With specifications lists that punch well above their weight and each offering vast interior acreage, you’d think the mid-size segment had already shown us everything it could offer – but that was before the launch of the all-new Skoda Octavia.
Often ridiculed for being priced too close to its Volkswagen cousin, Skoda has spent its time lagging behind the segment’s power brands from Japan and Europe.
But with the arrival of the 2014 Skoda Octavia, all that changes.
Skoda is effectively repositioning the brand with an aggressive, value-for-money pricing strategy that should see it gain considerably more traction in Australia.
Based on the Volkswagen Group’s MQB (Modular Transverse Matrix) platform that will also underpin all future Skoda models, the third-generation Octavia is new from the ground-up.
The new Octavia model range has also been rationalised with fewer engines and considerably less variants on offer than with the previous model.
There are now two petrol engines and one diesel, so the fully turbocharged, four-cylinder Octavia powertrain line-up includes a 103kW/250Nm 1.4-litre petrol; a larger 132kW/250Nm 1.8-litre petrol, and finally a 110kW/320Nm 2.0-litre diesel.
The Octavia is also offered in both sedan and wagon bodies, with the latter incurring a $1350 surcharge across all three-specification grades: Ambition, Ambition Plus and Elegance.
Opening the new Octavia line-up is the entry-level Ambition 103TSI manual sedan with driveaway pricing from $22,990.
That’s a formidable saving on its competitors. Even when adding the optional DSG auto transmission at a cost of $2300, the Octavia still trumps all of its mid-size Japanese rivals by anywhere up to $9000.
The price advantage is even stronger against fellow Euro competitors, such as the 1.6-litre Peugeot 508 that’s priced from $36,990.
The entry-level Octavia is reasonably equipped too, boasting standard features such as Bluetooth phone and music streaming, four-spoke multi-function leather steering wheel, power windows, remote central locking and seven airbags.
Ambition buyers can also add the optional $1300 Travel Pack, which swaps the standard 16-inch steel wheels for 17-inch alloys, while adding rear parking sensors, eight speakers (up from four), front armrest and cruise control.
Stepping up a grade to the mid-range $26,790 (driveaway) 103TSI Ambition Plus, with standard manual transmission means you’ll get all of the features in the Travel Pack, while adding the Bolero touchscreen audio system and an upgrade to nine airbags (from seven), including rear-seat side 'bags.
The $35,490 Elegance 103TSI introduces a raft of high-end features including leather seats, 18-inch alloy wheels, 8-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation and auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
There’s also dual-zone climate control, auto lights and rain-sensing wipers and folding side mirrors.
Available with both Ambition Plus and Elegance grades is the Tech Pack, which adds further equipment upgrades including bi-Xenon headlamps, adaptive cruise control, keyless entry, automatic parking assist, front assist, light assist and city emergency brake.
The Tech Pack adds $3900 to the price of the Ambition Plus and $3300 to the Elegance – due to several features that are already standard on the latter.
Rounding off the price ladder for the Skoda range is the more powerful Octavia 132TSI Elegance, which attracts a price tag from $37,990, while the range-toping 110TDI is offered at $38,790 drive away.
We first tested the 1.4-litre direct-injection turbo – and it is a cracker.
Any notion that it might struggle to effectively pull a car of this newfound size is put to rest from the moment you first prod the throttle.
The introduction of weight-saving materials and engineering means the car is 100kg lighter than the old model – and you can certainly feel it.
Time constraints meant that we only drove the wagon (38kg heavier than the 1302kg sedan) with the standard six-speed manual, but there’s more than enough go in this engine to move the Octavia along at a thoroughly enjoyable pace.
Turbo lag has largely been engineered out of the new powerplant, with features such as a new cylinder head with integrated exhaust manifold, water to air intercooler and a turbocharger with an electric charge pressure indicator.
The manual version will hit 100km/h in 8.4 seconds, trumping its DSG counterpart by one-tenth of a second, and it definitely feels quicker from behind the wheel.
It’s not as smooth shifting as the six-speed 'box in the Volkswagen Golf – more a notchy movement through the gear ratios – but it is good solid fun nonetheless.
The bigger 1.8-litre engine, while gaining 29kW of power over the entry-level model, produces the same 250Nm of torque with the standard DSG transmission.
The big difference here is that the peak torque band is notably wider, stretching from 1250rpm to 5000rpm as opposed to 1500rpm-3500rpm for the 103TSI, so the car keeps on pulling.
There’s also significantly more straight-line performance, with 100km coming up in 7.4 seconds – enough to satisfy even the enthusiast set.
