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Steane Klose | Sep 14, 2009 | 2 Comments

Skoda Superb 1.8 TSI Elegance Road Test Review

IF YOU ASK a cross-section of the Australian public, chances are few of them will know much about the Volkswagen Group's Skoda brand, let alone have any knowledge of its latest model range.

This is because the Skoda nameplate is ‘fresh fish’ as far as Australian motorists are concerned. Sure, it was here before, but that was 26 years ago. Now, though pegging along, it hasn’t yet sparked a fire under the market this time round.

Wholly owned by Volkswagen, the Czech brand was revived in the Australian market a couple of years ago on the coat-tails of renewed interest in Euro brands, and to cover a price segment a notch or two below similar Volkswagen products.

We’ve now driven all in the Skoda range and, mostly, have found little to grizzle about; each is sharply priced, well put together and, in the main, quite a reasonable drive. (They feel like, and sound like, Volkswagens.)

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We’ve now spent a week in one of the brand’s most intriguing new products - the Superb large sedan.

In Australia, the large family sedan market has historically been dominated by local brands Ford, Holden and Toyota at the more affordable end of the scale, and, at the upper end of the market by European manufacturers such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Somewhere in the middle are the Japanese heavyweights such as Honda and Nissan who have their own takes on the large family sedan in the Maxima, Accord V6 and Legend.

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Figuring out where the Superb fits in amongst these competitors is tricky, as it manages to offer European styling and technology at somewhat cheaper Japanese prices.

For example, the list price for the Skoda Superb 1.8 TSI Elegance that we drove starts at just $45,990, and for those who can scrimp on certain features the slightly cheaper Superb 1.8 TSI Ambition is available for a miserly list price of $42,990.

For the money, you do in fact get a lot of car, but the question we find ourselves asking is whether or not the Superb is bringing something new to the market, something that isn't already being catered for?

 

Styling

For some reason poorly designed large cars look more offensive than poorly designed small ones. Thankfully, the Skoda Superb does not fall into that unwelcome category.

And where some carmakers utilise design tricks to make their large sedans look and feel smaller, Skoda has taken a different approach with the Superb and played to its size.

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The result is a large car with a stately air. It’s not tremendously exciting - at some angles, especially around the rear lights and boot, it’s perhaps even a little awkward – but it all kind-of works.

In the metal, the edgy grille, smart stylised headlights, lower fog-lamps, and limo-like coachwork and dimensions, imparts a noticeable ‘presence’ to Skoda’s new flagship. Most importantly it differentiates the Superb from other offerings in the market.

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While the Superb's wheelbase appears to be relatively compact, the long overhangs and the extended roofline hint as to just how roomy the interior is.

Styling is of course subjective and the Superb’s styling has been described by some reviewers as being "odd". We think that it is a refreshingly different addition to the generally conservative large family sedan market.

 

The Interior

Open the door of the Superb and be prepared for a pleasant surprise.

The black dashboard, soft to the touch and with a clean edge running over the instrument binnacle and the full width of the interior, is very pleasing on the eye. This is one of the best dashboard layouts in the Volkswagen stable. For style and function, it is only shaded by the Passat CC.

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That’s one to chalk up for Skoda.

The polished burr-walnut wood trimmings, not overdone, give the Superb a quite refined interior feel, and, with high-quality leather in the 'Elegance', there is very little to complain about.

Cubby holders that open-and-shut have a nice solid feel to them, and electric seats make light work of getting settled comfortably into the Superb's amply-sized driver's seat.

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The seats front and rear are nicely padded, well-bolstered and beautifully trimmed, and there is an astonishing amount of legroom in the back.

Another nice touch is the centre console, which features a large touch-screen to control most of the infotainment features, avoiding the need to fiddle with knobs and dials.

Other features that will make you feel like you’re in a big-name European luxury car include monogrammed carpets, coat-hooks on the B-pillars and even an umbrella holder in each of the rear doors.


 

Equipment and Features

Despite its position at the more affordable end of the large car market, the Superb TSI Elegance is loaded with standard equipment and features. Compared to its similarly-priced Passat half-cousin, it is both more spacious and better equipped.

All variants of the Superb, including the base level 1.8 TSI Ambition model, come with dual-zone climate control, pollen filters, rear-parking sensors, a six-CD audio system, MP3, iPod and USB port, aux-in jack, trip computer, cruise control, heated front seats, lit footwells, rain-sensing wipers and foglights.

There is not much missing and little to complain about with the TSI Elegance model that we drove, however it is important to remember that this model starts at around $3,000 more than the cheapest Superb - but for that you do get bigger wheels, a better audio system, and electric seats and bi-xenon headlights thrown into the mix.

The rather clever headlights feature 'dynamic angle control'. They will tilt up at higher speeds and rotate as you go around a corner to provide a wider visibility spread.

There’s also an optional solar-cell sun-roof that automatically ventilates the interior of the Superb on hot days. According to Skoda, this can bring interior temperatures down by as much as 25 degrees - definitely an option those ordering the Superb in black will want to tick.

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One of the most innovative features of the Superb is its TwinDoor boot system. It gives you the choice of opening the Superb’s boot in the normal way (like any sedan), or pressing a second button to open the rear window with the bootlid, much like a hatchback.

It is brilliant design (and stole a march on BMW incidentally) and easily used. If you carry larger loads or regularly find yourself lumping stuff out of the supermarket for the piranhas at home, this feature is one you’ll appreciate.

