Skoda Octavia raises the game
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Skoda, as a brand, has had its fair share of grief over the years. For some time it was the butt of all manner of jokes, but in the new era the company has gone from strength to strength, building a range that is competing with its Audi and VW stablemates on an equal footing.
In some markets it is driving over the top of its Volkswagen Group brethren, backing up and then doing it again.
This is actually the fourth completely new Octavia. The first appeared in 1959, but made its comeback in 1996, was followed by a facelift in 2000, a new model in 2004 and the most recent facelift in 2008.
Shaking its Eastern Bloc communist "years of darkness" has taken some time, but now badges like Fabia, Superb, Yeti are very desirable - and the star of this show has to be Octavia. After first driving the Octavia in the early noughties, I was immediately taken with its brilliantly balanced demeanour and high interior standards - its diesel engine was a particularly good unit and the only real mark in the minus column was its temperamental DSG transmission.
The car has gone from strength to strength and with Skoda recently adding the sweet little Rapid to the range, fans of the "flying appendage" (look closely at its much-maligned logo) have been waiting for the next-gen Octavia to roll off the boats.
After a very brief sampling of an ever-expanding set of options, at first look it's been worth the wait - although fans of the rortier RS models will have to shuffle their feet a little longer.
Jump-in point has sunk to a very wallet-friendly $34,990 for the 103TSi. In fact, all models have seen a bit of a discount on the magic retail list, with an average of $2500 sliced off the all-important bottom line.
Specification is in two flavours - Ambition and Elegance - with the range-topping Elegance 4x4 wagon coming in at $43,600.
Ambition bundles 16-inch alloys with seven airbags, cloth interior, parking aids and heated mirrors, with the Elegance package adding an inch of shiny wheel real estate, dual zone air, auto parking, self-dimming electric mirrors and an internal/external alarm system. The sought-after wagon gets an electric tailgate.
This Octavia has moved to the VW Group's global MQB platform, which helps in rationalising parts cost across a host of its brands, and means better pricing, better performance and better specification.
In all, it's pretty good news for the Skoda buyer. The cars have shed 65kg across the board, while getting a bit longer and a sliver wider. This doesn't mean they feel unwieldy to pilot, and the test route we took last Friday, taking in some of Waikato's wonderfully winding and entertaining backroads on the way to Raglan, was a real joy to attack, even in the bottom-rung model that forgoes a multilink rear end.
These roads, while well-cambered and cut by someone who obviously had a taste for going stark raving on motorcycles, are still coated in the coarse chip that has seen many a good handling Euro car come to bits with the lower let-go point and a juddery ride.
Like its predecessor, this new Octavia ate them up, with any hint of front-drive understeer now quickly dealt with courtesy of its new progressive power-steering system.
New Zealand's young rally hero Hayden Paddon was along for the ride, fresh off another European outing in his Fabia. A driver who places obscene demands on reliability under duress, he has nothing but positive things to say about the brand.
Interior quality has taken another lift - which fits well with the new comfort and safety features - with hard plastics relegated to the bottom of the doors and the base of the centre console and soft-touch materials cementing Skoda's ambition atop the mid-sized tree.
Safety is where many buyers in this part of the market place a lot of emphasis, with Octavia's target market usually having a couple of fairly young kids to consider in any purchasing equation. There are ISOFIX and top-mounting child seat tethers, but it's extras like multi-collision brake (which stops a car rolling back into danger after an accident) as well as parking pilot, 360-degree vision for safety when maneuvering at low speed on driveways and the like, and active lane keeping which could really seal the deal.
We've only dipped our toes into the range, with a reasonably short time in each of the models - but there's a big set to get through, with a 1.4 TSi petrol engine with 103kW and 250Nm, plus a 1.8 with 132kW. The diesel offerings are a 77kW/230Nm 1.6 TDi and a 110kW/320Nm 2-litre.