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Fabia vRS: extreme drive

  1. People will tell you they love character. That they love
    quirk and eccentricity, that it’s important to be ‘just that little bit
    different’. They will then buy a Volkswagen. Proper non-linear choices are for
    other people, excuses mumbled and quickly forgotten as daydreams get furiously
    battered by resale values and the potential for disparaging sucking of teeth
    down the pub. It takes a brave soul to really buck the system. Which is Skoda’s
    niche. A company providing an excuse to buy a VW without actually buying a VW.
    The rather elegant paradox of conformist non-conformity.

    Words: Tom Ford
    Photos: Justin Leighton

    This feature was originally published in the February issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. So you buy a Skoda Fabia vRS with the caveat that
    ‘underneath it’s a Polo GTi’, except with cooler adverts on the telly and
    two-and-a-half grand left in the bank account. But for people interested in
    cars, is the Skoda hot hatch really as soulful as the adverts suggest? Is it
    truly a stand-alone Skoda, or just a Primarni Polo GTi?

    To find out, TopGear finds itself in the Lake District. And it’s raining. Not casual, light-hearted rain, but a deluge. Every brief sojourn outside the warm refuge of the car brings a few hundred freezing molestations insinuating themselves between collar and neck.

  3. Stand outside for more than a
    minute or two, and despite wearing the finest anorak technology meagre wages
    can buy, you’ll feel the storm slip questing, cold, pervy little fingers
    between the waistband of those technical overtrousers and your previously
    toasty skin. Sod this, I think, and get back in the car, leaving photographer
    Leighton outside to take more pictures. He looks shipwrecked. I smile and crank
    the heater. He smiles back, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

  4. No wonder they call it the Lake
    District. The main roads sway and coil around the lakes under the bald and
    glowering blackness of trees curled tight against winter. Even the main
    carriageways have been badly beaten by the elements, appearing in parts to have
    been chewed. And then spat back out. This is already a stiff test, and we’re
    headed towards the Hardknott and Wrynose passes, contentiously the steepest
    roads in the UK and certainly some of the most challenging, if you value both
    sanity and sump integrity.

  5. Worryingly, even the approach road is currently a junior
    river deep enough to float little freights of ice. Feeling like a miniature
    blue Titanic, the vRS wriggles and darts, relatively wide 205-section front
    tyres dragging themselves into slushy channels, swishing their way through
    water deep enough to entirely cover the tarmac. The traction control clicks and
    whirrs, flickering through the steering with a series of irregular tugs,
    signalling its complicity with the front tyres via a blinking yellow eye in the
     dash.

  6. The 1.4-litre TSI ‘twincharged’ engine (both super and
    turbo) warbles merrily away under the grumble of the 17-inch wheel and tyre
    combo, the cabin a simple and pleasant place to sit, decently built if not
    luxuriously appointed. But there’s still an honest integrity to it. The
    300-mile A- and M-way run up here has been utterly agreeable, the seats
    comfortable, the boot capacious. It should be. Point of order: this set-up is
    deemed so worthy, it’s sold in not just two but three flavours. The Fabia vRS
    has 178bhp, a seven-speed DSG gearbox - there is no manual option - and is
    mechanically all but identical to both the Seat Ibiza Cupra and that Volkswagen
    Polo GTi, both of which it undercuts significantly in terms of price.

  7. No surprise that on an A-road, the vRS feels pretty damn
    good. The supercharger swells the lower end of the torque curve so that there’s
    always most of the 184lb ft of torque available until the turbo and 178bhp can
    make its presence felt further up the rev range. The brakes are powerful, the
    steering accurate - neither sanctioning an excess of tactility. The seven-speed
    DSG grates a bit with a hesitant take-up from a standstill - despite a
    hill-holder brake - but once you get going and hit a rhythm, it slips between
    ratios quickly enough. Even in this Biblical weather, it feels neat, fizzy and
    chuckable, dealing with normal bumps in a slightly choppy but manageable
     fashion.

  8. Off the main road, up past a stone-built farm that is slowly
    but inexorably being reclaimed by the mossy hillside, and suddenly we’re at the
    base of the Wrynose. Signs feebly point out terrible hazards, and as we bumble
    further up the single track, it’s as if some capricious godling has beaten the
    sky flat with a lump hammer and colourwashed it in bleak primer grey. It is
    still, to quote the proverbial, [a rude word] it down. Russet bracken and impassive
    hillocks of grey rock coat the landscape. There’s a jaw-dropping beauty to the
    starkness of it, but bloody hell, it’s not exactly welcoming.

