Writing about cars for a living can be a blessing and a curse. It’s great to drive the latest metal before most of the population, for example, and having a new car on the driveway most weeks will never get tiresome.
Throw in the feeling that you’re helping people make better decisions on one of the most expensive things they’ll ever buy and, well, there are far worse jobs we could be doing.
On the negative side, we occasionally drive cars we’d actually spend our own money on – if only we had any. The Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 CDI, all thirty grand of it, was the last such car. For half that though, we’ve found another – the Skoda Rapid Spaceback 1.2 TSI.
Up to the B-pillar, the Rapid Spaceback is much the same as the regular Rapid. It follows Skoda’s latest tasteful-but-unremarkable styling theme, with uncluttered lines, a confident grille design and a neat ‘tornado line’ along the side.
From the B-pillar backward, the Spaceback is more truncated than its name might have you believe. It’s more of a traditional family hatchback, the roofline ending its journey somewhere over the rear wheels and heading swiftly south. The end result is surprisingly successful at a glance, giving the Spaceback more than a hint of Audi A3 Sportback.
The Black Magic metallic paint (495) gives it a classy appearance too. If you’d chosen a lighter shade then Skoda’s Style Pack, with a full-length glass roof and half-glass tailgate, provides a welcome contrast for 1,100.
The Spaceback isn’t perfect though. Skoda’s advertising material cheekily shows a car on large alloy wheels unavailable in the UK, and even appears to sit on lowered suspension. Our car on 15-inch ‘Carme’ alloys, appeared to be standing on tip-toes, accentuating the car’s slightly narrow, gawky stature.
Cabin architecture is identical to that of the Rapid, but detail changes give a different feel to that of the regular car. One is the use of silver trim along the dashboard – simple, but enough to lift interior ambiance a few pegs. A three-spoke steering wheel with gloss black inserts and infotainment buttons also adds an air of expense.
Dials are a paragon of clarity, controls are utterly logical and well-placed, and quality more than justifies the car’s price. Sure, some plastics are scratchier than you’d find in the larger Octavia, and the infotainment system is smaller too, but you really won’t mind.
Much, much more important are some of the Spaceback’s other benefits. First, passenger space is plentiful, just like the standard Rapid. Few cars at this price offer quite as much space, and many struggle to match the Spaceback’s 415-litre boot too (384 litres with a full-size spare wheel).
It gets even better: This Spaceback has fully cured the awful refinement we experienced in the regular Rapid. Suspension tweaks help, and we’ve heard suggestions the larger car’s parcel shelf acts a bit like a drum skin, amplifying cabin noise – the smaller Spaceback shelf does nothing of the sort. Visibility is about as good as modern cars get, too – Skoda has put a window in the rear pillar to help with over-the-shoulder glances.
To say it shares the Rapid’s name, the Spaceback seems to share very little of its characteristics on the road. As well as those refinement-aiding suspension tweaks (which contribute to an admirably supple ride), there’s also a redesigned power-assisted steering system. It’s still electric, but the new setup delivers more feel and better weighting, both on paper and in reality.
The Spaceback is also very light for a car of its size, at just 1,075 kilograms unadorned. This gives is a nimbleness on the road that made the Octavia we drove the week before feel like a large, white elephant. With less mass towards the rear, it also feels nimbler than a regular Rapid.
We’d go as far as saying it’s fun to drive. No, really. It’s a light-weight car with good steering, nice balance and a peppy petrol engine (more on that below). Those factors make it surprisingly fun, and while it does eventually push into understeer, there’s now enough feedback to feel it approaching.
It’s also easy to drive, just as a good small hatchback should be. The excellent visibility is a boon in town, the ride is firm but never crashy, and the steering light enough to twirl around tight corners and carparks.
If you’re considering a Rapid, you’ve probably looked at the 1.6 TDI diesel engine. We’re here to tell you not to bother, unless you plan to do huge motorway miles – the petrol 1.2 TSI is orders of magnitude better to drive.
Even in lowly 86 PS form, as tested here. There’s a 105 PS version for those who want more pep, and those who have a higher budget – but most drivers would be happy enough with the regular unit. The engine is far, far smoother than Skoda’s 1.6 diesel, emits a sporty rasp in the mid-range, and falls to near-silence at idle.
It’s grunty too, offering enough urge for brisk overtakes and easy cruising. It does its best work above 1,500 rpm or so, and extracting its potential is easy enough with the smooth, light, five-speed manual transmission.
No, it doesn’t match the TDI’s economy – we managed around 60 mpg in that car and nearer 45-50 mpg in the 1.2 – but it’s frugal enough to make you think twice given the extra cost of diesel fuel. Performance is similar too – the 1.2 hits 62 mph in 11.7 seconds, 0.2 quicker than the TDI.
Value for money
The Spaceback will set you back a little more dosh than the regular Rapid, despite using less metal. On the other hand, it’s a more stylish vehicle with a jazzed-up interior and much better driving characteristics – so it’s probably worth the extra.
Shorn of equipment, our SE-spec test car rolls in at 15,480. With metallic paint, satnav (550), a full-size spare wheel (75), climate control (300) and floor mats (75), the total bill comes to 16,975. We’d be tempted to keep the satnav and full-size spare, haggle for free mats and dump the rest – the SE still gets regular air conditioning, so you aren’t losing out.
Bringing that big white elephant back into the room, it’s worth pointing out that an Octavia S 1.2 TSI (105) is just 230 more than an SE Spaceback with the same engine – 16,310 to 16,180. That may convince some to go for the bigger car. But we’re not so sure – the Spaceback is more fun to drive, not much less spacious, and may be more economical in the real-world due to its weight advantage.
Other Spaceback high-points are decent equipment levels, three years roadside assistance and a three-year, 60,000-mile warranty.
Given fifteen grand to spend on a new car, the Rapid Spaceback would certainly be on our shortlist. On paper it’s nothing spectacular, and its styling definitely calls for a set of larger wheels and a reduction in ride height. But in 1.2 TSI form, it’s more than the sum of its parts.
It’s a pity it costs more than the regular Rapid (and is priced so close to the Octavia), as that impacts upon its value somewhat. Our advice? Give the Spaceback, Rapid and Octavia a test-drive to see which you prefer, then head over to the Skoda Rapid Spaceback deals page to see how much you could save.