It was with the launch of the Octavia in 1996 which really transformed Skoda’s reputation. During the 70s and 80s, this proud Czech brand had been the butt of almost as many jokes as were aimed in the direction of the Russian Lada, even though the rear-engined cars that were being produced were tough, and had an excellent reputation in the forests as a rally car, and with build quality gradually improving a roomy body and decent levels of equipment for a bargain price meant that the cars were actually rather better than their reputation. The front wheel drive Favorit arrived in 1989 and then VW bought the company and injected a lot of money to try to unlock far more value from the brand. The upgrade from the Favorit to the Felicia was just the start, and a promising omen, but that first Octavia which was based on the Golf but with the space that you would find a car in the class above, all for a bargain price was the model which really caused people to take notice. Sales took off, and then Skoda proved that this was not a single lucky shot when they added the smaller Fabia and larger Superb to their range. Both have done well, but it is the Octavia which has been the real star. A second-generation model arrived in 2004, and this was even better than the first, and sales continued to increase, the model being Skoda’s best seller. A third-generation car was premiered at the Skoda Museum in Mlada Boleslav in December 2012, going on sale a few weeks later. Based on the ubiquitous MQB platform, the formula was very similar to its predecessors, with the roominess of a car from a class above, and neat assuming looks that struck just the right balance between contemporary and unassuming. Technology and equipment levels were upgraded and the latest VW Group mechanicals underpinned the car, available as the previous generations had been, as a five door hatch or a practical five door estate. I drove one of the early third generation cars back in 2013 and was very impressed, and I got the chance to drive another one a couple of years later, which showed a few useful updates over the first and all the strong points that had impressed me the first time round. Skoda have continued to make running changes to the Octavia, including a mid-cycle update in January 2017, though it will take a trained eye to spot them. I’d never driven an estate model until Mr Hertz came up with this test car which would give me the chance to see what you gain from the more versatile body and also how the Octavia stands up in late 2018, nearly six years since its launch.
Skoda have always offered the Octavia with a choice of petrol and diesel engines and in some markets also a version powered by CNG, but this test car, like the ones I have driven previously came with the familiar 1.6 litre TDi diesel unit. It has been updated over the years and in its latest guise puts out 115 bhp, which is 5 bhp more than the output of the last Octavia I drove in 2015. Among the changes that have been made are ones to increase its refinement, and these seem to have paid off, as this engine did not have anything like the extent of “diesel rattle” that you used to get when starting it up, especially from cold, and once underway it proved to be generally quiet. Part of the reason for that is that even at 80 mph, the engine is spinning at less than 2500 rpm, but even when accelerating, the unit was not particularly noisy. This is actually the least powerful engine currently available in an Octavia, but largely thanks to the amount of torque on offer, it certainly felt well up to the challenge of powering what is quite a large and heavy car. Once underway, that torque meant that there was ample acceleration available, though to get the best out of the car, it was necessary to make active use of the gears, no great hardship as this also had the best and slickest gearchange of any Octavia yet. Slightly surprisingly, there are only 5 forward ratios, but they are well spaced and the lack of the sixth speed was not something I really noticed. First is only really useful for getting underway but once you are in second the torque and the fact that the gears are well spaced will stand you in good stead. I certainly can’t complain with the results, as performance was sufficient and fuel economy was good, with the trip computer suggesting that I averaged and mpg of around the mid 50s, though when it came to filling the car up before returning it, the Skoda swallowed 40 litres and I had covered 420 miles which computes to 47.67 mpg. My suspicion is that the tank was not that full when I got the car and it went back properly full. There is a Stop/Start system and it cut back in very promptly when you put your foot in the clutch. The other driving dynamics were much as I remembered from those earlier Octavia test cars, and that means pretty good. The steering has some feel to it and whilst not heavy is not over-assisted or vague in any way. The Skoda holds the road well and goes around corners without causing any alarm even when tackled with an amount of enthusiasm. More importantly, the Octavia rode nicely, the test car coming on 205/55 R16 tyres. It was pleasing to find a conventional pull-up handbrake between the seats, something that I am sure will not be a feature of the car’s eventual replacement. The brakes just did their job and occasioned no comment or notes from me. All around visibility is also good, with a blind sport warning system in the door mirrors, which was useful especially when on the motorway and a rear-view camera which made judging the back of the car easier when parking up as did the front and rear parking sensors. Among the other safety features included as standard are a visual warning system for being too close to the car in front.
The interior of the Octavia has only changed in details since the launch of the third gene ration car, mostly by the addition of more standard equipment and technology, which has been incorporated neatly so it does not look like an after-thought. Good quality materials are used, with the plastics feeling soft to the touch and appealing to the eye and the choice of inlays and highlights is well-judged, and there was a leather wrapped steering wheel and gearlever knob both of which were pleasant to the touch, so whilst not showy overall the lasting impression is of a quasi-premium car, a long way from Skoda’s once-budget roots. There is a simple instrument cluster under a single curved binnacle, with two large and clearly marked dials for the speedometer and rev counter with smaller round dials for water temperature and fuel level inset in the lower portion of the large dials. There is an info display area which includes trip computer functions set between the two large dials, and you cycle through the various menu options using buttons on the right hand steering wheel spoke. Also wheel mounted are repeaters for the audio unit. Twin column stalks from the corporate parts bin handle indicators and wipers whilst the lights are controlled by a dial on the dash to the right of the wheel. The 8″ display for the Amundsen infotainment system in neatly incorporated into the dash and again will be familiar to those who have driven other modern VW. Skoda or Seat models. It has a touch interface complemented by physical buttons for more commonly used functions. In this trim the most important functions it controls are the radio and navigation, both of which proved easy to use. The unit also includes Škoda Connect, which is comprised of two categories: Infotainment Online services that provide additional information such as weather reports and parking space availability, along with real-time navigation details. Care Connect provides remote access as well as assistance. A year’s subscription to Infotainment online is included as standard on SE Technology, SE L and Laurin & Klement models and available as an option on models equipped with Amundsen and Columbus infotainment systems. There is dual zone climate control operated by three rotary dials and a row of buttons that are located lower in the centre of the dash.
