For the past two decades, one manufacturer has proved that there is still significant sales potential in Europe for large mainstream saloon and estate cars.
At the dawn of the new millennium, the market for large non-premium saloon cars in Europe seemed to be in terminal decline. The traditionally big-selling Ford Granada/Scorpio series had ended production in 1998. The Rover 800 and Renault Safrane followed suit in 1999 and 2000 respectively. Sales of the Opel/Vauxhall Omega were falling precipitously, from 74,753 (1) in 1997 to just 15,542 in 2003, its last full year on sale. Like the others, it would bow out without a replacement.
Peugeot attempted to swim against the tide by launching the ill-fated 607 in 1999. This was little more than a rebodied 605 and achieved a disappointing total of 145,568 sales over a decade on the market. Alfa Romeo (2), which produced the large 166 saloon from 1998 to 2007, fared even worse and managed sales of just 104,296 for its trouble.
The reason for the decline of all these cars can be summed up in one word, depreciation. Although they often represented terrific value second-hand, buying one new, even heavily discounted, was simply throwing money away. Moreover, because the vast majority of sales of such cars were to corporate buyers on leasing contracts (with the remainder to private buyers on PCP deals) the heavy depreciation, which was the major element in the monthly lease payments, often made such payments larger than on nominally more expensive ‘premium’ saloons.
One really needed the extra space to choose an Omega over a BMW 3-Series. The former was not a bad or inadequate car, but it had none of the car park and driveway bragging rights of the latter.
Against this background, it seemed to be an act of extreme foolishness for a non-premium manufacturer with no recent history in producing large saloon cars to launch one in 2001, yet that is exactly what Škoda did. In truth, the Superb might never have happened if it had not been for the Chinese taste for long-wheelbase cars.
Many older successful Chinese businessmen had either never learnt to drive or enjoyed the perceived status of having a chauffeur, so rear seat space was highly valued. The 1997 B5 Passat, although a roomy and comfortable car, could not fully satisfy this requirement so, in 1999, Volkswagen launched an LWB version for China with a 100mm (4”) stretch in wheelbase to 2,803mm (110½”), all contained within a longer rear door.
By this time, Škoda’s rehabilitation under Volkswagen ownership was already well underway. The 1996 Octavia C/D-segment hatchback and estate and the 1999 Fabia B-Segment supermini had been well received in the market and were rightly perceived as offering (at least) Volkswagen levels of build quality at a worthwhile discount. Škoda models were deliberately positioned half a size up from their competitors in order to emphasise the value for money proposition they offered, so the existence of the LWB platform for China provided a perfect base for an upward extension to Škoda’s range.
The lengthened platform would be used to underpin a new body design that shared nothing (3) with the regular Passat. In place of the latter’s six-light DLO, the new design had a four-light configuration, with wider C-pillars affording rear seat passengers more privacy. Together with a larger front grille and headlamps, the LWB model looked like a quite different and rather more imposing car than the Passat.
When the Superb was launched in the UK in May 2002, there were those who found the choice of name highly amusing, not realising that Škoda had previously built a fine V8-engined limousine carrying this name from 1934 to 1949, designed during the company’s pre-Soviet Bloc heyday. Those who could look past the name found a large, well built and capable car that was priced at around £500 below the cost of a similarly equipped but smaller Passat. As the Superb would, with just a different front grille and badging, become the the 2005 Chinese market Volkswagen Passat Lingyu, there was nothing budget about Škoda’s new flagship.
The range of petrol engines comprised a 1,984cc normally aspirated inline-four producing 115bhp, a 1,781cc turbocharged unit producing 150bhp, and a 2,771cc V6 producing 190bhp. Turbodiesel options included Volkswagen’s ubiquitous 1,896cc inline-four in 99, 104, 114 and 128bhp power outputs, a 138bhp 1,968cc unit and a 161bhp 2,496cc V6. 0 to 100km/h (62mph) times ranged from 13.2 to 8.0 seconds, top speeds from 188km/h (117mph) to 237km/h (147mph).
With one very minor refresh, the Superb Mk1 stayed on the market until 2008 and a total of 108,875 were sold, which was a respectable total for a car entering a new market segment and available only in one bodystyle, a four-door saloon. Škoda allegedly wanted to develop an estate version, but Volkswagen were afraid that it would cannibalise sales of the Passat estate, so vetoed the proposal.
Škoda’s commercial success was earning the company considerable creative freedom within the Volkswagen Group and this was demonstrated in unique models such as the 2006 Roomster and 2009 Yeti. Likewise, the 2008 Superb Mk2, although still heavily based on shared underpinnings, would be more clearly distinguished from both its predecessor and upmarket cousin. Its most unusual feature was the Twindoor, a combined boot lid and tailgate designed to offer the benefits of both formats in a single car.
Engineering the rear of the car to incorporate the heavy Twindoor gave it a slightly curious side profile, with an extended roof line mated to an unusually short bustleback rear deck. This time around however, Škoda was allowed to develop a proper estate version, which was rather more handsome than the somewhat compromised saloon, having more than a hint of the Mercedes-Benz W124 E-Class estate to it, at least to these eyes.
Mechanically, the biggest change was that the new model was now based on an extended Octavia platform, so the engine was installed transversely rather than longitudinally as on the previous model. The wheelbase was actually reduced by 42mm (1¾”) while overall length increased by a similar amount.
The engine range now began with Volkswagen’s 1,390cc TFSI unit producing 123bhp, which was good for a 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time of 10.5 seconds and a top speed of 204km/h (127mph). At the other end of the range was a 3,597cc V6 RS model producing 256bhp and good for a 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time of 6.4 seconds and a limited top speed of 250km/h (155mph). Turbodiesel options ranged from 1,598cc to 1,968cc in power outputs from 103 to 168bhp.
The new model was unveiled at the Geneva motor show in March 2008 and was well received. The availability of the cavernous estate in particular immediately lifted sales. The Mk2 remained on sale until 2015, with a significant facelift in 2013 which brought the styling into line with the rest of Škoda’s range, albeit at the cost of some of its quirky individuality. Total sales over seven years were 323,642, more than three times that of its predecessor.
For the 2015 Mk3 Superb, Škoda abandoned the heavy and complex Twindoor and went instead for a regular liftback rear end. This had the benefit of putting greater distance between the Superb and its more upmarket stablemates, which were either saloons or four-door coupés. The estate version continued in Mk3 form. By this time, Škoda’s design wings had been clipped somewhat and the new model is certainly less distinctive looking: with a different front grille and badging, the latest Superb could easily pass as a Volkswagen, or even an Audi.
Moreover, it now faces in-house competition from the 2016 Kodiaq large SUV. Notwithstanding this challenge, the Superb has achieved sales of 369,399 units in the five years to the end of 2020. It even weathered the fallout from the 2015 Volkswagen Dieselgate scandal and 2020 Covid pandemic without a significant fall in sales.
In light of the Superb’s success, one really has to wonder if other mainstream European manufacturers were rather hasty in abandoning the market for conventional large saloon and estate cars. Over three different generations, the Superb has simply been a highly competent and practical car, not outstanding or exceptional, just exceptionally good at doing exactly what it is intended to do. It may not be all the car one might ever want, but it is probably all the car one should ever need.
(1) All sales data from http://www.carsalesbase.com
(2) It is a moot point as to whether Alfa Romeo should be thought of as a premium manufacturer and I have no intention of poking at that particular wasps’ nest here.
(3) Apart from, possibly, the front doors, although I have been unable to confirm this.