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Skoda Roomster 1.9 TDI

One of the best cars we've ever tested

by Julian Edgar, pics by Skoda

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At a glance...

  • Excellent fuel economy
  • Incredible interior space and versatility
  • Competent ride and handling
  • Very well priced
  • Safe
  • A brilliant car
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If you’re open to new things, love the idea of a car with fuel consumption that’s about twice as good as a conventional Australian family car, can make use of an amazingly versatile and effective interior load space, and want a car with excellent safety credentials – well then, the Skoda Roomster diesel is probably the car you’ve been looking for.

In two weeks we travelled over 3500 kilometres in the Roomster, including an interstate trip loaded with two adults and a child – and a lot of gear. The Roomster showed itself to be so competent that we think it represents a paradigm shift in the Australian new car market: it’s a vehicle that does so many things so effectively that it takes our breath away.

The Roomster is one of the two new Skoda models recently introduced to the Australian market. Skoda is these days owned by Volkswagen and the Roomster – while a unique Skoda product – borrows many of its parts from other Volkswagen models. For example, the front end is based on the Skoda Fabia, the rear axle is from the Octavia Tour, the rear platform from the Volkswagen Golf, and the 1.9 litre turbo diesel is also used in the Volkswagen Polo.

Let’s look at the diesel engine, because it’s one of the facets of the Roomster that we think integral to its proficiency.

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Although developing only 77kW, strong low-rpm torque provides the 1260kg Roomster with quite acceptable performance. In fact, torque peaks at just 1800 rpm and the engine pulls well from only 1500 rpm. On the road this translates to good throttle response, often without the need for a down-change of the manual five-speed gearbox. Hill-climbing is excellent and the only time the lack of outright power shows itself is when overtaking on country roads. In this situation, short-shifting at about 3500 rpm brings the engine back into its high-torque band.

In normal driving – especially in urban conditions – the car feels responsive and enjoyable.

However, 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.

But if the Roomster had only fuel economy as its major advantage, that’d be nice – but not the making of a killer car. So step inside...

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.

But it gets better – much better.

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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 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.

The seats, despite being rather firm on initial acquaintance, are very comfortable over long distances.

And the groundbreaking interior space isn’t at the expense of hidden shortcuts – for example, a full-sized spare wheel is provided.

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.

So what is wrong with this car – anything? We have a few criticisms.

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The climate control panel is fiddly to use. The fan control knob lacks sufficiently defined increments and so the driver needs to glance at the LCD to see what fan speed has been selected, rather than just sensing this from the clicks on the switch. When switching back to normal ventilation from windscreen defrosting, the fan speed can rise of its own accord - very irritating. No rear vents are provided. However, on the positive side, the air conditioning is effective, even with the large interior cabin volume.

The A and B pillars are also rather wide. The A pillar can block the view of the road, especially when cornering on a tight country road, while the B pillar gets in the way at some intersections.

The light-coloured vents at each end of the dash reflect badly in the side windows, making it much more difficult to use the rear vision mirrors than should be the case. The sound system LCD also fades a bit when wearing polarising sunglasses. The rear windows don’t roll right down – an acceptable trade-off for their massive size, something that gives children in the back seat an absolutely exceptional view.

We also found that the rear load compartment plastics marked easily – there needs to be more use of durable carpet.

Finally on the list of criticisms, the headlights lack sufficient penetration for Australian conditions.

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The test vehicle came with optional roof rails ($330), reversing sensors (very good when the Roomster can be piled so high with cargo - $690), and huge full-length glass sunroof ($1690). The sunroof panel makes the car interior airy and light, but the two cloth shades that can be drawn across it don’t block the sun sufficiently: when parked, the Roomster quickly becomes hot. Aftermarket tinting of the panel would make it a win/win story.

But perhaps the best aspect of the car is one that we’ve not yet mentioned – its price. At a RRP of $28,990 minus options, the diesel Roomster represents exceptional value. The car also has a 3 year unlimited kilometre warranty – however it must be said that at this time, resale value is unknown.

The Roomster 1.9 TDi is one of the most outstanding cars we’ve ever tested. It has comfort, space and versatility that puts most cars to shame, excellent fuel economy, useable performance, a high level of safety and fine driving dynamics.

After two weeks we even came to love its quirky looks...

The Roomster was provided for this test by Skoda Australia.

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