About six months ago, I made the decision that it was time to update my ride. I set out to find a car that ticked as many boxes as physically possible, which is a harder task than you might think.
It had to get up and go when the moment took you, take a corner in its stride, carry an abundance of stuff and things, have all the technology the geeky side of your mind dreams of while being straightforward enough to be operated by your mother, sip on fuel like it’s 2009 (the recession) and have a tow rating that’s large enough to pull a (small) car. Most importantly, though, it had to feel exciting when you were in the zone, but drive like a normal car when that’s all you needed it to be.
I tested a range of hot hatches, from the infamous VW Golf GTi to something a little left of centre like a Volvo V40 R-Design. The BMW 1 Series was great to drive, but did nothing for practicality. I’ve always loved the Mazda 3 MPS, but it’s unfortunately getting a little long in the tooth. These hot hatches are all pretty great, but they all lacked a little in terms of space, and half of those on the market can’t even fit a tow bar with their sporty exhausts.
So where did I end up? Somewhere most people would never look. In the Czech Republic, in a Skoda. A Skoda Octavia RS Wagon, or Combi as they call it in its home town. Its underpinnings are based on that of a Golf GTi, a car renowned for being an absolute hoot on four wheels. It’s got the same 2.0-litre TSI engine and six-speed DSG as a GTi, so it goes like a GTi. The suspension and chassis are incredibly well sorted, so it corners like one too. But it’s a wagon, so it’s spacious and practical.
It’s also smart: there’s an endless number of little treats built into the design that keep it true to the slogan of ‘simply clever’, from Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to these little velcro things that keep your luggage where you left them in the boot. Throw the tow bar kit on and it’s got enough to tow a mate's project VW Superbeetle to the workshop.
On the economy chart, it’ll run mid-sevens per hundred if you behave and mid-nines if you’re heavy with the right foot. Good luck getting that from a V8. All this for less than 50 grand if you’re not too eager with the options form.
When you’re talking about bang for buck, it doesn’t get much better than this. I copped a lot of flak from the boys when I bought the Skoda. 'Why?' was the most common question. Five minutes in the car and that question was answered. Simply put, you get more and you pay less.
The styling isn’t for everyone, it’s understated, but it’s got a subtle class. It could have largely benefitted from a rear differential – the traction-control light can get a workout on those more spirited days as the front wheels struggle to put the power down, but that’s just technique. There’s zero torque steer even when you’re heavy footed, and with a little finesse that motor will reward in spades.
There are more practical cars, but they’re half as much fun. There are faster cars, but they’re half the size. There are more luxurious cars, but they weigh twice as much. There are better cars, but they cost twice as much.
This is one of the motoring world's best-kept secrets, but it really shouldn’t be. The only reason you don’t see more of these cars on the road is because people don’t give them a chance. Give it a chance, you won’t regret it.