Living Room

 It’s a Škoda, Jakub, but not as we know it…

Image: Car Magazine

When Volkswagen successfully took control of the storied Škoda Auto business in 1991, it did so, like many larger, more powerful entities, primarily for its own betterment. So while any residual altruism on their part was largely incidental, to its credit, Wolfsburg did take a fairly enlightened approach to their acquisition. By then, the Czech carmaker was in need of considerable investment and redirection, for despite having left behind the dated automotive fare it served up to widespread derision for decades, it remained prey to the snide dismissals and cheap jokes, primarily from the motor-jock element of the journalistic cohort.

Rebuilding reputations has never been the job of a moment, but as the decade progressed and the engineers at Mladá Boleslav, working alongside a reinvigorated design team created a more credible range of cars, the joke really started to wear thin. Škoda (and its well-heeled German backer) was no longer prepared to be patronised. Under the stylistic supervision of Thomas Ingenlath, the Czech carmaker’s products would make a post-Millennial leap, exhibiting more than mere competence, but a genuine and largely convincing attempt at producing a human-centric approach to car design.

Throughout the 1990s, the multispace vehicle had emerged as the primary growth area amidst volume carmakers. As the Millennium dawned, even upmarket carmakers started getting in on the act; Mercedes-Benz, for example, debuting the cynically conceived A-Class-based Vaneo in 2001. Two years later, Škoda displayed the Roomster concept at the Frankfurt motor show. This innovative and highly convincing compact MPV with its long wheelbase/short overhang proportions, asymmetric side-glazing, not to mention the aviation-influenced cockpit visor front screen/ door glass treatment married dynamism with practicality in a shape which had all the appearance of being cast from a solid billet.

For what was (and remains) a conservative car company, this striking and highly convincing styling study, credited to Mladá Boleslav designer, Peter Wouda proved something of a show sensation, to say the least. But even more eyebrows were raised at Geneva’s 2006 Palexpo when a production version, based upon its themes made its debut. The production Roomster, employing the VW Group A platform which also underpinned both contemporary VW Polo and Škoda Fabia would join rivals, Renault’s Modus, Nissan’s Note and Fiat’s Idea, (to mention three) in the bourgeoning compact multispace segment as previously defined by the Berlingo, Kangoo et al.

Unlike more normative looking rivals, the Roomster made a feature of its tall canopy, accentuating this with deep side glazing, creating a panoramic sense of openness and space. Eschewing the concept’s treatment however, not only were the flanks symmetrical, but featured dual rear door openings with concealed door handles. Therefore, instead of the largely uninspired and somewhat derivative rival monospace fare, Škoda, by cleverly employing shared components from across its own and the larger group’s model ranges, created a car of considerable visual interest, immense practicality and genuine merit, even if it did present a somewhat watered-down facsimile of the more visually impressive concept.

But ignoring the wrapping for a moment, the Roomster’s cabin was understandably where the action really was, with logical, well laid out controls, an abundance of storage cubbies (the door pockets had elasticated straps to secure road maps), while the boot contained dual bag-hooks, a power socket, two large side trays, hooks for a luggage net and a bin for muddy shoes. With the rear seats removed, the boot volume was an impressive 1780 litres.

The rear seats too could be adjusted in innumerable permutations, while the centre section, when not in use could either be folded to become an arm rest, or removed completely, allowing the two outer seats to shift inwards to improve shoulder room. Visibility for rear passengers was both generous and panoramic. Headroom too was of the top hat variety. A further benefit of the large side windows was that they allowed the door openings to be larger, aiding access.

To the blank surprise of the motor press, the Roomster was also in possession of a thoroughly competent chassis. Despite being based on fairly prosaic underpinnings (struts and a twist beam, similar to that of the related Fabia) Škoda’s engineers imbued the Roomster with accurate steering, sharp handling and a supple, well controlled ride. While some of the UK press found it difficult to excise the sneer from their voices as they said so, most were grudgingly impressed by the Czech monospace’s dynamic composure.

Not that all Roomsters were equal. Škoda would also offer the Scout, a faux offroad version with a raised ride height and some rufty-tough-guy cladding. According to Autocar, this had the not all too surprising effect of increasing body roll during cornering and ruining the ride. A further variant was a panel van version aimed at commercial users. However, unlike the Scout, the Practik never reached these shores.

