First Drive: Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo

SOME PEOPLE say the art of making great small cars is all but lost, but that just isn’t true. Here’s a little Skoda that proves the point.

To celebrate 100 years of the Monte Carlo rally Skoda has come up with the Fabia Monte Carlo, a trim level based on the mid-range SE, with five doors by default and pepped up with some very nice extras.

It looks the business thanks to black 17-inch alloy wheels, black wing mirror housings, matching black side sills, wheel arch extensions and bumper skirts, a black roof and, of course, Monte Carlo badges.

You don’t get masses of equipment as standard but there’s air conditioning, electric front windows, sports seats, electric heated wing mirrors and a rather lovely red-stitched leather steering wheel, handbrake and gear knob set.

The options list is comprehensive and most things on there are fairly priced. There’s a touch-screen sat-nav to replace the retro standard LCD display, cruise control, climate control and more. There’s also a no-cost option to have the seats finished in red cloth instead of the more subtle black and white fleck.

Being based on the SE model you also get a choice of five engines, split three to two towards petrol. The pick of the bunch is definitely the 1.2-litre TSI turbo, which replaces the now extinct 1.6-litre petrol of pre-£1.40-per-litre times. It’s offered in 85bhp and 104bhp tunes with little difference in terms of economy but the latter has more oomph throughout the rev range – and therefore more fun.

It’s a wonderfully gutsy little thing, a moderate squeeze of the accelerator in second gear rewarding you with the sort of acceleration that could have you giggling all day. It’s no Top Fuel racer but it’s got enough poke to really keep you entertained.

Don’t be fooled by that small capacity because the turbocharging technology works wonders. It feels a lot faster than the performance figures suggest and I’d be surprised if the numbers weren’t somewhat on the conservative side. The engine generates a characterful off-beat growl in the background and there’s something thoroughly likeable about the way it does its thing.

The claimed fuel economy is 53.3mpg but you’re unlikely to see that in the real world. Expect more like 45mpg, but that’s still very good for the amount of fun you’ll have in it.

Long distances aren’t its forte, because although the Monte Carlo edition’s sports seats look fantastic and give more lateral support around bends, there’s no adjustable lumbar support and the seat could use a bit more padding for the bottom of your back. It takes a good 40 or 50 motorway miles before it becomes noticeable though.

What it does much more convincingly is keep you entertained on a twisty road. As well as large alloy wheels the Monte Carlo comes with sports suspension; a combination that sometimes makes the car a bit fidgety on rough road surfaces but it maintains lots of composure when cornering quickly. Wide, high-quality tyres give loads of grip and that teeny little engine bestows an engagingly light, flickable feel at the front wheels.

The interior quality is perfectly adequate for this sort of car. The main dashboard is slightly soft-touch while the lower dash plastics and door plastics are hard and slightly natty efforts. To be fair they don’t look it though, and for a supermini the Monte Carlo feels relatively high rent, helped by the leather contact points with classy and sporty red stitching.

At £14,220 before options it’s not really a cheap car, let alone a cheap small car, but it has charm in the way it operates. That’s a rare quality to find in what’s essentially a sensible German-engineered Volkswagen Polo platform.

Should either of the 1.2 turbo engines not be right for you there’s a basic 1.2-litre non-turbo that’s, in all honesty, rubbish by comparison but it’s cheaper and perfectly functional.

Two 1.6 diesels are also offered, with 74bhp and 104bhp respectively. The 74bhp unit is unfortunately quite slow, but the 104bhp unit is more impressive and would suit higher-mileage drivers or those looking for the maximum outright fuel economy. It just doesn’t have the character of the 1.2 TSI, and the extra engine weight knocks the handling.

As tested, with a few well-chosen options, the Fabia Monte Carlo is an absolute winner. It’s a fantastic small car with a near-ideal balance of fuel economy, driving fun and practicality. Its list price is a little expensive against some stiff competition from other similar cars, but it makes a comprehensive case for itself all the same.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

Model: Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo 1.2 TSI 105PS, £14,220 on the road.Engine: 1.2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder producing 104bhp and 129lb.ft.Transmission: 5-speed manual gearbox driving the front wheels.Performance: Top speed 119mph, 0-62mph in 10.1 seconds.Fuel economy: 53.3mpg.CO2 rating: 124g/km.

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