  9. I’m glad I’m in the Fabia. These little, bumpy, technical
    roads are where this car should shine, making a mockery of anything bigger and
    more powerful, the lunatic waveform of the surface and U-shaped crown of the
    road almost touching the middle of the front bumper. It’s absurdly narrow in
    places, genuinely bewildering on some of the downhill hairpins. Put it this
    way: injudicious speed would result not in a ditch-scraped wheel or
    embarrassing hedgetangle, but bouncing off millennia-old rocks in a repeated
    and painful fashion. It doesn’t matter how many airbags you have, it’d be like
    trying to break an anvil by hitting it with your face. Turns out that it
    doesn’t matter. After three of the decidedly precipitous hairpins, I’m
     disappointed. 

  10. The problem, in the main, is the DSG gearbox. Now I’m not
    some Luddite who believes that things were better when smallpox was on the
    school curriculum and houses were constructed of wattle and Black Death, but
    I’m a firm believer in applying technology appropriately. In the vRS, it hasn’t
    happened. The DSG emphatically does not suit this car when you want to play,
    and the very first time the gearbox doesn’t do as you instruct it, the car is
    compromised. In a hot hatch, that’s a poisonous and fatal mistake. A hot hatch
    should be an ally. A supercar can levy extremity against a frisson of
    lethality, a few niggles that have to be accepted and driven around. A typical
    hatch has no such excuse.

  11. Here’s the basics: the DSG will not, even in manual mode,
    hold a gear at the red line, so you may charge into a corner expecting to brush
    against a rev-limiter and find yourself on the brakes with the gearbox having
    just changed up. It will, it seems, arbitrarily choose gears in ‘sport’ mode,
    hesitate, and get confused if you drive down a bumpy, twisty lane and
    constantly modulate your throttle. It works in reliable situations, where
    responses can be predicted, but its peculiar mechanical autism can’t cope with
    change. It’s infuriating.

  12. It doesn’t stop there. Where the Fabia copes with big bumps on big roads, as soon as it encounters anything tiny and cosmetically traumatised, it suddenly gets wooden knees. Too hard, not enough time to breathe between bumps, so a very knobbly road ends up being a staccato series of bounces from one axle-tramping lump to another. Admittedly, the Hardknott and Wrynose are probably some of the most extreme examples of both gradient and suspension-upsetting tarmac - at one point, the little Skoda was wagging a rear wheel 10 inches in the air on an uphill hairpin whose surface looked as if it had recently been groomed by goats - but the point stands.

  13. Sitting at the top of the pass just as blazing sunshine
    chisels through the cloud, looking out and down at one of the most remarkable
    roads in the UK, it was impossible not to conclude that the vRS makes a poor
    champion for what is essentially a sacrifice of individuality to sate economies
    of scale. It might make financial sense to adopt the template of the Polo GTi,
    it might - in nearly every objective sense - make the pugnacious little Skoda a
    ‘better’ car, but in the translation, Skoda has miscued.

  14. In a world where car manufacturers are breeding niches to
    the point of deformity, Skoda has gaily abandoned one; the previous-generation
    Fabia vRS was a diesel (60+ mpg) manual and unique, a cult hit, a legend in its
    own lunchtime. It was also under £12k, cheap to insure and run. It made sense
    surfing down a bumpy back road with absorbent suspension and a torquey
    delivery. Less technologically flamboyant and ultimately a lot less speed, but
    it had a reason. It may have pillaged the VW parts bin, but it was nothing but
    a Skoda.

  15. A RenaultSport Clio for five hundred quid more would murder this vRS.
    And without the USP of diesel manual, it no longer has any dynamic jokers to
    play. So it’s a price thing. And yes, you’d buy this vRS over a Polo GTi simply
    because it does everything the Polo does for a lot less money. But you wouldn’t
    buy it because it did anything differently. The vRS is the perfect car for people
    who want to be seen to be different, while remaining exactly the same. But real
    free-thinkers will be left wondering where the old vRS has gone to die.

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