A Skoda Octavia was once the least sophisticated of all the Volkswagen Group's family hatchback products. Not any more. Almost nothing has been held back for this third generation version. It's still bigger and better value than most of its rivals, a Mondeo-sized medium range hatch for the price of a Focus-sized one. The difference now though, is that it's clever enough to change the way you think about Skoda.
You can trace the Skoda success story of the last couple of decades back to the original launch of one model: this one - the Octavia. Right from its very first appearance in 1996, this has been a car that's always super-sized its value proposition, offering more space than the class norm. For first and second generation versions, that class saw competition amongst Focus and Astra-class family hatches. This MK3 model though, has taken a step up in the world, virtually big enough to compete with Mondeos and Insignias in the larger medium range segment. An Octavia then, that's larger than ever before - and cleverer too - as it has to be to distance itself from the simpler, smaller Rapid model that hit the market a few months before this car arrived in the Spring of 2013. The Rapid is the car to choose for Skoda motoring as it used to be, light on frills and cutting-edge technology but solid, reliable, value-laden and built to last. This Octavia, in contrast, is more a signpost to a direction the Czech brand wants to go in the future: one that shares the very latest technology with more luxurious brands in the Volkswagen Group stable.
As with the Volkswagen Golf and the SEAT Leon, the German engineers who created this car took a pragmatic approach to driving dynamics, deciding that drivers opting for lower order engines wouldn't care too much about cutting edge handling response. So the sophisticated multilink rear suspension is reserved for the performance-oriented vRS models, the most powerful of which uses the 2.0-litre TSI petrol unit borrowed from the Golf GTI. Here though, we're focusing on the mainstream variants that most Octavia customers will be considering, all suspended with a much humbler torsion beam arrangement. Most customers will opt for either the 1.2-litre TSI petrol model or the 1.6 TDI diesel we tried, both engines putting out 105PS. There's also a frugal 'Greenline' version of the 1.6 TDI, offering up 110PS. None of these variants feel very fast but you can perk things up a bit by recourse to the kind of hi-tech intervention you simply wouldn't expect to find on a family-minded Skoda of this sort: 'Driving Mode Selection'. Simply use the infotainment touchscreen to select between 'normal', 'sport' and 'eco' driving settings, depending upon the kind of progress you want to make. You'll certainly enjoy all of this more at the wheel of one of the pokier mainstream variants, either the 140PS petrol TSI 1.4 or the 150PS diesel TDI 2.0-litre. And handling? Well as I suggested at the beginning, it isn't really geared towards the needs of the enthusiast driver, though to be fair, bodyroll is well controlled and the steering direct and precise. If you're after more than that, then you'll appreciate one of the sporty vRS models. Horses for courses you see. And if those courses are likely to be on the rough and muddy side, then you'll be interested in the four-wheel drive system also developed for this car, primarily for a Scout estate model with additional body cladding and a raised ride height.
Skoda people will probably quite like the fact that the look and feel of this car is very similar to its predecessor, despite Chief Designer Josef Kaban's attempt to create what the brand calls 'an engaging and elegant new look'. The similarities persist despite the difference in size: this car is 90mm longer and 45mm wider than its predecessor, making it all the more impressive that it also manages to be up to 102kgs lighter. But it's when you lift the heavy bootlid that you get a feel for what this car is really all about. It's absolutely huge, the 590-litre load area you reach over a notably low lip 28mm longer and 125-litres bigger than before, the space on offer almost double what you'd get in a comparably-priced Ford Focus and over 50% more than you'd get in a Volkswagen Golf. There's 610-litres if you go for the Octavia estate model. Has all this been achieved at the expense of rear seat occupants? It seems not. Enter in through the wide door openings and you'll find that, thanks to a 108mm wheelbase increase, there's more headroom and elbow width than there was before. Up front, you still wouldn't think you were in an Audi but everything's certainly much more Volkswagen-like these days in terms both of fit and finish, the feeling supposed to equate to that of 'wearing a well tailored suit', according to the design team.
