ŠKODA OCTAVIA 2020 110 tsi base

2021 Skoda Octavia review

International first drive: 2.0-litre TDI diesel wagon

Skoda's popular mid-sized Octavia now has a new generation on offer. Will it be worth your attention when it reaches Australia next year? Let's find out.
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Selling practical cars in significant volumes at reasonable prices is what Skoda does best. Nowhere is this more evident than with the modern-day Octavia, which has captured an impressive 6.5 million sales worldwide across three model generations since being introduced to the Czech carmaker’s line-up back in 1996.

Over that time, the Octavia has regularly accounted for up to a third of the overall production at Skoda’s Mladá Boleslav factory in the Czech Republic, and a good deal of its profits as well – all of which leaves the fourth-generation model with quite a lot to live up to.

Still, the first impressions are almost entirely positive. Despite the ever-growing number of SUV models introduced to the Skoda line-up in recent times, it is clear that the Octavia still demands a great deal of respect among those holding the development budget purse strings. And it’s fully reflected in the attention to detail, clever packaging and depth of engineering displayed by the new model.

There’s a pleasing richness to the 2020 Skoda Octavia’s design that hints at greater maturity than with any of its predecessors. Traditional touches such as a bold chrome grille, the angular headlights, heavily contoured bonnet, deeply etched flanks and more heavily structured rear end are all carried, but in a reinterpreted form with greater cohesiveness. Overall, it is claimed to be up to 14 per cent more aerodynamically efficient than its predecessor.

As it has for the past 23 years, the new Octavia offers a choice of two body styles: a liftback or an estate – the latter tested here. Both will be available from the start of Australian sales, with deliveries planned to begin during the first quarter of 2021.

Pricing hasn’t yet been announced, but with the cheapest current Octavia wagon starting from just under $29,000 plus ORCs, and the new Scala small hatch just announced from $26,990 drive-away, there's a real chance for the new Octavia range to push into a starting range from the low-$30K mark.

Underneath its sharply drawn exterior, the Octavia retains the versatile MQB platform that it first adopted in 2012 and is now used extensively across the Volkswagen Group – albeit in a lightly modified form, with added rigidity and stiffness to its hot-formed steel-and-aluminium structure.

The new Skoda also uses the same 2686mm wheelbase of the car it replaces. But, in a move aimed at providing greater interior accommodation and more load-carrying space, the estate has grown moderately. Length is up by 22mm to 4689mm, width is extended by 15mm to 1829mm, and height has risen by 3mm to 1468mm.

The retention of the MQB platform means many of the hard points of the third-generation Octavia are also carried over to the new model, as is the electromechanical steering system and the suspension. This uses a combination of MacPherson struts up front and either a torsion beam or multi-link arrangement at the rear, depending on the model, but all with detail changes aimed at making the car more comfortable.

Overall, there are four different chassis options, including the top-of-the-line Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) with Driving Mode Select system fitted to our test car. Together with a general 10mm lowering in ride height, this brings adaptive damping and a range of different driving modes that allow you to alter the characteristics of the steering, damping and throttle mapping.

Yet while the mechanical basis remains much the same, Skoda has mirrored the developments brought to the eighth-generation Volkswagen Golf, alongside which the new Octavia was conceived, by providing the car with a reworked electric architecture. With this comes more advanced active safety systems, including optional adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance with level-two autonomous functions, as well as matrix LED headlights.

In a bid to provide the new car with the same broad appeal as previous iterations of the Octavia, Skoda is offering a wide range of powertrains, and many but not all are set to be offered in Australia.

Included are turbocharged 1.0-, 1.5- and 2.0-litre petrol units developing 81kW, 110kW and 140kW respectively, as well as a single turbocharged 2.0-litre diesel in three states of tune at 85kW, 110kW and 147kW.

To this, Skoda plans to offer a wide range of alternative units, including a turbocharged 1.5-litre engine that runs on compressed natural gas (CNG) with 96kW in a single g-TEC model. In addition, turbocharged 1.0-litre and turbocharged 1.5-litre engines with mild hybrid properties, rated to the same 81kW and 110kW as the regular models, in a pair of new e-TEC variants and an iV-badged plug-in hybrid running a 1.4-litre petrol engine and electric motor developing a combined 150kW.

They come mated to either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, and offer either front-wheel drive or optional four-wheel drive depending on the engine.

The model driven here, the front-wheel-drive 2.0 TDI, uses the latest evolution of the Volkswagen Group’s turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel engine. Among its developments are new pistons and conrods – both of which are aimed at providing it with added refinement. In addition, there are two catalytic converters featuring a twin-dosing urea injection system that’s claimed to reduce NOx emissions by up to 80 per cent compared with earlier incarnations of the engine, providing it with Euro 6d-Temp compatibility.

Inside, the Octavia has taken a clear step upmarket, and in doing so exposed itself to a whole new group of potential customers who seek premium brand values, equipment and technology.

