Skoda Slavia First Drive: Honda City, Hyundai Verna and Maruti Suzuki Ciaz rival driven
I can’t tell you how the Skoda Slavia looks. I can’t tell you about the back seat space and comfort. I can’t tell you about the safety features. I’ll get into trouble if I tell you that the Skoda Slavia is fantastic on all three fronts so I’ll dive right into what I can talk about. The driving. And on this front the Slavia goes right to the top of the class dominated by the Honda City for so very long.
Much like how the Skoda Kushaq has been sent to battle in the de facto Hyundai Creta class, so too has the Slavia been designed as a City-fighter, while of course taking on the Hyundai Verna and Maruti Suzuki Ciaz. And just like the Kushaq it moves the goal posts when it comes to The Thrill of Driving.
But where the Kushaq is in a segment that is super-hot, the mid-size sedan segment has been decimated by those very same mid-size SUVs. The City sells half of what the Creta does despite only having three players in its segment. Skoda is all too aware of the numbers but they’re projecting the mid-size premium sedan segment to grow by 138 per cent over the next ten years. And brand director Zac Hollis is confident that the combination of styling, space, comfort and driving dynamics will help the Slavia get to the top of what, right now, is a rather dormant segment.
Skoda Slavia is bigger than the first-generation Skoda Octavia
The Skoda Slavia sits on the same platform that underpins the Skoda Kushaq, the heavily localised MQB-A0-IN. This architecture has now been completely handed over to Skoda while the Group, in Europe, shifts their entire focus to EVs. The Slavia runs the same 2651mm wheelbase as the Kushaq — this is the longest wheelbase possible on the MQB-A0. The track widths are identical as are the hard points of the platform to ensure cost and production efficiencies. But the Slavia is different to the Kushaq in one critical aspect. The length. At 4541mm, the Slavia is 316mm longer than the mid-SUV and all that length has been added after the C-pillar with the addition of the boot.
Another interesting fact, the Slavia is longer and wider than the first-generation Skoda Octavia that came to India in 2001. In fact, the Slavia also has a longer wheelbase than the gen 1 Octy and that will definitely be appreciated by back seat passengers. I cannot tell you if the Slavia betters that Octavia’s 600 litre boot, or whether the boot is a notchback. I will tell you though that the styling is rather cleverly done.
Of course being a sedan the Slavia is shorter than the Kushaq, by 125mm. This is also a factor of the smaller 16-inch wheels that the Slavia runs on and even under the heavy camouflage I can tell you that the wheel arch gaps are big and noticeable. Whether it will get 17s on the top end versions is anybody’s guess but I don’t think it will.
Styling of the Skoda Slavia
It is something that will have to be kept under wraps till mid- November when the camo finally comes off. Same goes for my impressions of space in the back, how comfortable it is to tuck your feet under the front seats, the back rest recline, the head room, all of the things that matter to sedan buyers who spend a fair bit of time in the back.
I have to be all hush-hush about the interiors too though, as you can very well imagine, it will carry over heavily from the Kushaq. Same 10-inch infotainment with all the bells and whistles, a regular sunroof and seat coolers up front. You guys were very vocal about the lack of a digital cockpit on the Kushaq, and omission of 6 airbags on the top end variants, and all I can say is that Skoda has heard you. They've also listened to our criticisms of the roof liner and say that will be sorted out when the car goes on sale.
Dynamics of the Skoda Slavia
Here’s where the Slavia will raise class benchmarks – the Thrill of Driving department. The Kushaq has already set a new benchmark in the mid-size SUV segment and the Slavia is even better to drive than the Kushaq. All you driving enthusiasts have something to look forward to in three months when it goes on sale.
The Slavia’s architecture is unchanged from the Kushaq but the lower height, smaller wheels and the fact that it sits closer to the ground delivers a lower centre of gravity which in turns makes an appreciable difference to its handling. Five minutes behind the wheel of the Slavia and you can feel the roots, the DNA from the Kushaq. And another five minutes later you wonder why everybody buys SUVs. A sedan is just so much better to drive!
It starts with the seating position that is a little lower than an SUV. Like the Kushaq, in the Slavia too you can adjust the steering for reach as well as rake which delivers a lovely, even sporty, driving position. The steering wheel is carried over from the Kushaq and it feels a little too large in diameter to be sporty. But more to the point that the steering is too light. At city speeds it makes the Slavia very easy to drive but I just wish there was a little more weight as speeds build up. This is just a matter of mapping the electronic power steering and will make the Slavia feel more confident when being pushed.
