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The Skoda Octavia is a dependable, quality car which is comfortable and pleasant to drive

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Launched in 1996, the Skoda Octavia was the car that finally persuaded buyers to take Skoda seriously in the Western world.

Based on the Volkswagen Golf, it was conservative, capacious, capable and a big success. More than one million were built over the next six years, as the Octavia became the mainstay of the Skoda range.

The first Octavia was dynamically insipid; this version is much better

The ethos behind the Octavia is one of the rocks upon which Skoda’s recent success has been founded. It offers the engineering quality and assembly precision of a car from parent company VW but at a significantly lower price.

So with its combination of high quality, plentiful space and low price, the first-generation Octavia won over plenty of canny buyers, ironically many of them in Germany, who could see a good deal when it was offered and weren’t going to be put off by the lack of a damped grab-handle for the front passenger.

But the old Octavia’s weakest point was arguably the dynamically insipid Golf Mk4 it was based on. The latest Octavia, however, is based on the hugely improved Golf Mk5, and is all the better for it.

The Octavia also has a bargain performance model in its ranks: the vRS. The original Octavia vRS’s mix of practicality, sub-7.0sec 0-60mph performance and a £15,100 price was enough to earn it a full five stars when we tested it in 2001.

This time, however, the second-generation iteration of the hot Skoda faces a fresh field of talented opposition, with both VW and Ford now offering five-door high-performance hatches that possess similar practicality and performance.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Skoda Octavia xenon headlights

The key ingredients for the Skoda Octavia will be familiar – they are also used in the Mk5 VW Golf, the previous-generation VW Passat and the Audi A3, among others. Suspension is by MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link independent system at the rear; the steering is rack and pinion with electro-hydraulic speed-sensitive power assistance; and there are disc brakes all round.

Although the raw ingredients are excellent, the finished product doesn’t look quite as appetising as its VW and Audi siblings. The Octavia saloon and estate look discreetly prestigious, slickly executed and well finished, with a very high standard of manufacture evident in the shutlines and paint, but it’s unlikely to garner much of a reaction from other road users or passers-by. For some, of course, that is much of its appeal.

Octavia's shape is less likely to appeal to younger drivers

So given the popularity of the previous model, it’s no surprise to learn that the new Octavia is an evolution of the old. The styling could have been plucked from the same mould. The bold, slightly pompous grille is in keeping with the company’s new-found confidence, but the simple angles and prominent shoulder lines are instantly recognisable.

The rear overhang has been extended so that a three-box profile can be combined with hatchback versatility. It’s in keeping with Skoda’s promise of offering ‘an extra bit of car’ for the same price as its more compact competitors. This is an admirable policy, but the bulbous boot looks ungainly and the rear elevation is also Euro-anonymous, despite the signature C-shaped tail lamps.

The overall shape has more presence than its predecessor and has aged well, but its maturity also means that it is less likely to appeal to a younger audience. Whereas the Volkswagen Golf is ageless, the Octavia is self-consciously a car for an older customer. Not that this has hampered Skoda’s bid for conquest sales.

INTERIOR

Skoda Octavia dashboard

No one stepping into an Skoda Octavia will feel like they have chosen a value alternative. The top of the dashboard is swathed in soft-touch ‘slush’ plastics, the fabrics are good and some of the attention to detail is terrific.

The door bins, for example, are moulded to hold a one-litre drink bottle and the chrome door handles are rubber-backed to enhance their tactile appeal.

Rear boot space is a cavernous 1350 litres with the rear seats down

The Volkswagen Golf’s rear quarters are roomy, but those of the Octavia are nothing less than palatial. There’s enough legroom for two six-footers to sit comfortably in tandem and the headroom is generous.

Equally impressive is the boot capacity of the saloon. This was a strength of the old Octavia and the boot volume of the new model has grown by 36 litres. With the rear seats in place, the capacity is 560 litres, which grows to 1350 litres when the split folding rear seats are tumbled down.

Although the Octavia estate may not look quite as appetising as its in-house siblings, it certainly provides a bigger helping. At 580 litres with the rear seats up and 1620 litres with them down, the load area trounces that of price rivals such as the Ford Focus estate (475-1525 litres).

The load sill is at an acceptable height, the opening well shaped, and the boot sides of usefully regular design. One major criticism is that the load area isn’t fully flat with the rear seats folded.

Top-specification Elegance models get a false floor that allows for secure storage in a lower compartment, and this also has the effect of creating a flat surface for the whole length of the boot.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

1.6-litre Skoda Octavia diesel engine

The excellent – and familiar – range of VW Group engines available in the Skoda Octavia ensures a wide choice for buyers. The range starts with budget 79bhp 1.4 and 102bhp 1.6 petrol units, before heading into the familiar twin-charged TSI petrol engines. There’s a 104bhp 1.2 TSI, 120bhp 1.4 TSI and 150bhp 1.8 TSI. The petrol-powered vRS gets a 197bhp 2.0 TFSI engine. Diesels include a 104bhp 1.6 TDI and a 2.0 TDI with 108bhp, 138bhp and 168bhp for the oil-burning vRS.

With just 79bhp at your disposal in the entry-level model, it isn’t quite the turgid experience you might expect. The 98lb ft of torque makes for respectable performance, but it is easily flustered by inclines and takes an age to recover from slower-moving traffic in the top two ratios. At least it’s commendably quiet, even at high revs.