Whether this will alienate its existing buyer base remains to be seen. However, the shift in emphasis is quite marked, as exemplified by the decision to provide the Octavia with expensive-looking chrome trim elements and optional ambient lighting throughout the cabin.

It immediately feels nicely sized and agreeably roomy as you step inside. There’s a sense of greater space from the driver’s seat, which can be adjusted to a generous degree, as can the steering wheel. This sense of added accommodation also extends to the rear, which, although having a fairly low-set bench, now offers 78mm more knee room than before.

The design of the new multi-layer dashboard and its various controls – including the standard twin-spoke multifunction steering wheel and new electronic-control gear selector – is classier and more intuitive to use than before. The materials featured throughout are also clearly of a higher grade and feel more premium than those used in any previous iteration of the Octavia. Reflecting the upmarket shift, a head-up display is offered – a first in any model from Skoda.

Of further note is the wide range of infotainment options. Drawing on the technology introduced on the latest Golf, the Octavia offers a choice of four systems, with central displays ranging from a standard 8.25 inches up to 10.25 inches. Along with standard touchscreen control and a slider element used to change the audio volume, you can opt for voice control and gesture control.

In top-of-the-line Columbus guise, the response of the touchscreen is excellent: you can touch and swipe through commands quickly without interruption or any annoying pauses. What’s more, its clarity is outstanding, with a good range of brightness and contrast.

On the connectivity front, smartphones can be paired via SmartLink to Android Auto, Apple CarPlay or Mirror Link. An inbuilt eSIM card also provides the basis for a range of online services and a Wi-Fi hotspot for passengers. Two USB-C ports come as standard within the front centre console, although you can specify up to five, including two in the rear and one in the overhead console. There’s also an inductive charging pad on the options list.

Still, Skoda hasn’t forgotten why buyers have traditionally flocked to the Octavia Estate: its outstanding everyday usability. At 640L, the boot is 30L larger than before. Allow the electronic mechanism to open the tailgate and the flat cargo floor appears commodious, even before you lower the rear seats by pulling the handles at the rear.

Storage space elsewhere, including in the centre console and large door bins, is equally impressive, making this an easy and highly practical car to live with. For those who tow, there’s a retractable towbar on offer.

The Octavia Estate 2.0 TDI tested here isn’t geared towards performance – but that’s not to say it lacks for driving appeal. In everyday conditions, it proves wholesomely capable in all of its four driving modes, giving it a broad spread of characteristics that promises to find favour among a wide customer base.

The 110kW version of the Octavia’s diesel engine is likeable for its punchy low-end disposition. There’s a pleasing slug of shove from little more than 1500rpm that allows you to pick up speed in authoritative fashion. It’s not rapid by any stretch of the imagination, and becomes a bit breathless beyond 4500rpm, but it manages to deliver fairly vigorous acceleration when you load up the throttle in lower gears, thanks to its 360Nm of torque at 1600rpm.

It’s at constant motorway speeds, though, that the Octavia Estate 2.0 TDI is arguably at its most convincing, as the flexible nature of the engine, the tall gearing and the impressively smooth mechanical refinement combine to make for relatively relaxed qualities. It never really excites, but neither are extended journeys a chore.

It’s quite economical, too. WLTP combined figures suggest this car will return between 4.3 and 5.4L/100km in its most economical driving mode. Part of this comes from the programmed willingness of the automatic gearbox, as fitted to our test car, to shift into a higher gear at the very first opportunity in automatic mode. The shift quality itself has been improved from that in the previous model, making for smoother progress and greater well-being.

The Octavia Estate’s dynamic traits mirror the competent qualities of its diesel engine, the emphasis being very much on the overall ease of driving and handling that’s controlled but never excitable. Operate within the car’s limits and it’s satisfying in almost every situation. Just don’t expect much in the way of all-out athleticism. Not in this particular model, at least.

The steering isn’t exactly alive with feel and feedback, but it’s accurate and well weighted. There’s a distinct lightness at low speeds that makes for excellent manoeuvrability around town, then it weights up for greater engagement at higher speeds.

The Octavia corners with typically predictable traits in its most sporting driving mode. Turn-in is crisp and precise, while body roll is nicely controlled with progressive lean as lateral forces rise. Push hard in slower corners and the electronic stability-control system triggers well before the front end begins to push wide. It’s enthusiastic but hardly thrilling.

Thanks in part to the varying qualities offered by its optional adaptive dampers, the Octavia also provides excellent road shock absorption in Comfort mode, at least in combination with the 205/55-profile Continental Winter Contact tyres worn by the 17-inch alloy wheels of our test car.

The appeal of the Octavia Estate continues to centre on its outstanding versatility, cleverly packaged interior and overall roominess, rather than its performance, driving appeal or dynamics – in 2.0 TDI guise, at least.

To this, the fourth-generation model also adds a smart new appearance, a renewed layer of perceived quality and greater refinement. All of which helps to make the latest incarnation of the most popular Skoda in recent years a more attractive proposition than ever before.