Skoda's Octavia Scout crossover ticks all the boxes
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Scout prepared to take on serious SUV brands
Octavia is a key model for Skoda New Zealand, accounting for half its total sales, with the wagon alone making up 38 per cent.
SUVs are the single most popular vehicle type in the country, accounting for more than 30 per cent of passenger car sales.
So it stands to reason that a new SUV version of the Octavia is a big deal for the Czech brand's local distributor.
Meet the Octavia Scout, a crossover variant of Skoda's mid-size wagon, with extra ride height, four-wheel-drive and (perhaps most importantly) quite a bit of body addenda to identify it as an aspirational off-road vehicle.
The Octavia Scout has been available since 2006, with a facelift model in 2008. But this latest version is the first based on the new-generation MQB platform from parent company Volkswagen. It's also used on the Golf and Audi A3.
So the Scout ticks quite a few boxes for the family buyer. It's thoroughly modern and meets the tastes of the local market head-on.
It also has potential to pique the interest of the enthusiast, because the TDI turbo-diesel version of the Scout shares its 135kW/380Nm, 2-litre engine with the high-performance Octavia RS.
According to Skoda's factory figures, the Scout is marginally quicker to 100km/h than its glamorous sibling: 7.8sec v 8.2sec. Four-wheel drive is obviously useful for more than just fishing trips.
There will be a second Scout powertrain option from April with the arrival of the TSI version, with a 132kW/280Nm, 1.8-litre turbo-petrol engine that propels the car to 100km/h in the same 7.8 seconds.
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The Scout TDI is priced at $49,990 while the TSI will be $48,200.
"I think we'll quickly see Scout overtake other models in the Octavia range," says newly appointed Skoda NZ general manager Greg Leet.
"It will sell as well as the RS and it will be a major contributor [to our volume]. New Zealanders love a soft-SUV approach to a vehicle, with that extra ground clearance and a bit more robustness."
Projected first-year sales of 85 won't see the Scout scale the sales charts, but it'll be an important player in Skoda's aim to hit 1000 sales in 2015 and double that figure (2 per cent market share in today's figures) by 2020.
SUVs are a big part of Skoda's longer-term strategy. In two years we'll see the maker's long-awaited (but as-yet unnamed) seven-seat crossover, which will be built on the same platform as the next-generation Audi Q7 and Volkswagen Touareg.
Part of the Scout's role is to get more "bums on seats" and make Skoda more of an SUV brand, says Leet.
"The new A-SUV [as it's known at the factory] will provide a massive boost to our volume, but we have a job to do before we get to that point. We need to grow awareness of our brand."
That lack of awareness shows in the modest sales performance of Yeti, which is critically acclaimed and available in a comprehensive model range that includes two and four-wheel drive, petrol and diesel power.
Yet it's often forgotten by buyers shopping in the small-to-medium SUV segment.
Unlike the smaller Yeti, the Octavia Scout is a crossover version of an existing road car rather than a standalone SUV. But it certainly looks the part: front and rear bumpers are unique, there are black plastic wheel arch extensions and special badging.
Aside from the grunty diesel engine and on-demand four-wheel-drive system, the Scout is fitted with a factory option called the Rough Road Package, which raises the ride height and provides extra underbody sealing and protection for the engine and fuel system.
A similar package is also available as an option on the existing Octavia 4x4, although the Scout rides a little higher again: ground clearance of 171mm compared with 154mm.
You can't go large on wheels and tyres. The Scout stays sensible with 17-inch rubber to maintain all-road credibility, but there are three chunkily different styles of rim to choose from. So it's mainly about function, with a bit of fashion for good measure.
The Scout is more a top-of-the-range wagon. It's based on the Octavia Elegance but comes with even more standard specification. It features Alcantara and leather upholstery, a large eight-inch touch-screen with satellite navigation and a signal-boosting pad for your mobile phone in the centre console.
The cabin styling is still a bit dour compared with Japanese and Korean models, but you can't fault the fit and finish.
To drive, you could easily argue the Scout offers the best of both worlds. You get RS performance but without the wheelspin-drama in damp conditions. You get a bit more chassis compliance with accomplished handling and active safety. Not to mention excellent all-weather and all-road ability when required.
Potential rivals? Naturally Skoda hopes for broad appeal, but there's really only one direct competitor: the Subaru Outback.
The Japanese vehicle has been a Kiwi favourite for a long time and there's an all-new model due on sale for 2015. That's exactly the space where Leet wants the Scout to be - a little left of centre perhaps, but still very much in the thick of things.
"Make no mistake, Skoda is a mainstream maker competing in a mainstream environment. It's not niche, it's not entry-level European. It's a credible mainstream brand."