On the safety front, the Superb is well equipped. There are driver and passenger airbags, side airbags front and rear, curtain airbags and driver’s knee airbag. Each model in the range also comes with fuel supply cut-off in the event of a crash, tyre-pressure monitoring, whiplash optimised head restraints, hill-hold control and seat-belt pretensioners.

To keep you out of trouble and help avoid crashes in the first place, dynamic safety features such as ABS (Anti Lock Brakes), ESC (Electronic Stability Control), and EBD (Electronic Brake force Distribution) are also standard on all Superb models.

In crash tests, the boffins at ANCAP have given the 2009 Superb the highest possible score of 'Five Stars' in overall crash safety, with particularly good results in side impact protection. Overall, the Superb scored 34.75 points out of a possible 37, marginally better than the new Ford Falcon.

 

Mechanical Package

The base level Skoda Superb 1.8 DOHC TSI petrol engine was never intended to be pushed to its limits on twisty country back roads or in the traffic light derby.

While willing enough, it has a pretty hefty 1611 kilograms of limo-esque Superb proportions to lug about. Despite this, it manages not to be embarrassed. The wide spread of ratios of the seven-speed DSG helps, although a full load and some longer highway inclines can see it huffing a bit.

That said, with a peak output of 118kW and a creditable 250Nm of torque available from just 1,500rpm, the car manages to accelerate from 0-100km/h in a respectable 8.5 seconds and see it reach a claimed top speed of 220km/h.

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The seven-speed DSG transmission is a Volkswagen Group specialty, and in the Superb it does an admirable job of matching the small 1.8 litre petrol engine with the car’s size, always finding the right gear when in full automatic mode.

For those seeking a little adventure, the gearbox in manual mode is a very slick unit. Paddling it up and down through the seven-speed DSG changes the character of the drive and allows you to get a little more out of those 1.8 litres to hustle things along.

But the grunty diesel TDI and (of course) the V6 FSI will easily show it a pair of heels when push comes to shove.

The only surprises that may come for those more used to torque-converter automatic boxes are the extremely rapid shifts between gears, and the lack of forward momentum when the brake is released at standstill.

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But don’t worry your pretty little heads, the hill-hold feature will stop the car from rolling into the car behind before drive reaches the front wheels.

Down below is a conventional suspension set-up with struts up front with lower triangular links and torsion stabiliser and three transverse links at the rear (also with torsion stabiliser). It might be simple but it works well.

And brakes? No complaints there either with reasonable pedal feel and no trouble at all for the ventilated discs in pulling up the big Skoda.

 

The Drive

Yes, the Superb is big. It is designed for executive car parks and for families needing elbow room and versatility in the family car. But though it has the dimensions of a large car, it feels smaller and lighter at the wheel than its size and weight would suggest.

Where the Superb really excels is in its overall refinement and the comfort in the drive. The cabin is quiet, the beautifully trimmed seats offer arm-chair comfort, and the ride is suitably serene.

That doesn’t mean it wallows or wafts around like an old taxi (despite the large front and rear overhangs). Thanks to a slightly stiffer suspension setup than non-Euro family sedans, and quite good damping, the Superb remains relatively flat even when being pushed through corners.


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This means that larger bumps can sometimes be more jarring than in its rivals, but we feel that Skoda engineers have found a good compromise between dynamic control and isolating road imperfections and broken shoulders. (Perhaps Czech roads are a bit like ours.)

The front-wheel-drive-only 1.8 litre TSI engine can plough on a bit in hard cornering, but, with that weight behind it, lifting off sharply will tighten things pretty quickly. Dynamically, it’s actually a bit of a surprise, and not as conservative at the wheel as its limo-lines would suggest.

Don’t let the car’s compact 1.8 litre engine turn you off either. Its specs may look a little anaemic on paper, but on the road the Superb TSI offers more than adequate acceleration and is quite nimble around town.

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While the size of the engine is not going to be something to brag about, fuel economy is one area where the 1.8 TSI engine really shines. In our tests over a mix of highway and city driving, the car’s economy remained around the 9.0 l/100km mark.

Note, however, that the Superb requires more expensive premium fuel, but apart from this our only real quibble was that hard acceleration could be a little jerky off the line until the revs found their sweet spot.

The steering for the Superb is accurate and predictable, and while it could be more informative it gives more than enough feedback to keep the car well-planted and self-assured.

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However, with front-wheel-drive only for the TSI (as opposed to the all-wheel drive of the V6 FSI), the diesel Superb is slightly less-connected and a little less involving dynamically than the FSI. But – keeping in mind the target buyer for the Superb – few would notice, and fewer would care.

In all, the impression of the drive is positive. If anything, with the right compromises between comfort and dynamics, it offers one of the better drives of the Volkswagen group.

The Verdict

So does the Superb 1.8 TSI live up to its name? It is certainly a very competent, very well-equipped and a satisfying drive. It also has the style, practicality and refined interior appointments to give the segment a real shake - especially its Volkswagen Passat sibling.

Skoda has every reason to be confident it has the right car for the segment, with the right fuel efficiency for the times. Best of all, the Superb is very sharply priced and offers real value as a package, right across the range. In 1.8 litre TSI trim, provided you don’t mind working the engine a bit to get the best out of it, it represents good value buying.

 

Likes:

  • Long equipment list
  • Plenty of room in the cabin
  • Satisfying drive (for such a large front-wheel-drive car)
  • 7-speed DSG gearbox
  • Great safety credentials
  • Impressive interior
  • TwinDoor boot system
  • Doesn't guzzle fuel
 

Dislikes:

  • Front-wheel-drive
  • Styling tends to divide opinion
  • Not the most exciting engine
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