With Volkswagen Golf prices rocketing up, the affordable Skoda Octavia offers stiff in-house competition. We find out if the Czech liftback is as good to drive as its specification sheet suggests.
The all-new 2021 Skoda Octavia arrived in Australia a few months ago, and at launch, the high-performance Octavia RS variant impressed with its grunty two-litre engine and crisp handling – but the Octavia range is broader than just this sporty trim.
Skoda also sell a base model Ambition and a mid-specification Style based on a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine shared with the Volkswagen Golf – and there is a beefier 2.0-litre Octavia Limited Edition grade on the way.
Many of the improvements over the previous Octavia were down to the new-for-2021 generation adopting the Volkswagen Group’s revised MQB Evo platform: the same chassis that underpins the new Golf Mk 8.
The dimensions of the Octavia see it compete in the medium car segment in Australia. Despite being a whole 405mm longer than a VW Golf, and with a 50mm longer wheelbase, at $32,990 driveaway, the Octavia retains a small car price tag.
It’s worth noting that the Octavia Ambition’s equipment list closely rivals that of a mid-tier Volkswagen Golf Life ($34,250 plus ORCs), as opposed to the base model Golf ($31,950 plus ORCs) that the entry Octavia competes with on price.
Here, the Octavia Ambition scores LED headlights, 18-inch alloy wheels and animated rear indicators – the kind of details reserved for luxurious Audis just a few years ago.
Skoda hasn’t thrown out the Octavia’s pragmatic principles with this new generation, but the design has evolved pleasantly with an ever-so-crisp character line linking the headlights to the Liftback’s sharp bootlid.
Just make sure to spend $770 on premium paint – preferably Lava Blue – because the flat white shade makes this car look a bit rental-spec.
So on paper at least, the Octavia 110TSI Ambition offers everything a family could need, so how does it stack up in the real world?
Under the Octavia’s bonnet is a ‘110TSI’ 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine which produces 110kW of power and 250Nm of torque. This engine will be familiar to those acquainted with Skoda products, and it works excellently.
A light-ish kerb weight of 1,360kg means the 110TSI engine doesn’t have much mass to move, meaning the grunt is good enough for a nine-second 0-100km/h sprint. It’s really in the mid-range where the 110TSI engine impresses with solid punch from 1,500-3,000rpm.
That said, you can buy a Skoda Octavia with several other engines in Australia. There’s a mid-range 140TSI 140kW/320Nm two-litre petrol engine available from $48,990 driveaway and the grunty 180kW/370Nm tune found in the Octavia RS.
While more power is always welcome, the 110TSI wasn’t undergunned for daily use.
The new Octavia departs from the old formula with an eight-speed torque converter automatic in the place of a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. The auto should broaden the Octavia’s appeal with the more natural creep. Skoda has also done an admirable job with the logic – the Octavia knows which gear is best, though it can be a little jerky on downshifts.
The eight-speed auto does lack the signature crisp in-gear acceleration that only a dual-clutch auto ‘box can offer. It makes the sophisticated turbocharged engine feel less refined as the engine slurs up the revs until the torque converter locks up – basically, the move to a traditional ‘box will suit some, but it’s swings and roundabouts.
Speaking of sound, the NVH suppression is where the Octavia slips behind the Mark 8 Golf slightly. While the oily bits and hardpoints are the same, the Octavia uses a more rudimentary torsion beam rear suspension instead of the Golf’s multi-link setup.
When faced with the worst roads that Sydney’s Inner West has to offer, the Octavia can’t totally suppress the suspension boom from entering the cabin. It’s better refined than the Hyundai i30 Sedan, but it’s less difficult to quantify whether another $4,000 spent on the Volkswagen Golf’s multi-link rear end is worth it. It will be up to whether the slight resonance irritates or not.
Leaving the sound gripes behind – you can just turn up the excellent standard sound system to do so – and the other facets of the Octavia’s suspension do impress. Instead of trying to make the base model feel sporty, Skoda has focused on balancing a comfortable ride with impressive athleticism.
The bump absorption is fantastic, with decent wheel travel and control at urban and suburban speeds. Sometimes the Octavia will float over large bumps at high speeds, but it’s never disconcerting.
You can trust this car, too. The front end is crisp thanks to light but accurate steering the urges you to push on. The ability to adjust the Octavia’s trajectory mid-corner with the lift of the throttle is always welcome, too. It’s honestly fantastic for a torsion beam equipped base model.
While the driving experience is very polished, the Octavia lacks slightly when it comes to safety technology. To get rear cross-traffic alert, junction AEB, blind-spot monitoring and Skoda’s Travel Assist program, you’ll need to fork $41,990 (driveaway) for the 110TSI style with the $5,000 tech pack, which isn’t available on the base model Ambition.
However, the Octavia Ambition has more than the basics covered with AEB that detects pedestrians and cyclists. There are also rear parking sensors, a centre airbag, lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control.