Expect to pay somewhere in the £16,000 to £25,000 bracket for mainstream versions of this Octavia. Should you want the spacious estate rather than this five-door model, then there's an £800 model-for-model premium to find. The UK best seller will be the 105PS 1.6-litre TDI diesel version I've got here, a variant that commands a £1,000 premium over the identically powerful 1.2-litre TSI petrol alternative. These are the two engines you'll find in most UK Octavias. To understand why, you only need to look at the price premiums required in each case to progress to something pokier. If you're a petrol person, there's a £1,200 jump to go from the 1.2 TSI to the 1.4. And if you're a diesel driver, there's a £1,900 premium to go from this 1.6-litre TDI to the 150PS 2.0-litre alternative. If, having considered all of that, you decide that this is the car you want, then you're going to want a strong standard specification to be part of the deal. And by and large, you shouldn't be disappointed. The two bodystyles - hatch and estate - are mated with 1.2, 1.4 or 2.0-litre petrol power or one of the 1.6 or 2.0-litre diesels and there's the choice of four main trim levels - S, SE, Elegance and vRS. Whichever one you choose, your car will come with alloy wheels, tinted glass, climate-controlled air conditioning that also cools the glovebox, a height-adjustable driver's seat, a four-spoke leather-covered steering wheel, a trip computer, an eight-speaker stereo with a DAB digital radio and USB and AUX-in sockets and a hill holder clutch that stops you from drifting backwards on uphill junctions.
All the engines in this Octavia are efficient turbocharged direct injection units powering a car that, thanks to its hi-tech underpinnings, is up to 102kgs lighter than before. Small wonder then, that fuel and CO2 returns are so much improved. Best of the bunch is the eco-minded Greenline version of the 1.6-litre TDI diesel I'm driving here, able to return as much as 88.3mpg on the combined cycle and put out a hybrid-like 85g/km of CO2, making this the cleanest and most fuel-efficient Octavia ever. Even in the standard form I have here, the 1.6-litre TDI engine delivers 74.3mpg and 99g/km thanks to a Start/stop system that cuts then engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. At the bottom end of the line-up, the alternative, with the same 105PS output, is the 1.2-litre TSI petrol model, a variant that might even work out cheaper over the short term given its lesser asking price and use of cheaper green pump fuel. That's thanks to a combined cycle return of 57.7mpg and a CO2 reading of 114g/km. These are figures that fall to 53.3mpg and 121g/km if you opt for the 140PS petrol 1.4. Opt for the pokier 150PS 2.0-litre TDI diesel and you can expect 68.9mpg and 106g/km of CO2. What else? Well, insurance ranges between groups 13 to 20 on the 1-50 scale for mainstream models. There's the usual three year / 60,000 mile warranty. And there's the choice between fixed or flexible servicing regimes, depending on whether your annual mileage is short or long.
The Octavia name - based on the latin for 'eight' - is an almost inseparable part of Skoda's history, dating all the way back to 1959 when it arrived to designate the eighth design produced by the Czech brand following World War II. In modern era guise, Octavias have sold prolifically, enough, if placed end-to-end, to fill all three lanes of the complete M25. But those sales of course date back to a time when this was a slightly smaller and much less sophisticated car. How will modern era buyers cope with a Skoda you can electronically tweak to suit both your mood and the road you're on. A Skoda that can automatically park itself, brake itself or dip its own headlights. A Skoda in fact that can do everything you'd expect a comparable Audi to do - at a substantial price saving. It'll be interesting to see. What's clear is that like its Korean competitors, Skoda sees a future in which it no longer competes as a 'value brand'. That market will be left to the Chinese. Instead, the Czech maker wants a higher quality image developed alongside higher quality products - cars like this one. They want the purchase of something like an Octavia to be viewed not as a cheaper choice but instead as rather a clever one. That time may already have arrived.