Skoda has been back in the Australian market for seven years and after a slow start is carving out a niche with the stalwart Octavia sedan and wagon. Realistic pricing - especially in relation to its Volkswagen big brother - has meant a steady following has built for both its mainstream model and off-beat soft-roaders like the Yeti.
The Octavia accounts for almost 45 per cent of Skoda's global sales, and the wagon version is certainly finding its Australian market, particularly with the lycra junkies who stay up late to watch the cheating... err, the cycling. The Czech company has just released the third generation Octavia, and has added a bit more sizzle to the dependable-and-affordable formula.
The Octavia's engines are instantly recognisable for anyone with a passing interest in the VW/Audi stable. The two petrols are the 1.4 litre and 1.8 litre TSIs. Both feature direct injection and, of course, a turbo. As with the body, the engines have lost weight but unlike the car, have gotten physically smaller, without losing capacity.
The 1.4 litre produces 103kW and 250Nm of torque from 1500rpm, still impressive figures from such a small engine. Combined fuel economy is listed at 5.2l/100km and emissions of just 121g/km and you can have either a six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG. The manual dashes to 100km/h in 8.4 seconds, a tenth slower with the DSG. Fuel economy is improved by a whopping 20 per cent over the old engine, down to 5.7l/100km for the manual and 5.2l/100km for the DSG.
The 1.8 jumps to 132kW with just a small penalty of 0.7l/100km. Torque is identical to the 1.4 litre, but available from 1250 to 5000rpm. The 1.8 is only available with seven-speed DSG and will carry you to 100km/h in 7.4 seconds. The diesel option is a 110kW 2.0 litre turbo. Coupled with the six-speed DSG, you'll get 320Nm to propel you along with a claimed 4.9l/100km. Stop-start and energy recovery helps keep the CO2 emissions down to 129g/km. The 0-100km/h time is 8.6 seconds. We saw 5.9l/100km in mixed driving, some of it extremely enthusiastic.
The new Octavia comes in three flavours: Ambition, Ambition Plus and Elegance. All come standard with leather steering wheel, handbrake and shifter as well as Bluetooth and USB connectivity. The Ambition kicks off at $21,690, the DSG adds $2300 and the wagon $1350. It rolls on 16-inch steel wheels (with handsome and deceptively alloy-alike hubcaps) and has cloth seats, a four speaker stereo with Bluetooth and a trip computer.
Ambition Plus starts at $24,490 for the 103 TSI, the wagon and DSG adding $1350 and $2300 respectively. Ambition Plus adds 17-inch alloys, cruise control and rear parking sensors as well as side airbags for rear seat passengers and driver fatigue monitoring. The radio gains four more speakers and a better 5.8-inch screen.
The Elegance is available with the 103 and 132 TSIs as well as the 110 TDI, all with DSG. For the 103TSI you'll pay $32,190, with the same $1350 addition for the wagon. Ambition Plus and Elegance models come standard with a central touchscreen (5.8 or 8 inches), air-conditioning and nine airbags.
The Elegance gets bigger wheels again, leather trim, sat nav, and tinted rear windows. It also comes with the Columbus screen and stereo package, with an 8-inch screen, DVD player, SD card slots and media viewing capability. Elegance also gets an upgraded air-con, with dual-zone climate control instead.
Additionally, there's the driving mode select, allowing you to choose between Normal, Eco, Sport and Individual. The changes are restricted to steering weight, throttle response and transmission mode. A panorama sunroof ($1690) is available on the wagon and a conventional (huge) sunroof on the sedan ($1490). Ambition Plus and Elegance buyers can also specify a set of 18-inch alloys. Metallic paint is $475 and sat-nav on lower models between $2650 and $2850.
There are two optional packages. The first is the Travel Pack ($1300), only available with the Ambition base model. This adds rear parking sensors, cruise control, a centre armrest and 17-inch alloys and an eight speaker stereo. Ambition Plus buyers can choose the $3900 Tech Pack which adds active cruise with city emergency braking, Xenon lights, cornering lights, rear LEDs, driving mode selection, parking assist with front and rear parking sensors, keyless entry and a 10 speaker Canton stereo.
