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Skoda reprises its most popular nameplate with added tech and premium appeal

Simple, rational, value-packed appeal has, to date, driven the sale of more than six million examples of the Skoda Octavia since the modern iteration of the car was introduced by Skoda in 1996.

Even after the swelling of the Czech company’s model range with city cars (Skoda Citigo), crossover (Skoda Kamiq) and a seven-seat SUV Skoda Kodiaq in recent years, this practical, sensible family liftback, together with the related estate version, remains the keystone around which its maker’s growth has been built over the past 25 years. It has, at times, accounted for as much as a third of all the cars made at Skoda’s Mladá Boleslav factory all on its own.

Diamond lattice motif in the tail-lights is a carry-over design feature from the smaller Scala and translates stylishly to the Octavia. All rear bulbs are LEDs, too.

The arrival of the fourth generation of the Skoda Octavia, which we’re testing this week in estate form, is therefore big news in both Prague and wider Volkswagen Group circles. And for a car that has consistently had a flavour of functionality-first understatement done so studiously that, at times, it has smacked strongly of blandness, there is now a slight change of tack.

In line with Skoda’s strategy of making smarter, bolder, more upmarket and more desirable cars and, in doing so, gradually shifting the perception of its brand into pseudo-premium territory, the model anchored at the very centre of its business is moving that way, too, in ways we’ll lay out in more detail very shortly.

The Octavia Estate line-up at a glance

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Only a small handful of conventional petrol and diesel engines are available for the Octavia Estate from launch. In the coming months, this line-up will be expanded, while mild hybrids and plug-in hybrids (including the new vRS) will also be made available.

SE First Edition currently represents the entry-level offering and is followed by SE Technology, SE L and the range-topping SE L First Edition. It’s worth noting that prices for the Octavia hatch are roughly £1000 cheaper, give or take.

DESIGN & STYLING

Skoda Octavia Estate 2020 road test review - hero side

The Octavia was one of the first modern Skodas to demonstrate the firm’s preference for designing cars that bridge vehicle segments in simple size terms.

It has always been large for the family hatchback class and, at approaching 4.7 metres in length, the five-door liftback version remains that way. So it’s not any particular packaging genius that has founded the car’s reputation for practicality but Skoda’s own realisation in the early 1990s that it could make a family hatchback more or less the size of a contemporary D-segment saloon for the same price that its rivals were asking for a C-segment five-door and, in doing so, it might give bargain-hunting families all the space they really needed at a knock-down price. And, for years, that’s precisely what the Octavia did.

A Skoda wouldn’t be a Skoda without some ‘Simply Clever’ features. The windscreen ice scraper housed on the inside of the fuel cover flap is one such item. Handy in colder winter months.

Interestingly, though, when you shift your gaze towards current C-segment estates, the Octavia is suddenly not such a giant. Extended-wheelbase estate versions of the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla and Vauxhall Astra have become a much closer match for the Octavia on overall footprint in recent years – and, this time around, Skoda has elected to make the liftback and estate versions of this car exactly the same length. That’s how it comes to pass that the Mk4 Octavia Estate is only an inch or two longer than the Focus Estate and Corolla Touring Sports – and its wheelbase is actually shorter than those of its two rivals.

Just as the recently tested eighth-generation Golf did, the new Octavia sticks with an overhauled version of the VW Group’s MQB platform, which has been lightened and stiffened in places. It’s powered by a range of transversely mounted three-cylinder and four-cylinder engines up front that in most cases drive the front wheels exclusively.

Right now, the engine choice is limited to 109bhp 1.0-litre and 148bhp 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engines, as well as 114bhp and 148bhp versions of the VW Group’s latest 2.0-litre Evo diesel. However, by the end of this year the line-up will have expanded to include, for the first time, a 1.4-litre petrol-electric plug-in hybrid (as seen in the likes of the Superb iV and Volkswagen Passat GTE) and two 48-volt mild hybrid petrols, as well as more conventional petrols and diesels, with a plug-in hybrid vRS performance version at its upper end.

