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Traditional family wagons are almost a niche product these days, given how few are sold compared with SUV models of varied sizes. The Holden Commodore SV6 Sportwagon and Skoda Octavia RS are here for the SUV-rejectors, however.
Each is priced close to $40,000 and aim to rival high-riding faux-offroaders for practicality then trounce them for driving enjoyment. If you’ve been forced into domesticity, still enjoy driving, and think an SUV is simply a default choice for the family, read on…
The Commodore and Octavia are not the same size of wagon. The Holden is a full-sized car stretching 4.94 metres in length, where the medium-sized Skoda is a full quarter of a metre behind at 4.69m. The SV6 is wider, spanning 1.90m, compared with 1.81m for the Czech-built RS.
This contest could simply be decided on whether you need to seat three in the back, or have long-legged teenagers, in which case you’d take the Aussie-made wagon, though if that isn’t a deciding factor then its Czech-built rival makes other strong claims for itself.
Skoda utilise the same 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine found in the Volkswagen Golf GTI, which produces 162kW of power at 6200rpm and 350Nm of torque between 1500-4400rpm. Because the Octavia RS is also built on the same weight-saving new platform as its Volkswagen sibling, it weighs just 1458kg in six-speed dual-clutch DSG automatic form (20kg less with the standard six-speed manual).
Holden ‘big sixes’ may be renowned for a surplus of lazy low-down torque, but the 3.6-litre V6 engine under the bonnet of the Commodore SV6 makes the same torque as the Octavia RS, but not until 2800rpm. That’s still relatively low, though, and a peak 210kW at 6700rpm helps it feel as quick as the 7.1 second 0-100km/h claimed by Skoda (Holden doesn’t provide official performance figures). This is despite the Sportwagon weighing 1776kg, or a massive 318kg more than its foreign foe.
What the rear-wheel-drive Holden can’t match, at least on paper, is the front-wheel-drive Skoda’s fuel consumption – official combined cycle figures are 6.6 litres per 100 kilometres and 9.3L/100km respectively.
For all their differences in size, country of origin, cylinder count and to which wheels they send their power, the Holden and Skoda are joined by their similar performance, sporty philosophy, view to practicality, standard equipment and – perhaps more than anything – price.
The Octavia RS in auto form costs $40,140 plus on-road costs, just $50 less than the Commodore SV6 auto. Both include the requisite sporty exterior items such as 18-inch alloy wheels, daytime running lights and mild bodykit, though the Skoda exclusively scores bi-xenon headlights with swivelling cornering lights and foglights.
Inside, there’s a bit of an equipment tussle, with the Holden exclusively getting a reverse-view camera and semi-automatic parking function that can detect parallel and perpendicular parking spots, then use the steering to navigate into the spot. Those two features will soon become optional as part of a Tech Pack on its rival, which has front and rear parking sensors as standard.
The Octavia RS hits back with standard satellite navigation, which is optional on the Commodore SV6, though both come together with an 8.0-inch high-resolution colour touchscreen with iPod, USB, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and voice control.
It was the Holden system that proved flawless in operation, easy to connect and reliable, with built-in apps such as Stitcher online radio and Pandora internet music streaming functions that can be accessed via the car’s interface (rather than forcing you to use your smartphone - but make sure you watch your data allowance!).
The Skoda’s USB function proved glitchy when using a standard iPhone cable, and there was some persistent static noise through the speakers when using the Bluetooth audio connection – even with multiple different phones.
On the upside, there are two SD card readers in the Octavia RS, which permits data storage expansion capability, and a colour trip computer screen between the speedometer and tachometer, where the Commodore SV6 Sportwagon gets a monochromatic unit.
Beyond the screens and connectivity, interior quality is similar. Both get a combination of leather and cloth trim to cover their equally supportive sports seats, though the Holden’s carbonfibre-look textured trim over the doors and dashboard is much nicer than that in the Skoda, which simply gets hard plastic door trims.
The Octavia RS adds a driver’s knee airbag and rear side airbags to the Commodore’s tally of dual-front, front-side and full-length curtain protection, and there are other neat touches up-front lacking in the Aussie – such as a rain sensor, auto-dimming rear-view mirror and air-conditioned, flocklined glovebox.
Rear passengers get air conditioning vents in both cars, though the Commodore expectedly has much more legroom and shoulder room.
The Octavia counters with three adjustable headrests, a glaring omission in the Holden.
In the bit that distinguishes these wagons from their sedan counterparts, the longer Commodore triumphs with an 895-litre boot volume, up on the still-excellent 588L volume in the Octavia.
