Our European readers may find this hard to believe, but the sight of this Škoda Roomster stopped me in my tracks. It’s not just that I’d never seen a Roomster before, but I’d never seen a Škoda of any kind. I felt like a biologist who’d just discovered a new mammal… after all, how often does one get to “discover” a high-volume car brand? And if I were to meet just one recent Škoda, I would choose this odd little MPV, which I find to be one of Škoda’s most intriguing vehicles.
My first question, of course, is how on earth did this car get to Virginia? Non-US-spec vehicles can be imported here once they reach the 25-year mark, but being a 2012 model, this doesn’t come close. At first, I assumed this Roomster was somehow affiliated with Škoda’s corporate parent Volkswagen, whose American headquarters is located just 15 miles from where I found this car. But VW corporate cars sport Virginia Manufacturer Headquarters license plates, and besides, it seems unlikely that the company would need an eight-year-old example of a discounted model in its US corporate fleet. Likewise, while I occasionally see non-federalized cars belonging to foreign embassy staff, those cars have diplomatic license plates. Well, regardless of how it arrived, I’m glad this Škoda landed in my neck of the woods; it certainly is a rare species around here.
For most Americans, Škoda is an unknown entity. The Czech manufacturer, whose experience stretches back to the dawn of the automotive age, did have a US presence at one point, though if you blinked you missed it. The firm imported a version of its Felicia in the early 1960s, but within a few years Škoda withdrew from the US market, never to return.
Canada was treated to Škodas more recently, as the company exported rear-engined 120 and 130 sedans and coupes to the Canadian market. Škoda’s Canadian importer, Skocar, had planned to expand south to the US market in the late 1980s, but those plans never saw fruition, and Škoda left Canada as well by decade’s end.
A sea change at Škoda occurred during the 1990s, when Volkswagen gained control of the company. VW DNA began filtering through Škoda’s product line, transforming a lineup of somewhat archaic economy cars into one containing some superbly modern vehicles.
By the early 2000s, Škoda was experimenting with some interesting concepts. One such concept was a 2003 design study, debuting at the Frankfurt Motor Show, of a compact MPV called the Roomster.
Seeking to add some flair to an often-dull vehicle class, Škoda kept much of the concept car’s unique spirit intact, with a production version launched for the 2007 model year. Vehicles such as this masquerade under different names on different continents – MPV or People Mover, for example – but I think of it as a mini-minivan, since it offers space-efficient packaging with excellent passenger and cargo room for its size. (From a North American’s perspective, the Roomster is sized between a Honda Fit and a Mazda 5.) Such vehicles have been relatively common in Europe and elsewhere for quite some time; in the mid-2000s, the Renault Modus, Peugeot Partner, Fiat Doblò and others enticed with a combination of modest size, reasonable price, and spacious accommodations. Škoda aimed for the middle of this market with its Roomster – not too compact, and not too van-like.
Production began in March 2006. With an eye-catching (if not entirely harmonious) design, and driving dynamics more akin to a car than a van, the Roomster held the potential to be a significant car for its manufacturer, and Škoda projected 50,000 to 80,000 annual worldwide Roomster sales.
Roomster stood out among Škoda’s typical style, which was fairly conventional. However, if Škoda had hoped for a marketplace splash from the Roomster, it must have been disappointed, for the firm’s more run-of-the-mill sedans and wagons continued to dominate sales. For example, in 2012, our featured car’s year, the rather staid Octavia sold seven times more units than the Roomster (and accounted for 43% of total Škoda production).
Now let’s take a look at this Roomster that somehow wandered over to a strange, new continent.
Roomster’s overall appearance is certainly unique – though it’s one of the few car designs that looks conventional from the front and rear, but bizarre in the middle. The front end is borrowed from Škoda’s Fabia… and from this angle, the MPV looks like a generic and tidy European car, with rounded edges, and a grille and headlights that seem a half-size too large for its size.
Likewise, from the back, Roomster looks conventional enough, with a vertical hatch and large window aperture not entirely different from the Ford Transit Connect or other small, boxy cars. Those large tail lights and backlight give the Roomster a more imposing presence than its small size might otherwise suggest, and it’s as pleasing as boxy vehicles can get. In fact, upon coming across this Roomster from the rear angle, only by a second glance did I realize it wasn’t a Ford, nor anything else with which I was familiar.
And then… whoa! Here’s the part in the middle. It’s hard to confuse this profile for anything else – a genuine split personality. The front door and window are swoopy, with a high windowline. Looking at the Roomster’s front-door section alone evokes a sporty theme, and the front door’s general shape appears like it could belong to just about any type of car other than a people mover. Aft of the front doors, the design transitions abruptly to something quite different. Its roof raises and the window-line lowers, giving the rear seating area a fishbowl-type appearance… and this is the Roomster’s most unique attribute.
