Confounding Conventional Wisdom

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.

2001 Škoda Superb Mk1 (c) drive2.com

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.

2001 Škoda Superb Mk1 Interior (c) honestjohn.co.uk

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.

2008 Škoda Superb Mk2 Twindoor (c) briskoda.net

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.

2008 Škoda Superb Mk2 (c) rac.co.uk

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.

2015 Škoda Superb Mk3 (c) autocar.co.uk

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

25 thoughts on “Confounding Conventional Wisdom”

  1. Depreciation: the root cause of this is the notion that large costs await in the near term (which is to do with complexity and quality), by which I mean money to be paid out by the owner or lost by the owner. Each of the losers in the large car market failed to address those cost concerns with proper, transferrable warranties and actually dodging the quality problems buyers feared. Another mode of addressing it was favourable prices for spares and servicing. Those who bought the large cars were rolling adverts for the brands and were worth subsidising a little via favourable labour rates at dealers. To my knowledge not one of those strategies were tried while at the same time we all know the mantra from the motoring press. It declared for decades that it was a foolish idea to buy a big, non-premium excecutive car. I´m sorry to see the likes of the Granada, Omega, Vel Satis, Thesis, C6 leave the market. Their guardians are in a large part responsible though.
    Volvo still make a large saloon, as do Genesis.

    1. A few thoughts on why the Skoda (and Skoda generally) has succeeded.

      Firstly it was the only mainstream manufacturer (although the volumes BMW, Mercedes et al produce make this purely a perception) competing so rather than four or five physically larger, mainstream choices, there was just the Superb. Whilst it won’t have taken all sales, a decent car like the Superb will have sucked up demand equivalent to 2 or 3.

      Secondly, the Superb was the embodiment of Skoda – don’t spend money on a silly name, spend it on size and quality. The flagship of the range wasn’t trying to push Skoda upmarket, it was doing exactly what it did with the Fabia: VW “quality” without the embarrassing branding.

      Finally, the name Superb was actually a benefit in this market where the reverse snobbery can allows owners to have a quiet giggle about their wise car choice.

      It’s not how the majority feel,but it is a big enough niche for one brand to live very happily.

    2. Good morning Richard and Ben. Yes, Škoda really has been ‘simply clever’ with the Superb. I wonder if the company was lucky too: I doubt the Superb would have happened at all had it not been for Chinese demand for a LWB Passat.

      Richard, yes, Volvo and Genesis do offer large saloons, but both are ‘premium’ players, or at least aspiring to be so in the case of Genesis.

  2. Are you sure about origin story of the original Superb? It seems that there’s a lot of ambiguity on the web. I thought after reading a lot about this model’s history that at the beginning there was simply Chinese LWB of the standard B5 Passat, looking like the original one from 1996 – only longer. Then Skoda redesigned the body quite significantly for 2001 Superb. In 2005 Shanghai VW introduced Passat Lingyu witch used this newer Superb body. I can’t find any pictures of older Passats Lingyu (pre-2005) with Superb body. How do I know that they are post-2005? All of them have garish mid-2000s chrome front grill, VW wouldn’t use it for 1999 model. So I think that actually 2001 Superb was the first one using this body and Passat Lingyu followed (in China) in 2005.

    1. Hi Kamil. Thanks for your comment and welcome to DTW. Yes, there is ambiguity about the order of events. What appears to be the case is that the LWB platform was developed for the Chinese market and launched in 1999. Like you, I can find no pre-2005 photos of the Chinese market LWB Passat, either with the standard B5 six-light body or the Superb’s four-light version.

      I think it’s safe to say that the Chinese market taste for LWB cars certainly made the original Superb project much less risky: even if the Superb had failed, the investment would have been worthwhile for the Chinese market alone. I have altered the text of the piece slightly to accommodate this ambiguity.

    2. Aha, I finally found an image of a Chinese-market LWB Passat B5, which predated the Passat Lingyu model twinned with the Superb:

  3. Yes, Skoda have been clever, and in quite a complicated way — the cachet of “no cachet”, and the niche of “no niche”.
    I don’t think any premium brand can do this: they’re already out there.

    I often get a lift in a friend’s Superb. I never find anything I don’t like. This is how previous Lancias used to be made. They’ve thought about everything twice, so you don’t have to.

    One of very few cars I would buy new, if I had that kind of cash.
    They’ll have to make an electric version very soon; that’ll be interesting.

