The Skoda Rapid Spaceback is designed to be the spacious, cheap car for people who think the regular Rapid is just a little too spacious and not quite stylish enough.
On sale in early 2014, the new Spaceback has the same wheelbase as the Rapid, but is around 19cm shorter, at 4.3 metres long. Almost all of that saving comes beyond the rear wheels where, instead of the Rapid's long, loping notchback, there's a much sharper hatch with a corresponding shorter overhang. It's a curious half-hatchback, half-estate shape, but it certainly looks classier than the regular Rapid.
This effect can be enhanced further by choosing a panoramic tinted glass roof that stretches the entire length of the passenger compartment (it's part of a Style Pack that also has extra glass in the rear hatch and 17-inch alloy wheels).
The new Rapid Spaceback gets a number of improvements that are also being rolled out to the regular Rapid, including a revised multi-function steering wheel, a neater stereo installation, and new trims and seat fabrics. The car also switches from hydraulic power steering to an electro-mechanical set-up, and gets revised damper settings in a bid to smooth out the pattery ride.
Skoda sees the Spaceback as a rival not for the VW Golf and Ford Focus, but for the Hyundai i30, Kia Ceed and even the Chevrolet Cruze, so it will sit below the larger Octavia in the company's line-up.
What's the 2014 Skoda Rapid Spaceback like to drive?
Our brief drive during the Rapid Spaceback's final sign-off process was on extremely smooth German roads, and in convoy at limited speeds. However, we can tell you that the new steering set-up is nicely weighted and linear.
Less positively, our early hunch is that the ride isn't good enough to make the Spaceback settled on British roads, although it's impossible to be conclusive about this.
It's worth noting, also, that all of our test cars had 16-inch wheels; smaller, more 15-inch wheels will make up around 75% of UK orders.
The engine line-up will consist of three petrols and two diesels, including an 89bhp 1.6 TDI that's new to the Rapid range. This motor features in the cleanest model level in the line-up – the Greenline – which returns a claimed 74.3mpg and emits just 99g/km of CO2.
The entry-level version will have a humble 1.2-litre petrol engine with just 74bhp and a five-speed gearbox. There will also be two more powerful turbocharged 1.2 engines to choose from, one with 85bhp and the other with 103bhp, plus a 1.4 turbo, which will be available exclusively with a automatic gearbox.
The 103bhp diesel is just about flexible enough for everyday use but is too vocal when worked hard. The same also applies to the 74bhp petrol, which is actually refined when you're cruising along at 50mph, but gets very noisy at motorway speeds.
By far the best engine we've tried so far is the 1.2 TSI 103bhp. It's flexible, strong enough to haul the Rapid Spaceback around with some passengers and luggage on board, and both smooth and refined. You also get a six-speed manual gearbox that has a more pleasing shift action than the five-speed 'box fitted to lesser engines.
What's the 2014 Skoda Rapid Spaceback like inside?
As with the regular Rapid, the Spaceback majors on interior space. Okay, the cabin is a little narrow so some may complain about shoulder-room, but otherwise there's plenty of capacity.
Even with the optional panoramic glass roof fitted there's plenty of front- and rear headroom, while rear passengers enjoy more kneeroom than in almost any other small family hatchback. In this respect at least, the Skoda has its Korean rivals (such as the Kia Cee'd), on the run.
The new cabin tweaks include aluminium-effect plastic highlights on the dashboard, and this does give the interior a brighter, more sophisticated look. All of the materials are still hard, though; you're unlikely to forget this is a car built to a tight budget.
This may not bother you if you're after load capacity, though, for while the Rapid Spaceback can't match the regular Rapid's enormous boot, it still offers 415 litres of space (with the rear seats in place), and 1380 litres with them folded down. That's comfortably more capacity than a VW Golf provides, although less than you get in Skoda's own Octavia.
There are also some 'practical' touches, such as a hi-vis vest holder under the driver's seat, an ice scraper in the fuel filler flap, and a reversible boot floor; there's fabric on one side and a wipeable surface on the other.
Should I buy one?
It is impossible to recommend the Rapid Spaceback or even award it a star rating on the basis of this strictly controlled drive of a pre-production model, particularly when Skoda UK has yet to confirm prices and specs.
Much will depend on the money. There's no doubt an entry-level model will be a weaker proposition than the Korean opposition, but it could still win fans by offering huge amounts of space for not much money (if indeed the pricing is competitive enough).
Choose that 103bhp 1.2 TSI engine, though, and you will end up with a far better car, albeit one that could be priced too closely to Skoda's own Octavia. Regardless of spec, that's a far more accomplished family car, and still great value to boot.