And the Slavia is extremely confident when pushed. We have already spoken about the torsional rigidity of the platform in our Kushaq reviews and on the Slavia there’s the added benefit of the lower centre of gravity. You get a responsive front end with nice turn-in response, very good grip and bite, and you can really push it. There is noticeable body roll, of that there’s no doubt, but it is never exaggerated and it all makes the Slavia the most fun car in this segment.
Will the Slavia be more fun to drive with 17-inch wheels? In all probability, yes. There will be more grip and a sharper turn-in response. But that will come at the slight expense of ride quality which, in the current setup, is excellent on the Slavia.
Ride comfort of the Skoda Slavia
The noticeable body roll has a major upside and that is the excellent ride quality. The damping quality is an absolute highlight. Go through a broken patch of road and the dampers not only soak up the bumps but there’s also no audible or noticeable crashing. This is a sedan that you can drive like an SUV over broken roads. It feels as robust as the Kushaq; in fact it is more robust that many mid-sized SUVs. I have spoken about the lower centre of gravity but the Slavia’s ground clearance is almost like an SUV. Through our entire drive which included a proper mix of speed breaker laden city roads, expressway sections, broken patches, everything really save for an intense set of corners, the Slavia dealt with everything in a truly excellent manner. And not once did it touch anywhere, even with me sitting in the back.
I did spend some time being driven in the Slavia but those opinions are under embargo. But I invite you to cycle back to my impressions of the back seat of the Kushaq, in terms of the side bolstering of the seat that holds you nicely in place, and the width which isn’t as good as the class rivals like the Creta. That will give you a fair idea of what the Slavia offers and how it will compare with the extremely spacious City.
Powertrains on the Skoda Slavia
Straight off, there are no diesels. What you get are the same powertrains as the Kushaq. The 1-litre TSI turbo-petrol that makes 113.5bhp which gets an optional 6-speed torque converter automatic and the 1.5 TSI that makes 148bhp and gets the 7-speed DSG twin-clutch automatic as an option.
We drove all four powertrains that will be on offer and all of them compliment the excellent chassis. The most enthusiastic is of course the 1.5 TSI motor, the additional power inviting you to push the chassis, the wider and stronger spread of torque making it more relaxed on the highway, the additional power making overtakes easier without having to rev it to the redline, and of course the four cylinders make it more refined as well. With active cylinder deactivation the 1.5 TSI is also more fuel efficient than the 1.0 TSI. But it will be considerably more expensive (thus niche) and that brings me to the heavily localised engine.
The 1.0 TSI is a riot. This little engine is, honest truth, more engaging and fun than the 1.5. Almost all 3-cylinder engines come across as slightly unrefined with their irregular idle and higher decibel levels but here, on this motor, it is part of the character. A very endearing character! Out on the highway you need to cane the engine to really get going but when you give it the beans it sounds sporty, it engages you, it goads and coaxes you into whipping and thrashing every last horse.
In the city the 1.0 TSI never feels inadequate, in fact there’s enough grunt to keep ahead of all but the most vigorously hustled cars. Sure get on the highway and it can run out of breath if you’re really pushing it. And when you cane it the fuel efficiency will be nowhere close to what a naturally-aspirated unit like that in the Honda City will deliver. But, remember, we dragged the Rapid with its 1.0 TSI engine against the City and it was the former that crossed the quarter mile mark first. And I full expect the Slavia to repeat that performance, with the 1.5 TSI opening up an even bigger gap.
The 6-speed torque converter is hardly lacking when compared to the DSG. Sure it isn’t as quick to shift up and down the ’box but the difference isn’t all that much. And the torque converter is actually smoother in stop-go city traffic which is where our cars spend most of their time. Also, on the top-end versions both automatics gets paddle shifters.
Verdict on the Skoda Slavia
Why bother with a segment that is all but stagnant, I asked Skoda India’s brand director Zac Hollis. And he insisted the stagnation wasn’t for lack of buyer interest but more to do with the lack of new cars to excite buyers. He’s right. And his confidence in the Slavia isn’t misplaced. The combination of head-turning styling, excellent driving manners, equally excellent ride comfort and fun powertrains will — and should! — draw buyers away from SUVs that they’ve been going nuts over. But of course it will all depend on pricing. The Kushaq will have taught Skoda enough and more on that front, what customers are willing to pay, what equipment levels they want, even how to differentiate the 1.5 from the 1.0 and entice customers to pay a premium for the former. The SUV should help put in place a stronger business plan for the sedan. And I really do hope sedans begin to once again find favour with buyers.