Felicia: A Step Up for Skoda

What is the traditional Skoda image? Cheap and cheerful value-for-money transportation for the working man. It used to be that no one bought a Skoda expecting sophisticated transport, exhilarating performance or a car that would impress the neighbors. Yet back in the 1960s and 1970s, those rear-engined cars -- and their devoted band of small, mostly family-run dealers -- attracted plenty of loyal buyers who, whatever the cars' shortcomings, liked them enough to keep coming back for more.

Fast forward 20 years and the company and its products have changed beyond recognition. Now largely owned by Volkswagen, Skoda has received a massive infusion of Deutschmarks and benefited from Western expertise in design and production. The Felicia is a substantially reworked version of the last model from the old regime -- the Favorit. The rough edges have been knocked off, the safety features and production quality have been transformed, and new VW-sourced power units have been added. Yet underneath all that the Skoda heart still beats in the Felicia.

The Felicia, despite the leap forward in sophistication, is still about sensible transport at an affordable price. Given those core values, what could make more sense than adding a diesel model to the range? It uses the basic indirect injection 1.9D engine also seen in the VW Polo and Golf. Producing 47kW (64bhp) and 123Nm of torque, it features exhaust gas recirculation and an oxidation catalyst to meet 1997 exhaust emissions limits. Heavy steering has been a long-standing criticism of the Felicia, but it doesn't apply to the 1.9D which comes with standard power steering.

In size, the Felicia is one of those in-between cars: bigger than a Fiesta but smaller than an Escort. That's on the basis of external dimensions, but it's surprisingly spacious inside. The Felicia's performance figures are pretty much in line with those of its rivals. The top speed is nothing special, at 152 kilometers per hour, but that's largely because gearing in fifth gear is quite high, at 40.4 kilometers per hour per thousand rpm. As a result, at 152 kilometers per hour it's doing just 3,750 rpm, some 650 rpm short of the power peak. The upside of that high gearing is relaxed and economical cruising.

Although 47kW (64bhp) doesn't sound a lot in a car weighing 1,020 kilograms, acceleration from a standing start is quite brisk by small hatchback standards, with 0-100 kilometers per hour being covered in a creditable 14.8 seconds. But that high gearing again has an effect when it comes to in-gear acceleration, which is not bad but doesn't do justice to what is one of the Felicia's most endearing characteristics -- the wonderful flexibility of its engine.Over 1,600 kilometers of mixed-use testing, the Felicia D returned an overall fuel consumption of 5.91 liters per 100 kilometers -- a fabulous result.

According to Skoda there have been all sorts of changes to keep the Felicia quiet in diesel form -- improved engine mountings, better body seals and extra sound insulation. Despite this there's still no doubt what sort of engine is under the hood when you start from cold -- it's quite noisy and vibratory, with noticeable diesel rattle for the first kilometer. It gets a lot quieter as it warms up and, in any case, smooths out nicely above 1500 rpm or so, so overall it's quite acceptable. The one qualification to that is that the engine's flexibility makes it easy to stay in a high gear down to well below that 1,500 rpm threshold: It gets a bit boomy if you then accelerate away without changing down, but that's forgivable.

The Felicia is one of those rare small cars that makes a better job of accommodating tall drivers than many much bigger vehicles. The steering wheel, seat and pedals are all correctly aligned with no torso-twisting offsets, the seat goes back far enough to provide maximum legroom of 1.04 meters, and there's plenty of room under the small, neat steering wheel to allow long legs to be kept straight rather than uncomfortably splayed. The seat itself is very comfortable and headroom is adequate, so everything's hunky-dory -- except that the cabin is quite narrow.

One of the improvements when VW waved its magic wand and turned the Favorit into the Felicia was an all-new dashboard, which works very well. The instruments are clear and easy to read, and the column stalks have a smooth, robust feel quite different from the old bendy Eastern-bloc items. There are still a few oddities: finding the lights, for one -- there are two push buttons, one for each side, and the other for headlights -- while the small key is fiddly to insert into both steering column and door locks. Overall, though, there's no sign of cost-cutting, and the Felicia's dashboard layout is at least as good as its obvious rivals.

The gearbox is Skoda-built, and it's delightfully light and smooth with short, precise movements. The power steering is equally good -- it's quite quick, and not over-light, so you get some impression of how much grip is available at the front wheels.

The 1.9 diesel engine is quite a bit heavier than the original 1.3-liter Skoda gasoline unit, and it does make the car feel a little nose heavy. With power steering that's not a problem in itself, and it makes the car very safe and stable in crosswinds or on fast, bumpy bends. On slower, sharper corners it starts to understeer quite early, but even so the Felicia never feels clumsy and is an easy car to hustle quickly down a twisty, rural road.

Helped perhaps by that heavy engine, the Felicia rides well for a small car. It doesn't have quite the rubbery resilience of a Renault Clio, but it has a pleasantly solid, substantial feel with no crashing or bouncing over sharp bumps. The ride remains good even with a full load of four passengers and their luggage.

Generous front legroom doesn't come at the expense of rear passengers. Even with the front seats right back there's 76 centimeters of knee-room behind, which is better than a whole string of bigger rivals like the Peugeot 306, Vauxhall Astra and Renault Megane, not to mention others like the Ford Fiesta.

So if you're in the market for a diesel that costs about $15,000, you could do yourself a real favor and buy the Felicia and have some money to spare. The European price of $12,450 is a steal. Forget any suspicions about this being some shoddy, second-rate imitation of a real car -- it's easily as good as the mainstream class rivals.

No doubt some of the old dowdy, downmarket image still sticks to the Skoda badge, which is probably why the cars have to be sold at such attractive prices. But diesel buyers have always been level-headed types who put substance before style. This Skoda Felicia diesel is bound to have a great future.

Ivor Carroll writes for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.