Fold the 60:40 split rear backrests down and those figures expand to 2000L and 1718L respectively.
It’s the Skoda, though, that has smarter space utilisation, with a larger storage box tucked away near the left wheel well, a double-sided carpet/rubber mat, a centre armrest that doubles as a ski port, and six tie-down hooks to the Holden’s four.
Both have smart but different load covers, the larger wagon with a neat system that is height adjustable to cover taller objects, where the smaller wagon lacks that feature, but has a simple push-to-retract rather than pull-then-release action to put the load cover away. Both get 12 volt power sockets in the boot.
It’s worth noting that although the Octavia RS photographed here is a six-speed manual version, we also drove the six-speed dual-clutch DSG automatic that is a more natural rival to the auto-only SV6 Sportwagon.
The manual is one of the most delightful units around, with a short, tight shift, though the DSG offers a compelling case for family drivers who need to keep their left arm free to pass things back to the kids.
The 2.0-litre turbo Skoda is much more refined and raunchy-sounding than the Holden V6. It spins up through its tachometer needle quickly and the DSG is just as quick to send it back downward and take advantage of a surplus of torque. While the off-the-line stagger that affected DSG transmissions in the past has all but gone, the Octavia RS is prone to spin its 225mm-wide front Continental ContiSport Contact tyres if the surface is damp getting away from the traffic lights.
Perhaps it’s the longer-travel Commodore throttle pedal, but it isn’t as keen to spin its wider 245mm rear Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tyres in the same conditions, at least in a straight line.
The Holden feels heavier, and requires larger throttle inputs to feel as fast. The engine still sounds coarse, though quietened, at the top end of the tacho, and the six-speed automatic isn’t as quick to shift at the Skoda’s DSG. It is the smarter transmission, however, holding gears more prudently when coming over a crest and heading downhill, for example, to assist with engine braking. It is also quicker to detect when going uphill, where the Octavia RS can sometimes lull into taller gears then need to hunt back a ratio or two.
Still, over a 400km urban and country loop the V6 slurped 10.9L/100km compared with the turbo four’s 8.9L/100km.
The Skoda simply feels much lighter on its feet, and that feeling remains when the straights start to squiggle. The Commodore V6 may feel a lot lighter at the front-end than its V8 range siblings, but the Octavia four feels much, much sharper again than the SV6 Sportwagon tested here. This is especially noticeable on a section of soaked country road that formed our test loop, where the Holden pressured its front tyres into understeer far earlier than the Skoda.
Where the Czech feels pointy, the Aussie is a bit lazy.
The Commodore’s chassis is beautifully balanced, and its stability control superbly tuned, which is just as well because minute applications of throttle after the nose wanders results in a very quick transition to oversteer. The steering is wonderfully mid-weighted and slick, helping the driver to manage the playful chassis, but the SV6 Sportwagon is not what you’d call agile.
That word perfectly describes the Skoda.
Without back-to-back testing this is hard to quantify, but the Octavia RS steering and front-end feels even sharper than the Golf GTI (perhaps not surprising, when the same is true comparing a base Octavia 103TSI Ambition and Golf 90TSI Comfortline). Over lumpy rural roads the Skoda suspension allows a fraction more intrusion into the cabin, but it is more tied down than the Holden suspension, which allows the body to move more and isn’t necessarily more comfortable overall. By contrast, around town it’s the Commodore that feels more comfortable.
The Holden suffers from more wind noise than the Skoda, too, though the opposite is true for road noise.
As with the base Octavia, the RS allows plenty of tyre roar and thrumming into the cabin, not just over coarse-chip surfaces, but concrete on the highway, too. It’s in this area, and the lack of the Golf GTI’s standard adaptive suspension mode that results in a firmer ride, that most exposes the Skoda’s budget-buy origins.
Swapping between each car leaves you to admire their varied strengths and virtues, and remind you how difficult they really are to separate.
Pick the Holden and enjoy its slightly smoother, quieter ride and roomier, more upmarket interior. The Skoda strikes back with greater smarts within smaller dimensions, more dynamic and secure handling (particularly in the wet) and a more efficient engine that delivers similarly brisk performance.
Unless outright space is an ultimate priority, the Octavia RS wins here by a nose.
It’s worth remembering, though, that both are more enjoyable to drive than any comparably priced SUV model, yet neither have a real space and practicality deficit.
Watch our video that compares the Skoda wagon to a popular SUV to find out which is the most practical choice.
Photography by Mitchell Oke.