The Skoda Octavia is one of Australia’s most under-appreciated cars. Its moderate sales belie a class act that offers lots of space and class for the money.
Now the company is gearing up for the Australian launch of the second-generation 2015 Skoda Octavia Scout spinoff, a higher-riding, all-wheel-driving and body-cladded derivative designed to take on the likes of the Subaru Outback and the forthcoming Volkswagen Golf Alltrack.
Set to launch locally about April next year — yes, it is still some time away despite being available in Europe for months already — the newest Scout will be a more focused and serious offering than the previous-generation model that was really just a toe-in-the-water exercise in Australia.
Skoda only sold about 850 units of that car before it ran out of stock about 12 months ago. It had a single 103TDI diesel engine and, for the first part of its life, was a manual-only proposition that drastically limited its local sales potential.
This model will come with three engine options — two diesels and a petrol — and either manual or DSG transmissions, AWD-only configurations and wagon body-styles, priced between (roughly) $35K-$45K depending on specification.
For more detail on specifications, see here.
The pitch of the Octavia Scout is simple. Take the practical Octavia wagon, fit a permanent AWD system, jack up the ride height by about 30mm — in fact, with ground clearance of 171mm, it sits higher off the ground than a Mazda CX-5 — and make it look tougher with black cladding, wheel arches and silver bash plates front and rear.
What you get is a cut-price version of the high-riding Audi A4 or A6 Allroad, or Passat Alltrack, that rivals the larger Subaru Outback in form and an average (taller) compact SUV such as a Nissan X-Trail or CX-5 in function for what we expect to be broadly similar money.
But because it is essentially an Octavia still, it promises to offer more agility and dynamism than the average compact soft-roading SUV, the trade-off being its lower roofline and seating position (despite the ground clearance, the driving position is a little lower and therefore less commanding).
In addition, the Scout benefits from the Octavia’s class-leading packaging. The boot has a 610-litre capacity or 1740L with the seats folded 60:40 — more than the Honda CR-V, which leads other compact SUVs for space — plus a 2.9-metre-long load floor.
So that’s the brass tacks. What’s it like? We spent some time with a few Scouts in Europe this week ahead of the global Skoda Fabia launch, and came away predictably impressed.
We say predictably because, official Australian pricing and specifications pending, the Scout takes an already excellent base car and amplifies it with a unique set of offerings that make it more capable and confidence-inspiring.
Under the tougher body, which gives the utilitarian Octavia a little more presence right off the bat, sits a lighter fifth-generation Haldex-clutch all-wheel-drive system that sends power rearward when needed and counteracts slip by cutting torque to one wheel and redirecting it.
No surprisingly, it’s a popular addition in snowy parts of Europe. But unlike Europe, which gets AWD Octavias of several stripes, this will be the only way to get an all-paw version in Australia.
Under the bonnets of the two cars we drove were 135kW/380Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel (familiar from the Octavia RS diesel) and a 132kW/280Nm 1.8-litre turbo-petrol, both matched to six-speed DSGs The petrol is a range-first locally, while the diesel version with DSG is in many ways the equivalent of an AWD RS diesel with a chunkier look.
If you want a six-speed manual you can get one, but only with a 110kW/320Nm turbo-diesel. We didn't get the chance to drive this variant, but as the expected price-leader, it could even be the pick if you're happy to shift your own gears.
With the full complement of torque on tap from 1750rpm, the 135kW diesel pulls with gusto from just off-idle and gets you up to the freeway speed limit in 7.8 seconds, though with some gruffness and very mild vibration through the steering column as the revs build.
With a towing capacity of 2.0 tonnes and claimed fuel use of 5.1 litres per 100 kilometres (though we averaged about 7.0L/100km on long motorway stretches ticking over at about 130km/h — legally, we should add) it strikes us as the best solution for this sort of car should you wish to pull loads or venture off the beaten path.
The 1.8 TSI offers plenty of punch off the line — its matches the 7.8sec time of the diesel — but is naturally less tractable. Both engines have well-calibrated DSGs, though each holds on to low ratios too long at times, and can be jarred into a moment of hesitation if you try particularly hard.
Given the higher ride height, the Scout naturally feels marginally more inclined to show body-roll and push into understeer, but it remains sharp for a car with an off-road bent. The AWD system also has grip galore, giving you confidence mid-corner even in the wet. At higher speeds, it feels planted and stable.
It also gives you the option of venturing onto sand, slippery rock or steeply-sloped gravel strips with confidence. Not to mention snow. It’s no proper mud-plugger, but it’s good clearance mean it will in all probability take you further than you may think.
The steering is sharp, even on-centre, and both direct and with good feel and feedback. You can adjust the weight with various driving modes, but really all you get as you dial it up is an arm workout without any extra communication from the wheels.
The all-round independent suspension soaks up low-speed corrugations such as cobble-stones without too many issues, and rides the fine line between feeling floaty and busy. Only more serious bridge-joiners or potholes at speed are felt through the seat with a mild thud.
Road noise and wind-rush from the B-pillars is evident even on relatively smooth surfaces.
Outward visibility is excellent, with Skoda’s boxy styling offering a large glasshouse without any stylistic compromise, making it easier to park and manoeuvre off-road. The full-size optional panoramic sunroof is an additional kid-friendly touch, and we hope Skoda offers a reverse-view camera as standard.
The cabin is pure Octavia, though the stamping on the seats and other areas tells you you’re in a Scout. The fascia is clean and uncluttered, tactility is first-rate, the manual hand-brake is a good off-roading touch and the materials feel of good quality and hard-wearing.
There are also lots of cubby holes in the doors, console and in the cargo area, though the front cup-holders are typically Euro small. Minor qualm there.
The front pews are a touch narrow and positioned close to the transmission tunnel — knee-room is only adequate — but beyond that, the ergonomics are all spot-on. It’s worth mentioning, too, the temperamental satellite navigation system on one of our test vehicles required the car to be restarted before correcting itself.
Features likely to be options in Australia that we experienced on our car included radar-guided cruise control that can be adjusted in terms of aggressiveness on re-acceleration and the gap it leaves to the vehicle ahead (hit), lane assist that nudges you back between the lines (miss, it works only sometimes) and a Canton surround-sound system (miss, the normal system is fine).
Headroom, even with the sunroof, and legroom is excellent front and rear. Four six-foot plus adults will be comfortable, with a fifth at a pinch. Entry and egress requires more of a stoop than, say, a CR-V, but less than a typical wagon.
Rear seat passengers get vents, the option of seat heating, a ski port, grab handles, a 12V socket and three proper headrests. The back row also folds down via levers in the cargo area, which in turn is accessed by a swift electric tailgate.
Parents will also note the pair of outboard ISOFIX anchor points.
The loading area is both wide and deep, and with the middle row folded — not as cleverly as Skoda’s own Yeti, unfortunately — long. There’s also a near full-size (205/50) spare tyre under the double-sided loading floor, and a plethora of cargo covers, tie-down hooks and netting.
So there it is. Until we get local pricing and full specifications, it really is hard to grade the car in its proper context. Our first Australian drive next year will give you that, as well as the kind of running costs you’ll be looking at.
What we can say for now, however, is the Scout builds on the Octavia and turns in into a genuinely interesting and capable alternative to the compact SUVs that are fast becoming the default family car in Australia. It deserves to do well, and boost Skoda's local performance in the process.
Of course, by the time it arrives, Subaru will also have a brand new Outback waiting for it. That promises to be an interesting comparison indeed.