Nominative determinism is a popular strategy in the motor industry. But when Škoda announced the ‘Superb’ it was decided that the Czech manufacturer had set its own bar a little too high. Such cynicism proved entirely unfounded, and the world gained a fine new executive car, a machine for brand agnostics who were happy to eschew conventional choices. The flagship model has just been given a second-generation overhaul and it bears examination as a classic case study of how sober design and canny marketing can transform fortunes.
The story of Škoda is also the story of Volkswagen, which is in itself the story of the modern motor industry. For Volkswagen is the grand steward of the automotive brand, the company that effectively rose out of nothing and built itself into one of the world’s most recognisable names, on the back of some of the most recognisable cars ever made. Along the way, it has assembled half a dozen nameplates and shepherded each of them to the top of their segment, uniting elements like engineering without diluting their individual qualities.
Škoda, in comparison, has an even more garlanded history, dating back a full half century earlier to the dawn of the automotive era. Škoda Auto grew out of a bicycle workshop and was building cars by 1905. The Second World War essentially destroyed the company; occupation and bombing raids and the ultimate cold embrace of the Warsaw Pact saw Škoda’s skills funneled into lifeless, cut-price cars for a market unfamiliar with the concept of choice. Export to the west brought only derision. In an eerie parallel to the decline and eventual fall of communism itself, Škoda slipped further and further in public approval until only an ideological makeover could save it.
VW’s gradual acquisition began in the early 1990s; the company is now a wholly owned subsidiary. Design and manufacturing remain in the Czech Republic but no-one denies the enormous impact of VW’s extensive skillset. Over the past two decades, VW has inched slowly upmarket, especially with its larger cars. At the same time, its portfolio – which includes Audi, Bentley, Porsche and Bugatti – have helped redefine the luxury industry, banishing forever the idea that speed, exotic looks and rarity goes hand in hand with unreliability and idiosyncrasy.
This push up has left considerable space at the lower end of the market. Škoda might have been re-born as a budget brand, but it too is pushing upwards. Hence the Superb, an executive car that distils 20 years of careful brand stewardship into a flagship vehicle that can rub shoulders with the class best. Everything about this handsome hatchback and capacious estate shrieks ‘premium’, from the soberly creased bodywork (best in estate form) to the dashboard, a masterclass in functionalism without frippery or over-the-top styling.
There’s subtle practicality, like umbrellas stowed in the front doors (a trick usually left to Rolls-Royces costing nine times as much), auto park assist and a boot that opens automatically with a wave of the foot. Engines are small but more than capable, and there’s a 4x4 option at the top of the range. The Superb might not be the cutting edge of motoring enjoyment, but it is rigorously competent in every department. Just as no-one should begrudge IKEA for building quality furniture for a very acceptable price, Škoda demonstrates beyond doubt that quality car-building is an art that need not be related to cost.