Things really got cracking for Skoda in 1996 with the Octavia. Volkswagen, the company’s owner, had been fooling around with the distinguished Czech marque for five years. It reskinned the Favorit hatchback as the 1994 Felicia, which did well, but by mid-decade VW boss Ferdinand Piech had investments and people in place for a second model and new design boss Dirk van Braeckel was busy at the drawing board.
This was VW at its pomp, brimming with such confidence that Piech allowed a second life for Skoda’s cherished Octavia name on a four-door hatchback based on the fourth-generation Golf.
Skoda built almost 400,000 of the original Octavia between 1959 and 1971. The name’s second generation did even better. In 1997, its first year on sale, the Octavia represented 16 per cent of total Skoda production, 40 per cent by 1998 and by 2000 it was the best-selling Skoda model.
With a few blips, that’s the way it’s stayed, with 2018 sales of 388,200 from factories in Mladá Boleslav in the Czech Republic, as well as in India, Russia and China.
From simplicity to serious ability
Though it looked slightly gawky over the relatively short Golf Mk4 platform, the 1996 Octavia tapped into a market for no-frills, reliable simplicity from the increasingly wealthy middle classes in Eastern Europe and Russia, but also from Britain – particularly among young families and older folk. The trouble is, as romantic French artist Eugène Delacroix once pointed out: “A taste for simplicity cannot last for long.”
By 2004, the second-generation Octavia designed under Thomas Ingenlath (now chief executive of the Geeley/Volvo-owned Polestar brand) had better dimensions, four-wheel-drive models and the high-performance vRS; in India it was called Laura.
That trend continued with the 2012 Jozef Kabaň-designed Mk3; bigger inside and out, with a host of little details like an in-cabin rubbish bin and an ice scraper in the fuel-filler cap. The RS even had an artificial noise enhancer; simple cars just aren’t that simple.
As the Octavia got bigger and more refined, it also grew more expensive, blander and was starting to be undercut and outsold by rivals. So, there’s a lot riding on this Mk4 model, which was revealed in Prague last November, but with its launch arrangements ravaged initially by Volkswagen anxious not to draw attention from its then-new Mk8 Golf and then Covid-19.
Lockdown conditions meant that our first taste of the Mk4 Octavia is this station-wagon with a diesel engine and a DSG twin-clutch gearbox.
You’ll have to read between the lines a bit, but these launch “first editions” are heavily loaded with equipment and expensive – the estate adds between £970 and £1,400 over the cost of the hatchback. Skoda sells over 50 per cent of Octavia models as estates in the UK and an even higher proportion in mainland Europe, where the Octavia is one of the continent’s most popular shooting brakes.
It’s a pretty handsome car, too, with roof bars and fine chromium window lines that disguise the slightly mumsy roofline, along with a heavily sloped tailgate which gets a roof spoiler to speed the air off the car and make sure the dogs don’t bake.
A lot of car for the money
With the caron back on the S of the Škoda badge, the new Octavia feels very grown up; file it under A for ‘A Lot Of Car For The Money’.
Just three engines are available at launch, a 148bhp 1.5-litre turbo petrol (badged 1.5 TSI 150) and a 2.0-litre TDI turbo diesel with 113bhp or 148bhp. In time we’ll see the range expand to include a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder turbo petrol and mild and plug-in hybrid models, as well as souped-up vRS and a Scout 4x4 version.
And while these launch models are knocking at the door of £32,000, Skoda says it will have a sub-£20,000 Octavia estate on sale by the end of the year.
A welcome surprise inside
The interior will come as a welcome, if slightly intimidating, surprise to owners of previous Octavias; it’s really rather grand and not at all simple. With seven trim changes on the dashboard alone, the Octavia feels more like a Golf estate or even an Audi A3 than a budget offering.
There’s chromium highlighting, electrically adjustable and heated seats, defrosting door mirrors, an e-call SOS button and a £1,150 panoramic sunroof. The heavily bolstered seats have such a range of adjustment that, with the reach- and rake-adjustable steering, you’d fit the Sasquatch in there. The door pockets are a decent size, the centre console is a small cube and the glovebox is, well, larger than most.
The rear seats feel slightly too upright, like Victorian dining chairs, but there’s lots of leg and head room even with that sunroof reducing it by an inch. The seat backs fold 60/40 per cent, but there’s a sizeable ski hole, which doubles as an armrest. Shame the seat backs only fold onto the bases so the 640-litre load space isn’t entirely flat, but there’s a false boot floor, which is a useful place to store the boot tonneau.
There’s genuine thought rather than gimmicks in here, with four mini USB ports (so you’ll need converter plugs for older phones), a boot 12v charge socket, a load restraint and, yes, a Skoda ice scraper still lives in the fuel-filler hatch and an umbrella is furled in the door.
