A stunning drive in a featureless car in Nikola Tesla's country
“I got us a Škoda,” she said. “Well, I can see that,” I replied.
I feel like I haven’t reviewed a car in so long I almost forgot how to do it. Well, this is a Škoda. It’s a saloon, or sedan if you’re reading this in the US, and it’s a bit - how can I put it nicely? - uninteresting. It is also the only car I’ve driven in the past two months. The unsmiling, stoic police officer at the Serbian border put a stamp on my passport at 4:44 AM on March 11, 2021. Two hours later I reached Belgrade. Two hours and thirty minutes later Serbian Girl showed up with our rental car for the next three-four days, a white Škoda Rapid. “I got us a Škoda,” she said. “Well, I can see that,” I replied.
We needed a car because we wanted to go to Stara Planina, a mountain range in the South of Serbia, for a 3-day holiday before heading back to Belgrade. The first thing I can say about the Škoda is that it’s got a DSG gearbox and that, in my humble opinion, is the best kind of automatic transmission you can find without breaking the bank. It is also ubiquitous. VW introduced it in 2003 with the Golf Mk4 R32 but now you can find it just about anywhere. It is powered by a 1.4-litre TSI engine, producing 125 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, good enough for a 0-60 time of *just* 9 seconds and a top speed of 129 mph.
Serbian Girl immediately said she wanted to drive and I immediately agreed. For two reasons. Firstly, I’ve never understood why men always want to drive. I’m perfectly fine, and happy, in the passenger seat. And secondly, I just emerged from a 16-hour bus ride to get here. After what felt like five minutes - Serbian Girl is a fast driver - we stopped for fuel and I had something I nearly forgot existed: coffee, while sitting at a table in a bar. Having ruefuelled our cars, and our stomachs, we drove on to Pirot. A small town famous for... I don’t know what. But I kinda liked it. And near Pirot we found snow, and plenty of it.
The Rapid is a front-wheel-drive car but without wishing to sound immodest, I've had some experience driving different cars in different road conditions and I can tell you with absolutely certainty that having the right set of tyres is more important than anything else including having AWD. Driving a front-wheel-drive car on winter tyres on snow is a infinitely easier than driving a four-wheel-drive car on winter tyres. The Rapid was riding on winter tyres and so I knew that it would cope. Which it did.
High up in the mountains, surrounded by pine trees and snow, the Rapid never put a foot wrong. It did great on mud, gravel, gravel with enormous rocks and boulder in it, snow and ice and after a 5-hour excursion in the mountains, we got to our hotel - a Scandinavian-looking structure in the middle of nowhere - and even there the Rapid looked right at home. Sort of.
Serbian Girl went to sleep and I didn’t. My rakija-infused mind, alone at the bar of the hotel, got me thinking about the car we'd just driven. And more to the point, all the places we'd driven it to.
The best thing about rental cars, by miles, is that you don't really care what happens to them. Fifteen minutes into the journey, the engine warning light came on, followed by a flat tyre warning light. The thing is, while the car kept complaining that it was ill and needed fixing, nothing actually went wrong and the Rapid just soldiered on.
It was, by definition, a rental car. Bog-standard, boring, unimaginative, mostly reliable. In 2019 I drove a bunch of different cars including the McLaren 570s and just about every Audi RS model there is. In 2020 I drove three cars, other than my own, and one of them was the Taycan. In 2021, so far, I’ve only driven one, this Škoda. Nothing special, nothing exciting. But it got us where we wanted to go and because it was a rental car - and driven by the fastest Serbian driver ever - it briefly became the fastest car in the world. The trip was amazing, the car wasn't but it was adequate. Then again this is 2021, we can’t really be picky, can we?