A couple of years ago Dutch Mr Hertz provided a diesel engined Skoda Octavia for me to spend a week enjoying some spring weather in exploring the Low Countries. My conclusion was that this was an excellent car, saddled with a rather noisy and clattery engine that seemed at odds with the other qualities of the vehicle. My test coincided with the release by Skoda of a facelifted version of the Octavia. At the time, most of the changes were cosmetic, but since then a new range of the latest VW Group powerplants have been installed in the car, so when I arrived at Heathrow recently after my Israeli adventure, and found an Octavia parked up in the space with my name on it, I was happy to take the chance to reassess the car and see how what is now quite an old design rates.
Although Skoda’s pricing is no longer in the bargain basement, their products are still good value for money. My test car was the least powerful of the 1.6 TDi engines, but in the rather nice Elegance spec, and this retails for £18,510. That is still a significant saving over not just the Golf whose platform the car shares, but also Focus and Astra. Octavia, however, is a larger car, with far more space inside it, so you could argue with some justification that its true rivals are really the Mondeo and Insignia and other “D” category cars. Hertz clearly tend to this opinion, as they classify it in Group D, which used to be the preserve of the 1.8 LX Mondeo, and latterly has tended to be a rental group that exists on the website but not at the depot, ever since they ceased to have such a Ford dominated fleet in the UK.
Open the door of the Octavia and this does not feel or look like a budget priced car. The interior is well presented, the materials are of good quality and everything about the ambience tells you that the people who designed this clearly had some link to VW and Audi. The Elegance trim includes a leather wrapped steering wheel, which is not only good to look at, but was pleasant to hold, too. The main dash moulding is dark grey, but a sliver of silver effect trim in front of the passenger and around the centre console provides some visual lightening. Although many of the individual components are from the VW Group parts bin, Skoda have done a good job in this car, as they have done in the Fabia I sampled a couple of weeks previously, at disguising the fact. The dashboard is clear and unfussy, with a single cowl covering the main instruments. These comprise two large dials for the speedometer and rev counter, each of which has a smaller dial, for fuel level and water temperature inset into the bottom. The markings in all are clear, making them easy to read. A display panel between the dials provides other information, and this can be cycled by pressing the trip computer button on the end of the right hand column stalk. Those stalks are standard issue VW Group, shared with other models, and are easy to use and operate with a quality feel to them. A rotary dial to the right of the wheel does lights. The test car had an upgraded stereo from the one I experienced in the last Octavia, and it was easy to use, with a touch sensitive screen as well as an array of buttons for pre-sets, volume levels etc. Similarly, the climate controls were different, and again very intuitive.
The 1.6 litre common rail diesel engine in the test car develops 103 bhp, and is the same unit as the one in the latest model Passat which I experienced a few weeks ago. This engine impressed me in the Passat, and it scored similarly high marks in the Octavia. Just audibly a diesel at idle, the powerplant is refined, and with generous reserves of torque it does a far better job at powering the Skoda than you might think an engine of this power would do. There is not a lot of mileage in first gear, but once you engage second, the torque really does help out, and what you have in the next couple of gears is a very flexible power delivery, far better than you tend to find in today’s eco-optimised strangled petrol engines at this point of the market. This version of the Octavia makes do with a 5 speed gearbox, but this proved not to be much of a hardship, as the ratios are well judged, and although fifth did provide for relaxed motorway cruising, it proved not to be so high that the moment any acceleration was called for, a downchange was necessary. Even if it were, this would have been little hardship, as the shift mechanism is good, so slotting from ratio to ratio was both easy and a pleasure. Gradually, VW Group are making gearboxes where the selection of reverse becomes less of a struggle, and this car has to rate as one of their best yet. Many will select the Octavia in this form because they want good fuel consumption, and good consumption is exactly what they can expect, based on my experience. I collected the car with a less than full tank, and returned it with more fuel than initially, so have to rely on the trip computer to tell me what economy I achieved, but it said 62 mpg, which I thought was pretty good. After my disappointment at the overly light steering in the Fabia, I was delighted to find that in the Octavia, the weighting is much better and that there is adequate feel, so I could tell exactly where the front wheels were pointing. There was not much opportunity to test the handling on a very wet and soggy M4 motorway, but my limited experiences this time suggest that there are no hidden nasties in this regard. The brakes were good, with positive feel, and there is a pull up handbrake between the seats. One benefit of the long wheelbase and not overly hard suspension is that the Skoda rides well, and this coupled with comfortable seats and low noise levels made it a relaxing cruiser on the motorway. No issues with the visibility, and I was pleased to note that this version, unlike my Dutch test car, sported a rear wiper, which was useful for the test conditions. So, whilst not exactly an exciting drive (Skoda will sell you a vRS model for that), this is a very competent machine.
The Good News does not stop there, though, as one of the real plus points for the Octavia is the amount of space in it. For a car of this size and price, you would struggle to find a vehicle with more space in the back, and the boot. Rear seat passengers have far more legroom than in any competitor or even what they might experience in a Mondeo or Insignia, and in the case of the latter, they get far more headroom as well. There is also a simply gigantic boot, which is long from back to front, a nice regular shape and quite deep. It can be extended by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seats, where the backrest drops onto the space vacated by cantilevering the cushion forwards and upwards. My time with the Octavia included a lot of very wet and soggy weather, and when I managed to sneak up to the car between showers to get something out of the boot, I found that the design of the tailgate is such that water can run off it into the car. Other than that, by all the practicality criteria, the Octavia scores highly. There are plenty of places for oddments in the cabin, too, with generous door pockets, a glove box, a cubby area under the central armrest, a lidded compartment on the top of the centre of the dashboard and in front of the gear lever.
The test car was an Elegance model, which comes towards the top of the range, above the S, SE and SE Plus, but below the Laurent & Klemin trim and the sporting vRS cars. Elegance trim brings with it leather covering for the steering wheel, gearlever and handbrake, dual zone climate control, an upgraded audio unit, electrically heated door mirrors, height and lumbar adjustment for the front seats, a variable height boot floor and rear electric windows. The Elegance is actually marginally cheaper than the SE Plus, and about £700 more than the SE, which itself is not poorly equipped. Even the base S model is not the nightmare poverty spec that you might fear, given its price, at a saving of over £1000 compared to the SE, as the standard equipment levels include air conditioning, electric front windows and lots of the other convenience features that you find in the plusher models.
I started my time with the Octavia wondering if the changes made since I last sampled the model had fixed the few weaknesses I discerned at the time. It did not take me long to realise that they had. Indeed, this model struck me as being all the car that a family would ever need. Nicely finished, very roomy, economical, refined, decently brisk, perfectly acceptable to drive, and good value for money. For those renting a car, I would struggle to justify paying the 2 groups extra chez Hertz for a Passat fitted with the same engine, as if I am being honest, I rather preferred the Skoda. Indeed, I have no hesitation in rating the latest Octavia as a “Best Buy” and top of the class.