WHEN you're talking about Skoda it's hard to ignore the UK firm's recent - and successful - foray into motorsport. For the history nerds out there, rallying isn't a new venture as Skoda has long established connections with the sport famous for bobble hats, long walks in cold, dark forests and Thermos flasks.
However, just as rallying has gone all glam and slick presentation has replaced slick racing tyres on Tarmac stages, Skoda has managed to secure a world title with a very media-friendly and handsome ( so the ladies tell me) Norwegian wheel-spinner. Andreas Mikkelsen is defending 2011 IRC champ, no less.
And this is largely why there's a bright green Fabia vRS outside my house. I like rallying and the Fabia is a fun way of sharing in Skoda's exploits. Car firms no longer bother with super-powerful rally replicas; cost and the subsequent low volumes make little financial sense. Producing something that has a loose yet identifiable connection with a firm's activities is more sensible - and lucrative. Over the years Skoda’s 'vRS' badge has done wonders for its image and bottom line, and with the affordable performance available from the current Fabia vRS it's easy to see why.
It's not enough for such a car to be fast in a straight line, though. The performance is great to have but, as we all know, you can't always use it. And that's why I opted for the wagon version of Skoda's potent compact hatch. The small estate car market is a niche in itself, making the concept of a hot mini load-lugger a niche within a niche. But it does give the Fabia an added sense of purpose. There's no question that the Fabia vRS is a quick car, yet the extra flexibility of the wagon adds a welcome extra dimension to the ownership experience.
And so does being able to execute the occasional handbrake turn and test the car’s agility when piloted around some conveniently placed cones. It was nice of Skoda to lay on a hands on demonstration at the automotive playground that is Millbrook proving ground to prove the point.
Okay, I didn’t drive ‘my’ car in anger for the exercise - I didn’t fancy driving home on tyres resembling 50p coins - but I did use a Fabia vRS hatch from Skoda’s fleet. And it was exactly as I expected it; agile, rapid and great fun. I’ve long since stopped trying to justify when I’d use such skills, but I can see the potential when racing for the last space in the supermarket car park.
And the Mikkelsen connection? Along with precision driving god Russ Swift - oh yes, that man still knows how to make a car dance - rally champ Mikkelsen was on hand to give some lary passenger rides in his company car - a stripped-out, wide-arched monster of an all-wheel drive Fabia S2000 rally car. Despite close to 100 horsepower more than the cooking road vRS car and acres more grip, the big man still managed to get it pointing every which way but straight ahead. Not that I was complaining.
Okay, maybe it was a little noisy inside. As exciting as is was, the lack of air-con and a decent stereo would be a deal-breaker for me on long journeys. No such issues in my Fabia vRS, as the car comes with a frosty air-con and a handy connection for an MP3 player. Factor in a reliable Bluetooth link and I’m currently a happy man.
The audio unit’s one line display - albeit a large one - can mean a fair bit of scrolling to find your chosen track, but the information is replicated in the display between the main dials. And it’s here that you navigate the Bluetooth phone’s various features with the trip computer’s controls handily located on the end of the right hand column stalk.
Most importantly the overall audio performance is very good, whether you’re on the phone or listening to Radio 4’s The Now Show. The joys of Bluetooth means you can stream audio too, which can negate the need to connect via the dedicated cable, or stream the spoken instructions from a compatible portable sat-nav unit. For all his car control skills, not even Mr Mikkelsen can do that.
Practical yet quick, sensible and fun all at the same time, I may be racking up the miles in Skoda’s quirky little road rocket but I’ve yet to tire of the car’s abilities. Long, tedious motorway journeys beckon but, so long as I’ve filled my iPhone with podcasts, I know I won’t get bored.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Skoda Fabia vRS Estate, from £17,840 on the road.Engine: 1.4-litre petrol unit developing 178bhp.Transmission: 7-speed DSG semi-auto transmission as standard, driving the front wheels.Performance: Maximum speed 140mph, 0-62mph 7.3 seconds.Economy: 45.6mpg.CO2 Rating: 148g/km.