What is it?
The new-generation Skoda Octavia, billed as the roomiest car in the compact class. This latest, mk3 Octavia is the fourth car to be based on the Volkswagen Group's MQB modular platform, following the Audi A3, VW Golf and SEAT Leon. It’s as big as a Mondeo used to be yet it costs less than a same-engined Golf.
More car for less weight is the key innovation, with all that means for pace and fuel efficiency. There's a lot of electronic cleverness, too, as befits the Octavia's new role as a 'premium' Skoda. There’s automatic emergency braking as standard, plus options including auto main beam, a lane-keeping system, adaptive cruise and automatic belt-tensioning if it predicts disaster.
Engines are 1.6 or 2-litre turbodiesels, which will dominate the UK market, and turbo petrols of 1.2 and 1.4 litres. And, as headlined above, a 1.8-litre, 177bhp petrol engine which is denied to UK buyers but is without reservation the pick of the bunch. This engine is matched to sophisticated multi-link rear suspension, while all the others make do with a torsion beam.
What's it like to drive?
The 1.8 TSI is the best-driving Octavia partly because it has the most power, delivered with smooth urgency and a quick throttle response, but mainly because it has the best mix of crisp, natural steering, an absorbent ride and tidy, precise handling. That's the combination of accurate rear suspension and a relatively lightweight engine at work, making this Octavia a grippy, deft device to fling through bends.
By comparison the torsion-beam cars feel looser around the straight-ahead and have a more fidgety ride. The effortlessly torquey, 148bhp 2.0 TDI suffers through its nose-heaviness, while the smaller-engined duo we sampled – 1.4 TSI with 138bhp and 1.6 TDI with 103bhp – are lighter on their feet but still lack the 1.8's focused, proportionally-responding feel. All of them have too much brake-servo assistance. High-end versions of all come with selectable Normal, Sport, Eco and Individual settings which tailor steering weight and accelerator response (but not dampers); the 1.8 is improved in Sport but the 1.4, especially, feels oddly artificial and unprogressive in that mode.
How does it compare?
The Octavia comes across as upmarket of the Leon thanks to its higher-quality interior trim and smarter graphics, and it treads surprisingly closely to the Golf's and A3's toes here. Objectively it's completely competitive with its relatives and with rivals such as the Focus, the Astra and the rest.
Really, though, its size almost puts it in the class above. Which makes it, objectively, a very smart buy if you can embrace the badge. As any thinking car nut should.
Anything else I need to know?
Prices start at £15,990 and top out at £23,240, with the 1.8 TSI likely to cost from around £19,500 were it to be available in the UK. It isn't in the plan because Skoda GB thinks there is no market for it. Buyers who like its attributes are unlikely to want a Skoda, goes the reasoning.
It would be good to see the 1.8 TSI in the UK, though, and Skoda GB doesn't rule out a re-think if demand warrants it. And it's a promising pointer to the Octavia vRS scheduled for a July UK launch at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. That will have around 250bhp and come, like the rest of the range, with either manual or DSG gearboxes. By then, too, we'll have estate-car versions, planned for launch in March.