Owner Review

2015 Skoda Octavia 103TSI Ambition review

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I have been meaning to write this for over a year, and I know you have all been hanging out for this review. Unfortunately, it’s more of an obituary than a review of an ongoing ownership.

When I read that Skoda would be returning to Australia in the last quarter of 2007, I had already seen its range of vehicles in British magazines and had read a few articles on the 1Z Octavia. I was determined to have a Skoda Octavia. I wasn’t interested in anything else. Well, the Peugeot 307 HDI wagon and the first-gen Mazda 6 diesel wagon did catch my attention for a little while.

The past reputation of Skoda didn’t faze me because it was steadily improving throughout Europe, with some European reviewers saying they were VWs with the bugs ironed out.

The Octavia was going to replace my SV21 Camry wagon, so I started saving. When the Octavia landed, the one I wanted (77TDI Ambition manual wagon) was around $30K on the road, and around $35K for the 4X4 version – so much for being the VAG budget brand. The prices didn’t really come down much as the 1Z was face-lifted, and then in 2014 the NE arrived with pricing more in line with reality, and I knew that the NE was the one. Unfortunately, the 77TDI was dropped and the 103TDI was a DSG-only proposition.

The NE was bigger, lighter and some reviewers thought that the third generation wasn’t as good in some areas as the 1Z. I didn’t care, I thought the NE looked beautiful despite some saying it looked bland.

At first I wanted another wagon, but the more I looked at the liftback, the more I liked it. The rear end was just the right side of dumpy-looking, and those C-shaped tail-lights looked so good lit up at night. I loved the fact that the sedan looks gave no hint of its large tailgate and liftback practicality.

By late 2014, I had settled on a manual petrol 103TSI Ambition with the Travel Pack (17-inch alloys, rear parking sensors, cruise control, touch-screen, four more speakers and centre armrest). I had already chosen the dealership after checking out a few in south-east Queensland.

Just before Christmas 2014, I casually mentioned on a daytrip down the coast that we should drop into the dealership and look at what they’ve got. My partner, sick of hearing about the Octavia (they liked the Superb, but being auto only and more expensive crossed it off the list), surprised me by giving one a good looking over and saying to put a deposit down on what I want.

Saint Camryn the Redwagon, conqueror of dirt roads and devourer of highways (that’s her name), had around 570,000km on the clock and various problems (syncro second and third, rust, tailgate seal, tired engine) that would cost more to fix than she was worth. But after 15 years and almost 360,000km it was still sad to see her go.

Luck was on my side, but not for someone else, when what I wanted in Brilliant Silver was sitting in Melbourne after arriving in Australia in December. An order for a wagon mistakenly ended up as a liftback and they didn’t want it.

On the first Friday of 2015, we picked up our Octavia with 20km on the clock, and I took the long way home racking up 300km that day. My first impressions were how refined, how luxurious and how lovely it all was. How very un-26-year-old Camry it was...

The next morning my partner finally got behind the wheel, put the key in the ignition, turned it and... Nothing except a warning on the centre of the instrumentation. A call to the dealership, one to the roadside assist (who were determined to get it started), then we dropped the Octavia off and had a weekend with a Yeti, which was a fun little car.

The staff at Skoda was very apologetic, very helpful, and a little surprised by the car having an E-box/fuse box wobbly, which was replaced with another from an Octavia on the lot and I was back behind the wheel of my car on Monday afternoon.

They’ve been great to deal with over the past three years, and I didn’t hesitate to go back there for servicing despite it being down the coast. I would just make a day of it, tram ride, lunch at Surfers and time on the beach.

The first thing I noticed as the kilometres piled on was how tractable and elastic the 1.4-litre turbo engine was, and it only got better. I easily went through the gears, surfing on the 250Nm of torque from 1500 to 3500rpm. I would be in second gear going around a corner and come out of it a little too slow, then the turbo spools up and off you’d go smiling at the gathering pace. It wasn’t high-performance acceleration, but it was fun to feel this little engine so willingly take off.

