Skoda and Monte Carlo - not three words you’d readily associate with each other, even with the Czech brand’s vastly improved recent history. But before we descend down that cynical rabbit hole, there is an element of justification here: Skoda is the only car company that’s allowed to use the words ‘Monte Carlo’ on its models on account of the success of the Poplar in the 1936 rally of the famous principality.
Rarely one to miss out on a marketing opportunity (nor is any car manufacturer, to be fair), the first Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo appeared in 2011 and here we are, on the frankly epic Col de Turini, in the latest version of it. Spoiler alert: this is not a vRS-lite edition, despite the location, brand association and more aggressive looks.
Changes on the outside include a reprofiled front bumper and mock rear diffuser, along with plenty of de-rigueur black trim elements. There are 17in wheels with detachable aero elements as standard, too. To my eyes, it looks okay - somewhat heavy on detail and creases, but at least it has a bit more road presence.
Still, the new 1.5-litre engine, which also appears in the Skoda Scala and Volkswagen Golf among others, is the most powerful available in the Fabia and it is offered with this particular trim only, although you can also get a 1.0-litre Monte Carlo. Power and torque in the bigger lump run to 148bhp and 184lb ft, while 0-62mph is a competitive 8.0sec. Rivals like the Ford Fiesta and DS 3 Crossback are both marginally slower.
Inside, it’s nicely done. It's not over the top, but Skoda has made enough effort to justify the special badge. There are plenty of red plastic highlights and the carbon-effect trim on the doors and dashboard set it apart from the regular hatch. It also comes with sport seats, which are comfy and surprisingly grippy. The Monte Carlo is £600 more than the regular 1.0 SE L, so hardly a bank-breaking range-topper.
The 1.5 is definitely the engine to get. It’s available with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (DSG) only, and oddly doesn’t get any flappy paddles despite the rallying association, but it’s largely a smooth and easy motor to live with. The torque kicks in from 2000rpm and there’s plenty of low-down punch for whatever sort of journey you’re on.
It doesn’t reward full-on driving, though. There is a manual override for the gearbox, worked via the lever itself, but it doesn’t increase the interaction by a vast amount. And please, Skoda, if you’re going to fit a manual shift option to a car named after the Monte Carlo rally, make sure the changes go the correct way: upshifts should be pulled back, not pushed forwards.
Above 4500rpm, things get a bit boomy and raucous, so it's better to let the turbo do the work from lower revs and relax into the Fabia’s comfort-focused chassis.
The Fabia doesn’t isolate its occupants quite as much as big siblings such as the Skoda Octavia or Skoda Superb, but overall it’s definitely set up for comfort over handling. A plus point is well-controlled body roll. Minus points are that it doesn’t pivot around you like the best hatches and the steering is inert. It’s a grown-up thing, but not exciting.
As for the 1.0-litre engine, its lower power means it struggles more on inclines and the DSG doesn’t help it around town. A manual gearbox is better as it’s easier to keep the engine in the power band. The DSG tries to save the planet and upshifts too quickly.