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July 19-25, 2006

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Car Culture

Skoda: Car buying, the Gallic way

By Novella Carpenter

My sister, Riana, is all pukey in France, and it isn't from the stinky cheese. You know what that means--I'm going to be an auntie! In about six months, I'm going to put off my incredibly daunting responsibilities (feeding Bill, washing the tub--let's see, there must be others . . .) and fly to France. I can't wait to hold the little bundle in my arms and learn to speak fluent French baby talk.

But I'll also be checking out another new package: my sis and her hubby's new car. Like many expecting parents, they ordered the new vehicle in anticipation of the baby. People get that baby anxiety and become crazed consumers, don't they? But to be fair, they had an aging Opel, and the last time I saw it, it looked as bad as one of my cars--it had bald tires, was held together with gum and dental floss, and had a host of odd sounds emanating from the trunk. No one would trust a baby in there, so it's only logical to get a safe, spanking new vehicle.

But why so spanking new? I mean, the baby's going to trash the interior. My sister took on conspiratorial tones when I asked why they didn't get a "new used" car. "He didn't want to; he was scared," she whispered. There are two people in the world: those who buy new cars and those who don't worry about the warranty and buy used cars. My brother-in-law doesn't like risks, which is good because my sister tends to be a bit, er, impulsive, just like me.

What did they get? A Skoda Fabia. That's right, the beloved car of the Czechs. "Simply Clever" is its motto, which makes sense because the car runs on a 1.9 VW TDI engine. That's a great engine. This baby is headed to a life of wonderful things. It's also an incredibly safe car, earning four stars in a prestigious consumer safety test, Euro NCAP.

Skoda's website ( is filled with adorable, nonsensical English, too. They keep touting the Skoda as a "respected predator," and the ad copy says the car was "initially frowned upon as an Irish bull." Wha-? But I'll bet they'd say this with a cute Czech accent, so all is forgiven.

Like many carmakers, Skoda busted onto the scene as a bicycle manufacturer. It began making motorcycles in 1899, and made its first car in 1905. For much of its history, Skoda was the butt of jokes in Western Europe--think AMC Pacer. By the 1980s, the Skoda design hadn't changed since the '60s. The Eastern Europeans loved their Skoda, though, and eventually folks in Western Europe warmed up to them, especially when an Italian design company designed the Favorit. In the '90s, the Velvet Revolution came along and opened them up to the glories of capitalism. Eventually Skoda partnered with Volkswagen. This explains why my sister's new car has a TDI engine.

Did you know my sister is a journalist, too? She wrote a funny story for Bonjour Paris, an online magazine, about how she tried to help buy the car, but her hubby had placed a bunch of onions on the dash of the car, and they stunk so bad she couldn't accompany him. My sis said her main objective was to get a diesel car because they get good fuel mileage and could use biodiesel. No, I did not tell her they're cutting down the rainforest in South America to provide Europe with biodiesel. She's pregnant! We must keep her calm and happy!

They ended up trading in the Opel, getting 500 Euros in trade (it was so ghetto), but, no, they didn't drive off the lot with their new car. In France, you have to wait 10 days, sometimes longer, for the car to be ready for you. When Riana asked for the cool giant dot interior, they told her she'd have to wait three months, so instead, they got the silver Skoda with the "clown" interior, as my sister calls it.

I can see it now: me in the garishly adorned backseat with my little squirming niece/nephew, cruising through French wine country, stopping only for diaper changes and baguettes. Send in the clowns!

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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.