The 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel in our test car features ‘twin-dosing’ selective catalytic reduction for what’s alleged to be an 80% reduction in NOx emissions. With a variable-vane turbocharger, the unit is also significantly more thermally efficient than the engine it replaces and produces a healthy 266lb ft of torque at peak output.

The Octavia uses independent MacPherson struts for suspension at the front axle, and most versions are equipped with a torsion beam arrangement at the rear, with independent multi-link rear suspension featuring only on versions with more than 148bhp.

Steel coil springs do the actual suspending. Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) adaptive dampers are available for extra cost and bring with them a 10mm drop in ride height for the car, although they weren’t fitted to our test car.

The car’s design certainly makes a bolder statement than an Octavia ever has before, due to the visual impact of that enlarged radiator grille, those slimmed-down headlights and the meaner stare they combine to create.

INTERIOR

Skoda Octavia Estate 2020 road test review - cabin

Skoda’s approach to interior design has really come along in leaps and bounds. Where no-nonsense practicality and outright usability have long been the calling cards of the Czech brand’s cabins, the fourth-generation Octavia builds on that by throwing in a healthy extra dose of material flair and technological sophistication.

So the dash-top of our range-topping SE L First Edition test car is partly covered in a smart microsuede material, while soft-touch moulded plastics and part-leather upholstery are used to lift the tactile appeal of the Octavia to impressive heights. Much like its VW Group siblings, the new Octavia employs a decidedly more minimalist interior layout, with the vast majority of controls (such as those for the heating and ventilation, rather annoyingly) now integrated into the 10.0in infotainment touchscreen that protrudes from the central dashboard plateau.

With 640 litres of seats-up boot space, the Octavia comfortably beats the likes of the Toyota Corolla Touring Sports (581 litres) and Ford Focus Estate (608 litres).

Ostensibly, it really is a smart-looking environment in which to spend time, and a few of our testers even said they preferred the look and general feel of the Octavia’s cabin to that of the latest Audi A3.

As with the Audi, however, there is a sneaking suspicion that some of the Octavia’s previous solidity has been sacrificed in the pursuit of sharper digital screens and more superficially appealing surface treatments. The row of physical shortcut buttons that run beneath the screen feel slightly cheap and flimsy, and a few well-placed pokes and prods will unearth creaks and groans lower in the cabin.

Even so, for the most part, the Octavia hasn’t compromised on usability. The slightly perched driving position is comfortable, as are the chairs themselves, and there’s plenty of adjustability in the seat base and steering column. Passengers in the second row are well catered for in terms of typical leg room and maximum head room, with 700mm and 970mm to play with respectively. For comparison, the new Volkswagen Golf has just as much room for your knees, but the top of your head will be 20mm closer to the rooflining.

The Octavia’s boot remains its standout party piece. With the second row in place, there’s a cavernous 640 litres of storage space on offer, accessed via an aperture that measures a full metre across at its narrowest point. Collapse the seats and you can liberate up to 1700 litres of load bay capacity.

Skoda Octavia Estate infotainment and sat-nav

Entry-level SE First Edition models are equipped with Skoda’s 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system as standard, whereas SE Technology, SE L and our SE L First Edition test car gain larger, 10.0in Columbus displays.

The system generally looks smart and operating basic features while stationary is relatively easy, although the navigation pathways to access some of the Octavia’s safety systems aren’t quite as intuitive as you might like.

On the move, it can be a stretch to reach the two capacitive home screen and menu buttons that are positioned on the screen’s left-hand border. This is obviously a design feature geared more towards left-hand drive markets, and it’s a pity that it hasn’t translated quite so well to cars sold in the UK.