Seat adjustment is all manual, as you might expect in a car at this price point, but that was really no hardship, and there was plenty of movement in all directions, so it was not hard to set things as I wanted, also taking advantage of the steering wheel telescoping in/out as well as up/down. There was a definite feeling of space and the seat proved comfortable. Where the Octavia has traditionally beaten its competitors by the proverbial country mile is in its spaciousness, and this one is no exception. There is a lot of space in the rear, even with the front seats set well back, and if you set them forward as I do to suite my short legs then there really is an acre of space. There is some intrusion from the central tunnel, but overall enough space that three adults could easily fit in the back, as indeed many will be able to testify having probably ridden in the back of an Octavia on mini-cab duty! Headroom is also plentiful. There is a drop down armrest with cup holders in the exposed upper surface and there is a ski flap through to the boot.
The boot of the hatch model is in many ways even more impressive than the roomy rear passenger compartment. Clearly those buying the Estate version are going to expect the same or better. And that is what they get. The luggage area is both long and wide, so there is ample space for a lot of cargo here, even when the load cover is in place. There is a spare wheel under the floor but not much space around it for bits and pieces. The rear seat backrests are asymmetrically split and simply drop flat to create a very long load bay indeed, and the front passenger seat can be folded flat for those really long loads. . This really is a commodious car in this guise and it is hard to see why many people would really need anything much bigger. Inside the cabin there is a good-sized glovebox, a cubby over the driver’s right knee, a deep area under the central armrest a recess in front of the gearlever and pockets on the doors. Those in the back get door pockets and map pockets on the back of the front seats. There are plenty of thoughtful ‘Simply Clever’ touches throughout the Octavia too, like a built in ice-scraper, reversible rubber boot carpet and door-pocket waste bin all of which add to the appeal and make it stand apart from rivals.
There is an extensive range of Octavia models on offer. First choose your body style: five door hatch or five door estate. Then look at the engine options. In the UK, petrol models range from a 1.0 TSI unit developing 115 PS to a 1.5 TSI with 150 bhp (replacing the earlier 1.4 TSI unit of the same output) or the top spec 230 bhp 2.0 unit in the vRS. Diesel options include the 115 bhp 1.6 TDi unit and the 150 bhp or 184 bhp 2.0 TDI. An all-wheel drive system is available with the more potent models and the DSG gearbox is an alternative to the manual transmission. There are a number of different trim levels available, and these have been changed during the model’s life as well as features being added. The test car was an SE Technology which sits in the middle of the hierarchy of trims, but even entry level cars are well equipped. From 2017 all Octavia Estate models had as standard: alloy wheels, touchscreen infotainment systems, SmartLink+, LED rear lights, air conditioning, XDS electronic differential lock and automatic post-collision braking system. SE models add cruise control, three-spoke multi-function steering wheel, Driving mode selection, acoustic rear parking sensors, driver fatigue sensor, dual-zone air conditioning, front fog lights and chrome finished door handles. SE Technology models add adaptive cruise control, Amundsen 8” touchscreen navigation system, Wi-fi hotspot, and front and rear parking sensors. SE-L models add Alctantara and leather upholstery, full LED headlights, front assist, intelligent light assist and an umbrella under the passenger seat. SE-L models are also equipped with sunset glass from the B-pillar back, front grille finished in gloss black and a colour maxi-dot trip computer as standard. Top of the range Laurin and Klement models add heated front seats, heated steering wheel, 9.2” Columbus infotainment system, CANTON sound system and an electrically adjustable driver’s seat with memory function and lumbar support, KESSY, Park assist and Lane assist. Scout models offer a combination of comfort and rugged 4×4 ability and feature Alcantara and leather Scout upholstery, the Amundsen eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system, full LED headlamps Scout body styling details and off-road mode. Scout models also come equipped with a rough road package that delivers increased protection for the underside the vehicle along with Lane assist, heated front seats and heated multi-functional steering wheel. At the top of the range are the sporty vRS models which enjoy a significant boost in equipment levels, along with a power increase for the 2.0 TSI petrol model which delivers 230PS as standard. Equipment highlights for the vRS models include sport seats and upholstery, full LED headlights, Performance mode selection and a super sport 3-spoke leather multi-function steering wheel with vRS logo and paddles for DSG models.
I had been impressed by previous Octavia models that I had driven, so expectations were high for this one. And I was not disappointed. For sure this is not a flashy car, but it ticks every other box. It goes well enough, is economical, pretty decent to drive, is comfortable, has a nicely finished interior, in SE Tech guise a full complement of safety features and all the equipment you need, the car is very spacious for people and luggage and it is well finished. Ownership surveys suggest that the car is reliable and that the dealer experience is good, so it is no wonder that the Octavia scores highly on owner satisfaction and that sales numbers are high. It deserves nothing less. Whilst there are still a few people out there who sneer at the idea of a Skoda, they are much diminished in number, as word has got out that this may very well be one of the best cars in the “real” world.