New Zealand's premium taxi service, Corporate Cabs, has been a long and steadfast supporter of Australian-built Holdens and Fords through its 25-year history: first the long-wheelbase limousine-style models once loved by the NZ Government, and more recently the last of the VF-series Holden Calais (a luxury Commodore model). But that's about to change in a radical way. The company has chosen the ŠKODA Superb as its new official car. The first examples are rolling out now, and the current fleet of Holdens will gradually give way to the Czech sedan as drivers renew their vehicles, which they are required to do every five years.
It was not a decision taken lightly. There's only ever one car approved for Corporate drivers to use (although the Volkswagen Multivan people-mover also gets the thumbs-up as a larger-capacity option), and now it's the Superb.
"We have very clear expectations about what's what required from a vehicle," says chief executive Colin Salmon.
"It need to be a luxury based vehicle with leather interior, very comfortable and very roomy. Room is really important: we looked at a number of cars that couldn't fit three people across the rear seat, or a six-foot passenger couldn't fit in the centre-rear."
The premium nature of the service means SUVs are not deemed appropriate. "We looked at some in passing," says Samson, "but we don't consider SUVs to be where we're at."
Samson would not be drawn on which other vehicles were considered.
Corporate Cabs worked with ŠKODA NZ to select a special specification, combining the existing front-drive Style model with a more powerful turbo-petrol 162kW engine not previously available for the model here.
"When we tested the [standard] 132kW model with three passengers on board and their luggage, it just wasn't sufficient," says Samson. "But when we sat down with ŠKODA NZ we came up with this combination; they went back to the factory, then we added a couple of things (including keyless entry) and we were there."
Interestingly, the diesel was considered but rejected. Not on the grounds of clatter-clatter says Samson, but on running cost calculations: "With the way fuel economy is with the petrol, there wasn't a particular benefit in running diesel."
The 162kW petrol returns 6.4 litres per 100km according to official figures, compared with 4.7l for the diesel.
Samson is full of praise for the way ŠKODA has handled the contract: "Even down to technology. For example, in the future we're looking at running meters directly in the cars without having additional equipment, and the factory is very happy to work with us on that."
The first Superb Corporate Cab was handed over to owner-operator Sonny Apanui this month, complete with a ceremony by a local kaumatua to bless the vehicle. Since then more have gone on the road in Auckland and Wellington, and there are currently Superbs on order in Christchurch and Queenstown.
Nearly 50 will be on the road by the end of the year, but it will likely take until 2022 to fulfil the order - because many drivers purchased the Holden Calais in its final production run and some of those vehicles are only a few months old.
Samson says the car has been a hit with both drivers and passengers: "Drivers really like it because they understand that the car has been specified just for us. They are already telling me that they have customers specifically requesting the Superb."
This is ŠKODA NZ's biggest-ever fleet deal: 400 cars. General manager Greg Leet prefers not to put a figure on the value of the deal but agrees it is considerable enough to be considered a big success within the Giltrap Group company.
"I did not approach the deal as a massive profit opportunity; for me it's an opportunity to grow awareness in the corporate space. Every person who is in a Corporate Cab is typically an influencer in the purchase of a car.
"So, it's really important that those people have an experience of our brand.
"We're really excited that every Corporate Cab you see today will be a white ŠKODA Superb that we've bought in for them."
Convincing that the Superb stacked up for size was an initial challenge, resolved when the latest model addressed a point of concern about back seat width.
"The old car was long enough but considered a bit too narrow in the back. The new car resolves that issue," says Leet.
It has virtually the same expansive rear seat space, even though it's 200mm off the three-metre wheelbases of the LTD/Fairlane and Statesman/Caprice that Ford and Holden created from stretching their base Falcons and Commodores. Ford discontinued its model in 2007, Holden in 2010: the buyer pool had shrunk to the point where the cabbies and politician fanbase couldn't save them.
Unsurprisingly, given the size of the order, Corporate Cabs wangled a significant discount, though not so cut-throat that the distributor won't make money, he assures.
"We are making money out of this," says Leet.
The good news is that if you like what you've ridden in, you can now buy the Superb Corporate privately: it comes in $57,990 sedan and $59,990 wagon formats, and is available in any colour... except white. That's been reserved exclusively for Corporate Cabs.
Corporate Cabs runs fleets in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown.
Final thought: this new contract means the best ongoing chance Holden fans now have to enjoy their favourite car from the back seat is one that many might well find unpalatable.
The largest fleet user of Commodores, with an association set to continue with the ZB (for the greater part of its perceived production run), has always been the NZ Police.