If, like me, you have small boys in your family, you will be familiar with the adventures of Thomas The Tank Engine. Lulled into a gentle coma by the somnolent voice of Ringo Starr (well, on the old ones anyway) you’ll drift through the so-called adventures of this compact blue railway engine with the expressive face. The adventures usually don’t amount to much. Some trucks get shunted into the wrong siding. A cat goes missing. That’s usually the pace of it, but the overriding message is that Thomas always tries to be useful. “Thomas, you are a very useful engine” is the best back-slap from the all-powerful Fat Controller for which he can hope. A small victory, perhaps, but a pleasant one.
One suspects that Skoda’s engineers have been mainlining Thomas The Tank Engine and the various books, TV shows, films and toys which have spun off from the original stories, because the Skoda Superb Combi surely has to be one of the most useful cars around.
For a kick-off, it’s massive. The old Superb, the one that everyone felt was like a cheaper Mercedes-Benz E-Class, was a great car and had masses of rear legroom, but it was actually surprisingly narrow thanks to being based on the chassis of an old Golf, and that meant that seat width was an issue, as was fuel tank size. No such problems in the new Superb, which makes the best possible use of the Volkswagen Group’s ultra-flexible MQB platform, so it’s wider and even more roomy than the previous model.
That roominess is most apparent in the boot, which has swelled to a massive 660-litres. That’s pretty much functionally the most room you can have in a conventional car, as the next step up is either ‘van or ‘minibus’. Actually, that figure (for the boot loaded up to the luggage cover with the rear seats in place) makes the seats-folded, to-the-roof figure of 1,950-litres look a tiny bit disappointing. How much more room could have been found if the rear tailgate were a little less raked?
Perhaps that’s a churlish thought when so much obvious effort has gone in to making the rest of the car so, and here’s that word again, useful. Flip up the centre front armrest and you’ll find not only a useful storage box but it has a thin slot into which an iPad or similar tablet will slot and be held firmly, protecting it from dings and scratches. The umbrella-in-the-door thing is an old Skoda trick, and one shared with Rolls-Royce, but now the Superb comes with an umbrella nestled in each front door. Not just useful, but classy.
There are other useful surprises. The plastic, rubber-tipped ice scraper built into the fuel filler flap. The fact that the passenger seat folds flat forward to make a helpful table or simply to load long items in. The fact that the cupholders are designed to grip the bottom of a plastic bottle to enable you to open the cap one-handed. I know these are minutiae, but to me at least they are fascinating minutiae.
OK, what about the rest of the car? Well, as noted, it sits on the MQB platform so it uses a familiar mix of VW, Audi and Seat shared parts. The most obvious one, in our test car, was the 2.0-litre 150hp TDI diesel engine which, as ever, is smooth and very efficient. Tied into the DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox, it easily breaks the 50mpg barrier in daily driving and has more than sufficient punch to power the Superb’s roomy body about the place.
However, it’s not perfect. We know, from driving the Audi A4, that this engine can be impressively quiet, almost whispering, when installed properly. In the Skoda, it’s notably more clattery and noisy. Wind and tyre noise are also an issue at times, so it’s clear that the VW Group overlords are putting up distinct walls as to how good a Skoda can be, lest it tread too heavily on the toes of the Passat or A4. It’s understandable, in a strictly commercial sense, but somewhat frustrating.
The cabin is a little frustrating too. The old Superb had one of the best automotive cabins going – full of high-quality materials, pleasant if obviously fake wood trim and expensive looking dials and buttons. While the cabin of this Superb is still clearly well-made and well-equipped, it just doesn’t have that ‘I’ve bought a Merc on the cheap’ feeling of the old one. In fact, it looks and feels a little dour as if, again, it’s being told in no uncertain terms not to spoil the fun for VW and Audi.
Still, there are some high points. The big touchscreen is great, and the Apple CarPlay integration is useful for smartphone obsessives. The seats are wonderfully comfortable and there’s still that sense of endless space stretching out behind you. The Superb isn’t sparkling to drive, but then again it never was. It’s competent and easy-going, with light, slightly vague steering and a mostly gentle ride quality. You won’t drive it for fun, but there’s nothing here that will upset or dismay.
Until you come, that is, to the price tag. Net of optional extras, our Superb Combi test car cost €42,777 which is a heck of a lot of money for a Skoda. Not that it’s not an entirely excellent car, but that is deep into Audi territory. Not so long ago, that price would have bought you a basic A6.
Simply put, in this form at least, the Superb is too expensive.
That said, shop a little further back down the price list, do without one or two of the optional extras and it’s much better value and remains the most useful mainstream family car you can buy.
Now, what’s Ringo saying?