The Roomster certainly stood out in the marketplace, but its appearance received more quizzical stares than appreciative glances. No report could fail to mention how the styling might prove an acquired taste. Certainly, despite its many attributes, it hardly troubled the junior MPV sector leaders, not aided by pricing which was not at the value end of the spectrum. Mind you, volumes of 338,000* over nine years was hardly a disaster, but nonetheless illustrates the difficulty facing carmakers when something outside of the orthodoxy is attempted.

Call it bravery, call it confidence – hubris even – but the Roomster could be viewed as much a product of the Volkswagen Group’s post-Millennial cost-no-object, expansionist ethos as Audi’s equally novel and sales-resistant A2. But as Ingolstadt discovered with their aluminium-bodied monospace masterpiece, there are limits to the market’s appetite for difference, leading one to envisage that the Škoda can only have been green-lighted with modest sales ambitions baked in. On one hand the Roomster perfectly encapsulated the ‘simply clever’ Škoda sales ethos , on another, it represented a distortion of it, coming across to many as perhaps a little too clever for its own good, especially for a marque so recently out of the clutches of the value counters.

Image: Car Magazine

Perhaps the most outré production design from a period when Škoda was at its creative peak, it appears in retrospect that this post-acquisition liberalisation was simply a brief false dawn. And while later production Škodas, especially those crafted under the leadership of Jozef Kabaň may have out-Audied Audi in design terms (when such a term could once have been described as a compliment), none have embodied the easy charm and amiability of the post-Millennial Ingenlath era.

Subtle twists on conformity have done Škoda no harm at all, and while the likes of us metaphorically stroke our beards and decry the market for its torpidity, the fact remains that most people simply don’t enjoy having to rationalise their choices, especially when it comes to high-stakes purchases like motor vehicles. Perhaps the Roomster simply required too much explanation for comfort?

* Sales data via Carsalesbase.com

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

28 thoughts on “Living Room”

  1. Wow! I’d not seen one and didn’t know of it prior to this article. It’s good.

    Eoin, thanks for an excellent surprise.

  2. Good morning Eóin. Thanks for the reminder of a vehicle that, alongside the Yeti, represented the creative zenith of VW-era Škoda. The Roomster, as you well describe, had a lot to recommend it, but was perhaps a little too ‘odd’ looking to be truly mass-market. There was a plan to replace it with a badge-engineered VW Caddy van with windows:

    Given how (relatively) cheap this would have been to productionise, it seems a shame that Škoda didn’t give Roomster customers a direct (if less imaginative) replacement.

    Present day Škodas are all perfectly acceptable vehicles, but its a shame that the distinctiveness of the Roomster and Yeti has been sacrificed.

    1. There’s a thought; maybe if they had just done that in the first place it may have taken off more? After all sometimes less is more, and the Caddy does alright doesn’t it?

      Also the Yeti was brilliant and it’s a shame they abandoned it.

  3. I have a friend with whom I’ve shared several meals out and at the end of every meal takes a long time deciding what to have for desert, even reading out the more unusual options and considering how the flavour profiles of various components will blend together before settling on a delicious sounding item. When it comes to actually placing the order with the waiter my friend doesn’t order the interesting sounding desert from the menu but instead invariably asks for vanilla ice cream.

    That is the Roomster.

    Yet another car which on the outside promised much in concept and delivered little.

    The reasons it didn’t sell all that well aren’t complicated. In the metal it does stand out from it’s competitiors but that’s because it looks like the front and rear were designed independently of each other. Personally I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t considered them to be yet another dull looking but spacious family car that is slightly uglier than it’s competitors.

    A car doesn’t have to be well designed to sell, as a quick look avout our street can attest, but if it isn’t then you have to be able to trade on your name or on price.

    The Roomster wasn’t priced low enough for people to get over how unfortunate it looked and while Skoda were producing decent cars at the time they were very much a budget offering. Almost every Skoda from thus time I got into as either driver or passenger had the same characteristics – a dashboard that felt like it had been made out of a wheely bin, an interior so boring and ugly you wished to forget about it the moment you left the car, reasonably comfortable front seats with back seats that felt like they were made out of planks of wood. They were good cars but when you got out of a Skoda and got into a VW it always felt like you could see and feel where the money went.

