What we liked
>> Updated styling
>> Interior space and storage
>> Ride and handling dynamics
Not so much
>> Lifeless steering
>> Dull interior styling
>> Not much else really...
>> Burning ambition
In Australia, the Skoda Octavia is like the broody loner who sits at the back of the class in high school and doesn't talk much. Few really know much about the individual, but get past the vague gossip and you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Priced from under $25,000, powered by Volkswagen engines and boasting all the safety and convenience features of a modern European import, the only real problem for the Octavia in Australia is brand awareness. No one really knows about the quiet kid in class. Indeed, many car buyers are still unsure or even unaware of the brand.
The new third generation Skoda Octavia could change that.
Built in the Czech Republic and underpinned by German (read: Volkswagen) running gear, the new Octavia builds on what was already a strong foundation. It's now bigger, more efficient, safer and importantly, delivers more visual impact.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
>> High expectations, low prices
The new third-generation Skoda Octavia – or MkIII to use the Czech term – is scheduled to arrive in Australian new car showrooms in the fourth quarter of 2013. Though pricing and equipment levels are still being negotiated, expect similarly competitive positioning to the current model. That means a starting price of around $25,000 for the turbocharged 1.4-litre TSI petrol model.
In addition 1.8-litre turbo-petrol, plus 1.6- and 2.0-litre turbo-diesel models are also expected to make the cut, with sedan and wagon body styles likely from launch in Australia.
Much of the new equipment we got to play with on the launch drive will be offered on Australian vehicles, and it all works as promised. This includes radar-based cruise control (Adaptive Cruise Assistant), auto dipping high beam headlights (Intelligent Light Assistant), lane departure warning and correction systems (Lane Assistant) and the eerie but effective self parking system (Automatic Parking Assistant).
Keyless entry and engine start with touch buttons on the door handles for easy locking/unlocking are nice touches, and there's even a traffic sign recognition system that informs you of the sign posted speed limit. Factor in a pre-crash auto braking system (Front Assistant emergency braking) and a push-button driving mode selection (Drive Mode Selection) and you're looking at a fully featured European car that ticks a lot of boxes.
Skoda Australia spokesman, Karl Gehling said, "All of those features will be under consideration," and that Skoda is looking to offer them "where possible". However he added that one spec level is likely for each engine variant and hinted that most of the top-shelf tech features will be offered as cost options bundled in packs.
"Certainly we'd look at offering these features in packages so there are less option boxes to tick for people, to try and make it easier," stated Mr Gehling, but he hinted that entry-level models may be fairly basic in their equipment levels.
"We've got to be conscious of trying not to price the vehicle out of the market," he said.
Other features not yet set in stone include the adoption of nine airbags – the current Octavia has six – and items such as the new high resolution touch-screen infotainment systems. All models get remote central locking, USB and Aux inputs, electric windows and mirrors.
>> New engines, new platform
If you're familiar with Volkswagen's latest powertrain and platform developments, you'll know what to expect here – engaging handling, good ride quality and assertive engine response.
The new Octavia is based on VW's MQB floorpan, which it shares with vehicles such as the Volkswagen Golf and Audi A3. That means independent suspension at all four corners (MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link setup at the rear) on top models, and a torsion beam rear setup for lower grades. Ultimately there's little difference between the cheaper, lower tech torsion beam and the multilink rear suspension setups in terms of driving dynamics, though the latter does get slightly better ride quality.
All Octavia vehicles in the European launch line-up have a torsion beam rear suspension except the 1.8 TSI model. Or as Skoda explains it, all models have independent rear suspension except diesels and models generating 103kW or less. But the reality is that the cars handle very well, even with a torsion beam.
There are a total of eight engines on offer in Europe, four diesel and four petrol, but it's likely we'll only see four – the 1.4 (103kW/250Nm) and 1.8 TSI (132kW/250Nm) turbo-petrol units and the 1.6 (77kW/250Nm) and 2.0 TDI (110kW/320Nm) turbo-diesel powerplants, all of them inline four-cylinder units.
We drove three of the engine types expected to arrive locally and the pick of the bunch was the updated 1.4-litre. The compact turbocharged petrol engine's output is a significant improvement on the current model's 90kW/200Nm, delivering acceleration performance that feels surprisingly close to the more expensive 1.8-litre models. It's also more miserly with fuel, using 5.3L/100km compared to the 1.8 TSI's 5.7L/100km.
We tested the 1.4-litre Octavia paired to a six-speed manual and it proved to be a willing, engaging performer, and a savvy cruiser. A seven-speed automatic DSG is also offered with this engine. The 1.4 TSI is currently the most popular Octavia variant in Australia, and with the added herbs we expect that trend to continue when the new model arrives.
We also drove the 1.2-litre turbo petrol model briefly, developing 77kW/175Nm, and despite its tiny displacement it was an eager operator that delivers excellent fuel consumption of just 4.9L/100km. It's unlikely, but not impossible, that this engine will be offered in Australia. There are also 'Greenline' models designed to use slightly less fuel again, but Skoda Australia's Karl Gehling said these will not be offered in Australia.
Weight has also been significantly reduced due to the adoption of higher tensile strength metals in the car's construction, with the 1.4 TSI models tipping the scales at just 1255kg. Skoda says some models have shed as much as 102kg of weight.
>> Practical and uncomplicated
Sporting an angular new design that Skoda's exterior design chief, Karl Neuhold describes as "poetic" and "clean" the third generation Octavia is a big step forward in terms of styling. Measuring 4659mm nose to tail, it's longer by 90mm and wider by 45mm – now 1814mm wide – which creates more interior room.
