The Le Mans 24 race is one of motoring’s most daunting challenges, a nerve-shredding test of speed, endurance and performance which pushes drivers to breaking point. For sheer danger and difficulty, though, the 10,000km off-road extravaganza that is the Dakar Rally takes some beating.
Yet to my mind the drivers in both those events have it easy compared to the annual Hoyle Family Holiday grand prix.
Endurance? Check – this year we are driving from Edinburgh to Nevez in southern Brittany, a round trip that eventually takes in the best part of 2,000 miles. Danger? Check – have you ever tried to separate three squabbling children in the back seat with one hand while simultaneously changing a DVD and overtaking a juggernaut at the Devil’s Beef Tub? Well, neither have I to be honest, but you know what I mean. Anyway, while me and my family are up for the challenge, more importantly, is the car? Size, comfort and economy are in my experience key to successful family motoring and the Skoda Octavia Estate SE 4x4 stacks up well on all these fronts.
The 610-litre capacity boot swallows all our suitcases, bags and belongings with room to spare, and the luggage cover fastens neatly over it. DVDs, Kindles, games, comics, colouring pads and pens, soft toys, snacks and drinks are secreted in the various storage pockets.
Driver and passengers front and back have loads of leg and elbow room, the seats are comfy, air-con instantly demists the windows – and we’re off. With the youngsters glued to some film in the back and my navigator “resting her eyes”, we hurtle down the A701 to Moffat.
Despite the full load, the Skoda 4x4 handles the twisty roads brilliantly, with no wallowing or swaying even when cornering at pace – its 148bhp is accurately distributed between the front and rear axles with Fifth Generation Haldex traction, while electronic differential lock helps to eliminate spinning and understeer.
The brakes are responsive – and clever too. Recognising when your foot has been abruptly lifted off the accelerator and anticipating that this may be followed by braking, the hydraulics are automatically prefilled with fluid and the brake pads are brought closer to the discs for optimal stopping. I’m pleased to report that the seven airbags and automatic post-collision braking system remain untested.
Soon we’re eating up the miles on the M6 and then the M5, in sixth gear all the way, occasionally jolted to attention by the alert from the driver fatigue sensor. The maximum motorway speed limit is nothing for this 2 litre TDI and if you’re not careful I imagine it would be easy to exceed it by at least 30mph without the slightest hint of protest from the engine. Its official top speed is 132mph.
After seven hours of hard driving we arrive at Plymouth and board the ferry to Roscoff. I have only had to stop once to fill up the tank, and the trip computer shows we’ve managed an average of 47mpg. According to the handbook, the official average is 57mpg, and I feel that would be easily attainable by a lighter foot on the accelerator, paying closer attention to the gear selection recommendation display, and selecting the “eco” driving mode function, which tweaks engine torque, accelerator sensitivity, power steering, air-con and suchlike to achieve maximum efficiency.
The next morning we go to the car deck to disembark, but first have to play vehicular “Where’s Wally?” as we try to find our metallic grey estate among the serried ranks of near-identical metallic grey estates – Audis and VWs and even the Citroen C5 tricking my inexpert eye in particular.
After clearing customs, we wend our way the 90 miles or so to Nevez, mostly managing to keep to the right side of the road and luckily avoiding collisions at roundabouts from cars sneakily going round anti-clockwise. At Les Deux Fontaines campsite we find our mobile home and safely reverse into our parking space, aided by the acoustic parking sensor (wish I’d had one of those in the Berlingo we hired a couple of years ago when I backed into a well camouflaged tree stump – easy done).
Over the next fortnight of trundling about to beaches and hypermarchés and a couple of longer daytrips, the economy drops to about 39mpg, but it’s still pretty good given the load it’s carrying, coupled with my erratic driving style. I will be deeply sorry to say “au revoir” to this car when I have to hand it back.
ENGINE 2l diesel, 148bhp, 236 lb ft
PERFORMANCE Max speed 132 mph; 0-62mph 8.7s
ECONOMY 57.6mpg combined
CO2 EMISSIONS 124g/km