VOLKSWAGEN'S Polo GTI currently sets the benchmark in the sub-$30K hot-hatch segment in Australia – but that's partly because this car hasn't arrived Down Under yet.
Skoda's Fabia vRS is set to become the most affordable European pocket rocket when it arrives early in 2012.
The vRS will be available in two body styles – a five-door hatchback and a sports wagon – both of which are likely to be priced keenly. The hatch is expected to launch at about $27,000, with the versatile wagon slightly more expensive.
On the road
The vRS is powered by VW Group's acclaimed 1.4-litre turbo- and supercharged four-cylinder engine which, as with the Polo, has been tweaked to produce 132kW of power and 250Nm of torque. And, as with the Volkswagen, it's available only with a dual-clutch transmission (thankfully with paddle shifters).
The lack of a manual option in itself could be enough for some hardcore drivers to think they should stop reading now. But they shouldn't.
Admittedly, the Fabia vRS is slightly slower to 100kmh than the Polo (7.3 seconds vs 6.9s), but that's due to its extra weight – 126kg more than the VW (1315kg vs 1189).
In terms of fuel consumption, there's barely anything in it, though – the Skoda sips 6.2 litres per 100km to the Polo's 6.1.
So, for performance, the Polo has its measure. But when it comes to everyday driver and passenger-friendliness, the Skoda could just have the advantage.
It's an extremely capable little car. During our test drive through the Czech Republic, the pint-sizer proved itself across a number of disciplines including traffic snarls, cobblestoned and pockmarked city streets, twisting country roads and the seemingly never-ending stretches of auto-route.
The 1.4-litre powerplant offers linear acceleration with virtually no detectable turbo lag (thanks to the help of the supercharger low in the rev range), while the transmission is intuitive enough to put you in the right gear before you knew you even needed it. Being a DSG, though, it does suffer from some low-speed hesitation.
The biggest positive of the vRS, though, is the way it holds the road. The front-wheel drive hatch grips well, sticking strongly to the road when pushed hard through sharp bends. There is some evidence of torque steer (where the steering wheel tugs to the side under hard acceleration), but the steering is otherwise accurate and adds welcome weight when pushing through corners.
The suspension copes admirably on almost all surfaces.
If you want extra functionality, Skoda also offers a wagon variant of the vRS.
The little Czech wagon will wear a slightly higher price-tag than the hatch, but Skoda says it wants to see the car priced under $30,000.
The wagon's space gains over the hatch are marked. The boot cargo capacity leaps from 300 litres with the rear seats in place to a much healthier 480L.
Folding the rear seats liberates a load-friendly 1460L of space – more than a number of compact SUVs on the market and significantly more than the hatchback version's 1163L.
Inside, both the hatch and the wagon are well appointed, with quality materials used to cover the comfortable and supportive sports seats – which some may find sit too high up to give it that real sports-car feel.
The headlining is black, adding to the sporty feel, while the switchgear feels of a high standard and the dash layout is logical.
There's plenty of storage spaces, though the fold-down centre armrest in between the front seats is a feature some may not find endearing.
Otherwise, the cabin is a pleasant and surprisingly spacious place to be considering the size of the Fabia.
The big one is the VW Polo GTI ($27,790), others in the game are Peugeot 207 1.6 XT ($25,990), Ford Fiesta 1.6 Zetec ($22,990), Mazda2 Genki 1.5 ($20,940) and Honda Jazz VTi-S 1.5 ($22,690).
The Fabia vRS is, for all intents and purposes, a Polo GTI wearing a different jacket.
And let's face it: this car's coat makes it stand out like a man wearing a leather vest with tassles – but thankfully in a far more respectable way.
The Fabia vRS is available in a raft of funky hues including rally green and race blue. But the standout element of the hatchback's look is the mismatched roof (which is available in black, silver or white for a small premium estimated at $500).
There's no other way to say this – the wagon looks weird. It has odd proportions, with a thick rear pillar and guard and small wheel-arches combining with a slim window line to give it a hodge-podge, underdeveloped stance.
Skoda needs as many brand-building cars it can get its hands on to give its sales greater momentum in Australia. And this quick little hot-hatch certainly won't do its image any harm.
Model: Skoda Fabia vRS.
Details: Five-door front-wheel drive compact hatch or wagon.
Engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder generating maximum power of 132kW and peak torque of 250Nm.
Performance: 0-100kmh 7.3 seconds.
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
Consumption: 6.2 litres per 100km (combined average).
Bottom line: $27,000 (forecast).
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