Vijay Pattni29 August 2013

First Drive: Skoda Rapid Spaceback

Skoda’s first ever mid-size hatchback; one for the value-conscious amongst you…

Spaceback? Is that one of those trendy new ways of saying 'estate'?

No. Well, yes. But also no. The Spaceback started out life as an estate on the drawing board, but Skoda's designers played with its proportions until it morphed into a proper hatch. And it's the first Skoda model in this dog-eat-dog world of the compact hatchback segment; a segment topped by the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus, no less.

Hang on. Doesn't Skoda's Octavia compete - and share lots of bits - with the Golf?

Correct. The Rapid is a slightly smaller, cheaper offering, and doesn't live on the clever new MQB platform of the Golf, Leon and A3. Skoda says the Spaceback's focus is practicality, space and functionality rather than cutting-edge tech or driving dynamics.

So if it's not a new ‘MQB' thingy, what's underneath?

The same hybrid mongrel underpinning the Rapid saloon: the front setup is lifted from the current Volkswagen Polo, while the rear is from the first-gen Skoda Octavia. The Spaceback's spring rates have been kept the same as the saloon, but the dampers have been retuned for a softer rebound to offer a more comfortable ride. The steering has also been switched from hydraulic to an electro-mechanical setup, again to provide more comfort.

So is it comfortable?

Very much so. Sadly, our test ride was restricted to a convoy, and TG had Skoda CEO Winfried Vahland on board for the first stint, so our thoughts were very much primed to Not Killing An Important Member Of The VW Group By Crashing. Of course, Mr Vahland was effusive about the new Spaceback, saying it was "more for young people - it's a bit fresher, but still for the family and is affordable; chic, and a little bit more sporty".

While we concur that it's perfect for the family, we'd have to disagree on the ‘sporty', because the soft chassis setup and dull steering combine to form a inoffensive, fizz-free drive. "We don't feel we are missing something from MQB," Dr Vahland told us. "It's not so important for people who buy this Spaceback, and it also keeps the costs down. In here the focus is more on space." He also told us the new Fabia won't come as a VRS too, but that's another story.

Anyhow. The Spaceback's ride is comfortable and the steering is accurate enough, but the latter is far too light (it's been tuned especially to cancel out road vibrations) and thus won't telegraph any road nuances. This is discouraging to the Sweaty Palmed Driver Brigade, as is the body roll as you push on.

The engines, too, are inoffensive. The 1.2-litre TSI petrol with 103bhp felt punchy and refined; a good bet for the town sprints, while the 1.6-litre TDI - available in 88bhp and 103bhp variants - grumbled on acceleration, but had decent overtaking clout. 

And is the Spaceback spacious?

The Rapid's move from saloon to hatch means bootspace drops from 500 litres to 415, but it's still roomier than a Cee'd or Hyundai i30, cars this Skoda will compete with. The rear legroom is great, there's a giant panoramic glass sunroof, excellent headroom, many storage spaces and the lowest rear-loading sill in this class. Practical, see.

So should I consider it then?

Certainly consider it, but then consider what your priorities are. If it's a more engaging, dynamic drive, get a Cee'd - or move up to a Golf or Focus if you can. But otherwise this Spaceback is a friendly, functional and well-built hatch with no pretensions. And hopefully good value - we'd expect it to start at just over £13,000.

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