Riding on a 108mm longer wheelbase, the Octavia's growth spurt was necessary to accommodate the Rapid sedan, which slots in below it in the range, and the benefits of this growth include a massive 590-litre boot, an increase of five litres. Skoda reckons that's enough room for four golf bags, and with the rear seats folded down objects up to 2.4 metres long can fit in the car. And how's this: with the front passenger seat folded down the Czech car maker says a nine foot Malibu surf board will fit. That's about 2.7 metres. We look forward to putting that claim to the test.
By pushing the front wheels forward, Skoda has managed to improve interior space significantly, claiming class-leading rear seat head room of 980mm. With a 6'2" bloke in the driver's seat, I had plenty of knee and leg room sitting directly behind, and scads of head room to boot. It's no idle claim that this car is seriously roomy.
Walk around the car and it becomes apparent how fetching the new design is. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Audi should be blushing. Step inside and the car offers comfy, upright seats, and the engine starter button is located exactly where you'd expect it, where the key barrel normally is. Little touches like this and an abundance of incidental storage solutions make this car a pragmatic choice.
The interior looks and feels very much like a Volkswagen, particularly the top end models. That said, apart from the new 'Columbus' 8-inch 800x480 pixel touch screen display fitted to up-spec models, the car's cabin is not a huge leap forward in terms of styling, compared to its predecessor. It's best described as simple and functional.
>> Aiming for five star safety
The current Skoda Octavia has a four star NCAP safety rating, but Skoda is confident that additions such as nine airbags – up from six – a stronger passenger cell, plus collision avoidance and automatic braking systems will see it attain the maximum five star rating.
All of the regular driving safety systems are included – such as anti-lock braking and electronic stability control – along with a few new ones, such as radar-based cruise control, whose sensors can also automatically brake the car as part of a pre-crash auto braking system. There's a new automatic headlight system that switches the high beams on and off when needed, plus lane departure warning and correction systems, that will steer the car back into its lane. And yes, it works, but don't expect it to turn corners for you – it only functions for six-second periods.
>> Proper mid-sized rivals
Skoda has previously positioned the Octavia as a top end small car, but because the Skoda has grown in size, its rivals are now very much mid-sized cars such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Holden's upcoming Malibu. Though the pricing will be appealing to small car buyers, likely to open proceedings at around $25,000, top spec diesel wagons will be fetching close to $40K, which opens the car up to related-by-blood rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf and Jetta.
ON THE ROAD
>> Get a grip
There's a sense of quiet confidence the moment you step inside the new Octavia. It's clear the vehicle has benefitted greatly from Volkswagen's technical and manufacturing know-how, with an ergonomic cabin and a tangible sense of quality. It's an effortless car to drive, even the manual models, cruising quietly on the Portuguese highways yet more than happy to be propelled through consecutive corners at grin-inducing velocities.
Composed on open roads, the MkIII Octavia delivers a relaxed drive and ride quality is good, though it feels more firmly sprung than its predecessor. Travelling through small Portuguese villages, the suspension jiggles and jounces over lower quality paved roads, and the bumps were more clearly felt than I remember of the previous Octavia.
Navigating claustrophobic alleyways in historic villages whose town planning catered for horse and cart, not motor vehicle, posed no problem for the Czech car however, its electro-mechanical power steering and 10.4 metre turning circle ensuring good manoeuvrability.
To be blunt, the Octavia handles similarly to a Volkswagen Golf, which is no real surprise, but the main difference being the Skoda chassis is not quite as refined, so there's a little more noise, a little more rebound in the suspension. But the ride/handling balance that Skoda has struck is an agreeable blend, which together with rorty engines makes for a jack of all trades.
Being lighter pays off in terms of cornering ability and braking too. The new Octavia is sharper and more nimble than its predecessor (despite being longer and wider) and tracks through corners eagerly.
Punting the car through the hills of southern Portugal at a higher tempo, the car is engaging and exuberant, though it does run out of grip before the chassis gives in. Even so, for its intended purpose and positioning it's a high achiever, with safe, predictable handling and direct, if somewhat lifeless steering.
The manual 1.4 TSI was the most enjoyable model to drive. It gets a power boost of 12kW and 50Nm compared to the current 1.4 and it hums along beautifully from as low as 1500rpm, rarely labouring, even uphill in higher gears. There's plenty of torque thanks to the turbocharger huffing away and very little lag to report. Indeed, it's a very tractable unit and with the same torque as the 1.8 TSI but lower fuel usage, I can't see why you'd bother with the latter.
The 1.8 TSI engine is a slightly stronger engine, building up a bigger head of steam and capable of powering along surprisingly rapidly if you keep the engine above 4000rpm. Ultimately both turbo-petrol units have a similar midrange punch, with the 1.8 offering a slightly stronger top end which makes overtaking a little easier.
The 2.0-litre diesel is also a solid performer, but develops more gusto lower in the rev range and runs out of puff above 3500rpm. It's surprisingly quiet in operation however and like most modern diesels hauls strongly from almost any speed.
Skoda now offers a Drive Mode Selection system for the Octavia and though it doesn't adjust the suspension, the steering weight rises a little and engine response is sharper in sports mode.
Skoda hasn't messed with the Octavia recipe too much, tweaking the vehicle here and there rather than trying something radical, and the result is impressive, and will be even more so if Skoda Australia retains its $24,990 pricing for the 1.4 TSI model.
Skoda has already sold 3.7 million Octavia's since 1996 and plans on selling at least 400,000 of these puppies globally per year. With an assertive new look and enhancements in almost every department – not to mention a major safety upgrade – the Octavia should have no trouble retaining its title as Skoda's best-selling model. When this broody loner arrives in Oz later in 2013, it's likely to make a lot of new friends.
Read the latest news and reviews on your mobile, iPhone or PDA at carsales' mobile site…