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