The dashboard is not the easiest thing to learn, with some seriously complicated, rock, roll and twirl switches on the steering wheel and no back-up buttons or rotary dials on the touchscreen; you can change the cabin heat with a single touch, but more complicated adjustment takes several presses and your eyes away from the road for longer.
You also have to turn off the annoying, steering-corrupting lane-keeping assistant every time you start the engine, which is an NCAP safety requirement since touchscreen distraction is such an issue. The touchscreen graphics are clear and bright, which is more than can be said for the hyper irritating voice assistant that butts in at every opportunity.
Oh and the stereo might be OK for listening to mincing Skoda ambassador Paloma Faith singles, but just not loud enough for AC/DC or Rory Gallagher.
For some readers, us testing a diesel car is like poisoning Easter bunnies, but it’s worth recalling that not so long ago the VW Group 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo diesel was one of the most thermally efficient prime movers in the world.
New and more stringent test procedures (bought about partly because of VW’s diesel test cheating) have dug into that supremacy and the more straightforward injection phases have added combustion knock, but this engine is still pretty impressive. It’s powerful, with a tall wave of torque from low down the rev range, and once up to speed it’s quiet and reasonably refined.
Not believing the test consumption of 62mpg, I checked the odometer twice, but it’s true. If you drive a lot of miles, diesel can still deliver, although Skoda won’t be rating the Octavia to the RDE2 standard until the autumn so early diesel models are subject to the enhanced VED rate.
The twin-clutch gearbox is smooth and changes quickly, but as soon as you change the driving mode to Sport it changes out of top gear and clatters down the ratios as you slow. With Eco mode being plain annoying, it’s best to leave the system in Normal.
Dynamics – comfort to the fore
Dynamically the Octavia is an interesting mix. The suspension is a MacPherson strut at the front, with a twist-beam rear (although 4x4 versions will have fully independent rear end).
But in spite of the technical drawbacks of the rear suspension, initial bump absorption is soft and compliant. There’s a fair bit of rebound stiffness in the damping so it recovers quickly and feels supple rather than soft and wallowy.
The drawback (and a side effect of this sort of suspension set-up) is a slightly galumphing gait on relatively smooth roads and road noise on gritty surfaces. It’s quite clever, however, and feels comfortable on long journeys and well suited to UK roads.
The steering is low-geared (perhaps that’s why the wheel is small), but the 17-inch alloy wheels and relatively tall 205/55 Continental tyres turn-in cleanly without too much sidewall slop. It feels neat rather than nippy and the body heels over a bit in corners, but a thick front anti-roll bar stops it falling over on its front wheel when it meets a corner.
Comfort is, of course, what Skoda does and this example does it very well.
We’ve been told that people have been in lockdown surfing the net and looking at all manner of high-performance, super and eco cars, but when our feet come back to the ground it’s cars such as the Octavia that most of us end up driving.
In this Mk4 form, this rightly-popular car has taken a step forward in cabin quality and practicality as well as being one of the best-driving and comfortable Octavias ever.
A very solid four stars, then, but for this particular model, that £30,000-plus price keeps it off the five-star spot.
2020 Skoda Octavia SE L First Edition estate
TESTED 1,968cc, four-cylinder turbodiesel, seven-speed semi-automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE from 29,515 (£31,440 as tested)/now
POWER/TORQUE 148bhp @ 3,000rpm, 250lb ft @ 1,700rpm
TOP SPEED 137mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 8.8sec
FUEL ECONOMY 60.1mpg (WLTP Combined), 62mpg on test
CO2 EMISSIONS 97g/km
VED £145 first year, then £150
VERDICT Price notwithstanding (there will be cheaper and more expensive versions to come), the Mk4 Octavia is a very impressive piece of kit. The perceived quality of the cabin is top of the class and the dynamics are good, with a fine ride and much improved handling. Whether you’d choose to spend as much, or select this turbodiesel engine and semi-auto gearbox combination is a moot point, but they will likely be an Octavia to suit most tastes and pockets.
TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars out of five
Toyota Corolla estate 2.0 VVT-I CVT, from £28,825
Toyota’s new Corolla comes with two hybrid drivetrains and the larger 2.0-litre version is the much the most impressive. The Corolla estate is well engineered and made with a decent standard specification. It drives well and is well priced. The fuel consumption is an impressive 60.6mpg but you’ll not achieve that if you don’t drive in town.
Ford Focus ST-Line 2.0L Ecoblue 150PS, from £27,095
ST-Line is one of the most popular trim levels for the Focus. This version gives a decent spec and the 148bhp turbodiesel with an eight-speed automatic ‘box. Ford win the laurels for its ride and handling in this class, although the cabin isn’t up to the Skoda’s level of fit and finish.
Vauxhall Astra Sports Tourer Elite Nav 1.6CDTi auto, from £27,895
Unloved at owner PSA as they pay General Motors for every model built, but a fine car nevertheless. The 1.6 diesel is peppy and economical but needs revving, but the automatic works well and the cabin is well made, roomy and comfortable.
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