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The Roomster Nuts

Why we own no less than two of the ugliest cars ever

by Julian Edgar

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Over my driving life I have owned maybe 30 cars – and, when working fulltime as a motoring journalist, drove literally hundreds and hundreds.

My ‘owned’ cars include those with two, three, four, five, six and eight cylinders; turbocharged and supercharged; petrol, diesel and hybrid petrol-electric. My ‘tested’ cars include all of those types (plus pure electric cars) in many shapes and sizes, from tiny Kei class Japanese machines to Ferraris and Porsches, from people movers to light trucks, from luxury to utterly basic.

(If I could have any performance car on that list it would be the all-electric Tesla, the big luxury car would be the hybrid V8 Lexus LS600hL, and the sporting sedan would be the Evo 7 Lancer.)

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But I think one of the most impressive cars I have ever driven is a machine recently voted one of the all-time ugliest cars – the Skoda Roomster. In fact, I consider it so good that this family recently acquired a second diesel Roomster – yes two Skoda Roomsters in the one family!

On the ugliness scale, that surely must make our automotive ownership one of the ugliest ever… are we sick or what?

And how on earth can that ‘one of the most impressive cars ever’ line be justified? Especially when here in Australia Skoda is still a quite oddball brand, and the Roomster is a model that locally sold so badly that it was discontinued after only a few years, with just a relative handful of cars shifted.

But why?

The answers to the ‘why?’ question are quite straightforward. They’re based on four clear criteria – in no particular order:

  • Purchase price

  • Fuel economy

  • Carrying capacity

  • Safety

Not, you’d think, such a strange list for a family car – or, as is the case with the more recent purchase, a country commute car.

Let’s have a brief look at each – they were all covered in the Roomster new car test I wrote way back before I owned even one example. Here’s what I said in the original road test about carrying capacity:

Step inside…

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Initially, the interior of the Roomster looks nothing special. That’s not to say that the cabin is bare-bones – there’s a high quality MP3 compatible CD radio sound system, good trip computer (that incorporates multiple warning functions), cruise control and a leather steering wheel. But it’s only when you start exploring the rear that the Roomster becomes startlingly good.

The first thing to notice is that the rear seat is split into three parts. The two outer parts slide back and forth – so you can trade reduced legroom for increased cargo area, or vice versa. But what if you want even more space? Each of the three seat parts can be individually folded flat, or folded and then tumbled forward. With the substantial load area under the high-opening rear door, the Roomster is already class-leading in its practical load carrying ability.

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But it gets better – much better. Why? Because each of the three rear seat parts can be unclipped and taken out of the car! Removing any part of the rear seat doesn’t require tools and is easily accomplished in literally seconds. As shown here, you can even remove the centre part of the rear seat and then place the two remaining seats closer to the middle of the car, giving enormous elbow and shoulder room.

This versatility cannot be understated. For our interstate [road test] trip, we removed two of the rear seats and then – for better safety in the event of a side impact – placed the remaining rear seat closer to the centre of the car. The amount of stuff that could then be fitted into the car had to be seen to be believed.

With all the rear seats out, there’s a simply incredible 1780 litres of cargo space available – about as much as a much larger four wheel drive wagon like a Pajero with its seats folded. Or, about four times the volume of a conventional hatch of about Roomster size.

Even when configured conventionally, the Roomster has outstanding rear legroom, headroom and foot space. Two full-sized adults can be comfortably seated behind two adult front seat passengers; lanky teenagers can be accommodated without a problem. (However, with a baby seat and two other rear seat passengers, rear space would get tight for width.)

Front occupant space is fine and there’s also plenty of room for bits and pieces – two glove boxes (one air-conditioned), large door pockets with bottle holders, and a fold-down centre armrest with an internal compartment.

Hmm, so that seems to cover ‘carrying capacity’ adequately! What about ‘safety’?

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The Roomster also has outstanding primary and secondary safety. It’s equipped with six airbags and has achieved 5-star test results in the European NCAP testing. Also standard are electronic stability control, traction control and ABS.

On the road the car steers and handles well. There’s more steering feedback than is normal in Volkswagen/Audi/Skoda products (a good thing) and the 195/55 Bridgestone Turanza tyres provide plenty of grip. The action of the electronic handling aids is progressive and subtle and mild understeer is the handling trait. Point-to-point on a twisty road, the Roomster has the ability to surprise much more sporting machinery.

