To us Western Europeans, the country was manifestly grey, in keeping with the prevailing pallor of post-Warsaw Pact Eastern Europe.It was like walking back in time.
What shone though the gloom was the optimism of a freed people, who, for the first time in generations, could not only express themselves, but who had immense enthusiasm about their future as an independent, egalitarian society.
Nowhere was that optimism more evident than in the city of Mladá Boleslav, the home of Skoda. Manufacturing there was focused on the Felicia model, which was hand-built by production lines of people.
By then, Volkswagen had a 70% stake in Skoda and was about to take control, and an automated factory was under construction just down the road from the old works plant.
You could feel the change in the air and, from talking to any level of worker, you sensed that each and every one of them was committed to building something of which they could be proud. Horses might have been pulling the trucks that brought the components to the factory gates, but a new era beckoned.
Now, years on, Skoda has been re-established as a vibrant and important worldwide player in the automotive sector, and while the influence of Volkswagen cannot be overplayed, the Czech company brings its own characteristics to the table.
And one car in the stable defines what the company is all about — the Fabia.
Originally seen in 1999, just a few years after my visit to Mladá Boleslav, the Fabia was the first VW Group automobile built on a new platform that would later be used by the VW Polo and the Seat Ibiza. This was not only an indication of the confidence that VW had in the Skoda brand, but also how much trust it had.
The third-generation Fabia was unveiled last November and, with over 3.5m of the Mk 1 and Mk 11 models built, it has a lot to live up to. On the evidence of what I’ve seen, it will take up that challenge robustly.
At the end of its production run, the last Fabia was showing its age. It looked dowdy.
Skoda’s designers have brightened it up with a sharper and more eye-catching look, and have made good use of larger interior and exterior dimensions.
The new car is lower and shorter than the previous one, but the wheelbase is longer and the width much greater, and these changes mean more interior space for driver and passengers and a bigger boot, too.
The driving position is excellent and the interior décor, while not quite up to Polo or Fiesta standards, in terms of soft-touch plastics, is well ahead of what was previously on offer.
I tested the 1.2 TSI petrol version of the Fabia, an engine that is now a familiar presence across the VW Group’s brands. A four cylinder, it outputs some 66 kW (90 bhp), has a top speed of 182 kph, a 0-100kph time of 10.9 seconds, a claimed, combined cycle consumption rate of 4.7 l/100 km, emissions of 119 g/km and an annual tax rate of €190.
This is the lesser-powered of the 1.2-litre, turbocharged options available, but it is a gritty little engine that will cope with the demands of town, country, or highway driving with ease. It’s excellent torque characteristics also mean that you don’t have to change gear all the time to keep it ticking over.
On the road, the wider track provides for a more sure-footed stance and the all-round handling is not far off the best in the class, although the designers’ brief pointed them more in the direction of comfort than purpose, but that is not a bad thing at all.
In Style specification as tested, the Fabia comes with air conditioning, 16” alloys, keyless start, four electric windows, start/stop, ESP, front LED lights, touchscreen infotainment system and parking sensors, so the extra few quid will seem well spent.
The Fabia has been an iconic car for Skoda, and on this evidence it will continue to be. As a well-priced, smart-looking, well-equipped and decently powered machine, it remains a car that people shopping in the super-mini segment cannot ignore.
It might be a while since horse-drawn trailers were de rigeur at Mladá Boleslav, but the convictions Skoda’s people demonstrated then are obviously alive and well now.
from €14,495-€18,795 as tested.
a familiar — and worthy — four pot from the VW parts bin.
base models are well equipped, but when you step up a few notches, the Skoda can match the best.
not quite as good as the class leaders, but a very impressive new contender from the Czech outfit.