THE kindly gentleman who services and maintains our swimming pool is an interesting chap. Like most Australian men of his generation he has more than a passing interest in cars, he is knowledgeable and fair. He often glances with good grace at the latest model under the microscope parked in our driveway. You can tell if the car has caught his fancy by the sound of his steps on the concrete.
An even-paced rhythm shows his curiosity has been satisfied by the first walk-by. But if the footsteps slow and almost hang in the air, as they did with the Skoda Octavia last week, you know that it will warrant a second look, perhaps a third and most certainly a discussion on the vehicle at hand. Only the most important points are addressed. He is after all, especially at the turn of the season, a busy man.
He is surprised, he says, by Skoda's relaunch in Australia. He remembers with some mirth their first foray. Unreliable, unwanted and only a success when parked next to that other Czech great – the Lada.
We talk about how this Skoda, or Octavia in particular, is a world away from his memories. About how years of hard work and clever alliances has resulted in a world beater especially in the European market.
He nods. He is a polite man but as he busies himself with his work you get the feeling he will take a little more convincing.
Despite growing success, Skoda is still facing an uphill battle to change attitudes in this country and it has therefore armed the new Octavia with the tools to lead the fight.
Lumbar support and plenty of head and legroom combine to give the Octavia a touch of luxury.
The leather seats are a nice standard while the recessed instrument panel is well-thought out and practical.
There are storage places aplenty, even a couple under the seat and steering wheel with hooks in the boot ensuring you don't spend more time retrieving the groceries than actually doing them.
Talking about the boot, it is absolutely cavernous.
Who would have thought it of a hatch?
The Octavia certainly surprises on that score making light work of a sizeable pram and all the paraphernalia associated with a family excursion to well, just about anywhere. You may have to make that trip without the obligatory takeaway coffee, however, as we found the front cup holders unable to accommodate a standard cup or a water bottle for that matter.
On the road
The Octavia has traded in its 1.6-litre engine for the smaller 1.4-litre 90kW version that does service for the ever-popular Golf. The figures may look small in print but combined with 200Nm of torque and a seven-speed DSG box (Volkswagen-speak for twin-clutch auto) the Skoda more than holds its own. It is not the fastest in its class and power off the mark suffers from a bit of lag, but the Octavia never supposes those qualities anyway.
Like the Golf it prides itself on grip and steering and performs admirably on those fronts. The drive is comfortable, more so on better maintained roads and the car definitely finds its stride on long highway stretches. Interestingly the quick-thinking transmission that facilitates such a smooth ride as the Octavia gathers pace can prove quite trying when descending a hill. It downshifts quickly when the driver isn't stepping on the accelerator or brake.
What do you get?
Skoda is pretty generous with inclusions. The soft-touch plastics and sporty steering wheel add to visual appeal while the dash houses a pretty decent sound system with all the associated compliances that have now become the norm. Cruise control, remote central locking and power windows are standard while six airbags, EDB, ESP and ABS with Brake Assist bear testament to a four-star ANCAP rating.
The Mazda6 Limited Sedan ($27,310), Ford Mondeo LX Hatch ($30,540), Subaru Liberty 2.5i Sedan ($33,990) and Toyota Camry Atise ($30,490) offer the stiffest competition in the market.
The price and storage makes it a strong consideration for growing families and others who could do with the large boot space. The Octavia offers a comfortable, solid ride with excellent visibility, usable features and no-nonsense sensibility.
The manufacturers boast figures of 6.5-litres per 100km and our test car pretty much held true. So much so, in fact, that I was convinced the fuel gauge wasn't working. When it did budge, the shift was miserly enough to relegate filling up to the second page of the “To-do” list. The cost of owning a Skoda probably comes with tracking down a service centre au fait with maintenance. That, however, is bound to change in time.
The sleek lines and large defined grille give the Octavia a classier look than you would expect for the price-tag. The younger crowd unknowing or perhaps even uncaring about Skoda's previous foray into Australia may be moved by the car's European feel.
It is not difficult see why Skodas are picking up so many awards abroad. The Octavia is affordable, spacious and stylish – boxes that buyers are looking to tick. Success depends on whether Skoda is able to banish that “also-ran” tag from the minds of doubters. Perhaps the involvement with Volkswagen will help pave the way.
Model: Skoda Octavia 90TSI Liftback.
Details: Five-door front-wheel drive hatch.
Transmission: Six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG.
Engine: 1.4-litre in-line four-cylinder turbo-petrol generating maximum power of 90kW at 5000rpm and peak torque of 200Nm between 1500-4000rpm.
Consumption: 6.5 litres/100km combined average
Performance: 0-100km in 10.8 seconds.
Bottom line: From $24,990.
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