    The Roomster offered much more than their standard fare inside but it was swimming against the tide of what the customer knew about the brand. In some ways it was closer to where they are now in terms of quality and feel compared to a VW.

    If the production car looked like the concept it might have been enough to shift people’s perceptions and see the interior for how good it was but the exterior suggested business as usual, so few people looked at the budget car at a not so budget price

  4. I must admit that the Roomster never floated my boat, although the Yeti was interesting enough to perhaps let me overlook its’ VW underpinnings. I’m still bemused that the Yeti wasn’t replaced.

  5. So glad Skoda is the subject of the day too because there was something I was wondering; have they been unnecessarily upstaging SEAT for years?

    Because while they were making cheap and cheerful cars, the best of which was probably the Yeti, they were also making cars like the Octavia and the Superb. And the later two, sort of ‘budget Audis’, isn’t that kind of what SEAT was supposed to be? The cheaper mass market sporty brand?

    It’s not like there wasn’t enough room for both. Cars like the Fabia, Yeti, Roomster, and the Rapid Spaceback all could work under the Skoda badge, while the Octavia and Superb and the ‘regular’ Rapid could have all been SEAT models, with the Leon and Ibiza too.

    Just my thoughts lol

  6. The Roomster has something in common with the Opel Signum, and that’s its comparative prioritisation of rear passengers and I wonder how much that really appeals to car buyers.

    If I may be somewhat unkind, to me the Roomster has a wholesome ‘Outwards Bound’, ‘brisk walks in the country’ air about it. ‘Never mind the looks, feel the practicality’ isn’t a great sales strategy, sadly (and I do admire its design, for what it’s worth). It’s odd – the Roomster strikes me as suitable for people who really do like outdoors activities, while the average SUV implies that while you might like the countryside, you’d prefer not to get out until you reach the gastro-pub.

    The A2 is a separate matter, I think – its main problem was its initial cost, rather than its design. That would no longer be such an issue, today, as leasing would sort that out, assuming its residuals were okay.

  7. The whole multispace thing never did much for me, although I admire the (usually) utilitarian thinking behind them, as I did with the Roomster. The Yeti did more for me, looking to me like the answer to the hypothetical “what if Skoda made a Land Rover?” Most people don’t go off road with them, so no ‘serious’ 4×4 stuff needed. Most people can’t afford a car as big as a Land/Range Rover, so it’s smaller and more affordable.

    On a wholly different topic (though about a brand that’s on an equally impressive trajectory as Skoda), Hyundai has just unveiled it’s Ioniq 6, the production version of the Prophecy concept. The Ioniq 6 (image topgear.com):

    https://www.topgear.com/sites/default/files/2022/06/2%20Secondary%20Image%20IONIQ%206.jpg?w=1784&h=1004

    The Prophecy:

    At first glance, it’s not a translation that’s gone well, but considering the Prophecy was a Porsche Taycan or at least Tesla Model S competitor while the Ioniq 6 is aimed squarely at the Model 3, it’s not that bad, I think. The proportions have suffered, but my main gripe – at first glance – is that it follows current trends in having fussy detailing. The front and rear have a few unneccesary features to my eyes, but particularly the shut lines from the doors irk (the Ioniq 5 is much neater in that respect). Unfortunately most of those shut lines are a production reality, I fear, although I’m not sure about the doors. I’ve taken the liberty to imagine the car with comparable doors to the Ioniq 5 and some other small changes (images caranddriver.com):

    Original for comparison:

    1. Nice work, Tom. When I looked at photos of the new Ionic 6 earlier today, I was disturbed by both the issues you have highlighted and fixed in your Photoshop (the upper door frames cutting into the roof and strange dark grey band aft of the lower rear doors that doesn’t align with the feature in the rear bumper). I’m sure there’s a production rationale for the door frames (and the boot shut-line) but the grey band is a totally superfluous garnish.

    2. Thanks, Daniel. I suppose the dark grey rear bottom is to make the long-ish rear less prominent? The top of that feature seems to follow on from the lower feature line in the sides. I don’t think the rear looks out of proportion in my edited version, though. I can understand the bootlid shutline having to go somewhere, but not the door frames. It should be possible to make the upper door frames visibly part of the DLO. All this makes me think the Ioniq 6 will look best in dark colors.