The amount of technology packed into the base model Octavia Ambition is seriously impressive, but some of the implementation detracts from the user experience.
The 10-inch touchscreen looks sharp and boasts faultless wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but it’s far from perfect.
Hitting the targets on the touchscreen is difficult as the software is laggy and seemingly inconsistent. The HVAC controls are also buried in the user interface. There is a shortcut button to access the menu screen, but the peculiar ‘smart AC’ screen doesn’t allow the user to control what’s going on, so you need to hit the other tab for ‘classic AC’.
To be clear: I’m not against touchscreen AC controls in principle, but Skoda’s implementation leaves something to be desired. Audi’s choice to use dual touchscreens is more sensible. Hopefully, the next generation of infotainment will bring improvements.
Back to the good stuff, though, and that excellent 10.25-inch virtual cockpit which offers three different screens and customisable panels to show trip information, song choice, radio station (though there’s no DAB radio) and more.
That said, the screen does feel a little underutilised as this Ambition misses out on a navigation system. The Octavia Style sorts out that criticism for a little extra cash and allows you to read the road ahead with the precision of a Hollywood medium.
The materials in the Octavia’s cabin are of generally high quality, with sun absorbing soft-touch plastic on the door and dash tops. Below the beltline, though, scratchy materials are easy to find – the centre console looks straight out of a Toyota HiLux Workmate. Overall, though, the Octavia is good for the price.
The only letdowns are the poor fit of some materials, especially on the passenger’s side, where trim pieces audibly moved over stutter bumps.
More refined are the seats. Although they’re only manually adjustable, the pews offer plenty of latitude for the driver to get low in the car. There’s also manual lumbar support, which is rarely seen in this class and makes a big difference to long-haul comfort. The pews themselves are appointed in hard-wearing cloth.
As for practicalities, there are plenty of Skoda’s signature clever touches that add value to the Octavia. Things like a garbage bin in the flock-lined driver’s door pocket, wireless charging and umbrellas hidden in the door cards are all present. Although the central cupholders are decidedly Euro in their sizing and won’t take a large water bottle. The door bins will, but aren’t as generous as those seen in a Hyundai i30 sedan.
Given the generous size of the Octavia, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the rear quarters are ample. The Octavia has most other small cars licked for space. I can more than comfortably fit behind my six-foot-two self with plenty of knee, toe and headroom left.
It helps that the backrest is nicely inclined and there is good padding on the rear bench. Not only is the Octavia more spacious than a Golf, but also any small SUV of the same price – including the Skoda Karoq – meanwhile, the Octavia wagon only adds to the comfort with its higher roofline.
The boot space is extremely generous, with the liftback shape offering 600L with a standard power tailgate – another surprise inclusion at this price. Opting for the Octavia wagon increases cargo room to a whopping 640L.
Skoda doesn’t just offer space but also three cargo nets, a reversible boot floor with a rubberised side, heavy-duty cargo hooks, a flashlight and a space-saver spare tyre.
The best part is all of the niceties are included for the low $32,990 driveaway price, absolutely acing the base model Volkswagen Golf which misses out on interior floor mats.
In much the same way the Octavia Ambition is affordable to buy, it’s also a cheap car to run.
Spending $1,400 on a transferable five-year, 75,000km service plan is a prudent decision as it saves money compared to paying at each service visit.
The Volkswagen Group’s combustion engines not only impress in their driving character but also their fuel use. Even though the Octavia runs the less efficient 1.4-litre engine (Europe gets the new 1.5-litre unit), the 110TSI Ambition returned 5.9L/100km over our mixed test week.
On the highway, the consumption dropped as low as 4.5L/100km, while in town, it settled on a reasonable figure of 7.5L/100km.
Skoda covers their vehicles with a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty in Australia. However, we’d like to see that guarantee climb to seven years to bring the fight to Kia.
The new Skoda Octavia may be cheap to buy and cheap to run, but it doesn’t sacrifice its premium European feeling in doing so. There are few other cars that offer the Octavia’s pragmatic blend of practicality, cabin space, driving polish and low price.
The Octavia 110TSI Ambition isn’t perfect – the infotainment system is irritating, and the torsion rear suspension noise enters the cabin more than we’d like.
However, the sheer number of positives like a standard power tailgate, comfy ride, solid sound system and fuel efficiency far outweigh the negatives in our opinion. And the great thing about Skoda products is they never miss out on the small things – a boot net, rubbish bin and hidden umbrellas are almost enough to sell the car on their own.
For the price, there are few more accomplished, fully specified and spacious vehicles you can buy. The Octavia veritably embarrasses overpriced small SUVs. It’s pragmatic, it works, and you get to enjoy all the clever Skoda touches we’ve come to expect.
The highly-anticipated eighth-generation Volkswagen Golf has now arrived in Australia – and it’s still the well-judged small car it always has been.
Key specs (as tested)
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