Still Superb - big Skoda one of the best cars on sale
Once the punchline to Christmas cracker jokes, Skoda today has the last laugh by building excellent cars. The latest Superb is its best effort yet, writes William Scholes
THE story of Skoda's revival is, by now, well known. One of Europe's pioneering car manufacturers, the Czech company fell into the doldrums when the communists took over.
In order to earn valuable foreign currency, Skoda's odd little rear-engined cars were sent across the Iron Curtain to western Europe, where their chief - perhaps only - temptation was a bargain price tag.
In this respect it was little different to other idiosyncratic nameplates of the 1970s and 1980s like Lada, FSO and Yugo but where they relied on Fiat cast-offs, at least Skoda ploughed its own furrow.
These Eastern Bloc manufacturers lagged behind their counterparts in every respect: safety, reliability, quality, engineering, technology...
By the late 1980s, Skoda had found the money to develop a new car called the Favorit, which followed a more conventional template of having the engine at the front and a hatchback bodystyle.
But by the time it was launched in 1987, the Iron Curtain was starting to unravel and by 1990 communism had fallen and the Czech government had enlisted Volkswagen to turn Skoda around.
The jokes soon stopped. VW upped the quality and design, as a succession of cars which were effectively reskinned Volkswagens began to transform Skoda's image.
Now, in 2015, it has been a long time since anyone has had to make an excuse for buying a Skoda.
Strong, well-built, reliable and with a keen eye on practicality and space, a Skoda is an eminently sensible choice.
Indeed, so successful has the rehabilitation been that in many cases it is hard to justify buying a Volkswagen model over one of its Skoda siblings. A similar argument can also be made for Seat cars, it should be said; perhaps it all means that the VW Group, if it ever sorts out its diesel difficulties, needs to work harder at differentiating its various brands.
But that is for another day. The latest addition to the Skoda range is a new version of the Superb.
Previous generations of this car have found favour with taxi drivers and the police, though there has always been plenty to make the Superb a compelling proposition for the private buyer or company car user.
Space - rolling acres of the stuff - is the Superb's greatest asset. The back seat offers limousine levels of legroom and though the seat itself may not be as comfortable as you will find in something like a BMW 7 Series, as tested elsewhere in this week's Drive, it easily trumps everything else in its class.
Nor does any rival have a boot as large as that in the Superb. I tested the estate, and there are student flats that aren't as big. Open the tailgate - electrically operated on my car - and a 660 litre void reveals itself. Drop the back seats - an easy job - and a 1,950 litre space opens up. Cars in the class above, such as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class estate, aren't as voluminous.
The tailgate itself is wide - the lights don't narrow the aperture, as they do on some other cars - and the loading lip is low, and the boot is equipped with various tricks such as hooks, dividers and a false floor to help you make the most of all that space.
The driver and front passenger also benefit from the Skoda's ruthless focus on useable space and comfort - no wonder professional drivers love the Superb.
If anything, the Superb is - like other Skoda models - perhaps just a little bit too sober and serious for its own good. The interior, for example, is undoubtedly of very high quality but resolutely monochromatic; does it have to be so dark?
The driving experience is similarly sober and sensible. Don't expect to have as much fun as the driver of a rival Mazda 6 if you buy a Superb.
The Skoda's strengths lie elsewhere; you can revel in the sort of calm, relaxed and long-legged gait that shrinks distances and, in combination with the comfortable and spacious interior, leaves you feeling fresh when you reach your destination.
The test car had a 1.6-litre diesel engine - larger, more powerful units are available - and it occasionally felt overwhelmed by the Superb's heft. Still, steady motorway cruising was its forte.
Such is the Superb's range of talents and sheer quality that it would be a little difficult to argue why you instead chose a Passat from Skoda's Volkswagen overlords.
Remember, though, that Skodas are no longer that cheap or cheerful. The test car weighed in at £26,000 (see at a glance panel) and a more powerful engine might add around £1,000.
But it says much for the Superb that it easily justifies its price tag. In fact, it represents excellent value for money and is one of the best cars on sale today - no joke.