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Skoda bridges the gap between Fabia and Octavia with a new hatch, but keen drivers will find more rewarding alternatives in the class

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Skoda is going places. So much so that it might need to revise its production targets upwards, even from a stated goal of making 1.8 million cars per year by 2018.

Globally, Skoda has hit a chord with the buying public. Its products mean the same thing everywhere: they’re good value, they’re more spacious than you’d expect and they’re adorned simply inside. It is an image that has resonated in a crisis-ridden world.

The Skoda Rapid, with its 'notchback' styling, sits between the Fabia and the Octavia

The Rapid kicked off a latest production expansion that was followed by the current Skoda Octavia range, new Skoda Fabia, new Skoda Superb and, a first for Skoda, the Skoda Kodiaq SUV. That pace of change means that in summer 2017 it’s the Rapid’s turn for a facelift.

It’s the Rapid that brings some balance to the line-up, sitting as it does in the gap between the Fabia, which we’ll now think of as a conventional supermini, and the Octavia, which has hitherto been small for a Ford Mondeo-segment car, or large for a Ford Focus-sized one.

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Skoda's Rapid – a straightforward, spacious, good value C-segment competitor – will occupy the ‘small family’ ground and push the Octavia up into fleet territory.

To that end, it’s average-sized, of average weight and wears the kind of keen price sticker you’d expect to find on a car that is aimed mainly at private buyers.

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DESIGN & STYLING

16in Skoda Rapid alloy wheels
15-inch alloys are standard; 16-inch items, seen here, are optional

Before its unveiling in production form, the Rapid’s design was previewed at motor shows by Skoda’s Mission L concept, a rather sleek, chunky-looking hatch that didn’t seem particularly outlandish.

Pity, then, that to our eyes the Rapid, once shorn of the concept’s striking white paint and huge alloy wheels, doesn’t quite retain all of that charm. It arrives instead looking rather more staid and without the elegance of an Skoda Octavia or the cheekiness of a Yeti. It’s undramatic and inoffensive, mind you, and perhaps that’s the idea. A car that eases itself into people’s consciousness without them even knowing it.

The Rapid looks dissapointingly dull compared to the Mission L concept that previewed it

Beneath its skin, things remain just as conventional. At 4.48m long, the Rapid would seem a likely candidate for the Volkswagen Group’s MQB platform that already underpins the Volkswagen Golf, Audi A3 and Seat Leon.

Instead, the Skoda sits on a development of the same underpinnings as the Skoda Fabia hatchback. There’s nothing wrong with that, but one wonders whether its torsion beam rear end will rob it of the sophisticated feel of the better cars in this class, including, let’s not forget, other budget-conscious models such as the Hyundai i30 and Kia Cee’d.

One advantage, mind you, is the weight of the Rapid, which comes in at just 1150kg. That’s lighter than the 1175kg claimed kerb weight and considerably lighter than most rivals. As light, in fact, as plenty of current superminis, and this, as we’ll see, has an advantage when it comes to fuel consumption.

At the front, the Rapid is suspended by MacPherson struts, and it has a range of engines offered straight off the shelf and available to all within the VW Group.

The range kicks off with a an 89bhp, four-cylinder, turbocharged 1.2, and there’s also a 108bhp version of the same engine, with the most powerful unit in the line-up being the 123bhp 1.4 petrol available only with VW’s DSG automatic gearbox.

Slightly oddly, that’s not the case on the Spaceback hatchback version of the Rapid, where the 1.4 petrol isn’t offered, but there is a DSG version of the 1.2 petrol available.

There are two diesels: an 89bhp 1.4 coming with manual or DSG auto transmissions, and the 113bhp 1.6. In our experience to date, the 89bhp 1.2 TSI represents the range’s sweet spot.

INTERIOR

Skoda Rapid dashboard
Cabin is unimaginative but functional

A dead-straight driving position? Check. Chunkily designed and predominantly hard-to-the-touch cabin plastics? Check. Large, analogue dials? Check. Big, round headlight switch? Check and check.

