Czech ingenuity serves up some crackers

In all fairness, there’s been few clonkers coming out of Mlada Boleslav since I first visited the place and ponies were doing the — pardon — donkey work pulling partially built cars along the production line, writes Declan Colley.

It was crude, if effective, even if in the early 1990s it still looked looked like something out of the Middle Ages.

Others manufacturers already had robots making their cars and yet here in mid-Bohemia where car building had been a tradition since, well, the middle-Europeans invented the thing, there was a tradition of pride in what they made and if there was something a little prehistoric about the set-up, there was a fundamental ethos at hand.

Back behind the Iron Curtain, Czech inventiveness, ingenuity, smarts and general cool, was stomped upon by the Soviet approved administration, but Skoda kept the thing rolling over and making cars whose origins might have been from decades earlier, but had also spawned the ideas for the man who would re-shape the global automotive world, Ferdinand Porsche.

And then the Iron Curtain fell, VW bought out the Czech ingenuity and ability to graft and Skoda got its head.

Given access to the wider VW parts bin, engineers who had previously been forced into MacGyver levels of inventiveness such was the scarcity of decent mechanicals they had to work with, started making a bunch of great cars: Octavia, Yeti, Superb, Fabia — even the Roomster wasn’t bad.

But, with such industrial synergies come a downside. Skoda, along with Spain’s SEAT, another VW acquisition, were treated like poor relations.

But subsequent difficulties up north have given the erstwhile colonials a freedom they could scarcefully have ever envisioned. Back in the day, though there was a sure-fire element that they ate what was given them.

An example was when the largely tragic SEAT Toledo/Skoda Rapid arrived with us. I can recall giving the Rapid such a rodding that the company never sent me another one.

I’m afraid SEAT may have been in the same boat, because after the Rapid apocalypse, they cancelled all bookings.

SKODA did revamp the Rapid in 2013, introducing the Spaceback semi-estate version which had greatly improved driving dynamics and did not motor along like the tyres were made of stone.

After a tricky start with a car they confessed to never having wanted to make, the company eventually threw some Bohemian magic at it. They turned a bog donkey into a derby winner.

But there were still problems with the car as it was priced very close to the much better Octavia and was never going to be as complete or as popular a machine as its vaunted sibling.

The tester we had recently was fitted with the one-litre 110 bhp three-cylinder turbo petrol TSI engine which has lately become something of a hit with drivers across Europe and which is now being seen in everything from superminis to full-fat family cars like the Octavia.

Indeed we drove an Octavia not so long ago with this engine and found it to pack a lot more punch than could reasonably be expected and offered potential owners a fresh, able and economic option to the raft of diesels which had previously been stuffed down our throats.

The engine then, is an excellent option and one which will fulfil a variety of roles for a variety of people.

Not only it is perfectly comfortable in an urban milieu, but it is also quite a decent highway cruiser and has the necessary grunt to pass itself off as a pretty multi-talented.

It does not lose much to its diesel rivals in terms of economy (4.6 l/100 km-60.8 mpg) and its top speed of 200 kph and 9.6 second 0-100 kph time, do not highlight any inherent flaws.

Throw in a specification pack on the tester which included 17” alloys, leather multifunction steering wheel, all-round electric windows and mirrors, manual air con, panoramic roof, parking sensors and a slew of other stuff — and all for less than 25 grand. Not bad, you’d have to think.

When you further factor in that the car is bigger than the usual C-segment contender (Focus, Golf, etc.) and has more practicality built in than is expected in class norms, then the Rapid starts to stand itself out from the fact.

It is also worth pointing out that the original handling and rides issues are now well behind the car and what is on offer here is pretty conventional — and respectable — on road performance.

Elsewhere in the Skoda range, we also got to try the Citigo micromini recently which has had something of a mild refresh.

The Citigo, of course, has sibling rivalries from the VW Up! and the SEAT Mii and the three cars are essentially the same. Indeed you could choose any of these cars and you’d not be disappointed.

The Skoda model comes in three spec levels and we tried the range-topping Monte Carlo version which is slightly lower than the others and has quite a sporty demeanour about it from the chequered flag decals to the 15” alloys and the three spoke steering wheel, unique front and rear bumpers and ‘Sport’ upholstery.

It is fitted with another one-litre petrol engine — three cylinder and turbocharged yet again — but this time with the MPI designation. There are two such engines, one with 60 bhp and the other with 75 bhp. Both are excellent around town, but it you have ambitions to travel further than the city boundaries, then the latter is the one to have.

It has a top speed of 173 kph, a 0-100 kph time of 13.5 seconds, economy of 4.4 l/100 km (64.2 mpg) and emissions of just 101 g/km for an annual tax bill of €190, which is all-in-all well up to muster.

With go-karty handling and a reasonably smooth ride on offer, the car is one which will reward press-on drivers, without stunting those for whom a more relaxed demeanour is the order of the day.

An excellent city car with potential to stretch its legs moreso than many of its rivals, the Citigo gets a pretty unrestrained thumbs-up from this quarter.

The revised Rapid Spaceback too is something that should not be overlooked by family drivers and while it might not be quite at the top of its class, it represents great value for money for what is on offer.

Indeed, that is something Skoda has gained great credit for providing — more for less — and while some products are not as good as others, very rarely will you feel let down by the brand.

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