  4. What a fascinating story; I had no idea there was a pre-existing LWB Passat that formed the basis for the first Superb.

    I don’t think I’ve ever been close to a Mk1 or 2 Superb (and was never keen on the Mk2 styling) but have been briefly driven in a Mk3 belonging to a former colleague. It struck me as very big and very smart; an impressive car.

    The comparison to Lancia that Vic makes is interesting and would not have occurred to me. I do wonder how many anti-snob sales Skoda have gotten over the years. I bet there’s quite a few people who want something big, smart and genuinely good, without wanting the, sometimes toxic, brand associations of things like BMW and Audi.

  5. I have a 2020 1.5 TSI estate and it’s the best company car that I’ve had in over 30 years (with the very different, pre-family, exception of a 2002 MINI Cooper). Decent quality, decent spec, excellent room, and, to my eyes, very handsome. It does have a slightly firm ride (even on standard wheels), and, like so many other estates these days an annoying “fastback-style” profile, so bulkier objects are harder to fit in (which was never a problem in my even more unfashionable Zafira Tourer which preceded it), but other than a considerably more expensive Volvo V90 I can’t think of a similar car that I would rather have.

    1. Hi Andy. Likewise, I have high regard for the Superb. Our local taxi firm used to run a small fleet of the Mk1 model, all acquired second-hand, for a number of years. They were bulletproof, and very spacious and comfortable for rear seat passengers. Sadly, after reeaching interstellar mileages, they’ve been replaced with Rapid liftbacks, which are cramped, crude and unrefined by comparison.

      My brother-in-law ran a Mk2 estate for three years on my recommendation and it was a fine car, with more than a hint of the Mercedes-Benz W124 estate about it. He replaced it with a Kodiaq.

  6. Some norwegian friends of ours have a Mk2 saloon, and the LWB is very much enjoyed by their super-tall 6’8″ teenage son.

    When I see one on the motorway (the Mk2) I always enjoy seeing them including the longer roof and restraint in the design. Then I think of it as as a Skôda ‘Super-Bee’ and imagine a giant Nascar aerofoil on that neat little bustle-back 🙂

    https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRG26NfhdXY1cP88zaLbZ9pv1CWzaGIQ3XvYg&usqp=CAU

  7. Good morning everybody. Two thoughts regarding Skoda:

    1. Here in Barcelona the Skoda Superb is almost always seen in black, driven at considerable speed and across several lanes to and from the airport by a suit and tie driver. These are Uber/Cabify hire cars and along with the Skodas (the Octavia too, as it has grown considerably) you can see other large cars such as Mondeos, Insignias, Hyundai i40, Kia Optima, and curiously enough the Fiat Tipo wagon, which is actually quite popular in this role. Private use of these cars is almost non-existent.

    2. I think Skoda has done a great job of positioning itself not as a low-cost alternative, but rather as a sort of Audi for the reserved.

    1. Hi Cesar, that’s actually a rather good description of Škoda, as “Audi for the reserved”, particularly since Audi design has become so much more ‘shouty’ lately. There is something of an old-school Audi feel about the Superb.

      If I had booked an ‘executive private hire’ car, expecting a Superb or similar, and the driver turned up in a Tipo estate, I might be a bit miffed!

    2. Ah, Daniel, that can be the case from the point of view of the driver too! Back in the 90s my then girlfriend, a very glamorous blonde, was working out in Kiev, so I flew out to join her for a few days (pre-Covid, pre-children). As I left earlier than her, she booked a private hire car to take me to the airport through the company she regularly used. The look of disappointment on the driver’s face when we’d kissed goodbye and I got into the S Class, and not her, was a sight to behold. I think I was viewed as the Ukrainian version of a Tipo Estate.

  8. It’s great to know that sales of the Mk3 Superb have already surpassed the Mk2’s. The wave of innovation that hit Skoda some 10-15 years ago may be gone but their evolutionary approach delivers a lot of great motoring. Fans of the bygone Volvos appreciate – and I do, too.

    Today’s article offers the possibility of having at least two interesting spin-offs:

    1) whether Alfa Romeo should be thought of as a premium manufacturer – Alfa wasn’t premium before the Fiat takeover, and I can’t even see some of their 1990s offerings, like the 145 and the 155, as what it’s considered premium nowadays.

