Remember when the Skoda brand was decidedly uncool? In 2000, The Mirror claimed it was ‘still slightly less embarrassing to be seen getting out of the back of a sheep than getting out of the back of a Skoda’, while research suggested that 60% of people wouldn’t consider buying a Skoda. Ouch.
Things had to change. The Volkswagen-based products were good enough, the prices were attractive and Skoda had a strong network of dealers, but some folk needed convincing. Step forward the famous ‘It’s a Skoda. Honest’ campaign, which set the Czech brand on a journey that would transform the company’s fortunes.
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A year later, in 2001, Skoda launched its first vRS model: the 1.8-litre turbocharged Octavia vRS. It was good, but it wasn’t the firecracker Skoda needed. Instead, that task fell to the Skoda Fabia vRS – not necessarily the first diesel-engined hot hatch, but the first to be thrust headlong into the mainstream.
What are its rivals?
Those who were turned on by the idea of a diesel-engined hot hatch, but turned off by the Skoda badge could opt for the Fabia’s cousin: the Volkswagen Polo GT TDI. It offered the same performance figures, but in 2005, when our test car was new, the Polo cost £14,425, while the Fabia vRS weighed in at £12,380.
It was a bargain. Honest. A decade ago you could also opt for the Renaultsport Clio 182 or Ford Fiesta ST, but these were unable to deliver the torque offered by the Fabia vRS…
What engine does it use?
Two-hundred-and-twenty-nine pound feet of torque. That’s the eyebrow raising figure when you’re looking at the details of the Fabia’s 130hp 1.9-litre TDI engine. To put that in perspective, that’s more than a 3.2-litre V6 Alfa Romeo 147 GTA and only 7lb ft shy of the Porsche Boxster S.
It was an engine commonly found in taxis and fleet cars, offering a terrific blend of performance and economy, not to mention tuning potential. Skoda went out on a limb by offering the Fabia vRS as a diesel-only model.
What’s it like to drive?
Fire up the vRS and you’re greeted with the familiar sound of a taxi waiting to transport you home from the nightclub at 2am. It’s not the most soulful of soundtracks and, at startup and idle, it’s bordering on offensive. But once on the move it gives the Fabia vRS its uSP.
You need to adjust your driving style. This isn’t a hot hatch to take by the scruff of the neck and go in search of the redline, not least because the redline is at 4,800rpm. Instead, you learn to keep the engine and turbocharger in the sweet spot between 2,000 and 4,000rpm, playing with all that torque.
Powering out of bends becomes strangely rewarding and helps to mask the small amount of body lean and rather numb steering. And when you need to behave yourself, the Fabia vRS will sit on a motorway in sixth gear, with the engine barely breaking sweat. It’s a terrific all-rounder.
Reliability and running costs
The 1.9-litre TDI PDI engine was, and still is, a firm favourite of taxi drivers up and down the land. Properly maintained, the engine is capable of covering mega miles, while the Polo platform should provide peace of mind. Parts are in plentiful supply and there’s a strong network of independent specialists.
The official combined fuel economy is 52.3mpg, although this rose to 53.3mpg on cars built after 24th October 2005, when the engine became EUIV compliant. We struggled to get below 42mpg over 500 miles of driving, with a peak of 55mpg on a motorway run.
Could I drive it every day?
The Skoda Fabia vRS arrived in 2003, with production ending in 2007 with the last-of-the-line Limited model. As such, these cars are new enough to enjoy everyday, although the interior is beginning to show its age.
We’d recommend upgrading the ancient Symphony radio/single CD player to something that will at least connect a smartphone, while cruise control can be retrofitted, if long journeys are part of your weekly routine. The fact that the Skoda Fabia offers five doors and a 260-litre boot is a bonus.
How much should I pay?
Prices start around £1,300, but for these cars tend to be rather tatty, high-milers that are probably best avoided. Bank on spending upwards of £2,000 to secure a good one, with prices rising to £5,000 for the very best cars.
What should I look out for?
These are relatively new cars, so you need to be looking out for general wear and tear, along with any previous accident damage. The interior is relatively hard wearing, although the off-white upholstery might need a good clean!
If you’re buying a modified or tuned car, make sure the work was carried out by a reputable specialist. Be sure to check out the excellent Briskoda forum for advice and a good selection of cherished cars for sale.
Should I buy one?
Absolutely. Over the course of our week with the car, we began to appreciate its seven-day appeal. By that we mean, here’s a car that is long-legged enough to provide adequate commuting duties during the week, but is enjoyable enough to tempt you out of bed on a Sunday morning.
A Renaultsport Clio of the same vintage is a better hot hatch, but it lacks the everyday appeal of the Fabia vRS. We also happen to think the Fabia vRS looks great. It’s amazing what a set of 16-inch wheels, a lowered ride height, green brake calipers and a few cosmetic upgrades can do for a car.
Skoda waved goodbye to the diesel-engined Fabia vRS in 2007 and didn’t replace it until 2010. Although the new car offered a twin-charged 1.4-litre TSI petrol engine developing 180hp, enthusiasts breathed a collective sigh of disappointment at Skoda’s decision not to offer a diesel version.
Which kind of shows the impact the original Fabia vRS. A trailblazer; a hooligan in a Marks & Spencer suit. Add one to your retro hot hatch shopping list – you’ll be the torque of the town.