“What the hell is that?!” Brendan Saur exclaimed after I shared with him my latest find. What the hell, indeed. Even in the context of the European market, full of tall-boy wagons like the Renault Scenic and converted vans like the Citroen Berlingo, the Škoda Roomster was a curious creature.
So curious, in fact, that only 385 of these were sold in Australia over the course of four years. When the Czech brand was relaunched here in 2007, the initial range consisted of the Octavia hatchback and wagon and the Roomster. Although Škoda has seen incremental growth here since 2007, the Roomster was an outlier. Its slow sales led Škoda to discontinue it here in 2010, only to bring it back in 2012 with sharper pricing… and then discontinue it again the following year.
Clearly, it just wasn’t going to take here in Australia. Blame the weird styling and the unpopularity of its segment. Compact European MPVs have never managed much success here.
If you ignore the ghastly side windows, the Roomster’s styling wasn’t really that controversial and neither was the car itself. The Roomster used a mixture of Volkswagen components: the front section was sourced from the subcompact VW Polo and Škoda Fabia, the rear from the Mark V Golf/Škoda Octavia, while the midsection was unique to the Roomster. The front suspension used McPherson struts while the rear utilized a torsion beam axle.
There was a wide range of engines, from a 1.2 naturally-aspirated three-cylinder up to a 1.6 naturally-aspirated four-cylinder and a 1.9 turbo diesel four. The latter two engines were the initial offerings in Australia, the petrol mill always feeling a little overmatched and the diesel’s popularity limited by the lack of an automatic. Later Aussie Roomsters used a turbocharged 1.2 four with 103 hp and 129 ft-lbs and a choice of five-speed manual or seven-speed DSG auto.
The optional panoramic sunroof was covered by only a thin mesh shade. Not great for a car sold under the hot Aussie sun!
High performance wasn’t the name of the game. The name of the game was contained in the name of the car: room. The Roomster was designed to provide maximum cabin space for its dimensions and, accordingly, packaging was terrific for a car the same length as a Golf and three inches narrower.
The rear seats – dubbed Varioflex – could be folded in a 40-20-40 configuration and could also be removed entirely. You could also remove the center seat entirely and move the two outboard seats closer together, freeing up shoulder room for rear seat occupants. With the rear row of seating removed there was 63 cubic feet of volume.
Nobody was left wanting for headroom, either—at 63.3 inches tall, the Roomster was almost a foot taller than a Golf. There were also plenty of storage compartments as well, including drawers under the front seats. Hey, the brand’s tagline is “Simply Clever” for a reason.
(clockwise from top left) Lancia Musa, Citroen C3 Picasso, Skoda Roomster, Nissan Note, Renault Modus
The Roomster bombed in Australia but, hey, we’re a small market so it didn’t hurt Škoda’s bottom-line too much. Unfortunately for Škoda, the Roomster didn’t sell very well in Europe, either. After a strong start – 56,253 units in 2007 – the Roomster settled down to between 25,000 and 40,000 units annually in Europe, about as well as the Lancia Musa and Nissan Note. Small MPVs like the Renault Modus and Citroen C3 Picasso were well ahead.
In 2015, photos leaked of a second-generation Roomster that had been cancelled at the eleventh hour. It was no great loss, however: the second-generation Roomster was simply a Volkswagen Caddy (above) with a Škoda front clip. And yes, the windows were symmetrical and completely unremarkable. See, the Roomster’s daring aesthetic simply didn’t fit in with a Škoda lineup that was otherwise handsome, crisp, stylish, and just a tad conservative in appearance. Besides, VW executives said they wanted to focus on the similarly-sized Yeti crossover which, given the explosive growth of that segment, was undoubtedly a smart decision.
A VW Caddy with a waterfall grille would have been a poor follow-up to this delightfully quirky Czech people mover. Ok, ok, so those side windows are still atrocious to look at. But to look out from them – from inside the bright, airy, spacious, functional cabin – is to truly understand the Roomster’s purpose.
Photographed in March 2018 in Spring Hill, Brisbane, QLD.