Skoda buyers, according to the company, like things simple. There’s less to go wrong and less to worry about. Skodaphiles getting into a Rapid, therefore, will feel quite at home. The seats are relatively flat but generally comfortable, while the steering wheel is large and the overall ergonomics clearly meet VW Group standards.

Thankfully, the Skoda Rapid's handbrake is actuated by a conventional lever

The rather plain standard radio display can be upgraded to a flashier colour monitor with navigation, but it doesn’t feel worth having here, even if it would add a dash of colour to what is otherwise a fairly austere cabin.

At the price, however, it would be churlish to criticise. Boredom would appear to be designed in, but so is exceptional interior packaging. The Rapid may be based on the Skoda Fabia, but when it comes to its interior it’s the Skoda Octavia with which it has more in common.

The saloon-like rear actually features a big hatch, which opens to reveal a 550-litre boot with a high, wide opening. The rear seats don’t leave a flat floor when folded, but otherwise it’s a practical, versatile cabin.

A big one for occupants, too, with rear headroom being the only hint of a compromise. This is a cabin that could accommodate four large adults, easily (with the usual caveat that three abreast in the back is cramped in seemingly any vehicle that comes from this side of the Atlantic).

As for the trim levels there are four to choose from – S, SE, Sport and SE-L. Opt for the entry-level model and you will find a steel wheels, USB connectivity, heated wing mirrors and electric front windows, while upgrading to the SE models while include the additions of alloy wheels, air conditioning, cruise control, Bluetooth and the inclusion of an umbrella as standard.

The mid-range Sport trim gains sports seats, steel pedals and 17in alloy wheels, while the range-topping SE-L models adds luxuries such as floor mats, rear parking sensors, climate control and an adjustable passenger seat.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Skoda Rapid rear quarter
Rapid is effortless and uneventful to drive

It is possible to buy a slower Skoda Rapid than the 84bhp 1.2-litre petrol model, but we would not advise it. Not because it’s bad form to have a car that is incapable of completing a 0-60mph dash in at least 11.2sec, as in the 1.2 TSI model, but instead because the base 74bhp three-cylinder engine is unlikely to save you a great deal of money.

It costs only a little less, in the way that headline-grabbing base engines do, yet it is expected to return significantly worse economy, is subject to higher road tax and will not retain its value so well. No, for our money, this 84bhp unit is where we’d put our interest.

With peak torque arriving at just 1500 rpm, it's easy to get the best from the Rapid 1.2 TSI

For our money, the 89bhp unit is where we’d put our interest. In the Rapid, this 1.2 TSI engine (available in two power outputs) makes a quiet and unobtrusive companion, as it does in the other cars in which we’ve tried it. At idle it is near-silent, while above that it spins quietly and easily towards its 6000rpm redline.

As we’d hope for in a car aimed at – and let’s be honest here – those who are unenthusiastic about driving, it makes its peak torque figure where it is easily accessed, at just 1500rpm, which makes it easy to get the best from it. Even so, stirring the gearbox is hardly a chore, so easy is the five-speed manual’s shift action (or the six-speed on the 108bhp 1.2).

The 1.4 TSI engine can only be had with a seven-speed DSG gearbox; performance is stronger than the 1.2 TSI, but the not insignificant price premium and subtly poorer economy over the 1.2 TSI model means you're best to stick with the smaller capacity engine on the SE trim, the only one where the 1.4 petrol is available.  

The 1.6 TDI rouses to a bit of a grumble, louder than the class average, but still acceptable. The five-speed manual gearbox stirs slickly, and engine response is positive. Skoda says the diesel Rapid is good for 0-62mph acceleration in 10.0sec and that it can return 74.3mpg.

Braking performance was also good. The nature of the surface on our dry handling circuit means that, when wet, stopping distances are often longer than on the grippier, less rubbered bespoke wet braking surface. Hence the Rapid wanted fewer metres in which to stop in the ‘wet’. As such, a fine 48.1m plays 50.7m in the ‘dry’. Which was wet.

RIDE & HANDLING

Skoda Rapid cornering
At the limit, the Rapid errs towards understeer

In our experience, the Rapid is a car that is particularly reactive to the type of engine it is fitted with. We noted that the 1.2 TSI model rode, steered and handled considerably better with the petrol engine than the 1.6-litre turbodiesel equivalents.

