The last time Skoda competed in the upper- medium car segment, the world was a different place. Its population was under three billion, Harold Truman was US president, the state of Israel had just been formed, Ireland and the moon was a large blob in the sky waiting for that 'one small step'.
In motoring terms, Skoda's return to the upper-medium sector is like reviving a dinosaur, but the manufacturer's new-found confidence following the success of the Fabia and Octavia means it isn't trying to find an easy way into the market with the new Superb.
Apart from a name begging for the car to fall flat on its face, the firm has listed its key rivals as the giants of the sector, who have decades of fleet experience, including the Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Vectra, Citroen C5, Rover 75, Renault Laguna and Peugeot 406, although Skoda keeps sister company Volkswagen's Passat absent from this worthy list.
In keeping with the key to its earlier successes, Skoda is focusing on a 'more for less' sales proposition, offering Volkswagen quality with Skoda quantity in a value-for-money package.
The saloon-only Superb is based on a stretched Volkswagen Passat platform, and one of its main selling points is the huge amount of space for rear seat passengers, enough to rival a Mercedes-Benz S-class.
In addition, Skoda claims standard equipment beats its mainstream rivals, while undercutting its targeted rivals on pricing, which starts at £14,200, rising to £24,500.
However, while drivers can compare the car with the Ford and Vauxhall at the lower end of its pricing range, the higher prices take the car into Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz territory.
For example, the 2.5 V6 TDI auto, at £24,500, costs more than a 2.4-litre petrol Audi. Realistically, Skoda expects most sales to be under £18,000.
There are three trim levels, Classic, Comfort and Elegance (the same as the Fabia), with three petrol engines: 2.0, 1.8T and 2.8 V6 and three diesels: a 2.5-litre V6 and two 1.9-litre units offering 100bhp and 130bhp which will not go on sale until July.
Standard equipment on all models includes twin front and side airbags, climate control, remote central locking, height adjustable front seats with lumbar support, four electric windows, electric heated mirrors and fully-adjustable steering wheel.
CatVision, which gently illuminates the car's interior at night, is also standard, along with boarding lamps under the wing mirrors and doors to light the ground around the car at night as you get in.
Comfort spec adds alloy wheels and a multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, parking sensor, automatic wipers and an umbrella, neatly stored in the left-hand rear door pocket, with a drain to the outside of the car for when it is wet.
Elegance adds a rather unfortunate attempt at wood trim, chrome, xenon headlamps, heated front and rear seats and electronic seats with memory function. More than half of sales will be Classic trim, with 39% Comfort.
Future developments include a folding section in the front passenger seat, to allow more legroom for those in the rear seat and CargoFlex, a flexible luggage retention system. Fleets will be the key to making sure the Superb reaches its modest sales targets of 1,000 models this year and 3,000 during 2003. About 85% of sales will go to fleets, including 25% to firms with 25 cars or less.
John Rooney, head of business sales at Skoda, said the whole range would benefit from the 'halo' effect of the Superb: 'The price and equipment levels in the Skoda have consolidated our position of producing value-for-money cars.
'Until 1998 and the Skoda Octavia, the fleet market did not exist for Skoda, but now we are focused on meeting the demands of decision-makers.
'The fleet market can be confident that the model will have solid residual values and low servicing costs, while our growth is planned and steady. With 3,000 units, we won't be saturating the market.'
Behind the wheel
YOU need to become a back seat passenger in the Skoda Superb to get a real impression of where the car has the biggest advantage over its rivals.
Even with a tall driver in the front, there is still enough room for rear seat passengers to stretch out their arms and legs in comfort.
The space is enough to rival cars in the executive or the luxury sectors for less than the price of an equivalent Ford Mondeo and the Superb answers criticisms that the Octavia was a bit short of legroom for rear seat passengers.
Whether this is enough to persuade someone in the driving seat to opt for the Superb is a different matter, but you do not begrudge moving to the front. The controls on the car are all within easy reach, while a sliding armrest is useful for long journeys.
Although there are many true Skoda touches, from the speedometer to the gearstick, the Volkswagen Passat origins of the car are clear, especially from the outside. Build quality and materials are all the high standard you can now expect from Skoda.
On the road, the suspension is biased towards comfort and only the worst of road surfaces transmit through the cabin. Although this means it can feel wallowy over bumpy surfaces, it still manages to feel composed on tight, fast corners.
Most models have the five-speed gearbox, which is light to use, but feels sloppy and lacks resistance between gears. I prefer the six-speed unit, which is only available with the 2.5 V6 TDI, offered for £20,400.
All the engines are tried and tested Volkswagen units, starting with the 2.0-litre, which does not quite match the excellent performance of the rest of the range. Although it pulls lustily, it is rougher than the more powerful 1.8T at higher revs and it also has higher CO2 emissions.
The 2.8-litre is the most powerful petrol unit, unless it is attached to the six-speed automatic gearbox, which seems to sap its strength considerably.
The pick of the bunch on test was the 2.5 TDI V6 (the 1.9-litre diesel engines which won the vote at international launches are not yet available in right-hand drive), combining smooth performance with a huge amount of torque for quick progress.
Brakes on the Superb are progressive, rather than sharp, but a gentle shove scrubs off speed extremely effectively. The steering is light, almost too light, and the base model steering wheel feels cheap for this class of car, so it is worth ensuring you specify the thicker multi-function steering wheel instead.
In value-for-money terms, the Skoda Superb is an excellent proposition and doesn't disappoint on the road. It feels like a quality car and powered by the Volkswagen range of engines, particularly the 1.9-litre diesel models, offers low CO2 emissions and tax bills. With only 3,000 sales a year, it also promises to be quite exclusive.
Although badge snobbery is rife in company car parks, drivers should not see the Superb as a step down, but a qualified choice in the face of immensely tough competition.