The Tech pack is $3300 for Elegance trim level buyers as that model already has some of the inclusions. The Active Cruise Control will bring a manual car down to 30km/h (to avoid stalling), while a DSG car can be braked to a stop. The same radar also powers a distance warning to let you know if you're driving too close. Park Assist 2 allows for getting in and out of a park and will get you in with 30cm either end of the car. It also features a 360 degree parking view letting you know if there are any obstructions around the car.
There's a distinct whiff of Audi in the sheetmetal, particularly in the wagon. The new car also draws on the Superb for the family look, especially around the grille.The new Octavia isn't startlingly different from the old one, but there's been some key changes. Significantly, the wheelbase has stretched by 108mm, delivering a bigger cabin and more load space.
The cabin is very spacious, with plenty of room front and back, easily comparable with mid-sizers from Holden, Nissan and Honda. Materials are generally very good and the design, while simple, is attractive enough with a few little highlights to lift things. There's a couple of little tricks - the boot floor is reversible, with carpet on one side (for comfort, apparently) and "a dirt- and water-repelling surface" (also known as rubber) on the other.
There's also a system of velcro cargo fastening elements to stop boxes and bits and pieces from sliding around. The cabin also features a phone holder and a lidded rubbish bin in the door pocket. The sedan is really a five-door hatchback, as it has always been and has a whopping 568-litre boot. The wagon has 20 litres more, but is a more convenient shape for bulky items.
As well as the usual ABS, stability control and airbags galore (seven or nine depending on the model), VW's Multi-Collision Brake (MCB) is standard across the Octavia range. MCB detects a collision and keeps the brakes on even if the driver isn't braking, bringing the speed down to 10km/h. The driver can then pull the car to a stop by braking harder.
Tech Pack-equipped cars have City Emergency Braking which operates at under 30km/h to brake the car to a stop. Over 30km/h, the car warns the driver and primes the brake pads by pushing the pads towards the disc. If the driver doesn't respond, the brakes wake you up with a jolt and if there's still no reaction, the brakes are applied, then jammed on as a collision becomes more likely.
The Ambition Plus and Elegance trim levels also feature fatigue detection and Passenger Protect Assist, which prepares the car for impact by raising the windows to leave an air gap as well as closing the sunroof and tightening the belts.
With a bit more power and a bit less weight, the new Octavia is more sprightly, refined and cheaper to run. Much of the weight reduction has come from front and rear suspension structures and, individually, the front and rear axles are significantly lighter than the previous generation. Doing this means there's a greater percentage of the car's weight being controlled by the springs and dampers, leaving engineers more room to play and improve the ride and handling.
With the addition of Volkswagen's trick electronic diff, the car has less understeer than the old one and is less prone to wheelspin in wet conditions. It's a very confident-handling car and doesn't feel its considerable size as a result. It's a surprisingly great car to drive and feels very much like its VW Group siblings. The engines are willing, the steering well weighted, with good throttle response and a very smooth DSG gearbox.
Wind and road noise are well suppressed and, really, there's very little to tell the three engines apart. All move the car along very briskly and overtaking is fine in the 1.4 -- something you could rarely say for a car this big with such a tiny engine. Body roll is well controlled and the ride is a little firmer than its competition, particularly when compared with the newcomer Nissan Altima. It's a little less hushed inside than that car, but the pay-off is more than worth it.
The Octavia is a huge jump from the old one, which bodes very well indeed for the RS model due next year. The new Octavia certainly builds on the car's formidable reputation for size and value. But, crucially, there's a bit more gadgetry in this new car, with Skoda dipping into the VW technology bin to add a few choice bits around safety and infotainment.
There's more power across the range with greater efficiency, a much better driving experience and we can now stop adding the phrase "for a Skoda" on the end of a sentence praising the car. The price, particularly at the lower end, is hugely competitive and means the Octavia will win even more customers than the 6000 it has achieved over the last seven years.
There is more sizzle in the new Octavia and it now leaps into contention with the mid-size crowd. It may not be quite as big as some of the cars in the mid-size range but it's almost unbeatable on price.
2014 Skoda Octavia Ambition
Price: from $21,690
Engine: 1.4L four-cylinder petrol turbo, 103kW/250Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 7-speed DSG, FWD
Thirst: 5.2L/100km, 121g/km CO2