The integration of heating and ventilation controls into the screen is also a source of slight annoyance, even with the small temperature control buttons that remain along the screen’s lower edge at all times. Simple dials would be far easier and safer to use while driving.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

For the practical-minded diesel Skoda owner, ‘performance’ plainly won’t mean the same as it might for someone who drives a Ford Focus ST estate. Our test car hauled itself to 60mph in 8.4sec, which is possibly quicker than you might have expected, but acceleration statistics and throttle response are, in the main, not that important here.

What matters is the car’s ability to waft down a motorway slip road and safely merge with fast-moving traffic, even with the mass of four passengers and their luggage aboard, when the kerb weight will have swelled to almost 1900kg. That and the capacity to execute A-road overtaking without the engine palpably straining as you make precariously lacklustre progress. The Octavia Estate doesn’t need to be fast per se, but it definitely shouldn’t feel slow, because these cars are about convenience and usability.

Surprised to find that our Octavia, with its relatively humdrum level of diesel performance, came equipped with launch control. Seems Skoda isn’t wasting any time in laying the groundwork for the upcoming vRS.

To this end, Skoda’s revised 2.0-litre diesel (it gets new conrods and pistons, although primarily in the interests of refinement, they claim) is endowed well enough on paper, with 266lb ft of torque available from 1600rpm. For context, the all-new Golf GTI develops only 7lb ft more, although, as you might expect, its power figure dwarfs the Octavia’s 148bhp.

But torque is what matters for this kind of car, and on the road there’s enough here to give the Octavia an easy-going flexibility in everyday driving. Relatively long gearing makes it plain where the engine’s propulsive strengths lie, and that is in the window between 1500rpm and 2800rpm, where there’s an adequate degree of urgency. The average owner is therefore rarely going to feel short-changed.

Equally, it doesn’t especially pay to stray beyond that region of crankshaft speed, which is something the dual-clutch automatic gearbox obviously knows, given that it will effortlessly upshift to keep the revs down.

Whether there’s less sound insulation in the car or the mapping is subtly different from that of the same engine in the Golf, under load the Octavia’s engine almost seems to yield more noise than it does acceleration. It isn’t outright uncouth – just not quite in keeping with Skoda’s increasingly upmarket pitch.

RIDE & HANDLING

Skoda Octavia Estate 2020 road test review - on the road front

The Octavia’s handling scorecard reads similarly to that for its performance: there’s enough competency to ensure that casual owners should rarely, if ever, have any negative feelings on the matter, but neither are they likely to have any positive revelations at the wheel.

In short, the car possesses very little in the way of dynamism beyond its ability to keep its body reasonably level and to go in the direction in which it’s pointed. The Octavia is therefore easy to drive but unrewarding, and its ability seems to largely stem from the underlying excellence of the MQB platform rather than any fine-tuning undertaken by Skoda. The Czechs can build cars that are satisfying to drive – anyone who drove the old Fabia or Octavia vRS models knows as much – but in the case of this car, the engineers’ priorities lay elsewhere, and understandably so.

Octavia’s dynamics won’t appeal to keen drivers, but it’s easy to drive and handles in a competent manner, while its rolling refinement and ride comfort are impressive

One thing is clear to us, though: that when it comes to steering, not all Octavias are created equal. This diesel estate steers with more conviction and heft than the inertly responsive rack of the 1.5-litre petrol hatch we’ve also driven. There’s no obvious reason why this might be, but the surprisingly serious Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres fitted to our diesel test car are unlikely to have done it any harm. These tyres also help give the chassis plenty of grip, and along with the reasonably even weight distribution, it means the Octavia will cover ground quickly if you need it to.

However, don’t expect it to feel cut from the same cloth as, say, an Audi A4 Avant on S line suspension. On this car’s passive suspension, it doesn’t take too much commitment to unearth a thoroughly unsporting degree of float and body roll, although the former is more noticeable than the latter.

Skoda’s vRS-badged performance models have in the past proved to be decently effective point-to-point machines, but the best we can say about this more anodyne example is that you’re unlikely to run into much trouble – or excitement – while you’re behind the wheel.

