money if you get the choice between the two and go for the 68bhp. The engine is a credit to Skoda, which developed it.
The 1.9 SDi is another matter. Admittedly I went from the two petrol cars to the diesel and, unless it was an Tdi PD, it is going to seem a bit unrefined. This Fabia diesel is like high pressure direct injection never happened. The noise, whether in or out of the car, is disturbing and intrusive and with a 0-62mph time of 18.7 seconds it's not surprising it felt underpowered. Plus points are its economy - 58.9mpg - and its lower CO2 emissions (130g/km) than the petrol (170g/km).
However, a five-speed manual 1.9TDi Fabia, along with a Skoda-developed 1.0-litre petrol, 1.4 75bhp four-speed petrol auto and 2.0-litre petrol are due for launch in the UK in the middle of next year. The engines not developed by Skoda are Volkswagen's.
In test driving these Elegance spec vehicles, it was clear they had 'classic' design features taken from the Volkswagen and they proved extremely comfortable to drive. Quality will be a key issue if Skoda is going to get rid of its 'cheap, no thrills' image of yesteryear.
While admitting that Skoda will be focusing mainly on chipping away at retail sales of its competitors, UK marketing manager Chris Hawken is sure the design and build quality of the Fabia, together with the servicing and warranty support, will give it low running costs and strong residual values and therefore appeal to leasing companies.
He said: 'It is the only car in its class to have a 10-year anti-corrosion warranty due to its fully-galvanised steel body. The price also includes Skoda's three-year/45,000-mile service and maintenance package, as well as three-year unlimited mileage mechanical warranty. And the petrol engines meet EU IV emission standards which don't come into force until 2005, while the diesels meet EU III standards. It is going to cost you less to run and last longer than many of the competitors.'
Hawken is hoping it will find favour with local authorities and the NHS and play an important role in establishing Skoda as a serious player.
Sales forecasts in the UK are 10,500 for 2000, compared to 10,000 for the Felicia and 9,000 for the Octavia. For 2001, Fabia sales are expected to more than double. The signs are there that this is achievable. This year Skoda has sold 21,171 units in this country, a 15.4% year-on-year increase.