      I suppose what disturbs me most is that the Prophecy is an almost anachronistic lesson in restraint in detailing coupled with drama in the proportions. Not so the Ioniq 6. The Ioniq 5 is fussy in places, but less incoherently so – to my eyes – than the 6. I’ll have to see one in the metal, of course. I might very well like it when I do. Oh well, at least it doesn’t leave me cold like the VW ID Aero.

  8. The Honda Element sold in North America from 2003-2011 was similar to the Roomster in overall form factor and marketing intent, and its fortunes were very similar. The Element would seem to nail the ‘Outward Bound’ brief that Charles mentioned re: the Roomster, but instead found an audience in older customers, especially women.

    Also worthy of mention is the Toyota bB/Scion Xb, much loved by the young at heart (bought mostly by pensioners).

    The Kia Soul would seem to be the remaining survivor in the small funky MPV category. Get it while you still can.

    1. Apparently the Element was a big hit with dog-owners, due to its’ easily cleaned interior. It is very much missed by many former owners.
      I must admit that, as a pensioner, I do have a liking for the bB/Xb and its’ Daihatsu sister.

    2. Yes, I like the Soul which is now EV-only in the UK. I suspect it might not reappear in the UK when it next regenerates.

    3. I’ve heard that Mervyn, but still missing an essential feature.

    4. Mervyn, Honda caught on quickly to the Element’s popularity with dog people and offered a number of dealer-fit accessories specifically for dogs. My favorite was a hammock-like bed that was suspended from anchor-points in the trunk and there was also a folding ramp to help Fido get in.

  9. I am not sure whether we will see the likes of the Roomster ever again – probably not in my lifetime. Vehicles like this are now the realm of converted vans that do 90% of what the Roomster does, just with a lot less élan. Maybe EV architectures will encourage manufacturers to become more brave, eventually; right now they are disguising the revolution in the form of SUVs (and the occasional saloon).

    I’ll admit that I did not get the Roomster when it first emerged – I was enamoured with the Yeti instead (I saw that car as the reincarnation of the early iterations of Subaru’s Forester) and just found the Roomster to be in the realms of ‘odd, but not odd enough’ (so, odd, but not S-Cargo odd). Hence, this is one of those instances where appreciating the perspectives, knowledge and opinions of others via this site (DTW) has brought a car back into sight and enabled me to re-evaluate its value and purpose. This is why I come to this site every morning whilst I eat my Bite-Size Shredded Wheat (other cereals are available), it’s a constant source of information and revelation.

    So, now I lament the passing of that Ingenlath generation of Skodas – the Yeti, Roomster and Fabia of that era in particular, given the personality and intelligence with which they were embued. The Karoq is a very practical and capable car, but it’s not even a shadow of what the Yeti represented in terms of distinctive and intelligent design. It can’t be, given that it shares so much with its SEAT equivalent, the Ateca … although that does not seems to have held back the Karoq’s sales performance, when you look for them, you realise how many are on our roads and car parks in the UK.

  10. Another car which seemed to marry separate front and rear sections was the original Toyota Yaris Verso. Given the boxy passenger compartment allied to a needle nose, I always thought it should carry Eurostar logos:

    I don’t know how I missed the design reference to the window arrangement of an airliner cockpit on the Roomster – it’s so obvious when it’s pointed out. While the Roomster does look like a car of two halves, it’s actually a pretty well resolved design when one stops to look at it. Unfortunately it’s just different enough from the norm to require explanation: I guess there’s some truth in the cliché that if you’re explaining, you’re losing…

    1. Hi Michael. I’d never noticed it before, but the Yaris Verso’s DLO is a perfect mash-up of the Roomster and Yeti’s. Weird!

    2. Interesting, perhaps unintentional…

      …and then they ported the driving lights straight to the Yeti, coincidence?

  11. I keep seeing SAAB design cues, today. The Roomster’s front DLO has SAAB-like radii, and the Prophecy reminds me of the UrSAAB, especially when it had flush-fitting headlights.

