Review: Skoda Octavia

Skoda introduced its latest Octavia as even more of a car for the travelling man. The mid-sized motor is the Czech brand's best-seller, with six million shifted since 1996. This year's model has a fresh face, better connectivity to services and improved safety systems. Full LED headlamps are fitted to most models.
The Octavia is big enough yet nimble when roads get narrow.The Octavia is big enough yet nimble when roads get narrow.
The Octavia is big enough yet nimble when roads get narrow.

I put it to the test, what turned out to be a long one, 1,780 miles on a loop between central Britain and Northern Spain. Several hundred land miles were replaced by sea and what could have been a direct route was interrupted by detours to places of interest.

There was a hop from Portsmouth to St Malo, courtesy of Brittany Ferries, which also provided the return route from Santander across the choppiest Bay of Biscay endured in years.

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I drove the 2-litre, 148 horse power (150ps) diesel with a six-speed automatic gearbox in SE-L trim – that’s nearly the plushest. The body was the four-door hatch, offering most of the estate’s carrying capacity but giving more aural refinement. The hatch looks better but if buying I’d choose the estate, for easier loading of large objects like bikes.

The Octavia is big enough yet nimble when roads get narrow and you are faced with sundry impatient French men and women driving like crazy.

The French leg of the trip started in the mist at St Malo, with the sun out by the time we passed Rennes and Nantes and stopped for a classic bar lunch at Le Narval in the Vendée capital of La Roche-sur-Yon. It’s worth visiting to see its animatronic robotic creatures in the water gardens of Place Napoléon.

Nearby, the wondrous Puy du Fou, the biggest draw after Disney in France, visited by more than two million a year who queue in their thousands. The Roman coliseum alone fills with 6,000 several times a day. It’s a traffic-free wonderland in 140 acres.

Cue, a link to life on French roads which mostly avoid the cone-strewn narrows and the often pointless 50mph zones which frustrate our motorways.

The Octavia thrummed along, rarely what I’d call serene at 80 in France, slightly gruff in fact, with contributions from the road contact and the engine and gearbox. At times it held a lower gear too long. Once or twice at town speeds it lurched forward when moving gear.

Mitigation includes a loaded cabin and the optional 18-inch wheels with 225/40 Bridgestones, which are always likely to give some harshness. As a customer I’d stick with the standard 17s and comfier tyres.

On paper it is rated at 62.8mpg and 118g. In real life, the trip meter recorded above 60mpg on open roads, with a cross-country best of 67.6mpg from St. Malo to La Roche.

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The diesel vs petrol debate continues. On purity, the very latest diesels should be immune from punishing taxes and city bans, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Skoda is among the companies with incentives to trade in your “dirty” car for a low pollution new model. It has also increased its petrol range, including the VW Group’s new 1.5 litre 150ps petrol which has cylinder shut-down and is rated at 57.7mpg and just 113g. (Prices from £19,830 for the SE hatch.)

For everyday driving I am swayed towards the latest petrol engines and in the Octavia the economical and very sweet running 999cc, 115ps three cylinder petrol turbo would do the job in my life (SE from £18,360).

But with miser’s eyes, the cheaper “foreign” diesel swayed my choice for this lengthy test. In France and Spain diesel was, at its cheapest, £1 per litre. Petrol was around £1.30.

The Octavia is a versatile variation of the Golf/Leon/A3 because it has an extended boot, making it a lift-back rather than a true hatchback. Its luggage capacity is therefore better.

While its info systems have been updated and improved, the satnav display has to be adjusted using fingers on the glass: the Golf has a much simpler turn-wheel to set the scale. Instructions were at times slow. We also would have liked a second USB port, maybe in the back. Another let-down was the speedometer display, with the amber outer MPH display hard to see in some lighting and marked in 20mph increments, meaning no digits for 30, 50, 70. The concentric KPH readings are a more visible white on black.

Onwards skirting Bordeaux, lunch at a favourite (Relais de Gascogne, Saint-Pey-d’Armens). Then deeper into Aquitaine, through enchanted shady avenues of trees, fields of ripe corn and sunflowers, where shoulder-high radar boxes keep us in check.

Night fell as we reached the Basque landscape near the Spanish border. The auto-dipping headlamps were sometimes slow to lift back on to full beam. Argh, where’s the road gone…

Verdict: Lives up to its billing, with some niggles.