The Roomster was suggested to me by a motoring journalist colleague. I asked him what two cars he would buy if he had up to $150,000 to spend (each, not combined). Cayman S was his first choice (OK, it’s $155,000, but I let him off for that minor indiscretion), and his second choice, as a family runaround that’s practical, economical and well-featured, was a Skoda Roomster, which is considerably cheaper than $150,000. So I decided I should try both of them out. No, this isn’t a head-to-head with Skoda vs. Porsche — I’m getting the Cayman in a few weeks when I’ve cleared the backlog of other cars — it’s me driving my first Skoda with the hope that since VW bought the company that they’re no longer the laughing stock of plebeian motoring they were in the Eighties. A friend texted me when he found out I had a Skoda to see how many Skoda jokes I know. But the joke is on him, because the Roomster is actually startlingly good.
Squarely aimed at mothers and businesses, it’s a mini MPV with a high level of practicality, and an economical 1.6-litre engine. The practicality comes from its wide-hinged boot lid and the ability to remove all three back seats to create a large loading bay. This carrying area has useful features such as pop-out hooks and clamps for cargo nets, cubby holes that maximise storage, and there are optional floor-mounted wheel clamps if you want to take mountain bikes inside.
The internal philosophy comes from ‘two rooms’ — the ‘driving room’ and the ‘living room’.
The driving room, well, is for driving, and features a height adjustable seat and steering wheel — nothing spectacular there, then. But for the living room, which is for the passengers, the panoramic glass roof and the back seats that conveniently slide forwards and backwards and recline. The middle seat can be removed, and the two remaining seats positioned closer together in the back to give more overall room for four occupants. For all this practicality, there’s one major problem: the boot blind does not conceal what’s in the boot because the seats need some room to recline.
Safety features are more than adequate: six airbags come as standard, as does a reversing sensor with graphic display of obstacles to your rear (on a car less than $30,000!), ABS and traction control. The automatic comes with stability control as standard, but that’s optional on the manual 1.6.
The eight-speaker stereo with CD player gives an adequate sound quality and has its controls on the steering column. A surprising feature is the auxiliary input for external devices like iPods. Climate control air conditioning, an alarm system, leather steering wheel, and a bottle holder that will hold at least a 1.5-litre bottle are standard features.
Fuel economy is attractive: Skoda’s figures for the combined cycle are 7l/100km; I consistently managed 7.5-8.5l/100km on my test runs. On the motorway, it’ll cruise happily at 90km showing less than 6l/100km on the trip computer.
On the outside, it looks great from the front and the back; the side profile with its uneven height windows takes some getting used to, though. The rear windows are tinted slightly. Sixteen-inch alloys conceal disc brakes at the front and drums at the rear.
Often, small family cars sound like a sewing machine under stress, but this Skoda doesn’t. The willing four-cylinder engine puts out 77kW and 153Nm of torque while never sounding harsh. This allows you to really drive it as you want it through the five-speed manual. Should you want an auto, there’s the option of a six-speed Tiptronic box. A diesel is available, also putting out 77kW, but with 240Nm of torque and in manual only.
While that doesn’t sound like a lot of grunt, the handling is superb (no pun intended, for those Skoda-philes out there). What you miss out on in straight acceleration you can mostly make up for by not having to slow down for corners in the first place. It’s actually a fun car to drive.
My fears were unfounded: the Skoda is a fantastic car. It handles, it performs, it even sounds good. I’m also pleasantly surprised at the amount of kit on offer in a European car in this price bracket. At over $10,000 cheaper than cars with similar practicality and performance (e.g. the Renault Scenic), it’s excellent value for money. If people can get over the Eighties, Skoda will sell a lot of them.
Price: from $29,990 (manual), $33,490 (automatic), $35,990 (manual diesel)
What we like
- Pretty much everything — price, handling, features, etc
What we don’t like
- Boot blind doesn’t completely conceal everything in the boot
- Not sure about the uneven window heights.
- Arm rest gets in the way of the handbrake
Words and photos Darren Cottingham