I’ll cover my more recent thoughts in a moment – the result of driving 30,000 Roomster kilometres, not a few thousand I’d done at the time of the test - but I should emphasise that the Roomster does not have the very high levels of grip and handling that you’ll find in cars like current XR6 Falcons and sporty Commodores – these are cars that really do handle outstandingly well for their price. But on the other hand, those cars also take up so much road that in a smaller car like the Roomster you can afford to have less grip if you have the luxury of picking your lines within a lane – rather than filling a lane ….

Now what about ‘fuel economy’?

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The key benefit of the diesel is its fuel economy. The official figure is 5.5 litres/100km and this reflects what is achievable.

In our Gold Coast – Sydney – Canberra return journey, we averaged 5.7 litres/100km, using the air con for most of the time, sitting at the speed limit and with a substantial load on board. Urban conditions saw fuel usage of about 5.5 – 5.8 litres/100. With a 55 litre tank, range is typically 900 kilometres before the low fuel warning appears.

And now the final criterion – purchase price.

Brand new, the diesel Roomster cost AUD$28,990 minus options. Our first car was bought as a demonstrator (with just 93 kilometres on the clock) and cost AUD$26,000. There were cheaper ones around at the time but the fact that the dealer was prepared to take our hated Peugeot 307 HDi as a trade-in swung the deal in their favour. (The Pug 307 HDi was a car that drove well, was economical and space-efficient – and was utterly let down by shoddy production engineering and build quality. We will never own another Peugeot.)

About a year later, I’ve just bought another diesel Roomster (with optional huge sunroof and reversing sensors), this time with 80,000km on the clock. It cost just AUD$17,000, including government charges and an interstate delivery.

Why oh why?

So why buy another Roomster diesel? To help answer that question, let’s look at the car I am replacing. At about the same time as we bought the first Roomster we also bought a ’96 VW Polo GTI – my ‘sporty’ car for her ‘family’ car. Of the Polo I said at the time:

On the road the Polo is just fabulous.

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It was a car that had been the bottom of my list [of cars to test drive] . Sure it had a 1.8 litre turbo, six airbags and stability control. But its (standard government test) fuel economy was nothing great for such a small car, and the tartan seat upholstery in the only local one on sale had me gagging.

But I found supple suspension, excellent stability control, good steering weight, brilliant low-rpm torque and decent outright acceleration. In red it also looked good, fitted the ‘small car’ criteria and at $19,000, was pretty well in the middle of the price range.

I bought it.

And after a year, do think I’d made a mistake? Nope – compared with the Saab 9.3, Honda Civic Hybrid, Suzuki Swift Sports and Mitsubishi Ralliart Colt I’d also been considering, I think it was the pick.

One of the best-developed turbo four cylinders I have ever owned, the Polo’s performance is just fabulous. Torquey – like most Subaru WRX owners just dream of – and quick, especially when wound-up and flowed through a series of corners. Steering – well, a bit dead and fuel economy, um, er, a real Nineties approach.

Nineties approach?

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That’s when you think that country road fuel economy in the Eights (in litres per hundred kilometres) is good.

But when a Polo tankful results in about 550 kilometres, and you’re so used to 1000-kilometre tanks that you nearly run out of fuel when driving to your (country) home, you start thinking: huh?

And when you drive the Polo (rather than the Roomster or old Honda Insight, your other car) on the country/city commute and wonder if there must be a bloody hole in the fuel tank, fuel economy starts to really impact on your thoughts. Especially when the Roomster is just as fast (based on how you’re allowed to drive) and is more comfortable.

(And the ten year old Honda Insight? NOTHING beats it for fuel economy – but the driving downsides are obvious. Noise. Harshness. Lots of gear-shift and throttle work on these open-road country hills. Super economical - but very wearing.)

And then this little worm starts whispering in your ear. What can the Polo GTi do that the far more economical and capacious diesel Roomster cannot?

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You drive the Roomster to work and decide to power home, cutting and thrusting through the short reign of urban Canberra traffic before hitting the country road. Hmm, the Polo might have been, oh, just a touch faster through that bit: point-to-point between those traffic lights…through that roundabout. But WTF, we’re talking one or two seconds between traffic lights!

And then you hit the country highway, lighting up the (aftermarket) Narva 175 driving lights. The road stretches ahead, cats’-eyes illuminated 1000 metres before you. You reach traffic dawdling on this open road and go back from fifth to third, boosting the little diesel as you overtake, coming back onto your side of the road at an indicated 140 km/h: short and sharp, safe overtaking on the 110 km/h limited stretch. (Pity about the jail time if a radar-operating cop is approaching you.)

