Skoda: Classy Octavia wins respect
The Skoda jokes have well and truly been around the bloc now - but the armaments from those dark years of ridicule are now as inappropriate as Shane Jones' movie rental list.
Since Skoda was tucked in under the Volkswagen group umbrella back in 2000, times have changed, and in the past five or so years, especially, the Czech manufacturer has built cars that are well worthy of a global brand.
Octavia is a favourite model in the Skoda range - it's based on the Golf platform, and is slightly smaller than Volkswagen's Passat while remaining a usable five-seater four-door without sacrificing too much interior space. Featuring all of the bells and whistles you'd expect from a quality Euro, the Octavia vRS is the top of this range.
There are two-litre petrol and diesel versions available, and after spending a week getting to know the petrol model vRS, it showed a car that has to be on the radar if you're looking for a family four-door with a bit of sporting prowess, a well-appointed interior and a selection of safety features comprehensive enough to satisfy an OSH officer.
Exterior-wise, the Octavia has improved and now, in vRS spec, has a nicely aggressive stance with a wider front spoiler and chrome-effect grille. Sitting on the factory 18-inch alloys and with the standard LED daytime running lights glowing, it actually looks pretty cool - a statement that 10 years ago would have indicated insanity or drunkenness.
The inside is tidy and well appointed, and while it's not going to win prizes for innovation and style, there's plenty to like. Touch-screen stereo, dual zone air-con, an easy Bluetooth set-up that allows up to four phones to be paired to the system, and an auxiliary channel for iPods etc, plus an SD slot directly into the front of the stereo.
Bluetooth audio streaming is standard, and works well on an iPhone as long as you hit play on a playlist before sleeping your device. The rear-view mirror auto-dims (a very useful feature at night) and the glovebox and centre console stashbox are both chilled.
Safety-wise there's a half dozen airbags, whiplash-mitigating head rests, electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes and electronic brake force distribution to help wayward drivers stay on the black stuff.
That task, though, isn't particularly hard. The vRS drives impressively well, and while it sits in the middle-ground between family car and motivated motor, if you push the shifter left to turn the six-speed auto into a pseudo-manual and hook gears using the steering wheel mounted shifters, it's an entertaining and involving drive.
Powered by a four-cylinder two-litre force-fed by a high-pressure intercooled turbo, offering 147kW at around 5000rpm and 280Nm torque from just 1800rpm, the vRS isn't left wanting for grunt. It's no slouch off the line, hitting 100km/h in a shade over seven seconds, but across the mid-range it punches well above its weight.
Overtaking was swift. The only time that the computer's traction control ever really got in the way was when braking heavily from pace into a tight corner and then getting back on the power quickly. This left it scrambling and bouncing while it figured out just what it was meant to be doing.
But on the flowing open road sections that make up the bulk of our out-of-city driving, it was close to faultless, and came without the sledge understeer that cursed front-wheel drivers for so many years.
But in day-to-day use, the DSG auto and two-litre combine for an extremely smooth and tractable drive - think VW and Audi, and it's a very similar experience.
It's quiet and refined and comes with useful inner-city devices like parking sensors that understand parking buildings - as opposed to sensors that beep like a paranoid android when you're still a good four feet away from the wall.
It doesn't guzzle the gas either, even when being flogged, and showed an average of just over 10L/100km with a mixed bag of Auckland traffic and open road wandering.
For those still sniggering under their breath about those ratty old Skodas that smoked their way around our roads in the late 1980s, bear in mind that last year Skoda Auto sold just over three quarters of a million cars worldwide.