New Octavia rises to challenge
Skoda delivers in terms of value, space and refinement
Skoda’s new Octavia: the strong new contender from the VW-owned brand
Date Reviewed: March 15, 2013
Every car maker a has a centre of gravity, a point within the range of products that it makes around which all other pivot. It doesn't have to be the best selling model, but usually is, and its sales performance is usually the best indicator of the relative health of that company. For BMW it is the 3 Series, for Ford it's the Focus and without a single doubt for Skoda, it's the Octavia.
First launched in 1998, the Octavia stopped all the tiresome old Skoda jokes dead in their tracks and almost overnight elevated Skoda from Eastern European curiosity to serious family car player. Today, in Ireland, the Octavia represents 60 per cent of total Skoda sales. And those sales are at a higher level then ever, with Skoda having started 2013 with a strong performance, and is now the 6th best selling car brand. No pressure on the new Octavia to perform then.
The Octavia certainly seems to have the mechanical shoulders with which to bear such pressure. Much have been written about the Volkswagen Group's clever MQB component set that allows it to build a Polo or a Passat from the same basic box of bits. It’s a technological tour-de-force that achieves the supposedly oxymoronic feat of saving VW money when it comes to building the cars, while allowing it to also make them more sophisticated and technologically advanced.
The Octavia makes good use of it all, but while it would have been true in the past to say that an Octavia was a Golf with a different body, now the differences are much greater. The Octavia is a much more physically imposing car than the Golf, longer in the wheelbase for greater cabin space, and now competes as much with the likes of the Ford Mondeo, Toyota Avensis and Opel Insignia as it does with the likes of the Golf, Focus and Astra.
That may help to explain its pricing strategy. Skoda has, of course, always traditionally sold on offering better value than the competition, and that strategy will continue.
The Octavia's entry level 1.2 TSI petrol model costs an arrestingly low €18,995, which looks like conspicuously good value. But look harder and you'll see that the 1.6 diesel model, in Ambition trim (which you need to upgrade to to get such niceties as air conditioning and a Bluetooth phone connection) costs a much more serious €24,545.
Looked at from the perspective of a Golf buyer, that looks a touch pricey for a car wearing a Skoda badge. Looked at from the class above, the Mondeo class, and it starts to look like much better value. The move on pricing is part of an admission that it can't, and doesn't want to, compete on direct price with the bargain-bucket likes of Dacia and the Chinese car makers. Rather, it wants to offer decent value but to entice and retain customers with its quality, technology, equipment and sophistication.
Yes, sophistication. Where that original 1998 Octavia was a simple, practical soul that was (partly) built down to a price, the new model has jumped the species boundary to becomes less of a bargain Volkswagen, more of a junior Audi. Quite apart from its classy, understated styling on the outside, it's the cabin that really impresses. Made of high quality materials, and with impressive levels of comfort, you can probably tell if you looked very carefully that it's a notch behind the VW Golf, and carefully designed to be so (got to keep the brand strategy in mind) but most will neither notice nor care. It's classy in there, and very spacious, with lots of rear legroom (the Mondeo class comparison is valid) and a simply massive boot with 590-litres of space.
It's not sporty to drive (indeed the optional 18-alloy wheels of our test car felt particularly out of place, making the ride quality firmer than it needed to be) but the steering feels positive, the chassis composed and unflappable and the whole experience very satisfying. You won't jump out of bed early on a Sunday morning to take it for a spin, but you'll enjoy its comfort and space on a long journey much more.
Our test car was the 2.0-litre TDI diesel with 150bhp, and while it was reasonably refined and smooth, it never felt quite like it was developing enough power, or giving you the mid-range kick that a 2.0-litre should. Certainly there doesn't seem to be much point in trading up from the lowloer and more affordable 1.6 TDI diesel, a car whose 99g/km Co2 rating is testament to the weight saving regime that has seen the Octavia shed 100kg of weight, even while growing in stature and spaciousness.
The Octavia isn't perfectly refined though - there is plenty of diesel chatter at low rpm and it suffers slightly from too much road and tyre noise. More sophisticated and clever the Octavia may be but the Golf still has an edge when to comes to quietness.
Now that the quartet of VW Group's compact new model range is now complete, we have a clearer picture of what the clever new MQB construction system can do. That the VW Golf, Audi A3, Seat Leon and Skoda Octavia share a mechanical commonality is obvious from the moment you pull away from the kerb in any of them. The same slick, light steering. The same firmly damped ride.
There are subtle nuances - in refinement, steering feel, in the suppleness of the suspension, but really if anything all four cars now feel more closely related than ever.
And that being the case, it's hard indeed to argue with the fact that by buying the Skoda, you're getting the best car of all four. More spacious by far, better value, better equipped and now with an added sense of classiness and styling subtlety.