The 1.4-litre engine is willing but it can sound rough at times

The 1.8 TSI engine is probably your best bet out of the petrols. It’s quiet and revvy and has lovely linear power and torque delivery with no flat spots. All 184lb ft is available from 1500rpm, so it has the springy poke of a diesel.

Elsewhere on the petrol front, the 1.4 is willing but it can sound rough at times, and you need to rev it to deliver any meaningful performance (0-62mph arrives in 9.7sec).

The real benefit of the 1.6 TDI engine is its refinement. The old 1.9-litre unit was characterised by a very gruff, intrusive engine noise and this new motor improves that dramatically – even in the Greenline model, which loses some of its sound proofing to save weight. The familiar 138bhp 2.0-litre diesel unit is also a respectable performer, particularly on a motorway run.

Outputs of 197bhp and 206lb ft in the petrol vRS translate to lag-free power at low revs and a top-end zeal that’s a world away from the flat power delivery of old vRS.

RIDE & HANDLING

Skoda Octavia front quarter

Given the Octavia’s showroom appeal, it would be a shame if the test drive was a disappointment. Thankfully, it is not. VW was determined to ensure the dynamics of the Mk5 Golf were competitive and, by default, sibling models like the Skoda hatch also benefit. The MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear is familiar, although it has been retuned by Skoda engineers.

The Octavia is well balanced and fluid on the road. It grips keenly through corners, displays fine body control and feels agile when changing direction. The steering offers limited feedback, and has a slightly aloof feeling, but it’s accurate enough.

The Octavia's ride does feel slightly too firm at times

Our only slight complaint concerns the ride. It’s well damped and absorbs bumps with sophistication, but it does feel slightly firm at times, without the final polish to cope with small ridges and surface changes like a Volkswagen Golf would. Filling the car with luggage and passengers improves things but doesn’t entirely eliminate the problem. It would be wrong to describe the Octavia as a sporting drive, but it is extremely capable and good fun.

And what of the vRS? Drive it back to back with a Golf GTI and differences emerge: the Octavia’s steering is less weighty, the turn-in less sharp and the cornering less incisive. Which car is quicker in the real world is hard to tell and, in any case, the margin is so small as to be irrelevant on a public road.

But swap between GTI and vRS and one thing becomes clear: the Golf feels much more involving and rewarding to drive. Don’t misunderstand us, because the vRS is competent and enjoyable to drive, but it fails to grab your attention and inspire you to drive in the way that the best hot hatches do.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Skoda Octavia 2004-2013

Much of the appeal of the Skoda Octavia itself is that it offers the space of a Mondeo class car but at the price of a Focus class car. This generation of Octavia is no exception. With strong standard equipment levels mated to low running costs (courtesy of advanced VW Group engines), the Octavia offers one of the best ownership propositions in the class.

All models have, as standard, air-con, electric windows, electric and heated mirrors and height and reach adjustable steering, and you don’t have to go too high up the model range to find equipment such as 16-inch alloy wheels and tinted rear glass.

We'd recommend the 1.8-litre petrol unit unless you really want a diesel

The range kicks off with the £13,280 S five-door hatch, equipped with a dated 1.4 petrol engine. A more modern 1.2 TSI can be had in the same trim for an extra £750 and is worth the extra outlay for the reduced CO2 emissions (134g/km versus 149g/km) and improved combined economy (49.6mpg versus 44.1mpg).

The most frugal model in the range is the 74.3mpg, 99g/km Greenline. It comes equipped with the 1.6 TDI engine and a five-speed manual gearbox. Unless you really want a diesel, we’d recommend the 1.8-litre petrol unit – it’s smooth, refined and punchy. And it manages 40mpg.

The petrol vRS, equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox, proved reasonably frugal on our road test. We achieved 23.8mpg during mixed driving and 36.8mpg on a touring run. The claimed combined economy figure is 37.7mpg.

With relatively low emissions of 175g/km and group 30 insurance, the vRS is still one of the cheapest hot hatches to run. But it’s not the bargain that it used to represent – and hot hatches aren’t just about the bottom line.

VERDICT

4 star Skoda Octavia

The Skoda Octavia is a car that can carry most things you’ll ever need to carry. It is frugal, classless, comfortable and really a VW in disguise – all for a bargain price.

It’s every car you could ever need, except you’re an Autocar reader, in which case the lack of any excitement or emotional involvement might be a bit of a problem. So you’ll need something low and fast in the garage alongside it; something probably frail and troublesome. But then there’s always the Skoda to rely on.

The Octavia is a no-nonsense, value-for-money car

You probably don’t need to pay the extra for the four-wheel-drive option if you buy the estate, but if you do live in a field on top of a hill or a place where it snows a lot, an Octavia 4x4 would be a fine thing to own.

As a hatchback, the vRS ultimately disappoints, but as an estate it makes far more sense. At this price, nothing can touch it for its combination of space and pace.

Fundamentally, the Octavia is a no-nonsense, value-for-money car. It’s not the most dynamic drive, but we have no hesitation recommending one and you’ll have little cause to regret buying one. For the money, it’s one of the best family hatches you can buy.

Skoda Octavia 2004-2013 First drives