SKODA HAS NEVER GONE ALL-OUT AT THE COMPACT HATCH MARKET. THE SCALA CHANGES THAT BUT CAN IT DELIVER?
EPENDING ON WHO you speak to at Skoda, the Scala’s Latin-derived name can mean either steps, as in ladder, or scale, as in spectrum. Whichever, it fits, for this car is an extension into new territory for Skoda: a proper C-segment hatchback to battle the Toyota Corolla and friends.
Almost new territory, at least. Remember the Skoda Rapid? You’d be forgiven if you didn’t. A budget-conscious car with about as much flavour as boiled celery, it made little dent on this imageconscious market. This car isn’t a direct replacement for the Rapid or, half a size up, the Octavia. The Scala is a step upmarket compared with the Rapid but doesn’t dance close enough to parent company VW’s Golf to tread directly on family toes. A level below the Golf in terms of price and poshness (although you can pay more for a high-spec Scala than a low-spec Golf), it’s directly comparable with the Corolla, Kia Cerato, Hyundai i30 and Ford Focus. But on size and space at least, Scala and Golf are at (civil) war.
It needs to be cheap enough to get onto buyers’ shopping lists but feel plush enough to make them want to part with their cash. It must also be practical enough to haul family gear yet small enough to be undemanding to drive. And while you need to notice it, a family hatch from Skoda wouldn’t want to overdo it. Designing a supercar’s almost certainly easier.
It’s raining steadily as we set off from Split, the city on the Adriatic that today is half-hidden, huddled under a blanket of mist. Climbing into a Skoda on a grey morning could trigger depression but the Scala’s a positive step forward. In response to consumer criticism, Skoda’s upped its perceived quality with squishier surfaces on the dash and upper door cards, and a more varied palette throughout than the monochrome hard plastics of recent years. It’s still sober and undramatic but it carries itself with more confidence than its predecessors.
There are some high-end tech touches, too; every Scala delivered to Australia gets Virtual Cockpit digital dials made famous by group stablemates Audi, with the same fullscreenmap party trick plus a bunch of extra configurations to scroll through, all of them nicely realised. The mid-dash touchscreen is a giant, and the Scala is described as ‘the first Skoda to be always online’, with an onboard eSIM enabling a wi-fi hotspot (pricing packages for which are still being determined) and an ever-expanding family of networked services. Its voice control, while not quite as lucid as Mercedes’ equivalent system, is cleverly colloquial – you can say ‘I need to fill my tank’ or ‘I want to eat pizza’, for example, rather than the usual narrow list of stilted commands.
The cabin surfaces’ new-found softer side helps smother noise too (along with an extra-thick firewall and two-layer laminated windscreen), and the Scala is impressively hushed as we wind our way up the coast, with less road-, wind- and engine-noise than some high-end saloons. It’s smooth-riding, too – mostly.
As we travel further inland the place names lose vowels and gain consonants, and the road surface becomes a good proving ground for the suspension, equivalent to some of the rougher roads back home. This car has the Sport suspension option, with a 15mm ride height drop to set its 17-inch wheels more firmly within its arches (Aussie cars have 18s as standard) and the further option of electronically controlled dampers. These feature two settings. In their normal mode the ride is decently cushioned, but the sportier setting will likely be a little too rowdy for many Aussie country roads.
This car enjoys the most powerful engine fitted to the Scala; a 1.5-litre turbo four-cylinder with 110kW. My context has been warped slightly by regularly driving a Ford Fiesta ST longterm test car, but even so the Scala’s performance feels ample. Unlike European markets, this is the only engine making its way to Australia and is set to be offered in three trims: 110TSI, Monte Carlo and Launch Edition. There’s a choice of a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
This car has the latter, and it’s frustratingly abrupt on pull-away, to the point of accidental wheelspin at the first couple of wet junctions before I tune into its traits.
As the rain clears the landscape’s breathtaking gorgeousness is suddenly revealed. Stopping to drink it in also presents a chance to study the Scala’s dimensions. This is a long car by hatchback standards; in fact its proportions are close to a wagon’s.
Its 2650mm wheelbase is around 30mm longer than a Golf’s, a surprising statistic considering the Scala is based around the MQB A0 small car platform (as used by the Skoda Fabia, Polo/T-Cross and Audi A1) to save costs, rather than the mid-sized MQB toolkit the Golf and Skoda Octavia utilise. But Skoda’s engineers have gone full Stretch Armstrong on it: climb behind a tall driver and there’s huge legroom in the rear, more akin to a shrunken Superb than a lengthened Fabia.
The Scala’s seemingly low roofline is partly an optical illusion brought about by this car’s optional styling pack, with a black roof spoiler and extended tailgate glass to accentuate the S-K-O-D-A lettering, a design trope that’s likely to be repeated on future Skoda models.
Hairpins! Near the evocatively named village of Slime, the tarmac, now warmed by the sun, coils itself into bunches, and switchbacks its way up the hillside. The Scala makes a decent fist of things without particularly involving me in the process. The steering is faithful but numb, regardless of drive mode, although the brakes are nicely progressive and responsive. The Scala feels more grown-up and refined than other A0 models but its longer wheelbase and extra weight also mean it inevitably doesn’t feel as nimble as a Polo. It’s a little ponderous to change direction and mid-corner bumps can trigger a pitching motion. Overall it’s a fine, stable but unremarkable car to drive. The Focus can rest easy as the best-handling car in its class.
But in practically all other aspects, the Scala has real appeal, and practically is the operative word. The boot is as generous as the passenger kneeroom, and it includes more in-built catchy hooks than the Nile Rodgers songbook. Pricing is competitive; the range kicks off $26,990 driveaway for a 110TSI manual, and tops out at $35,990 for the kit-crammed, top spec Launch Edition, offered solely with the DSG ’box. Options such as electronic dampers, electric tailgate, heated steering wheel and pearlescent paint finishes would bump the price still higher but the fact such big-car options are available for the Scala is a further string to its bow.
If at the outset it looked like the Scala might be an in-house rival to the all-conquering Golf, it’s no disgrace that the Skoda doesn’t quite hit those heights. The Golf is comfortably a cut above in terms of overall polish, just as the Focus remains the driver’s choice. But from a pragmatic standpoint, the Scala packs plenty of substance – and a hint of flair, too.
Model Skoda Scala Launch Edition
Engine 1498cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power 110kW @ 6000rpm
Max torque 250Nm @ 1500-3500rpm
Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch
On sale Now
NO GOLF, BUT TAKE A SWING AT THESE
Aussie buyers are offered the 110TSI at $26,990, with the DSG ’box tacking on another $2000. All cars gets Apple/Android mirroring, wireless phone charging and the virtual cockpit. Electric tailgate, full-size spare and tyre pressure monitoring also feature on the base model. Step up to the sportily themed $33,390 Monte Carlo and you gain a panoramic sunroof, adaptive LED headlights and a lower ride height as well as pushbutton start and dual climate control. The top-spec $35,990 Launch Edition sees heated leather/suede seats front and rear, auto headlights and wipers, a bigger screen and wireless CarPlay (wireless Android Auto later in 2020). All prices are driveaway.