The phrase "growing downwards" if taken out of context is a sure-fire way of raising a few eyebrows. But when Skoda announced the birth of its urban compact Citigo, there were certainly no audible sniggers
Hot or not?
The new 2012 Skoda Citigo is the manufacturer's first attempt in its 117 year history to successfully bring a citycar to market. Not only is this part of an aggressive growth strategy which stretches all the way through to 2018, but it's also the first car to showcase Skoda's new brand and corporate identity which aims to build upon a drastic turnaround and to bury the past where they used to be the butt of all auto jokes. However, with fierce competition from its platform-sharing cousins, the Volkswagen up! (!) and SEAT Mii, does the Skoda Citigo pack enough of a punch to put it into consumer contention? We were invited to sunny Lisbon in Portugal to find out.
Affordability, urban mobility, safety, high functionality and interior space. Initially these may all seem like buzz-phrases, laced about marketing copy in a scattergun approach to tempt prospective buyers with jazzy lingo. In reality, the Citigo provided food for thought in all categories starting with the latter, which became evident as soon as we touched down on the tarmac in Lisboa and chose our Candy White 5-door tester.
Behind the wheel
First of all this car is deceptively roomy. You wouldn't think it judging from the cute proportions. At 3560mm length, the car isn't as compact as a Toyota Aygo but manages to squeeze in below the current "baby of the range" Fabia (3992mm). Aesthetically, over the course of the two day drive, the Citigo really did grow on me after I initially rated it as "severely average" looking. Everything is clean cut, lacking Volkswagen's audaciousness with an oversize badge on the up!'s front grille or SEAT's masculinity with the Mii's front fascia. However this city car is contemporary and when you compare it to same-segment cars of a bygone era, you'll realise that the Citigo won't be in danger of becoming tomorrow's chip paper. Slightly flared wheel arches, smart 8-spoke alloys and a trimmed-moustache-esque front grille are understated features but will surely help appeal to more conservative buyers.
On the inside, two main facts are advertised. First, the Citigo has "Best Shoulder Room In Class" with 1361mm of space in the front. This urban fiend also has "Best In Class Bootspace" at 251 litres although remembering to flick down the parcel shelf which isn't connected to the boot lid proved to be irritating.
Skoda aims to appeal to three main demographic cores in finding potential customers for the Citigo: Starters, Families and Best Agers. To briefly define, starters are young men and women who are potentially still in school or starting their first jobs. They are looking to enter into the market to purchase their first cars and above all, are sensitive to price. Whilst we weren't given any solid information on final pricing points for the Citigo, we were told that £350 separates the 3-door from the 5-door model. And as the 5-door wins in the wardrobe, this has to be the car to go for, taking practicality into account also.
Features that appeal to "Starters" are dotted around the cabin. Take the iPod holder situated where cigarette lighters are normally based. This is a simple piece of design but oh-so-practical. Lined with rubber it means that your iPhone won't get scratched like it might on hard surfaces and it means you can connect it via USB without having to stow it away in the glovebox like VW would have you do. Stackmann explained in the press conference that Skoda's engineers love adding storage pockets and these are also strategically placed to provide solutions to chaotic family cars which may usually be littered with toys, drinks and debris.
In the back there was perfectly decent legroom for your 5'11" author providing the seats in front weren't at their furthest back position. For children and quick journeys, the space will be entirely adequate but friends over 6 foot might find their patience put to the test.
The model we tested in Ambition trim (which will make up the majority of sales) came equipped with the optional Navigon satellite navigation unit which became unstuck a couple of times enroute to lunch at Quinta de Sant'Ana through GPS signal loss but as it is "Move & Fun" you have the added benefit of being able to remove the unit if you so wish. Overall the Citigo's interior isn't particularly flash, and in fact is quite a dark place to sit but this won't throw you out if you've sat in a Fabia before. Manual temperature controls might be spartan, but the main point to remember is the Citigo is competing on price, so fancy shmancy this ain't.
Back to the buzz-phrases and next on our list is safety. Fortunately the Citigo excels in this department with its 5* EURO NCAP rating achieved in part thanks to its City Safe Drive braking system. Much like Volvo's Pedestrian Detection, Skoda's system is active whilst the car is travelling at speeds under 18mph and will automatically stop the car if danger is sensed ahead. Simply clever technology for the win!
When this car comes to the UK, it will arrive with two petrol engine variants which produce 58bhp and 74bhp respectively (60PS and 75PS in European money). We were able to drive both 1.0-litre MPI units and found the car firstly to be a very easy drive. The manual transmission provides sharp shifts with a relatively light clutch and like most small naturally-aspirated engines, the Citigo loves a good rev. Which is important if you're going to make any sort of progress as both engine units felt a tad low on power when attempting to climb the hilly roads surrounding Lisbon.
Surprisingly, the 58bhp edged the more powerful engine on "fun factor" making full use of the rev range, but with highway cruising both variants were remarkably planted and civilised without making too much of a fuss. Granted there was noticeable wind and tyre roar at higher velocities, but engine whines were fairly inaudible.
In faster corners, the Citigo is susceptible to understeer but thanks to ventilated front brake discs and rear drum brakes, you'll be able to easily slow the car first in lieu of attempting drastic cornering manoeuvres. The ride overall is comfortable; a longer than normal wheelbase for a tiny citycar means that the usual "pothole" crashes that you might find in a smart or iQ aren't present. For its size, the Citigo handles exceptionally well and even though in my ideal world it would be mated to a more juicy engine, that's not what this car is about.
Splash the cash?
Conveniently, allow me to address this with our final buzz-phrase. Affordability. Although prices are to be announced, it's expected that the Citigo will go on sale at around £500 cheaper than it's V.A.G. rival in the up! which itself starts at £7,995. For a 5-door model costing £350 extra over the base 3-door, that is still outstanding value for a very well-built machine. The smaller 58bhp engine also manages to churn out 62.8mpg, although with vigorous driving that figure is unlikely to be reached. If you opt for a "Greentech" unit which has stop/start technology, regenerative braking and low rolling resistance tyres you may see 68.9mpg and importantly only 96g/km of CO2.
Set for a June 2012 launch, the Citigo is therefore kind on your wallet and doesn't have the usual poor styling of an eco-warrior. In fact, we managed to get a glimpse of a Sport & Design Kit option (similar to the Monte Carlo for Fabia) which includes a hood and roof stripe and black alloys and which looked amazingly aggressive. And as customers in this segment are mainly concerned with "looking good on a budget", the 1.0-litre, 58bhp, 5-door Citigo citycar may be the car to go for from the Volkswagen Group band of brothers.