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Is Skoda Superb good enough?

Bijoy Kumar Y in Mumbai | August 14, 2004

Can't stop this thing we started, crooned Bryan Adams, and I am very sure a few people in Skoda Auto were thinking along the same lines. Why? Because there's a thing called 'corporate identity,' a concept that has come to mar the looks of otherwise fine automobiles around the world.

So much so that every Mercedes-Benz has to possess a snobbish grille and a star up front, BMWs ranging from the tiny 1 series to the mammoth X5 need to carry a kidney grille, and so on.

It's all right if the said identity, derived through intelligent design, has evolved over the years and various model line-ups -- Alfa Romeos and Rolls Royces are classic examples of this.

But when this evolution is forced on different cars, it looks rather odd -- the Seat range from Spain and now-dead Daewoo range (remember the Tacuma MPV with the yuck three-hole grille treatment?) are prime examples of cars that looked permanently mangled, having to bear their parent companies' noses and eyebrows.

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that the Skoda Superb looks odd. It actually is a fine piece of automotive design as long as you haven't seen an Octavia passing by, or for that matter, the even smaller Fabia.

The culprit I'm alluding to is the 'Skoda family look.' You see, Skoda graduated from their boxy, straight-lined family look when the Octavia first rolled out -- their first all-new car since VW started paying the bills.

This successful notchback with a butch nose, proud stance and flying C-pillars unwittingly became inspiration for the design of cars that eventually followed -- not just the smaller Fabia, but unfortunately, also their upper-medium class car, the Superb.

The result is a car that looks like a scaled up Octavia! Even more so when you see the Superb alongside the new generation Octavia doing the rounds in Europe now.

It's fine if you are selling cars in developed car markets, but it's going to be a tough job explaining the differences to Mr Mehta, who has to dish out close to Rs 15 lakh (Rs 1.5 million) over the price of an Octavia to buy a Superb.

Ah, pricing! After looks, this is another area that Skoda India need to worry about. I get this strange feeling that Skoda has got their numbers slightly wrong with the Superb. As a CBU product, does it really make sense at Rs 25 lakh (Rs 2.5 million)? Let's see what else you can get for that kind of money.

For starters, a clutch of rather fine D-segment cars, from the Accord to the Camry, and that too with V6 power if you so desire. Even the Accord V6 carries a list price that's Rs 700,000 lower than the Superb (we'll talk about performance later).

Next come some very nice SUVs -- from the Ford Endeavour to the Honda CR-V. These will let you save something like Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) in comparison to the Superb. The problem is that Skoda Auto wants us to believe the C-Class-priced Superb is a match for the E-Class Mercedes-Benz.

So that being the hypothesis for this road test, I can give you the verdict straightaway -- is the Superb a match for the E-Class? No. The new E looks, rides and handles way better than the Superb.

Then, perhaps the Superb is a C-Class beater? I have the verdict for that too -- the new C has prestige, is better built and offers a quality ride. But the Superb sure has the upper edge when it comes to space. And that makes this comparo a 'quantity vs quality' issue, and to me, quality is a priority issue. C'mon, it is a better car than the Accord V6, isn't it? Now that's a question I'll answer later, so read on.

Unlike its no-nonsense, clean exterior, the cabin of the Superb is slightly confused. If need be, the Czechs could have raided the huge VW-Audi parts bin to create a state-of-the-art living room, but yet, the benchmark seems to have been the last generation E-Class.

So you get lots of wood and switchgear scattered all over in the Czech machine. Even the fonts in the digital display that separate two classy dials scream 'Mercedes.' A garish, very Korean gear selector surround contrasts with space-age anodised aluminium and chrome trim for the air-con vents and door handles.

Well stitched together leather, plush carpeting and good quality plastic help lift the ambience though. The fully adjustable steering wheel is a small, four-spoke unit that enthusiasts will love.

A quality audio system and automatic air-con system (Climatronic) complete the interior appointments. Overall, it's an agreeable place to be -- not too radical, nor retro, somewhat like a remodelled art-deco building from the fifties.

The Superb starts to a hushed tone and then settles down to a whisper. Our test car had the top-of-the line V6 powerplant, which breathes through 30 valves and displaces 2771cc to develop 192 bhp at 6000 rpm and 28 kgm of peak torque at 3200 rpm.

This motor is mated to either a five-speed manual or, as our car, a five-speed automatic box with Tiptronic (manual override). This engine, though old, is a tried and trusted unit and has served the VW Passat for a long time.

With a hint of hesitation it launches the Superb to a 60 kph run in 5.34 seconds (Accord V6 4.08 seconds) and 100 kph in 11.16 seconds (Accord V6 7.99 seconds). Remember though the Accord V6 has a bigger engine (3000cc) and is more potent at 221 bhp.

While some may argue that this is not a fair comparison, fact remains that the Superb stands no chance at a traffic light grand prix against the beefier Honda.

Again, if you can ignore cheaper, more spirited competition, the Superb cannot be termed a slow car either, what with a top speed of 232 kph (237 for the manual), which it achieves without breaking a sweat. To the credit of the Czech missile, its high-speed composure cannot be compared with rice rocket competition.

This composure is the result of a rather complex suspension setup constituting a sophisticated, sub-frame mounted multi-element front axle (four independent arms supporting each front wheel) and a back-to-basics compound link crank-axle unit at the rear.

The resulting ride quality is not in the league of any Mercedes-Benz, but is ever so slightly better than the Accord and Camry. It is easy to forget that the Superb is front wheel driven, but the car will let you know the moment you put it through a series of corners, with understeer that can be termed reassuringly familiar.

That also means if you are used to Mercs and Beemers, you're never going to like the way power is delivered here, or the way corners are negotiated.

One of the factors that has made the comeback of the Czech brand successful is a no-compromise policy when it comes to active and passive safely features. The Superb continues the good work of the Octavia and Fabia and is easily one of the safest cars in its league.

Our test car came equipped with ESP (electronic stability program), which includes an anti-lock braking system and electronic brake assist. While four airbags are standard (driver, passenger and side), buyers have an option of ordering the Superb with curtain airbags to ensure greater protection between the occupants and the windows -- from the A- to C-pillar.

As I told you earlier, the Superb is a very good automobile indeed. But the problem lies in the current dynamics in our market. Unfortunately there are a quite a few cars in the market today that make the Superb package look far too expensive. If Skoda India can address that issue we may see more of the flagship bearing the flying arrow on our roads in the near future.

As for the looks, maybe the engineers at Mlada Boleslav will come up with a different visage (how about twin headlamps?) for the Superb when its facelift is due in two years. No points for guessing which of Mr Adams' songs will play inspiration then.

Perhaps something along the lines of 'Please forgive me...'

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