When the Skoda Octavia hit the UK market in 1998 it caused a bit of a stir. For one, it was the first genuinely impressive Skoda since Volkswagen’s purchase of the company in the early 1990s.
Secondly, it presented buyers with a way of getting a usefully large family car for less than the price of its smaller rivals – and one engineered under the watchful eye of Volkswagen, at that.
With “old Skoda” now a distant memory it’s no longer the Octavia that serves that purpose, having moved up in size and quality with its most recent iteration. Instead, the Rapid takes that place, with the biggest boot in its class, an enormous interior and value-led pricing. So what’s it like to live with?
Initially a little bland, the Rapid could be considered a bit of a grower. It’s certainly more handsome in Denim Blue than the bright green and yellow versions we erroneously picked on the car’s UK launch last November, which made the car look a bit like a novelty item without truly jazzing it up.
No, the blue works quite well with the Rapid’s five-door fastback shape, and lends it an air of quiet expense. We’d go as far as saying it looks a little Audi-ish from some angles.
From others the long but surprisingly narrow body is less appealing, but there are enough neat details to draw the eye. The sharp ridge on the car’s waistline, known as a “tornado line”, looks sophisticated; the 16-inch wheels on our Elegance-spec car do a decent job of filling the arches, and the shape is pleasingly free of “flame surfacing” and clutter.
In fact, it’s very nearly as sophisticated as something like a Golf – it just costs a lot less. And since it’s recognisably a Skoda, current fans will probably like it too.
Like the exterior, the Rapid’s innards place form over function. The nigh-on perfect ergonomics, ruthlessly logical minor control placement, clear dials and big buttons make it one of the easiest interiors to live with of any modern car. It’s well-built, too, and nothing feels too cheap or nasty.
It’s also comfortable, with reasonably supportive seats (sports seats are an option) and a decent array of adjustment letting drivers of most shapes and sizes find their ideal seating position. They’d have to be rather tall to signficantly impact on the space of those in the back too – rear legroom, headroom and kneeroom is plentiful.
That’s despite the Rapid having an enormous boot. At 550 litres, it comfortably tops our list of the most capacious family cars, and the big square space is about as usable as it gets too. The boot floor, one of Skoda’s “Simply Clever” features, can be flipped between carpet and rubber – a useful touch, but the rubber side is perhaps better for pets than for anything you don’t want sliding about, as there’s very little grip to it.
If there’s one main criticism of the Rapid’s cabin, it’s that it’s all a bit… grey. The two-tone grey seats make a bit of an effort, as do the chrome flashes here and there, but actual colour is notable only by its absence. We’d prefer a car with the “ivory” interior trim – it’s a bit more cheery.
The rear ‘screen looks a little small in your mirror too, though all-round visibility is otherwise pretty good.
On first acquaintance with the Rapid, we didn’t find any significant problems with how the car either rode or handled – it just did what we expected of it, albeit with little flair.
Our full test demonstrated just why driving a car on different roads and for a longer period is important. Throughout our week with the car, the Rapid’s ride quality and refinement verged on the poor. Bigger bumps don’t phase the car much – it’s the smaller ones that you really feel. On poorly-surfaced roads – i.e. pretty much every strip of tarmac in Yorkshire – the car never settled. The jiggling and jostling was constant and potholes were crashed over with an uncomfortable thud.
On its own, this would be irritating, but here they combined with a body shell that seemed to amplify them, causing a constant low-pitched resonance and boominess through the car. On the smooth roads we did find, those issues disappeared, though the wind and tyre noise remained.
It’s a pity, since generally the Rapid is a tidy handler, grips well and has accurate (if feel-free) steering. You can actually cover ground at a reasonable lick when you aren’t being driven insane by the boomy cabin.
If there’s a silver lining to the noise/vibration/harshness grey cloud, it’s that the normally-vocal 1.6-litre TDI engine actually fades into the background.
The four-cylinder unit still grumbles a bit on startup and under load, but on the move it settles down and the short action of the five-speed manual gearbox makes the car’s performance easy to access. Officially, it’ll reach 62 mph in 10.6 seconds, a number that doesn’t seem unrealistic.
It’s the in-gear pace you’ll really appreciate. The Rapid’s relatively lightweight body can be dragged along with surprising conviction. Its best work is done between around 1,500 and 3,500 rpm. Below this it can take a while to get going, above it you get no appreciable extra pace but a noticeable dip in refinement.
Best by far is the economy. Skoda claims 64.2 mpg – if the trip computer wasn’t fibbing, we averaged just over 60 mpg in our week with the car – about as close to the official figure as we’ve ever got. On our two-way, 50-mile motorway run at 70 mph, the number was 62 mpg, identical to that of the Volvo V40 D2 and Honda Insight, while some crawling town traffic returned figures in the low to mid 40s. Fuel will not be a major running cost in the Rapid.
Value for money
Our test car was a Skoda Rapid 1.6 TDI 105 Elegance. Unadorned, you’ll pay 17,850 for this car, though ours ame with 495 of metallic paint, the 75 reversible boot floor, a 550 sat-nav system and 350 acoustic rear parking sensors, for a total of 19,320.
The paint we like but wouldn’t say is strictly necessary. Ditto the reversible boot floor, unless you’re planning to get the car mucky. The sat-nav works well but is a bit expensive, leaving the parking sensors the only really necessary item – they do help given the Rapid’s fairly high tail and narrow rear window.
For the sake of saving even more cash, we’d be tempted to drop one grade to SE trim, swap climate control for manual aircon, lose the cornering fog lights and a few of the chrome details – saving 750 in the process and potentially improving the ride, since the SE runs on 15-inch wheels and taller tyres.
By way of comparison, the least you can spend on a VW Golf with the 1.6 TDI engine is over 19,000, saving only 30 on car tax. Our current favourite 1.6 diesel family hatch, the Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC, starts at 19,575, and still offers less space – the Rapid is a genuine value choice.
The Rapid has dropped a little in our estimation since our first test. It’s undisputably good value, particularly given its size, and in 1.6 TDI form is exceedingly economical. On those two criteria alone, we’re happy to recommend it if you’re in the market for a diesel family car but don’t want to spend nigh-on twenty grand.
For all the Rapid’s ease of use and comfortable cabin though, we just couldn’t get over the poor refinement during our time with the car. A firm ride we can live with, but the boominess and vibration leave you feeling beaten up at the end of a longer trip.
Happily, a fix may be on its way – Skoda has apparently softened the initial suspension rates with the new Rapid Spaceback, taking the edge off high-frequency bumps. It’d be more than welcome on the regular Rapid too…
For more information check out our full summary of the Skoda Rapid alongside reviews, stats, photos and videos.