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2012 Skoda Octavia 1.6TDi S - 3rd June 2012


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Remember these? What do you call a Skoda with a sunroof? A skip. What do you call a Skoda with two exhaust pipes? A wheelbarrow. Why do Skodas have heated rear screens? To keep your hands warm while you’re pushing them. How do you overtake a Skoda? Run.

Until now, this sums up my entire experience of Skoda. I’ve never owned one, I’ve never driven one, hell, I’ve never even sat in one. But I don’t need to. They’re crap. They’re poorly designed, poorly built, poorly engineered, everyone thinks you’re some kind of social loser loitering around the bottom end of the food chain and you’re the butt of everyone’s jokes if you’re seen in one. Right? Right??? Well, that depends on whether you believe the stigma.

Now, I’m a pretty open-minded, logical and rational guy and when VW entered a partnership with Skoda in 1991 I expected it would be a good thing for the Czechoslovakian brand. The VW badge is synonymous with quality, reliability and good design and some of that must surely be passed on to the new sibling, helping to boost its image and reputation. Well, twenty years later, I finally get my chance to test the theory. Time to see if this Octavia 1.6 TDi S can overcome the stigma and change my opinion.

The rental agent met me outside my office and handed me the key. Rather sheepishly he said "you have to open it with the key, there’s no remote locking". I looked down at his shoes to see what he was looking at. Then it sunk in. No remote locking. Omigod. What kind of car doesn’t have remote locking? A later check of the specs on Skoda’s website revealed that only the base model, the "S", doesn’t get remote locking. Not a good first impression then. There are also some other interesting features on this car you don’t normally see on cars these days... plastic wheel covers on steel wheels, a complete lack of trip computer and auxiliary audio input jack, windy handle things to open and close the rear windows...quaint.

I stood back to take in the visually challenging front end. Skoda have managed to make this latest facelift model even less visually appealing than the previous model. Actually, I used to think that previous model looked alright, in a safe non-descript kind of way. But this one looks awkward and bulbous from the front. From other angles it’s not too bad, just a bit dull. Best get in quick.

Inside, things are much better. The design and layout of the dash is hardly cutting-edge but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing - it is logical, attractive and the quality of the materials is very good. Controls feel chunky and suitably weighty. The controls for the ventilation and air-con are a bit low down and out of sight, especially the mode dial, requiring just a bit too long with eyes off the road. Again, the spec of this "S" model lets it down a little... no leather trim for the steering wheel and no wheel-mounted stereo controls. Right, let’s forget the impoverished spec of this particular model, you can always get one of the higher spec models if you want more kit. