They were, quite possibly, the most mismatched methods of transport for arrival and departure ever seen in Monaco. We flew in from Nice airport via helicopter and awaited our chariots: not a selection of glamorous supercars you might expect of such a location, but… a row of Skoda Fabias.
Not just any Fabias, though: this is the new Monte Carlo version. Of course, now you can see the spurious reason for which Skoda had splashed its budget. The plan was to depart from the Monte Carlo’s namesake principality, run up the Col de Turini in the Cote d’Azur sunshine, bouncing from corner to corner in our zippy little pseudo hot hatches in the manner of the namesake rally, then head back to Nice to fly home.
That was the plan, anyway. And you know what you say about best-laid plans….
Good at sheltering you from the rain
Could be more involving
Dull engine note
Not a boat
Monte Carlo or bust
Picking one’s way out of Monte Carlo isn’t easy. From the bottom end of town, the navigation system took us along Rue Grimaldi, otherwise known as the start-finish straight for the Monaco Grand Prix, then up past the famous casino and the Cafe de Paris, where the Fabia looked about as out of place driving through rows of Lamborghinis and Ferraris as Nadine Dorries at the Labour Party conference.
It’s pretty handy for urban driving, especially in this form. Choosing the 1.5-litre, 148bhp petrol turbo engine – which is only available in the Monte Carlo – nets you a twin-clutch automatic gearbox as standard. This combination makes the Fabia a doddle to drive up the steep hills and tight bends of the principality.
From there, it was up through an increasingly narrow and winding set of roads toward the twisting A8 motorway, another environment that plays to the Monte Carlo’s strengths. Because with the exception of the engine (and even that’s an option – you can also get the Monte Carlo with the same 1.0-litre, 108bhp three-cylinder unit you can find in any other Fabia), Skoda hasn’t made any changes under the skin.
This despite the fact the Monte Carlo finds itself pitched against cars like the Suzuki Swift Sport and Ford Fiesta ST-Line, both of which share its combination of punchy looks and warm-hatch power – but which also feature stiffer springs and dampers. It’s a bit of a disappointment given that Skoda has no plans to produce a properly hot Fabia.
Suspension of disbelief
It does, however, mean that the Fabia feels more at home than its rivals on a motorway. This, after all, is one of the most comfortable small cars, with a sophisticated ride quality that belies its short wheelbase, while the standard 17-inch wheels aren’t big enough to ruin its composure.
So what else do you get? Well, the equipment is pretty generous, as befits a car at the top of the Fabia range; dual-zone climate control, keyless start, virtual dials, cruise control and ambient lighting are all standard. Mind you, they do on the cheaper Fabia SE L, too. Hmm.
The Monte Carlo does provide some sporty-looking two-piece front seats, which feel a little overblown given its tepid-hatch remit, but with that exception, and that of the new engine, the add-ons are largely cosmetic. Externally, they amount to a smattering of black plastic trim (the contrasting black roof is an optional extra).
Inside, the differences are more obvious, with a subtly sporty pattern on the seats that’s vaguely redolent of Martini racing stripes, along with some big swathes of glossy metallic red trim. There’s red stitching, too, and aluminium pedals, and even some carbon-fibre-style inserts.
All of this might feel like lipstick on a sow but in fact the changes to the interior are rather welcome, because the standard Fabia is pretty dull inside.
The real question is: are they worth the extra cost? Well, given that figure is only £600, compared with the SE L on which it’s based, the answer is “yes, probably”. Although you should keep in mind that if you want the 1.5-litre engine too, that’s a further £1,800, which pushes up the price to £23,735.
The price is right
Even that doesn’t sound like too much money. It’s less than the £24,865 you’ll fork out for an equivalent Fiesta ST-Line, and while it’s more than the £22,570 a Swift Sport will set you back, the Fabia offers much more room into the bargain. Worth noting, too, that both of those rivals are at least 20bhp down on the Skoda’s power.
Speaking of space, although the chunky front seats eat into rear leg room a tad, there was plenty there to start with; together with its large, well-shaped boot, that means the Monte Carlo remains one of the most practical cars of its size.
We turn off the motorway and head into the hills, but above the craggy, leafy slopes studded with the red-tiled roofs of pretty stuccoed villas, dark clouds are forming – a portent of things to come, for us and for the car. For if anywhere it’s here, as the road starts to snake around the valleys that lead to the Col, that the Monte Carlo’s bog-standard suspension will cause it to come unstuck.
Up the first few straight inclines, however, it’s the extra grunt of the engine that makes itself felt. The standard Fabia’s peppy little 1.0-litre is fun around town but can easily be overwhelmed; by contrast, this 1.5 feels far more muscular and much happier tackling this tougher terrain. There’s a big spread of torque, from low in the rev range through to the top end, meaning the Monte Carlo responds well no matter which gear you’re in.
Even so, you won’t mind snicking down a couple of ratios using the paddle shifters. The gearbox is fast and responsive in Sport mode – bizarrely, even more so than you’ll find in some of the Volkswagen Group’s DSG-equipped performance cars, despite the fact that this engine-and-gearbox combination is lifted pretty much wholesale from family haulers like the Karoq and Octavia.
Those humble origins show though in other areas, though; while the engine is gutsy, it doesn’t sound particularly special – more of a booming drone than an up-for-it snarl. And that tallies with the way the Monte Carlo goes around corners.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise given the unchanged suspension, but the Monte Carlo isn’t any more invigorating to drive than the standard car. Compared with its warm-hatch rivals the steering is slower and more numb, the front end less eager to turn in and the tail less frisky. The whole car just feels less lithe, less playful than you might hope.
That said, it’s not as if it can’t be fun. Indeed, the poorly-surfaced upper reaches of the Col reveal the Fabia’s strength, which is that its soft suspension means it isn’t bothered by poor-quality tarmac or mid-corner bumps, holding faithfully to the line you pick for it even if the road surface goes, sometimes literally, to pieces.
There’s enough power to overtake camper vans or haul yourself out of bends, but not so much that the front wheels are set spinning and jittering out of tight apices. And in faster sweepers, there’s enough grip and feedback that you can work out what the car’s doing and lean on the outer wheels, bowling it along at a surprisingly decent rate of knots.
It lacks the agility you might find elsewhere, then, but the Fabia Monte Carlo can still be decent fun. But is there really any point to it when its rivals are so much more entertaining, and about the same price?
On the face of it, it would seem not. But in fact, the Monte Carlo’s relevance becomes clear during the return to Nice. As we feel our way gingerly back down the mountain through banks of cloud and sheets of rain, the sky begins to light purple as the mother of all thunderstorms moves in.
In the towns and villages we pass, gutters start to overflow and huge puddles form. By the time we approach Nice rush hour is in full swing, and we inch our way through thick traffic along roads whose kerbs and pavements are awash.
Climbing back onto the A8, the rain abates somewhat, but all three lanes of the motorway are solid with traffic. We creep slowly but inexorably back to Nice where, beyond a tangle of exit slipways and access roads, a nice man from Skoda is waiting under an umbrella to take the keys from us.
The Telegraph verdict
And it’s in environments like this – the day-to-day grind, in other words – that the Monte Carlo reveals its USP. Because while you might like the idea of a sporty-looking yet practical hatchback with a bit of extra poke under the bonnet, you probably don’t want to live with the stiff ride and edgy feel of a full-blown performance model.
What the Monte Carlo offers is the look and performance of such a thing, allied to the comfort and practicality that were already Fabia strongpoints. And that’s actually quite an appealing combination.
Granted, it isn’t as much fun as its rivals, but it’s probably the car you’d rather be in day-to-day – or, for that matter, when the weather sets in and the traffic mounts.
For those of us who can’t quite stretch to a helicopter to deal with the daily grind, a Fabia Monte Carlo will do just fine.
On test: Skoda Fabia 1.5 TSI 150 Monte Carlo DSG
Body style: five-door hatchback
On sale: now
How much? £23,735 on the road (range from £17,800)
How fast? 139mph, 0-62mph in 8.0sec
How economical? 49.7mpg (WLTP Combined)
Engine & gearbox: 1,498cc four-cylinder petrol engine, seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive
Electric powertrain: n/a
Maximum power/torque: 148bhp/184lb ft
CO2 emissions: 129g/km (WLTP Combined)
VED: £190 first year, then £165
Warranty: 3 years / 60,000 miles (mileage unlimited in first two years)
Spare wheel as standard: no (optional extra)
Suzuki Swift Sport
127bhp, 50.4mpg, £22,570 on the road
The archetypal warm hatch, the Swift Sport combines a pin-sharp chassis with a rev-happy engine whose zingy performance and raspy exhaust note will never fail to raise a smile. It delivers so much fun on a budget it’s hard to imagine buying anything else – but you will have to live with its tiny boot, cramped rear quarters, and a rather plasticky dashboard, not to mention its rather firm ride.
Ford Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost 125 ST-Line Powershift
123bhp, 53.3mpg, £24,865 on the road
The latest Fiesta is, as ever, the class benchmark for driving fun yet also manages to be pretty comfortable. But in this less powerful form it’s more expensive than the Skoda, not to mention less spacious. The ST-Line’s body kit gives it a much more sporty vibe than the Monte Carlo – so if you want a warm hatch that both looks and feels the part, this is it.
Peugeot 208 1.2 Puretech 130 GT
128bhp, 51.9mpg, £26,030 on the road
This 208 looks the part, but has even less power than the Fabia. It handles well, and its interior is smart, but rear seat space can’t match that of the Monte Carlo – and neither is the boot as big. But the 208’s biggest problem is its price – in this form it looks eye-wateringly expensive.
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