Skoda has evolved from being a joke brand in the 1980s to a major player today. It would be difficult to pinpoint one reason for this, but the introduction in 1999 of the Fabia was undoubtedly a major contributing factor. The original model was the first Skoda that UK customers could be genuinely proud to own, pointing out that they had bought it because it was a good car rather than not a bad one for the money. Twenty years and two generations on, the story is the same. There is hardly a shortage of superminis on the market, but even against considerable opposition the Fabia is about as good a choice as any.
The Fabia’s predecessor was the 1994 Felicia, essentially a version of the 1987 Favorit updated with the help of Volkswagen, which was in the process of gradually taking on full ownership of Skoda. The Favorit was the Czech company’s best car for many years, but the Fabia made it look very old-fashioned.
The Volkswagen influence
The 1999 Fabia had a very distinctive design, but it consisted almost entirely of parts from the Volkswagen Group. These had been developed with a far higher budget than Skoda could possibly have afforded in previous decades.
Like a Polo, but cheaper
The Fabia was the first car based on a new Volkswagen Group platform which would later be used for the SEAT Ibiza and VW Polo. An important selling point was the fact that buyers could have a car that was as good as the very impressive and popular Polo (and indeed mostly made of the same stuff) for considerably less money than a Polo would cost.
Most superminis nowadays are available with three-cylinder engines, but these were unusual when the Fabia was introduced. Despite that, every generation of the car has had an engine of this type in its range, though four-cylinder ones were far more common in the early days.
The first vRS
Most Fabias were intended for use as everyday transport. The exception was the vRS, a very unusual car in that it was a hot hatch available only with a diesel engine. This 128bhp 1.9-litre VW unit was strong even in standard form, but many owners took advantage of the fact that it could be made a great deal more powerful with a simple and relatively inexpensive remap of the ECU.
Whatever anyone thought of Skoda’s previous rear-engined models, there was no doubt that they were very successful in rallying. The company remained in the sport as it switched to front-wheel drive models, and developed a World Rally version of the Fabia. Perhaps its most famous driver was Colin McRae, who had previously won the World Championship for Subaru.
The first estate
Launched shortly after the hatchback, the Fabia estate provided a great deal of luggage room for a small vehicle. Some British motoring journalists, accustomed to driving dozens of brand new cars each year, bought this one with their own money and lost no opportunity to tell their colleagues how happy they were about their purchase.
The second Fabia, based on a modified version of the original platform, was introduced in 2007. Like its predecessor, it had an unusual frontal appearance, not unlike that of the Roomster mini-MPV which had been launched the previous year.
The cake advert
The new Fabia received a tremendous amount of publicity thanks to an award-winning 60-second cinema and TV advertisement called Cake. Devised by the Fallon ad agency, it showed a full-sized Fabia being created out of various baking products to the accompaniment of Julie Andrews singing My Favourite Things from the Sound of Music. A plan to donate pieces to various charities had to be abandoned because they were deemed unfit for human consumption after nearly a week in a hot studio, so instead they were used for composting in London.
The new vRS
For its second hot hatch version, Skoda abandoned the diesel idea and instead followed the current Volkswagen Group practice of using a 178bhp 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine mated to a seven-speed DSG semi-automatic gearbox. Fallon’s ad for this car was a clever parody of the cake one involving lots of metal, some snake venom and an aggressive cover of My Favourite Things.
The second Fabia was only slightly larger overall than the first, but Skoda (whose interior packaging has become one of its greatest talents) managed to find a lot of extra room in the estate version. With the rear seats folded, luggage capacity shot up from the earlier model’s 1225 litres to a remarkable 1460.
The estate was the basis of the Fabia Scout which, like, the larger Octavia Scout, was intended for light off-road use. It had chunky bumpers and side body protection, but lacked the Octavia’s four-wheel drive and increased ride height.
Skoda Motorsport developed a rally version of the new Fabia for the Super 2000 class. Juho Hanninen won the 2010 Intercontinental Rally Challenge with his Fabia, while Andreas Mikkelsen (pictured) completed an IRC hat-trick for Skoda by taking the title in 2011 and 2012.
Today’s Fabia went into production in 2014 and has recently been updated. All current models have a touchscreen, which would have been regarded as futuristic when the original car was launched. The previous high-performance variants, though well regarded, accounted for a tiny proportion of sales, so Skoda decided not to introduce a vRS version of the new Fabia.
Skoda Motorsport’s replacement for the Super 2000 is the R5. This car has been exceptionally successful, winning rallies around the world since it made its debut in 2015.
Return of the cake
The cake advert is still fondly remembered more than a decade after it was shown. In October 2018, Skoda teamed up with 2016 Great British Bake Off winner Candice Brown to create another cake resembling the new Fabia. Although much smaller than the original, it was still a fine piece of work. Skoda encouraged its fans to make similar cakes of their own.