Skoda’s family favourite faces uphill challenge
Octavia has the right recipe on paper, but doesn’t quite deliver on the road
Date Reviewed: April 24, 2013
Forget about Ferraris, Porsches or Bugattis - if you want to get noticed on Irish roads these days drive a new Skoda Octavia. Perhaps it’s a sign of the economic times but I’ve rarely driven a car that has attracted as much attention from the public. I couldn’t pass a taxi rank without someone waving me down. Not for a lift but for advice. Skoda clearly must be love-bombing the taxi market, for Skoda is the hot topic of debate on the ranks these days. That and the usual array of football, immigration, rampaging crime and tales of yore from the good old days when you could pop over to your villa in southern Spain once a month.
So with Ireland’s taxi drivers in mind – and the thousands of interested family motorists as well – I put the new Octavia through its paces, both around town and on a cross-country weekend trip.
On paper the Octavia should be a star. Prices start at €18,995 for the underwhelming 1.2-litre petrol version, but even the more powerful 1.6-litre diesel comes in at €22,195. That’s hatchback prices for a car that can comfortably seat three teenagers in the back and boasts a boot of 590 litres, before you bother to fold down the rear seats. To put that bootspace in perspective, the BMW 5-Series has always been regarded as having a pretty decent spacious boot and it only has 520 litres on offer. You could load the monthly shopping for a family of eight into the Octavia and still have room for a couple of prams.
Up front you have all the legroom you’d expect in a family saloon, the usual array of toys that include touchscreen stereo system that even plays videos if you opt for the range-topping Elegance version.
Skoda’s aim is to divide its current strong Octavia sales base into two: the entry-level buyers can now choose between this new car or the more affordable Rapid; while at the upper end there are more electronic toys to let the Octavia chew at the fringes of the big names like the Ford Mondeo, Toyota Avensis or even VW’s Passat. In the world of pie charts that makes up the marketing arena, that makes a great deal of sense.
Engineers love letter
So marketing, family practicality and price are all sorted. Now for the engineering. Well thanks to Skoda being a favoured sibling in the VW Group of brands, the Octavia boasts the same award-winning platform that underpins the new VW Golf, Audi A3 and Seat Leon. Clad in the Golf body this platform has won every major accolade this year.
As you can see this is starting to seem like a bit of a love letter to Skoda. Unfortunately the road to true love never runs smooth, and neither does an Irish road. The reality is that, for all the boons on offer from this new Octavia, it left me rather cold.
For a start the look is not significantly different from the older version to suggest that this is the great leap upmarket that some at Skoda would have you believe. The improvements inside are smart, the car is well-built, but it doesn’t boast anything that we would not see featured in a host of rival models for around the same price.
Then there’s the performance. Our test car was the 2.0-litre 150bhp diesel, currently the range-topping engine until the sporty RS versions arrive. It wasn’t slow, but neither did it really seem to have the sort of pace you would expect when you slot a 150bhp engine into what is in reality a hatchback bodyframe. On the open road I needed to work the gearbox more than I would have thought necessary to get the most out of the car.
The ride quality was perhaps the strangest feature. For while we never expected the Octavia to be a high-powered hot rod, we did expect the ride quality to lean towards comfort. In reality on the 17-inch wheels of the test car the ride was far too firm for a car that’s ultimately a family transporter. It had the firm characteristics of a much sportier model, but without the performance punch.
It’s ultimately a weird combination of firm ride but anodyne performance. Perhaps it was just the car I tested, for others have said that when shod with the 16-inch wheels the ride is far more compliant.
The Octavia is a firm favourite and rightly so, for it was long regarded as the value way to get your hands on a Volkswagen. These days the VW models no longer carry that much of a premium over their Skoda siblings, so it’s not as simple as before. At the entry price for Octavia the car makes sense as a low mileage load lugger and school run model. But move up the ranks and you start to catch sight of rivals like the VW Golf, Ford Focus saloon, Toyota Corolla and upwards towards the very smart Hyundai i40 saloon.
In sporting parlance Skoda was the underdog that we admired for its honesty and value for money. As it tries to elbow its way up the market value chain it must be judged against competitors that have just as much to offer.
The Octavia has a lot going for it, most notably a good build quality and an enormous boot, but it’s not the automatic choice it once was now that it’s rubbing shoulders with some equally tempting rivals.