Good: good specification, great engine
Not so good: controls too light for our liking
Historically speaking, January marks the return of the World Rally Championship (WRC), the season kicking off with the iconic Rallye Monte-Carlo, so it's an apt time of year to review the latest Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo. Although Skoda has successfully competed in world rally for decades, this special edition has been conceived to conjure up ideas of glamour and grandeur, as in the administrative (and casino) area of the Principality of Monaco.
Saying that, it's a sporty looking thing thanks to an eye-catching red and black colour scheme. The Corrida Red paint is contrasted with black 16-inch alloy wheels (there are optional 17-inch items on the test car), a panoramic glass roof and gloss black for the door mirrors, front grille and lower areas of the front and rear bumpers referred to as the splitter and diffuser respectively.
The theme continues inside, where comfy sports seats are upholstered in a youthful red, black and grey pattern, there are bespoke door sills, shiny metal pedals and red-stitched floor mats front and rear. Even the centre console is bright red. I'm not completely convinced by the success of that, but the gorgeous steering wheel more than makes up for it. I believe it's the same item found in the Skoda Octavia RS, with highly tactile perforated leather, red stitching and a modestly flattened bottom. It feels great to hold.
Most of the rest of the specification is based on that of the Fabia Style. A neat touch is the Monte Carlo logo appearing on the touchscreen when it's booted up. As standard the Monte Carlo comes with the 'Swing' system, though the test car was upgraded with the great value Technology Pack, costing €199 and adding the Bolero sound system including Smartlink, cruise control and 'Rest Assist' to tell you when you need a break from driving.
Elsewhere it's pretty standard Fabia, which means good space for the segment and a usefully sized and shaped boot that carries 330 litres. I even managed to carry a Quinny Buzz buggy (parents will understand what I'm blathering on about) once the wheels were removed. Fold the rear seats (the seat back splits and folds, but not flat) and it extends to 1,150 litres. By way of comparison, the Ford Fiesta holds 290- to 974 litres; the Toyota Yaris 286- to 768 litres; and the Volkswagen Polo accommodates 280- to 952 litres. In fairness, the newer Hyundai i20 manages 326- to 1,042 litres.
So the Fabia Monte Carlo ticks a lot of boxes before you even get a chance to drive it; does it add anything to the driving experience? Not really. The optional larger wheels and lower profile tyres actually make it a little less comfortable than standard, though that's really only noticeable on broken surfaces in and around town. That's a shame really, as the urban jungle is this car's natural habitat. Its driving controls are all super light (too light for my taste), and visibility is good all round. You have to learn the clutch biting point and throttle weighting as there's no feel through the pedals as such, but it's a car that anyone will quickly acclimatise to. Sadly for anyone hoping for a little of that WRC magic, there's no massive enjoyment to be had from pushing this car to its limits on an interesting road.
There's plenty of grip and good body control, but not a great deal of sophistication in how it goes down the road. It's all too easy, for example, to summon up the intervention of the ESP stability and traction control systems. They work quickly and unobtrusively in fairness, but keener drivers will lament the lack of poise in the chassis.
Nonetheless, the Fabia Monte Carlo ends on a high note in the driving department thanks to its cracking little 1.2 TSI turbocharged petrol engine. It's quiet most of the time and though it can idle unevenly it pushes the Fabia along with real verve, making it, overall, a fun experience. It produces 110hp, but you'd swear it's more due to the combination of relatively low weight and sensible gearing, plus the fact that peak torque is available from just 1,400rpm. The six-speed manual gearbox is fine, if sometimes not as super slick as we'd like, so we'd actually prefer this car with Skoda's excellent seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. All world rally cars use semi-automatic gearboxes anyway you know...