Why would anyone buy a small car when a pedigreed medium-sized car can be had for the same money? Or maybe even a few bucks less? That's the question buyers need to ask because Skoda has just opened up a big new door of opportunity with its mid-sized Octavia.
The new Octavia, on sale now, is a bit lighter, more powerful, longer and wider than before and has a longer wheelbase, which translates to a better ride and more passenger space. It comes in three unusually-named spec levels: Ambition, Ambition Plus and Elegance.
The six-speed manual Ambition sedan costs $21,690, about the same as a dozen or so light and small-class cars, but apart from the advantage of a lot more space and comfort plus great fuel economy, it's pretty well equipped too.
All models have a leather-rimmed steering with radio and phone controls, leather handbrake and gear lever covers, plus Bluetooth and USB connectivity. The Attraction features cloth seats, foglights, seven airbags, a four-speaker audio system, tinted glass, daytime running lights, a trip computer and 16-inch steel wheels with alloy-look covers and a full-sized spare wheel. Seven-speed DSG is a $2300 option and if even more space in needed, there's a neat wagon version for only $1350 extra.
Ambition Plus pricing starts at $24,490 and includes 17-inch alloys, cruise control and rear parking sensors, nine airbags, eight speakers, a pre-emptive crash safety system, driver fatigue monitoring and a 5.8-inch touchscreen.
The Elegance, from $32,190, gets 18-inch alloys, full leather trim, SatNav, an 8-inch touchscreen, DVD player, two SD card slots, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth auto-on wipers and lights and an premium 64GB Columbus infotainment system.
Like others in the VW family, the Czech-built Skoda offers a trio of engine choices: 1.4 and 1.8litre four-cylinder petrol turbos and a 2.0litre turbo-diesel.
The 1.4litre produces a feisty 103kW/250Nm which is enough to rocket the sizeable Octavia to 100km/h in 8.4secs. Better still is its frugal fuel use: 5.2l/100km. The 1.8 cranks out a muscular 132k250Nm, gets to the tonne in 7.4 seconds and uses 5.9l/100km and the diesel offers 110kW320Nm and fuel economy of 4.9l/100km. Quite a performer too, getting to 100km/h in 8.6seconds.
Interestingly, the 132kW versions get a different rear suspension. Instead of the torsion beam axle, trailing arms and coils of the 103kW and the diesel, the 132 model has an independent four-link set-up with coils and anti-roll bars.
A few surprises: None of the Octavias have power seating or reversing cameras, even as options.
There are, however, two attractive option packages. The Ambition range can get a $1300 'travel pack', which adds 17-inch alloys, rear parking radar, an eight-speaker stereo, front centre armrest and cruise control.
Ambition Plus and Elegance owners can opt for the 'technology pack', which comprises bi-xenon lights, adaptive cruise control, keyless entry and push-button start, a, black frosted foglights, a city emergency braking system, a multi-mode driving system with Sport, Normal, Eco and Individual modes, front parking sensors, a 10-speaker German Canton sound system with digital equalizer and a self-parking system. It costs $3900 for the Ambition Plus and $3300 for the Elegance.
All Octavia models come with a capped price servicing program offering six years of servicing at 12-month or 15,000km intervals.
There's a lot of cabin room, likewise the boot, which has 568-litres of space and 1568 with the back seats folded flat. Also, it has a reversible floor, six tie-down hooks and a system to stop things flying about if you get a bit enthusiastic behind the wheel. Good seating, easy-to-read and comprehensive instrumentation and good visibility.
Octavia has a five-star crash safety rating. In addition to the ABC of electronic driver aids, all models get a system called MCB which detects an impending collision and responds by applying the anchors to either avoid the crash or at least reduce the impact. Models with the technology pack also get City Emergency Braking which works at sub-30km/h to avoid whacking into whatever.
We got runs in all three engine versions in some fine Victorian countryside with a fair amount of twisty bits. We didn't think the 1.4-litre motor would be much chop in such a big car, but it punched well above its weight and provided some joyous moments behind the wheel. Shows what a shot of Red Bull and a visit to Jenny Craig can do.
The diesel was fine too, big on torque. The car, and wagon, are simply great to drive: confident, decent steering and brakes and the six-speed manual and seven-speed DSG were smooth, quick and precise.
Quiet inside too, and nobody would know which motor was under the bonnet. What was noticeable was the hard ride in the Elegance, a penalty that comes from the low (40-section) profile tyres on the 18-inch alloys. In all, a very good driving experience.
The Octavia makes more sense than ever. It may look conservative, but there's an eager terrier under that hood. We'd go for the 103kW mid-sped Ambition Plus and maybe add the techno pack. But any model is a leader in terms of what you get for your dollar.
2014 Skoda Octavia
Price: from $21,690 (Ambition manual sedan)
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