With the heavier diesel lump under the bonnet, the Rapid has an underlying heft to its body movements that this lighter 1.2-litre car does without, leaving this our choice in the range dynamically.

The ESP reigns-in both understeer and oversteer firmly but never aggressively

Everything it does, it does with ease – and not only more ease than other models within the Rapid line-up, but also with more ease than most of its rivals. A Kia Cee’d and Hyundai i30 have intentionally had a feel of greater dynamism engineered into them. Ditto a Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra.

The Rapid, meanwhile, goes about its business in a slightly old-fashioned, easygoing way. The control weights are all consistent and light and it rides with medium pliancy, trading a loping gait for some body control but ending up neither truly comfortable nor truly deftly damped.

It displays, in its handling, the same sort of thing it exhibits in so many other areas: middle-of-the-road competence. If that’s where Skoda was aiming, and we strongly suspect it was, then it has hit the mark.

It just seems a shame that, for a company whose other products manage to incorporate value for money with a driving experience that feels like some effort has been poured into it, the Rapid feels like a retrograde step compared with, say, the Yeti.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Skoda Rapid
Skoda Rapid was previewed by the Mission L concept

Skoda executives have freely admitted to us that, if you look within the Volkswagen Group at failure rates, breakdown frequency and overall, measurable, tangible quality, Skoda actually fares no better than its Volkswagen sibling.

Yet when it comes to customer satisfaction surveys, Volkswagen, which sells more fleet cars to higher-mileage, higher-speed and more demanding users, never performs as well as Skoda.

Slow to 'Sunday driver' pace and a true 50mpg is far from out of the question in the 1.2 TSI

This, Skoda’s engineers and managers think, cannot be expected to last as Skoda grows, so the company is enjoying it while it still can. Certainly the impressive fuel consumption we recorded in the Rapid will please most owners if it appeared on their trip computers.

Skoda’s enviable reputation as a maker of practical cars that offer good value for money when new means that residual values should remain as strong as anything within the class, too.

Especially when you consider that there isn’t a great deal within the Skoda’s class. Plenty of mid-size hatches have an alluring ‘price from’ figure, but they quickly hop from there to a place the Skoda still manages to undercut.

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VERDICT

3.5 star Skoda Rapid
The car as white goods. Utterly competent, but equally unengaging

There are keener drives in the class, including the Hyundai i30, so the Rapid is best viewed as a fuss-free, uncomplicated and easygoing small family car. Although it lacks the vibrant character of other cars in Skoda model range, such as the popular Yeti, its appeal lies in its no-frills attitude, straightforward engineering and useful standard kit.

Near the top of the range, the competition starts to look quite fierce for the Rapid, with models sitting a long way above this car’s starting price. Towards the bottom end of its range, the Skoda seems to have more to offer.

The Rapid is a worthy car; it just lacks the sparkle that enthusiasts look for

Ignore the steel-wheeled and aircon-less entry S trim, and SE, for just over another £1000, adds 15in alloys, tinted rear glass, air conditioning, Bluetooth, cruise control and leather steering wheel, among other goodies. Only available with the 1.2 108bhp petrol, the Sport trim, introduced a year or so after the car arrived, costs just £50 more, but Skoda reckons offers £1250 of additional kit including 17in alloys, sports seats, steel pedals and a boot spoiler.

The Skoda shows impressive levels of space and good performance and economy for its price. That’s why we’d point our recommendation at towards the less pricey end of the range.

There are those for whom the Rapid will make perfect sense. We can even imagine ourselves recommending one as a used buy in the near future. But, given where Skoda has been recently, and given the innovation and perceived quality of the products it otherwise offers, the Rapid fails to satisfy quite as much as it potentially could have done.

Instead, the Rapid is the car reduced to the level of a supermarket’s own-label loaf of bread, or an unbranded fridge with no egg holder. Its practicality and value is unquestionable, but there’s nothing to make you want one other than the price on its nose and the inches in its cabin.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that, as enthusiasts, we look for something more in a car.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Skoda Rapid 2012-2018 First drives