And then you think: hold on, on this night trip home, there is literally nothing to pick between the Polo GTi and the Roomster… except the Polo would be using something like 60 per cent more fuel for the trip.

So then you start thinking: what other super economical cars are there? New car testing days now gone, you step into a dealer’s Econetic Ford Fiesta and wonder what happened to the back seat - don’t rear passengers have legs now?

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You scan the web classifieds: old Mercedes diesels (gawd, they thought back in those days that fuel economy was good?); look at another Mercedes (the A-class) and wonder why they never had diesels or hybrid drivelines; look at Prius hybrids and realise that their values have held fast for what seems like the last three years.

You pick out oddballs like diesel Citroën C3s and then realise that they don’t have the safety or the economy or the build quality or the carrying capacity of the Skoda Roomster…

…and then come back, God forbid, to another diesel Skoda Roomster…

The Good and the Bad

The Roomster is not perfect.

When I first tested the car I disliked the climate control system - and I dislike it just as much today. The heating and cooling and ventilation outputs of the system are fine, but it’s one of these designs that is too smart by half, changing fan speed when you select demisting or change the selected temperature, altering settings when you restart the car and being rather fiddly in use.

The suspension dampers are too firm in high shaft speed movements: large bumps taken fast with just the driver aboard can be downright uncomfortable.

The NVH – especially with most of the rear seats removed and again with only the driver aboard, is not wonderful, with tyre and engine noise quite audible.

Despite being better than some Audi/VW/Skoda products, the steering is still too slow around centre and the car’s handling is set-up for nothing but understeer. (That understeer, it should be said, is safe and predictable, but for an enthusiastic driver it can become tiresome.) On dirt the stability control system is also too sensitive – shutting down the engine when you could be powering out of a corner. (But if required, you can easily switch the stability control system off.)

The headlights are absolute crap – any country driving at all requires additional lights but the added Narva 175s (a combination of spot and spread beams) work excellently.

The horn is woeful.

Problems? There have been a few minor ones. The driver’s door seal leaks a few drops of water in heavy rain; there’s a buzz from the region of the passenger side front airbag when the cabin is cold; and there’s an odd engine stutter that occasionally appears in fifth gear at just one combination of rpm and load - sometimes not for several thousand kilometres, at other times twice in a day.

But to be honest I am struggling to think of more criticisms.

The 1.9 litre turbo diesel engine – an old VW design – is extraordinarily good. It’s torquey, unfussed no matter what the weather (for example, there’s very little power drop-off in hot weather and the car starts instantly every time, even at below freezing temps), and is stunningly economical. After the first oil change, fuel economy clearly improved (perhaps a thicker oil is used for the first fill?) and now it’s easy to never exceed 5.5 litres/100km. Never – not in any normal driving. Fuel economy in the Fours is quite possible in country use and on one gentle rural run I saw 3.9 litres/100km! [Footnote: more measurement has revealed the dashboard display to be a bit optimistic - add about 10 per cent to these figures.]

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We had a towbar fitted and even when pulling a tall, heavy load at 90 km/h, the fuel economy was still in the mid Sevens. In fact, using just a 7x4 feet trailer and the Roomster, I moved the 90 cubic metre contents of a whole household 35 kilometres – the fuel costs were so low that hiring a small truck would have been an extravagance. (Back seats out, the Roomster can fit six standard cardboard ‘tea-chest’ removal boxes in it – and then have more space to place items on top of the boxes!)

We’ve driven the car on freeways, narrow twisting blacktop and rutted dirt trails; driven it in cities and country towns; driven it for school drop-offs and commuting and for interstate tours; driven it hard, driven it gently. We’ve driven it with lots of people on board – and with just a driver and no rear seats. We’ve towed loads that you’d expect to stop 77kW dead in its tracks – and the car just keeps chugging along. At 150 km/h it’s fine; at the other end of the spectrum idling along in second gear in city traffic jams with the clutch right out and no foot on the accelerator – again it’s fine.

Its interior carrying capacity is mind-boggling and while we’ve never (fortunately) had to test its crash safety, it ticks all the feature and test boxes and certainly feels stiff and strong. Despite thinking hard, I can think of no better car at the price for safety (both primary and secondary), fuel economy and carrying capacity.

Two diesel Skoda Roomsters in this family? Makes sense to us…

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