    1. Nice spot, Charles. They share an emphasis on aerodynamics, although the disparity in size will be enormous.

  12. Thanks, Tom – yes, the SAAB’s drag coefficient was 0.32, which is amazingly good (I guess making aircraft helps). The Ioniq 6’s CD is 0.21, I think, which is excellent.

    1. That is indeed excellent, both the Saab and the Ioniq. I find it interesting that apparently energy efficiency/availability for EV power trains is now at a similar level to that of postwar combustion engines. Such that expending significant effort in making vehicles aero-efficient is worth it in both cases. For combustion engines that was obviously more locally variable (the US was much less restricted), but still.

  13. I always felt the Roomster had something 2CV-ish about it. When my partner needed a car for her work, we had settled on a Fabia but when we got to the dealer she saw a Roomster and that was pretty much that. I’ll admit to being a bit skeptical at first, too cute, but really came to appreciate it as a deeply practical working car. Comfortable, spacious for its length, nice to drive, easy to park and certainly cheap to run. I used it for a couple of longer trips when my Outback was more out-back-at-the-dealer than usual and found it surprisingly comfortable and relaxed. And you could fit things into it that would never go in the Outback because the tailgate was lovely and wide and the roofline tall. Most people who rode in it loved it, even in the rear seat.

    The quirks worked, although it did always look like two different cars welded together. From the inside, that really doesn’t matter. Underrated, and I was sad to see it go. But I think we were the right demographic for a Roomster, although probably not the one Skoda had hoped for: in our late 50s, value-conscious and not bothered about being seen to be stylish, at least when it comes to cars. Modern marketing-led car design knows that we aren’t a particularly profitable segment, and perfectly sensibly decides that return on investment is better found in over-prominent grilles, black alloy wheels and stupidly low-profile tyres (I’m somewhat bilious at the moment, suffering the after-effects of a lift in an A-class Mercedes: noisy, uncomfortable, deeply pretentious and comprehensively unpleasant little car; give me the Roomster any day).

    1. Hello Hugh, and welcome to Driven To Write. Your description of the Roomster is exactly how I imagined it, sensible, spacious and practical. Likewise, your description of the A-Class, the polar opposite to the Roomster.

  14. Thank you Daniel. On further reflection, I think the difference between the two is that the Skoda is an honest friend, the A-class a cynical bully.

  15. I vividly remember the awe and fascination with the irresistably schizophrenic ergonomics of the Roomster, on the occasion of my first time sitting in it.

    The dualistic, almost forcibly dialectic character of its visual division (fore and aft of B-pillar), was meticulously reflected in the way its interior spoke to your physique:

    In the driver’s seat, the closeness of the B-pillar and the subjective snugness of the cockpit/kneeroom/seat, catered for an almost BMW-level of ‘driver hugging’, pleasing my driver-oriented nature
    immensely.

    Yet, on the back seat, the feeling was of sitting on a large sofa (albeit, sadly, not that comfy in padding/surface transitions), with copious space in all directions and a dominant, surveillance position to the outside
    & paysage.

    This contrast (unheard of thus far in mainstream carchitecture) was truly shocking, and I still remember it vividly.

    Needless to say, the promise of endless possibilities that the space on offer announced, are still impossible to find in a same car that simultaneously offers an almost downright sporty & snug cockpit/driver
    cocooning.

    It is in that discipline alone (which it actuallly invented), the Roomster is worthy of immense praise and automotive fame.

    The only reason I didn’t buy one is the said too-strict, too “ergonomic” rear bench, which fully denied the Joie d’Vivre spirit of the Roomster conceptual advantage.

    Had it been offered with a flatter, taller and thicker padded (ideally – velour) rear bench, it would end up being my weekend driver of choice for sure.

    Another peculiarity of the car, that, similar as its two-in-one ergonomics, imbues it with plentiful character,
    is the measurbably wider, Octavia-sourced, rear trackwidth, which coupled to its Fabia/Polo/Ibiza front one, lends it an air of a Supercar – one has to literally take care of it in narrow garages, inducing a “sweet nuisance”, a headache that is usually linked to Testarossa ownership.

    There will never be
    (very likely) anything even remotely refreshing as the Roomster is.

    (P.S. Perhaps it’s high time to find a chep, shabby one, and attempt an R36 swap so as to create the ultimate Wroomster…).

    Alex Pinaweiss

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