The concept of cheap and cheerful appeals for the obvious reasons: the prospect of something-for-(nearly)-nothing; the assumption that it does exactly what it says on the tin; the lack of pretentiousness — suggesting that its owner is also virtuously free of that forgivable vice — and the freedom from burdensome excess. However, the assumption that cheap and cheerful go naturally together is about as accurate as the identification of poverty with virtue: occasionally yes, often no.
It’s different with cars — at least, it is now. Hitherto cheap cars were often shoddily assembled from poor materials by workers who didn’t care and managers who failed to manage all but their pension funds. They were rusting before they left the factory. But I’m not sure there is a bad car now; there are varying degrees of competence, achievement and durability, of course, yet even the cheapest, such as the £6,995 Citroën C1 or the £7,795 Kia Picanto (with seven-year warranty), will dependably do 90 per cent of what your quarter-million Rolls-Royce Phantom will do (with no seven-year warranty). And they’ll last as long as you’re prepared to keep them going.
I had a week or two recently with a Skoda Fabia. At £9,880–£16,415 it’s not the cheapest but it’s certainly cheerful. In fact, it’s cheaper than described: you should get 10 to 20 per cent off-list through any of its 220 dealers, while Skoda itself is offering its £11,995 1.4-litre Greenline 11 eco model (89g/km and 83.1 mpg combined) for £8,995. I had the base model with the 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol engine. The motoring press rates it overall as a good-value car, roomier than you’d think with acceptable interior materials but with handling on the soft side and a little lacking in power.
Well, all right. But what do you expect from a 1.2 three-cylinder engine designed to optimise economy? And ‘soft’ handling is part of what makes it comfortable to drive. No one who buys one of these does so with the idea of cornering on the limits and at anything less than that it’s perfectly acceptable. Similarly, that willing little engine is just fine; it revs freely, pulls eagerly and throughout the range gives the impression it wants to work, wants to go. OK, you can hear you’re doing 3,000rpm at 70mph and you may have to change down on the next long hill, but so what? You’re bowling along with the rest of them at a fraction of the cost of many and drinking less. You’ve also got all the usual safety features and you’re backed by proven VW technology — nothing fancy but dependable and economical. It is one of those cars that brings a smile to your face and makes you feel free — you own it without it owning you. That makes for happy motoring.
And if you’re looking for a cheap — more’s the point, cheap to insure — starter car for the recently qualified, an older Fabia could make sense. A quick online trawl through Skoda dealerships showed Evans Halshaw with the cheapest at £2,201 for a 2003 five-door 1.2 model with driver’s airbag and 42,854 miles. You’d get it for less privately, of course, but a main dealer’s reputation and legal obligations may be worth the difference.
Time was when Skoda was almost as much of a joke as those other products of the communist ‘market’, Lada, Wartburg and Trabant. That was always unjust because pre-communist Czechoslovakian engineering was widely appreciated (particularly their weaponry — they part-parented the Bren gun). Like many car-makers, Skoda began with bicycles in 1895, graduating within a decade to motorbikes and cars. The first Octavia — so-called because it was its eighth post-war vehicle — appeared in 1959, while its transforming joint venture with VW dates from 1991, just two years after the fall of the Berlin wall. It was a wise choice for both, combining Skoda design with VW quality at less than VW prices. The many taxi firms now using Octavias don’t base their choice on sentiment, novelty or cost alone, but on that most dependable of market friends, value for money.
Would I buy one? Yes, if I were looking for cheap and cheerful. And if I were looking for a roomy estate I’d buy an Octavia. Do I know anyone who has? Only one, and even he feels the need to make a joke of it. There’s the rub: for all their virtues, they’re not yet — not quite — one of the cars of choice for the middle classes. They’re getting there, with those who are canny enough, but so many of us are still paying so much more than we need for our Audis, VWs, BMWs and Mercs. We’re paying for status. And the case for Octavias could equally be made for Mondeos, but the fortunes of the Ford Motor Company are another story.