The small-sedan segment does sometimes get overlooked as a fertile patch for mixing practical, enjoyable and affordable motoring for a diverse cross-section of buyers, even modestly sized families.
Around $22K gets you into the buck-banging basement with Honda’s Civic and Skoda’s Octavia, and both nameplates top out in the $52K and $46K mark, respectively, for high-performance driver’s versions (albeit a hatchback for the Civic).
Somewhere around the ‘just right’ $32K mark sit the 2019 Honda Civic RS and Skoda Octavia Sport, promising decent equipment, a swag of frills and some driving warmth without too much excess. And both have had updates in 2019 to steer your reasonably budgeted interest away from one another.
“Hang about,” you say. “These aren’t rivals because the Civic is a small- and the Octavia a medium-sized sedan.” Well, you’d only be half right. See, at 4662mm in length, the Honda's quite the large, erm, small sedan. And while it’s convenient for some stakeholders to pigeonhole the Skoda as medium, the Golf-based Euro is, at 4667mm overall, just five millimetres longer.
A little confusing in the semantics is that the Octavia is a five-door liftback. Yes, it’s a liftback sedan, technically, though it practically functions pretty much like a hatchback.
Still, both target their scatterguns towards the same broad church of shoppers, which includes those hoping for a bit of sportiness in the experience to match the bit of sportiness promised in their names and appearances.
Pricing and specifications
The Civic RS sedan wants for $31,990 list, though its fetching pearlescent Phoenix Orange exclusive to this variant is an extra $575.
Meanwhile, the Octavia Sport is $31,490, but wants an extra $700 for the digital Virtual Cockpit – yes, just like Audi calls it – instrumentation, plus an added $500 for the pearl white paintwork. Call it a scant $125 in favour of Honda.
Both fit sporty exterior styling tweaks, LED lighting – adaptive headlights for the Skoda, auto-levelling for Honda – and 18-inch wheels, but dig deeper and there are lots of differences in the addenda beyond the Civic fitting wider 235mm Michelin Pilot Sports to the Skoda’s 225mm Bridgestone Turanzas.
The Skoda adds an extra airbag (driver’s knee) to the Civic’s count and both are five-star ANCAP rated for safety (2017 assessment for Honda, 2016 for Skoda), though active safety varied between the two rivals.
Both fit wide-range radar- and camera-based AEB and quote pedestrian protection avoidance smarts in literature as well as adaptive cruise control.
Further, the Civic fits the Honda Sensing suite, which includes lane- and road-departure warnings, lane-keeping assistance and auto high-beam, whereas the Skoda demands an extra $1600 Luxury Pack to add lane assist, side assist and blind-spot monitoring.
Each gets a reversing camera and rear sensors, though the Civic adds multiple camera views, front sensors and Honda’s signature Lane Watch kerb-side rear-facing camera. The Honda alone gets power-folding mirrors and keyless go, whereas the Skoda demands cost-option packs to add these features.
Inside, the Civic fits partial leather trim and fully electric heated front seats and colour LCD instrumentation, while the Octavia fits mechanical seats with cloth trim and analogue gauges as standard.
Infotainment-wise, each offers Apple and Google smartphone mirroring, the Skoda has a larger, higher-resolution 8.0-inch touchscreen against the Honda’s grainy 7.0-inch system, though only the latter fits digital radio and neither offers proprietary navigation. Both cars, though, bring auto-dimming rear-view mirrors, dual-zone climate control and rear privacy glass.
All in all, the Civic fits a number of features the Octavia lacks without an extra spend. And although the Skoda does offer some 'simply clever' idiosyncrasies – flocked door trims, door rubbish bins, a windscreen ‘pass’ holder and even an umbrella in its own under-seat cubby – the Honda takes the win here for the most fulsome equipment list.
In the cabins
Even before you climb inside, it’s clear that Honda’s designers have forged a bolder path than those at Skoda. The latter perhaps stymied into a level of mediocrity positioned as the lowly, buck-busting marque in the Volkswagen Audi Group empire.
The Skoda’s almost dour restraint does present charm to some buyers' taste, and the evident Volkswagen DNA – the wheel, the screens, the switchgear, material integrity – does the Octavia a lot of favours in the ‘feel nice’ stakes regardless of the suppressed styling.
Ergonomically, the Octavia is sound, clear and pleasing. Everything is logically placed and intuitive to use, pared back in frills if not necessarily cheap in most areas, though the alloy-look highlights are conspicuously plasticky. And while the seat trim is more hardy than tactile, seat shapeliness and bolstering are excellent. It’s a comfy and easy-to-use device.
The Civic is wilder in look, more complex in material diversity, and sportier in its ‘sell'. But despite the upmarket approach with those part-leather, eight-way electric pews, the Honda is conspicuously cheaper looking and feeling in more areas than the Skoda. And that extends from the low-rent plastics used here and there to the richness of the in-screen displays.
Front seating is lower slung to match the sportier ambience, but it lacks the ergonomic clarity of the Skoda, is more constricted in comfort-centric adjustment (steering reach and seating), and its slightly more claustrophobic nature – which does have its appeal – doesn’t offer as much outward visibility.
Both present fairly average infotainment. The Honda’s is clunky in format and usability, small in size and looks outdated. And while you switch the frankly distracting Lane Watch feature off with the touch of a button at any given left-hand turn, it reboots itself annoyingly the very next manoeuvre. There’s also no navigation, which is disappointing for a small car wanting north of $30K.