    2) a piece on the Peugeot 607, a car that I didn’t like back in those days and even some months ago – but it quickly grew on me. Around 2007, I remember reading on Top Gear website a piece about who were actually buying the Citroën C6 – the text said the car was tailor-made for senior Frenchmen that graduated from École Nationale d’Administration and climbed into the highest ladders of French bureaucracy. Since the 607 outsold the C6 at roughly 8:1, I wonder who bought the 607 back then, and how good of a car (and a forgotten piece of comfy barge) it is.

  9. As you know I am quite partial to Škoda having logged my ownership experience with my current Octavia Estate via a series of articles on this site. I think the Superb is a very fine if slightly VW-generically styled car and I think it does well because achieves the ‘Passat/ A4/ A6 for less’ very credibly – it’s certainly nicer looking than either of the Audis.

    However, I think we’ve passed the golden-era of Škoda, at least from a design perspective. That period of years when the Roomster, Yeti and Mk2 Superb emerged, and with the Octavia and Fabia still enjoying very individual looks was truly special but clearly now gone. Much as I like the Superb, it marked the point at which Škoda design was pulled into line with the rest of the VW group look.

    I would not buy a new Octavia Estate because it has been ruined by the move to put all interior controls onto an infernal infotainment screen. It’s also lost that ‘practical/ no nonsense’ look to it. I also note that VW has retaliated to the fact that the previous Octavia Estate beat the Golf equivalent all day long by giving the latter a longer wheelbase and extended rear overhang to allow it to compete. Hence, the two cars are now, more than ever, clones of each other. I would not buy the Golf 8 either, by the way, because it suffers from the same interior control ills as the new Octavia.

    In fact I am struggling to know what new car I would buy to replace the Octavia at the moment – I like the 508, but it’s more expensive and suffers from the stupid i-Cockpit; I don’t like any of the Focus or Astra or Corolla Estates; Volvos are very pricey these days. So, I’ll keep it and skip a generation or two in the hope that the current madness for putting controls onto screens dissipates – and there are signs of hope given recent developments at PSA (C4 and C5 X).

    1. +1 on your thoughts about the “infernal infotainment screen” and the recent developments at PSA.

      have you thought about a Subaru Levorg?

    2. Hi S.V. Intriguing question. I know they’re expensive, but I’d find one of those hard to resist in your position:

    3. Daniel, it’s a handsome thing, for sure. However, it’s at least £10k more than the equivalent Octavia, has a smaller boot and suffers from screen-based HVAC controls. Furthermore, the four cylinder engines are quite rough and lough: stand next to one at a pedestrian crossing and they sound quite agricultural – Volvo is one manufacturer that will definitely benefit from going electronic in that respect.

      All in all, for the money, there is nothing that gets near to the Octavia Estate, it’s just frustrating that on the latest version the designers could not resist the gimmick of putting key controls on the screens. Oh, and anyone who is going to claim that voice-activation ‘Hey Laura’ renders it obsolete should read AffC’s LTT update of the latest Octavia Estate in Car.

    4. Fair comment, S.V. I have to admit my suggestion was based purely on the exterior design as I’ve never explored the V60 further.

  10. One thing I might have added to the piece is that the growth in size of cars like the Mondeo and Insignia has taken them into more or less direct competition with the Superb. Here are some comparative annual European sales numbers for large non-premium saloons in 2019 and 2020:

    Model __________2019__________2020
    Ford Mondeo _____39,555_________ 21,222
    Mazda 6________22,048 _________6,950
    Opel Insignia _____45,925_________ 21,133
    Peugeot 508______41,329_________ 29,011
    Skoda Superb_____67,488_________59,925
    Toyota Camry _____7,640 __________9,119
    VW Passat ______124,650_________115,363

  11. To put those numbers in context, here are comparative figures for the German premium trio that people have instead being buying:

    Model__________2019 __________2020
    Audi A4 _______102,994 __________77,515
    BMW 3 Series____ 124,537 _________118,369
    Mercedes C-Class _143,293 __________81,909

  12. Years ago there was a Mk 1 Superb on the company fleet – a 1.8 Turbo, as that was the entry-level model in Ireland. I drove it a few times, and you couldn’t fail to be impressed. The unlovely Mk2 was a bit of a “what were they thinking” car, unless it was the Estate. The Mk 3 looks much much better, and is very popular with rental companies – which ensues a decent supply of used examples.

  13. Škoda maybe wanted to develop an estate version of the Superb Mk1.
    But a total sold of 108,875 were maybe not enough to machinery technology for the production of the greatly new estate version. Volkswagen were maybe more afraid of financial losses than it would cannibalise sales of the Passat estate.

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