The six-speed manual gearbox was a delight to use with an easy shift, a wonderful snick-snick from one gear to the next and a light clutch. The gear ratios worked with the engine: 60km/h in fifth gear is 1500rpm and the same revs at 70km/h in sixth. The gearshift indicator in the instrumentation suggested a change up into top gear at around 65km/h on the flat, and it was quite happy to go along in sixth at 1300rpm. At an indicated 110km/h, the engine was turning over around 2400rpm (IIRC) and it wasn’t overly noisy, but it would have probably been quieter if under the bonnet had been lined.

The steering felt connected and pretty well weighted, but I was coming from the Camry without power steering.

Then there was the fuel economy. I am a bit of a hyper-miler, and having the computer read-out right there always made me eager to do better. I only used 98-octane in it and was easily getting over 800km out of a 50L tank and often undercutting the manufacturer's consumption claims. It wasn’t unusual to go on a drive up to Noosa or down to Ballina, with some pottering around in traffic at Caloundra or the Gold Coast, and come home with an extra 400-plus kilometres on the odometer and an average consumption of mid-fours. In peak-hour it was consistently doing low to mid sixes. I never got the chance to see if I could get the magic 1000km out of one tank.

Driving the Octavia wasn’t a chore. In fact, it ate up highway kilometres easily, and around the city with its light clutch and easy gearshift it made peak-hour a lot more tolerable. It did feel a little floaty sometimes when passing a truck at speed – probably due to its light weight (1300kg) – but it never felt unsettled.

The standard-issue 225/45 Dunlop Sportmaxx R/Ts on 17-inch alloys hung on well in all conditions and were just ready for replacing at 83,000km. I never took the car to its handling limits, it isn’t a vRS you know, and I rarely went above 4500rpm. Why bother? All the really useful stuff (for me) happened between 1500 and 3500rpm.

The interior was basic black with touches of chrome, faux aluminium and piano-black inserts with two cupholders, a touchscreen, lined bottle holders in the doors, as well as the multi-function controls on the steering wheel. The controls on the steering wheel were easy and intuitive, like the rest of the dash. Everything seemed to be where you'd think it would be. Well, except the wipers/blinkers, but that wasn’t a problem after a day or two.

The seats were comfortable, supportive and a long drive wasn’t tiring. The entire environment in the cabin was one of basic comfort – nothing flash or elaborate, just practical. The stuff you touched often had a good feel to it, while the hard scratchy plastics were in the less-trafficked areas. Also, the little touches like a bin in the door and a parking ticket holder on the A-pillar...

Two little LED lights in the overhead section gave a soft light onto the gearstick and cupholders at night. That overhead unit also had a very good flip-out sunglasses holder and some very bright reading lights that were matched in brightness by the ones in the back. People in the back not only had heaps of space, but also air vents, lined door pockets, head space and large windows.

One thing that Skoda does well is liberate interior cabin space with its long wheelbase, and the thick A- and B-pillars don’t infringe on visibility. Out back there are hooks, a double-sided mat and a few pockets, as well as enough room for a few dead bodies. In fact, the amount of stuff we could fit in the back sometimes was surprising.

My one warranty claim was getting the door handles repainted as the clear broke down, discoloured and looked yellow. Evidently it is a thing, but I can’t recall if I had heard of it happening to anyone else on the Octavia forums. I was also going to get the gear knob replaced as the leather had worn (this had happened to one other I know of) under warranty, but fate intervened.

If it hadn't been written off in the beginning of this year, just three years after picking it up, I think I would have had this car for at least another five years or so. Despite the hiccup the day after delivery, it was reliable, economical, and while not the summit of performance or style (so some think), it made me smile every time I drove it.

Someone here once posted that how you felt about your car came down to if you always looked back and smiled when you parked it. I always did.

It is an underrated car from an underrated manufacturer that is finally starting to get the attention it deserves. The replacement for my much loved Octavia was, of course, another Skoda.