I'd better start by clearing up a certain vagueness in this review. At the time of writing, a few weeks in advance of the Skoda Roomster's launch in this country, there are no UK-specification cars in existence, so although I've been driving the model referred to here on British roads, it was actually built for the Czech market. The only difference, other than the fact that the test car is left-hand drive, concerns trim levels, which vary from country to country. Nothing major, then, but I thought you should know.
For the UK, there will be three trim levels, named (in ascending order) 1, 2 and 3. The entry-level Roomster 1 reviewed here costs £10,505 price and is in insurance Group 3; with the same 1.4-litre petrol engine, the Roomster 2 costs £11,505 and the Roomster 3 is £1000 more expensive again. Both the higher-grade versions have Group 4 insurance.
The 1.4 is one of six possible engine choices, three of which are diesel. You might think that the diesels would be more popular for a compact MPV like the Roomster, but Skoda isn't so sure, and is cautiously predicting a 50/50 split on the basis that buyers of small cars still like to have a petrol engine under the bonnet.
Small car? Compact MPV? It's difficult to attach a conventional label to the Roomster, which is unlike anything I've seen since the Talbot Alpine-based Matra Rancho of the 1970s. Like the Rancho, the Roomster starts out as a car at the front, but halfway along it morphs into something that is either a regular MPV or perhaps - like the Citroen Berlingo and Peugeot Partner - a van with windows.
The styling emphasis the dividing line. Skoda's UK people are slightly on the defensive about this, saying that it's something people will eventually become used to, but I must say it works okay for me already, though I do feel that the design works better in real life than it does in pictures.
Skoda has aimed to provide rear passengers with an light and airy environment, and this has undoubtedly worked. There is no problem whatever about carrying four large adults, though the central seat in the back row is too narrow to be suitable for anyone of voting age.
It can be removed to provide extra elbow room on each side, however, and this is one of many examples of the Roomster's interior flexibility. The rear seats can be slid forward to increase luggage room from 450 to 530 litres, and they can also be removed altogether to bring the total up to 1780 litres.
Skoda says this represents enough space to hold a small flock of sheep. I imagine this means a preferably very small flock of probably dead sheep. And why sheep, anyway? Maybe it's a Czech thing.
This stuff-carrying ability is all very well, but Skoda makes a big point about the advantages of transporting children in a spacious environment. The Roomster is certainly a long way ahead of most superminis in this respect. But this is not to say that there's any problem for the front occupants. The car undoubtedly feels smaller when you're sitting in the front half of it, but there is still plenty of room.
For the driver, though, there is one particular annoyance, a case of design overtaking function when it should be serving it. The determination to make the front half of the Roomster look as much like a conventional car as possible has led Skoda to give a rounded edge to the lower rear part of the door window openings. From the outside it looks good, but if you want to look at the outside - to check what's coming while you're waiting at a T-junction, say - it blocks a small but significant part of the view.
Rear visibility is compromised too, by the very chunky pillars on either side of the tailgate. A lot could get lost in those blind spots, and while it's fair to say that a lot of other manufacturers have created the same problem in their more recent small-car designs, it's also a pity to see Skoda falling at the same hurdle.
In its 85bhp 1.4-litre form as tested here, the Roomster is no ball of fire in a straight line, but it's good fun to drive. Skoda's claim that it feels car-like doesn't fully apply when you're pushing on, because the result of so much weight high up (all that glass above the centreline) is that it can start to become a little bouncy. Car-ish rather than car-like, perhaps.
In town, it's a different matter. The steering is light and precise, and the other major controls are easy to use. Manoeuvring is a piece of cake, or at least it would be if it weren't for those damned blind spots at the rear.
All driving conditions reveal that there's a bit of a problem with noise. There is so much empty space that the Roomster body can start to act like a sound box, to the extent that tarmac roar becomes irritating from as little as 20mph. Once you've had one for a while you would probably stop noticing this, but it might not do much good to the Roomster's chances in a pre-purchase test drive.
Overall, though, the Roomster is quite good fun, as well as being remarkably practical for a car whose dimensions are roughly the same as those of a Renault Megane. It represents a huge conceptual leap for a company which has not been known for radical car design over the last few decades, and it may well do the job of changing public perception that Skoda hopes it will.
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