Škoda prioritized the airy feel of its rear seat. Calling the rear seating area the “living room” (as opposed to the front-seat “driving room”), Škoda endowed this room with a good view. Elevated 1.8” higher than the front seats – like stadium seating in a theater – and surrounded by unusually large side windows, the rear seat gives passengers an excellent view of the outside. This is wonderful for children, who are often restricted to staring only at treetops due to the high windowlines and low seats of many modern cars. One Škoda brochure urged customers to “show your kids the beauty that surrounds them.”
This Roomster is being used in just such a way — car seat, food-on-the-floor, and all. But Roomster’s rear seat is a comfortable place even for adults, and with that tall roof, headroom is close to unlimited.
The rear seats can also shuffle into 20 different configurations. Dubbed “Varioflex” by Škoda, the rear area is made up of three separate seats – the two outboard seats can slide up and back, and the smaller center seat can be folded down, or removed. If the center seat is removed, the outboard seats can either be left as-is (with a space in between), or slid together to create a four-passenger vehicle with lots of elbow room.
Now on to the front. Again, this car shows its split personality, because while the rear area is innovative and airy, up front it’s traditional and somewhat confining-looking. This shot shows how much higher the front windowline is than the rear, and also that the trapezoidal-shaped window opening looks mighty odd from the inside. The dash looks early-2000s generic, though the Roomster is endowed with plentiful storage areas, like dual gloveboxes and concealed storage under the passenger seat.
As befitting a vehicle with significant VW passenger-car componentry, Roomster rides very well. While the suspension exhibits some body roll, the long wheelbase helps for a comfortable ride. No one would confuse the Roomster with a performance car, but on the family-car end of the automotive spectrum, it ranks well – better, in fact, than many of its van-like competitors.
Being an MPV, Roomster’s cargo capacity is also important, and nothing beats a box for efficiency and ease of reconfiguring. Cargo capacity ranges from 16 cu. ft. of storage space in back of the rear seats (more if the seats are scooted up) to 63 cu. ft. with the rear seats removed – excellent versatility given the car’s size.
Power in our featured car comes from Volkswagen’s 1.2-liter, 103-hp turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, also seen in European Polos and Golfs. While tiny by North American standards, this was the Roomster’s most powerful gas engine (Diesel power was also available) – considerably more so than the standard 68-hp normally-aspirated 3-cyl. powerplant. Our featured car has a 5-speed manual transmission, as did most Roomsters, though an automatic (7-spd. direct-shift in 2012) was available with this engine. The turbo engine and manual transmission can move a 2,500-lb. Roomster to 60 mph in just under 11 seconds. While not sluggish, this car was certainly no Vroomster; if ever sold in the US, a more robust powerplant would need to be offered.
Škoda also offered the Roomster in a cargo van version, which was roomy enough for a hippopotamus. Interestingly, with body-colored side window blanks, the Roomster lost its distinctive profile and looked somewhat ordinary. Called the Praktik in Škodaspeak, these vans were not terribly popular, accounting for only 8% of total Roomster production.
Produced from 2007 through 2015, Roomsters received only minor styling upgrades, the most significant of which occurred in 2010. One needs to study these pictures closely to identify the changes, which included a redesigned grille and headlights. Notably, the Roomster’s most unique attribute, that side profile, was retained.
Initial sales projections wound up being optimistic; Škoda averaged 42,000 units per year (counting full calendar years’ production) instead of the hoped-for 50-80,000. Not an embarrassment, but certainly not a resounding success.
Škoda pulled the plug on the Roomster in April 2015 after 371,000 of the compact MPVs had been made over nine model years.
Škoda had planned a second-generation Roomster (heavily based on VW’s Caddy), but plans were axed at the eleventh hour as the company instead elected to focus on the burgeoning crossover and SUV markets rather than on somewhat-stagnating compact MPVs. Just as well, really, as the planned second-gen model ditched the distinctive rear cabin treatment and looked like an unimaginative people mover.
Tellingly, the Kvasiny plant where most Roomsters were produced transitioned to building Kodiaq and Karoq SUVs after the Roomster ceased production.
This tidal creep of SUVs contributed to the Roomster’s marketplace sluggishness. Roomster’s signature living-room-with-a-view was undoubtedly desirable to many consumers – particularly parents. However, most SUVs and MPVs had decent outward visibility anyway, and with the market shifting towards these larger offerings, Roomster didn’t offer enough advantage to most people with this characteristic alone to be worth the choice. Conversely, Roomster wasn’t quite quirky enough to become a cult-classic box like the Honda Element, Scion xB (at least in North America) or Nissan Cube (in Japan). Ultimately, Roomster was slightly too weird for a family car and too normal for a cult classic. Too bad, because it was a nice package.
Roomster checked many of the right boxes – useful, a good value, pleasant to drive, etc. But in a temperamental marketplace, it’s easy to barely miss the mark, and that’s exactly what happened to the Roomster. Clever, for sure, but a few party tricks short of being ingenious. Regardless, I was certainly glad to see one on a cold January day in Virginia, no matter how it got here.
Photographed in Great Falls, Virginia in January 2020.
2007-15 Škoda Roomster: Let’s Look Through The Weird Window William Stopford