First Drive: Skoda Superb Estate
People do snigger at the idea of a Skoda called Superb (the name actually harks back to a pre-war model never sold in Anglo-Saxon markets), but Skoda is very bullish about this car. While the proposition of the Superb may look simple – an executive-sized car being sold for less than a Mondeo or Insignia, the truth is a bit more complex. As the Koreans and Japanese have proved, there is no point selling an executive-sized car if it looks and feels like an overgrown Toyota Corolla, no matter how cheap the price. Kia once offered the Magentis at £9999 and a fat lot of good it did them. The Superb is different: from the outside it looks as convincing as an Audi or BMW and the quality of the interior is absolutely first class. We jumped out of a BMW Z4 and into the Superb and the latter had noticeably better fit and finish. Indeed, only Audis have better finished interiors than this car, and then only fractionally.
So it looks the part and it feels the part, but does it deliver on the road? The chassis and engines come from the collective parts bin of VW and Audi, and Skoda is normally pretty adept at combining them into a convincing whole. We tried the full range of engines, starting with the 1.4 TSI. Now, the idea of a 1400 cc engine in a car almost the size of an Audi A6 Avant may seem absurd, but this one confounds expectations. With its turbocharged and supercharged engine, it has the power (125 bhp) and torque of a 2.0 litre petrol without the thirst.
The mark of when a new technology is mature is when you stop noticing it – it just works. By that measure, this downsized engine is mature. Above that are two more petrol engines: the 1.8 TSI (160 bhp) which turns the Superb into quite a rapid performer and an entirely ridiculous, if likeable 3.6 (260 bhp). The reason the V6 exists is that the Superb is ministerial transport in central and Eastern Europe, and such people do like to waft along in S-Class-type luxury. There are two diesel engines as well, but the ancient 1.9 with its eccentric PD injection system is best avoided in favour of the modern common-rail 2.0 TDI CR. Just one word of warning about the diesel though: the optional automatic transmission has been calibrated for maximum fuel economy and wants to keep the revs to about 1400 rpm. The result is noticeable harshness as the drivetrain does not smooth out until it is past 1500 rpm.
As regards the important bit for an estate – the load area – the Skoda is, well, superb. It is cavernous, the seats fold flat and there are more lashing points, nets and straps than a cargo ship. The rear door also opens and closes electrically so there is no need to get your hands dirty.
When it goes on sale in February 2010 prices are likely to be in the range of £1200 more than the saloon, so starting at around £17,300 and rising to £29,000. That sounds a lot for a Skoda, but for 95% of an Audi A6 at £6,000 less, it makes a lot of sense. If you are still worried by the badge, the fact that annual Superb sales are just a few hundred behind the Renault Laguna and Peugeot 407, even without the estate, shows that the car is being taken seriously by the British public.