The Skoda’s touchscreen is larger, cleaner and infinitely slicker, but features-wise the infotainment cupboard is bare. Further, the touch sensitivity is poor, leaving you stabbing at the on-screen button numerous time to activate the features it, well, doesn’t have.
There’s no sat-nav, no digital radio – anything bar AM/FM radio and trip computer details it sources from your smartphone.
Climb into their second rows and the Honda takes the slim advantage in leg room and, with its lower seat base, useable head room, though it really doesn’t matter so much as both are hugely accommodating for adults by all measures.
Splitting hairs, the Skoda’s rear bench is a little more form-fitting and outward visibility is a little better for shorter children. But only the Skoda fits rear air vents – plus, yes, an ashtray – and neither offers rear support for powering devices of any sort. The lack of features in the back is disappointing, particularly in the Honda.
The trade-off for a bit of extra leg room in the Honda is that it has a bit less space in the boot, though the Skoda’s cavernous 568L boot holds a mere 51L advantage. If you hold any prejudice that a small – or quasi-medium in Skoda’s case – sedan lacks real-world family-friendly roominess and practicality, you ought to take even a cursory glance at either of these cleverly packaged models.
For interiors, the Skoda is the victor. But it’s a very slim victory, and the fitter ownership prospect is really down to personal taste and whims.
On the road
Neither competitor is a powerhouse nor, at 1.4 and 1.5 litres respectively for the Skoda and Honda, particularly fulsome in cubic capacity for turbocharged vehicles nudging 4.7m in size.
The Civic’s 127kW trumps the Octavia’s meagre 110kW by a decent measure, though the latter’s 250Nm,where you’d expect to feel the advantage in shove across balanced driving, is markedly higher than the former’s modest 220Nm. For context, the 1.5-litre turbo fitted to Honda’s CR-V makes 20 more units of power and torque than its sedan stablemate tested here…
The first surprise is that both cars feel more potent on the road than their numeric prowess suggests. And the second surprise is that the Honda has the sportier powertrain character, despite being fitted with the CVT transmission against the Skoda’s more technically advanced seven-speed dual-clutch arrangement.
The Civic is much cleaner off the mark, more linear through the engine’s rev range and, unlike the mojo-bereft Octavia, adds in a bit of nicely muted rort to the exhaust note to match the sporty RS theme.
And while the CVT is hardly the last word in response when faking its rev-altering ‘gear changes’, it’s quite a satisfying and refined thing to punt with gusto, and just gets better when you back off and tootle around the burbs or along the motorway.
There’s certainly a kick to the Skoda off the mark, but it’s frustrated by an uncomfortably urgent clutch take-up, be it part or full throttle. On the move, the dual-clutch is much happier, but the whole powertrain isn’t terribly happy in D mode, where response is too lazy, or tapped (via the transmission controller) into S-for-sport, where it’s overly keen to hold high engine RPM to keep the small 1.4 on the boil. It’s simply a more frustrated experience whether it’s driven leisurely or with more conviction.
Consumption-wise, the Octavia comes with a rosier 5.2L/100km combined fuel consumption claim than its rival’s 6.3L/100km, but both returned high eights in identical driving conditions, and the Honda will happily drink 91RON, whereas the Skoda requires 95.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Skoda drive experience is the same reason why owners warm to the brand: it shares a lot of traits with its Volkswagen Golf cousin. There’s an undeniable kinship in the evenness of the steering, its general balance and clarity of connection with the road with what’s long been the small hatchback benchmark.
However, the Octavia imparts more a sense of Golf in its DNA, but in certain ways feels like it skipped finishing school in a couple of areas. For one thing, the ride is terser than it should be.
There’s also a lot of tyre roar, indicating a lack of sound suppression, and it thuds loudly across expansion joins and cat's eyes. The lack of comfort concessions is somewhat surprising, given that virtually nothing about the chassis or how it's tuned conspires to drum much in the way of sportiness at all.
The Civic has more of a sporty underpinning in its on-road manner: not overly, but it’s there. Its more performance-oriented rubber – and 10mm more of it on each corner – conspires for more grip, and it maintains a tauter dynamic character when you push on.
And yet, its suspension is less noisy and it doesn’t transmit as much of the road’s imperfections through to the chassis. In short, it rides and handles a little nicer than the Skoda, and executed with more polish.
To be clear: if you’re expecting a mildly diluted Civic Type R experience from the RS, or even a genuinely warm hatch-like approximation, you’re in for some disappointment. But Honda has invested some effort into injecting shades of sportiness to match the looks, and some is more than what was on Skoda’s brief.
Both options come with five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranties. At the time of writing, Skoda offers a three-year/45,000km service pack totalling $800 and a five-year/75,000km pack for $1400 inclusive, marketed as one year and two years of free servicing respectively.
Interestingly, Honda is currently offering a complimentary two years/30,000km of free servicing, though interestingly servicing intervals are advertised at 10,000km caps at $297 base cost per visit.
While the Skoda Octavia Sport is a solid and nicely made offering, it’s a little too lean in the equipment department compared with the Honda, particularly on the active-safety count.
The Skoda could have redeemed itself had it demonstrated a nicer on-road character, or even a sportier one, but neither was the case.
While there are certainly some areas where the Honda might lift its game – infotainment quality, second-row appointments – it was simply more premium, or at least convincingly mid-ranged, in more areas than the Skoda. And it also proved to be a more satisfying and polished drive, by measure of sportiness or otherwise.