Thursday, 8 November 2012

Fireworks welcome

Skoda set off pyrotechnics for the launch of the Rapid. It wasn’t the fifth of November, it was the sixth, but who was counting? Ellenborough Park is, “Huge, part new, part restored,” according to Fiona Duncan of The Daily Telegraph, “a mass of scrubbed-up Cotswold stone bristling with turrets, arches and towers, dates from 1500.” It was home to the Earl of Ellenborough, and then a girls’ school before becoming, “a hotel progressively more tired, until bought by investors in 2008. Millions of pounds later it reopened with new wings, 62 bedrooms, a rather exposed outdoor pool, a lovely, intimate spa and a path to Cheltenham Racecourse. There is surely nowhere else an owner or trainer would prefer to stay. There have been some very clever moves in reinventing Ellenborough Park as a luxury hotel. The owners could easily have entrusted a tricksy interior designer with the job; they could have cut corners and made every room the same; or they could have gone to the metallic wallpaper and velvet devoré fabric shop, as so many similar hotels do when they want to introduce a contemporary look. Instead, they turned to Nina Campbell.”

There’s no devoré fabric in a Skoda Rapid, and Nina Campbell probably would not have done an interior that reflected so much in a windscreen. But this is a good car with, like so many these days, costly extras. It was all very well portraying it at a cost-conscious £12,900 but even a middle-of-the-road 1.2 SE is £14,650. By the time you add “packs” of this and that it is £17,320. Still, it’s well-detailed, on sale next week and slots in below Octavia. Skoda has determined what prices the market will stand and the market now values top-line cars as thoroughly satisfactory. Encouraged, it is making the hugely successful Octavia and Superb premium, with the Rapid occupying middle ground underneath.

Rapid is only slightly smaller with much the same room inside, a hatchback that places it firmly in the family market. The styling is crisper than Octavia and a bald man from Skoda told us, at some length it has to be said, about the jewel-like quality of the tail lights and how much luggage you could get in the boot. He needn’t have bothered. The proportions are decent and the detailing excellent, down to an ice-scraper concealed in the fuel flap and a windscreen clip for, I suppose, showing you have paid-and-displayed.

There are four petrol and one diesel Rapids, three trim options and all drive well with reservations about those with low-profile tyres. I drove a 1.2 SE in the morning and a 1.6 diesel Elegance in the afternoon, with what felt like solid rubber on 16in “Dione” wheels instead of the SE’s 17in 6J “Camelots”. I cannot understand why a good PR team allows Marketing to put silly tyres on otherwise competent road cars. Most drivers will never feel the extra point zero something extra cornering power on low profiles and they will certainly feel the nobbly bumps and the pull on cambers. Big wheels and thin tyres may look a little racier but who, in this instance, is kidding whom?

The Skoda Rapid SE had, the bald man assured us, lots of costly equipment like an anti-misfuel insert (a narrow neck on the filler) electric windows in front and a leatherette gaiter on the handbrake, manual air conditioning and tinted glass. But the metallic paint was an extra £495, Driving Pack (cruise control and parking sensors) at $600, Protection Pck (boot lining) £150, Sat-nav £550, Summer Pack (Climatronic dual zone air conditioning and tinted rear windows) £500 and Style Pack (smarter alloys) £375.
I didn’t risk the rather exposed outdoor pool but I did manage a portrait by Sarah-Louise, the fastest-drawing artist I’ve ever seen. Note to daughters – I’ll trim those eyebrows.

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