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Skoda Octavia RS 2008 review

So the fact that it's among the best value cars of any type to be had in a market that's fairly glutted by choice is known to but a few. The top model Octavia mid-size car is not so much a slightly cheaper alternative to Volkswagen's Jetta, with which it shares drivetrains and underpinnings, but a bargain Audi A4.

Yet closing in on six months since the venerable VW-owned Czech marque was reintroduced through limited outlets, the merits of the two model line-up are whispered between the knowing and the wise.

If motor hacks aren't necessarily among the latter, we generally know a good thing when we see it. While in the case of the Roomster — an unorthodox sort of hatchback/people-mover crossover — it's a case of looking hard, the diesel version was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2007.

As for the Octavia, it's more a question of looking for the wood among the trees, so varied is the line-up. Try 16 of them, with a choice of five engines (two diesel), three transmissions, three trim and spec levels and two shapes (wagon and sedan/hatch) priced from $29,990 to $39,490 plus options.

And, when manual-matic DSG transmissions become available for the petrol cars later this year, that list will top 20. Essentially there's an Octavia to suit most purposes, from the doughty and dutiful entry-level 1.9-litre turbodiesel to the sportiest wagon for anything like the money.

The latter is the one designated RS. Our other favourite Octavia runs the newish 118kW/250Nm 1.8-litre direct injection turbo petrol engine.

In wagon or hatchback format (the so-called sedan's rear lid hinges at the roof), it deserves consideration with everything from the same engined Audi A3 to the new Mazda6.

But it's hard to the go past the RS that uses the engine and manual transmission from the Golf GTI, especially when it exerts the lure of the electric blue wagon we borrowed earlier this month.

While Skoda plans a threefold expansion of its dealer network in 2008, a more immediate solution to the prevailing anonymity would be to drive them around a bit. We hadn't so much as reached the exit of Skoda's Botany bunker before the first passers-by asked just what it was.

Later, parked hard by our Holt St offices, the hourly duck downstairs to foil the City of Sydney's rapacious parking plods led to more questions from a procession of colleagues.

To and froing along Parramatta Rd and the Far From Great Western Highway was almost to constitute a public menace, so obviously were the eyes of other motorists straying in the Skoda's direction.

The unkind might suggest that this was down to mystification rather than fixation, but the RS wagon — slightly lowered, with its silver roof rails, discrete sportif touches and enigmatic badging — is discreetly attractive.

Inside, the cost-saving measures as compared to the Jetta are evident to the extent that there are no metal accents around the controls or damping in the grab handles. So what?

Skoda holds Top Gear magazine's manufacturer of the year award and in European reliability surveys the Czechs are usually bettered only by the likes of Lexus. Volkswagen would like to rate so well.

The RS ambience is bolstered by seats in two-tone cloth/leather. The front pews are excellent — both comfortable and supportive — and the driver's seat is highly adjustable, as is the steering wheel.

Whereas a Golf's instruments are lit in blue, the Octavia's illuminate in the same green as its arrow badge.

A sportwagon though it is, it's also a highly practical device, with 560litres space in the back, and 1400 with the rear seats folded flat.

The best part of the RS, though, is in what it shares with the GTI. Apart from the active/passive safety package that guarantees a five-star crash safety rating, there's the superb 2.0-litre direct injection turbo four and that sweet shifting manual transmission.

Though at 1400kg unladen it's 60kg heavier than the VW and a good deal bigger, the RS loses surprisingly little to the extraordinarily accomplished GTI. The same driver would be hard put driving the Octavia through the same twisting roads quite so sharply as the Golf, but the Skoda is the more predictable and forgiving device, even if the feel through the steering wheel is not so true.

There's slightly more compliance to the Skoda's ride, but also a surety about the tautened suspension that's enjoyable even before the grip of the standard 18-inch rubber is tested.

At freeway speeds there's some booming in the elongated glasshouse and the road rumble is not so effectively suppressed as it is by VW.

The upside is the tasty note of that turbo-charged engine is more audible.

If the RS is in essence a gussied up front-wheel-drive family lugger, there's nothing half-baked about its execution. Less tangibly, there's also the perception of driving something that only those who know will recognise as a clever choice.

Much the same sense, in fact, as was conveyed by the GTI before it become almost ubiquitous. But don't tell anyone. It's a secret.


The bottom line

The best value, most fun wagon for anything like the dough.

Pricing guides

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Range and Specs

Ambiente 1.9L, Diesel, 6 SP $5,200 – 8,030 2008 Skoda Octavia 2008 Ambiente Pricing and Specs
Elegance 2.0L, PULP, 6 SP AUTO $5,600 – 8,690 2008 Skoda Octavia 2008 Elegance Pricing and Specs
RS 2.0L, PULP, 6 SP MAN $6,300 – 9,790 2008 Skoda Octavia 2008 RS Pricing and Specs
RS TDI 2.0L, Diesel, 6 SP $6,700 – 10,450 2008 Skoda Octavia 2008 RS TDI Pricing and Specs