The Skoda Octavia has long been one of Australia’s most under-appreciated cars, loved by a small clique and largely unconsidered by much of the car-buying public.
We’ve got our hands on the updated model launched this week, in entry Ambition specification, which sharpens the already strong value offering substantially, as you can read in greater detail here.
Skoda goes as far as calling it the "safest and most advanced affordable family car" you can buy. Bold call.
To get to this point, Skoda Australia has essentially amalgamated the previous base Ambition and mid-range Ambition Plus spec levels into one, but rather than pitching the pricing half way in between, it has instead added a more modest $500 impost over the old base car.
In return, the new entry grade (priced from $22,990 plus on-road costs, or $24,490 drive-away, for the manual sedan) gets standard features rare or even unheard of at this price, amplified by the fact that the Octavia is bigger than the cars it is generally priced against.
Every single version of the Octavia now gets high-end standard fare such as adaptive cruise control, autonomous braking, reversing camera with rear sensors, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, 17-inch alloy wheels and a 6.5-inch touchscreen. That appears to be an absolute steal for a vehicle with this level of equipment, sized roughly between a typical small car and average mid-sized one, and offering more cargo space than almost any medium-sized crossover SUV.
However, this isn't quite what we're testing here. Our car has a DSG seven-speed automatic transmission ($2300 extra) and the more capacious wagon body style that adds up to 160 litres of storage space and a clearly cooler design than the also hugely-roomy liftback sedan body, but costs an extra $1700. So we're talking $26,990 ($28,490 drive-away).
But this is still very sharp. The stretched Volkswagen Golf 92TSI wagon with DSG, which is about the same size as the Octavia, costs $1000 more than this, has less equipment and a smaller engine, while the base Mazda 6 Sport wagon is longer and very generously equipped, but has less cargo space, and costs about $7000 more than the Skoda before the latter gets options.
So, what's it like? We briefly drove the car you see here this week following the local launch.
There's little doubt that getting features such as radar cruise that matches the speed of the car ahead and slows to zero, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, and the reassurance of city-focused autonomous braking on a car this big and well-priced is borderline revolutionary, putting Skoda ahead of the curve - where, as a challenger brand, it rightfully ought to be.
The layout of the cabin is typical VW Group: understated, but with fit-and-finish that is hard to fault, doors that thud properly closed, a layout that's easy to familiarise yourself with, and flawless ergonomics. The plastic on top of the doors and along the transmission tunnel are a little hard to the touch, but the silver and black inserts, and the funky seat trim, take some edge off the austerity.
Keep in mind that what you see in the picture above isn't quite what you get for $26,990. Our tester had the $3200 optional Tech Pack that adds the bigger 8.0-inch screen with satellite-navigation, plus automatic parking assist, lane assist, keyless entry and start, a bigger 10-speaker Canton sound system, a driving mode selection button and voice control.
On that note, our test car also came with the Style Pack that’s been pre-ordered by 65 per cent of buyers. This pack adds 18-inch black alloys, sports suspension, black decals, Bi-Xenon headlights with DRLs, auto headlights and wipers and dark-tinted glass for a total of $3400.
Cumulative figure: $33,590, which would essentially buy you the more luxurious Octavia Style variant, which itself gets $3000 of added value with the MY17 update. Credit to Skoda, though, for offering such detailed options packs. We would suggest the Octavia (excluding the hot 162kW RS) is best at the cheapest end, but it's great to have options.
A big strength of the Octavia is rear seat space. Headroom, legroom and shoulder room all trounce the average small car, while the big windows give good outward visibility. The back row also gets its own air vents, a ski port, plenty of storage and relatively comfortable seat bases (with two ISOFIX anchor points).
Cargo capacity expands from a big 588 litres (that's greater than a Honda CR-V) to a gargantuan 1718L when you flip the 60:40 back row of seats down, though there are unfortunately no clever levers in the boot like you'd find in the Superb. The long cargo area gets a covering blind, four hooks and a 12V socket. For $490 you can add an electric boot. Under the floor is a 16-inch steel wheel with a 205/55 Continental tyre. The rubber boot mat you see in the image is an option.
Under the bonnet of our tester is a familiar 110kW (6000rpm) and 250Nm (between 1500 and 3500rpm) 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine matched to a seven-speed DSG sending torque to the front wheels.
It's a small engine by capacity, but it has an ample mid-range and revs strongly out to 6500rpm. Off the line, it's even sufficient to chirp the front tyres briefly. A 0-100km/h time of 8.3 seconds is far from shabby for a base car. At less taxing engine speeds, it's also extremely quiet, and paired with an idle-stop system with a good vibration-isolating mechanism.
Claimed combined-cycle 95 RON fuel consumption is 5.2L/100km, though our cycle returned a figure in the high 7s/low 8s.
As ever, the DSG is an acquired taste, with some brief moments of jerkiness in urban driving if you're stabby on the throttle, with the trade-off being improved fuel economy and the ability to shift almost instantaneously during more aggressive driving. The Sport mode that comes as part of the Tech Pack's driving-mode select system programs the DSG to hold lower gears longer for greater throttle response.
The Octavia is based on the VW Group's ubiquitous MQB architecture that underpins the Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf. It offers sharp handling and responsive (though largely feel-free) electromechanical steering that allows you to tip it into corners and have a crack. A dusk-time (almost) run-in with a dopey kangaroo also showed us the effectiveness of the brakes under an emergency stop.
The only dynamic downside with the standard Ambition is the torsion beam rear (instead of the Golf's more sophisticated independent setup, shared with the sportier Octavia RS), though road-holding isn't really degraded until you stick the right foot in.
As mentioned earlier, our test car has the Style Pack, which earns its nomenclature by giving the understated design some extra road presence. But we also suspect it's the lower-profile tyres and sports suspension that made our tester a little less forgiving over bumps than we'd like, impacting ride comfort. The price you pay.
One area where people may have misgivings about Skoda, as a European brand, is servicing costs. However, its aftersales program is actually excellent. Standard is a three-year warranty and good service intervals of 12 months or 15,000km, though servicing is no cheaper than Volkswagen.
We'd suggest you look at one of the company's care packages. The base pack covers three-years/45,000km of servicing (whichever comes first) and extends to warranty to five years, for a single $1899 payment. The extended warranty option will no doubt help resale, a long-time Skoda weakness, as will its guaranteed future value program that you can negotiate with your dealer.
There's no doubt the revised Skoda Octavia Ambition offers a relatively unique package, with simply outstanding value for money. But while our optioned-up tester looks the goods, the pricier the (non-RS) Octavia gets, the more it loses one of its real unique selling points. We'd eschew the option packs and get an Ambition as-is, in either body style (both offer simply brilliant cargo capacities).
Whichever way you cut it, if you're looking for an affordable mid-sizer, the Octavia needs to be on your list now more than ever. It remains a car with niche sales that deserves a mainstream audience.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.