It lapped the Hill Route at Millbrook with exactly the sort of joyless stability you’d expect of a utilitarian estate, generating good grip from its Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres but with every direction change laced with some degree of understeer. Beyond the car’s natural meter, float then becomes an issue because of the soft springing, while the engine note becomes notably uncouth under load at higher revs.

Overall, it’s enough to leave us convinced that anyone hoping for something quietly satisfying to drive should still look elsewhere.

Comfort and isolation

Even without the DCC adaptive dampers, you wouldn’t accuse the Octavia of coming up short on rolling comfort or refinement.

Compared with its MQB-based VW Group siblings, the Skoda feels notably more softly sprung. There’s an appealing pliancy to the manner in which it smooths over most compressions taken at speed, even if particularly deep dips can cause it momentarily to run out of travel and compress onto its bump stops.

The slightly firmer and more closely monitored Sport mode that DCC would inevitably bring would probably come in handy in such instances, but our testers agreed that the Octavia’s primary ride was fluid enough, when driven in a more relaxed fashion, to make DCC seem like an attractive option rather than an absolute necessity.

Progress at town speeds is also comfortable. The majority of ruts and bumps fail to send perilously forceful impacts in through the cabin, which is decently insulated against suspension thump, too. Coupled with seats that are nicely cushioned yet not lacking in support and decent all-round visibility, the Octavia makes for an eminently usable and comfortable daily driver.

Cabin refinement is good as well, even if the engine can come across as a shade gruff under load. With our road test microphone in hand, we recorded cabin noise at 69dB at 70mph – 1dB louder than we measured in the Mk8 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 eTSI 150 a few weeks back.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Skoda Octavia Estate 2020 road test review - hero front

Skoda is introducing the Octavia with a couple of First Edition models that pack in plenty of on-board technology and wider equipment for long-time Octavia fans who want the new car – and who won’t be put off by a slightly high price. Our test car was one such example, with its adaptive cruise control, heated seats, padded dashboard – and its near-£30k before-options price.

You can expect most Octavias to be less generously equipped, with SE Technology trim (priced from £22,195) likely to lead the sales mix. These cars will get Virtual Cockpit instruments and Skoda’s 10.0in Columbus touchscreen infotainment.

Diesel Octavia and Ford Focus estates don’t perform too well against hybrid Toyota Corolla when it comes to residuals.

They won’t get some of our test car’s driver assistance and active safety systems as standard – and the upper-level tune of the 2.0-litre diesel engine is denied them, too. Even so, that’s still strong value for money.

And the even better news is that you can clearly expect very strong fuel economy from your Octavia diesel, if our testing is anything to go by. Even in 148bhp tune and rolling on optional 18in wheels, our test car averaged better than 50mpg across the full gamut of road and track testing (which is rare indeed for a diesel of this size), and it topped an indicated 70mpg on our touring efficiency test (which is almost unknown for such a big car).

VERDICT

Skoda Octavia Estate 2020 road test review - static

Skoda may have sold six million examples of the Octavia since 1996, but we think it can expect to sell a great deal more.

In diesel-powered estate form, the fourth-generation car not only hits high notes in terms of its fuel economy, ease of use and interior space, but in the right specification it will also offer better value than most of its rivals.

It leads the charge to take Skoda upmarket, and mostly succeeds

Admittedly, these traits will be familiar to owners of the previous Octavia and, to some extent, the one before that. But the newcomer brings an interior that no longer leaves Skoda’s mid-sized model feeling quite so obviously placed on the bottom rung of the Volkswagen Group product line-up, and the car has swapped some utilitarian charm for an ambience that’s more traditionally alluring.

However, our choice of engine might not be the diesel tested here. It yields reasonable performance, but petrol options – or, better still, the upcoming plug-in hybrids – would do better in terms of refinement. There is also room for improvement with the otherwise capable infotainment system. Skoda should be wary of its new minimalist approach in terms of switchgear. This is an otherwise extremely capable and competent machine.

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Skoda Octavia Estate First drives