Perhaps disappointingly, the Octavia range misses out on paddleshifters, which would only serve to further enhance the driving experience.
Another welcome surprise is just how well the 2.0-litre diesel performs. Again, throttle response is punchy and those 320Nm from 1750rpm ensure there’s no lack of low-down grunt.
Noise insulation across all drivetrains is also noticeably well controlled, with engine noise well muted inside the cabin.
Both of the DSG transmissions mentioned above have a sequential shift option, as well as a Sport mode, which moves the shift points higher up the rev range. It may be slightly less fuel-efficient, but it is certainly a more enjoyable drive for when conditions permit.
That said, fuel-efficiency across the board in the new Octavia range is simply outstanding, given the enthusiastic driving program we put the cars through.
Skoda claims 5.7L/100km combined for the 103TSI manual, and we saw 6.2L/100km over a 50km test route. The diesel promises 4.9L/100km, though we got a reading of 5.7L/100km, while the 132TSI sedan showed an average fuel consumption of 6.5L/100km.
That’s up to a 20 per cent less than the old model.
When it comes to ride quality, the new Octavia eclipses its Japanese rivals. That’s despite the fact that the rear-end of both the 103TSI and 110TDI still use a torsion-beam setup.
It simply doesn’t matter what condition the road surface is in, or what wheel and tyre combination the Octavia is fitted with, the level of bump-smoothing compliance produces an inherently comfortable ride.
There are prestige models costing three times the Octavia’s asking price that don’t offer this level of ride comfort.
It’s a similarly positive story with the handling.
The electro-hydraulic steering requires less lock than most cars in the class and there’s a decent level of feedback that allows accurate positioning of the front wheels when cornering.
It’s also feels reassuringly composed at speed in the twisty bits, with good front-end grip and that same level of compliance allowing the car to remain settled (if not planted) even while mid-corner over a rough surface.
Oddly, we found the wagon version of the 103TSI Ambition to be slightly less compliant over the same ground – though the diminished comfort level was minimal.
Inside, the Octavia’s extra dimensions (90mm longer and 45mmm wider) and longer wheelbase (by 108mm) translate to noticeably more comfort in the cabin.
There’s also more rear headroom and elbowroom than the previous model. Rear legroom is better than generous and there’s room for boots to slide under the front seats.
Practicality also seems high on Skoda’s agenda. There are oodles of storage spaces and some clever little touches in the form of a door pocket-mounted bin (complete with mini garbage bag) and a handy mobile phone holder (sadly they won’t fit Android units) in the front console.
Outdoor enthusiasts and surfers will like the reversible boot liner that’s carpeted on one side and water-resistant rubber on the other – perfect for dripping wetsuits and wet towels.
There’s also a budget luggage rack system that uses a pair of velcro-fastened plastic strips that can be bent into a right-angle and placed anywhere in the boot to stop objects sliding around.
The boot itself is huge and offers 568 litres of luggage space for the sedan (it’s actually a five-door hatch that looks like a traditional sedan) and 588L for the wagon.
The cabin itself is a mixture of mostly soft-touch plastics and easy-to-use controls. It looks and feels semi-premium, but still falls well short of the Golf.
While the front leather buckets of the Elegance grades offer excellent comfort and bolster, we found the fabric seatds of the Ambition weren’t as well bolstered, or as supportive on the lower back.
The four-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel though is nice and thick and superbly tactile.
Skoda has always pushed function over form and the latest Octavia follows the same resolve, with smart clean lines rather than overtly stylish flourishes.
Safety has also been a major focus in the new Octavia. It not only boasts a generous inventory of standard safety kit, including a minimum of seven airbags and collision braking, but with the optional Tech Pack offering advanced features such as adaptive cruise control.
It’s an impressive system that allows the driver to automatically maintain a safe distance from the car in front, via the radar-control, which is able to brake the car in order to maintain that same distance, despite the actions of the car immediately ahead.
We didn’t get a chance to test the Automatic Park Assist, but with 12 ultrasonic sensors, Skoda claim the system will find a parking space with as little 0.6 m to spare and manoeuvre the car into it – all you have to do is control the braking.
Skoda has crammed a lot into its all-new Octavia and improved almost every component in the car.
With exceptionally good drivetrains, superb ride quality and plenty of kit, there’s little from us on the complaints side.
Add to that a pricing strategy that undercuts its key rivals by thousands of dollars and capped price servicing over six years or 90,000km (whichever comes first) and the Octavia should have no trouble in attracting a significant new crowd.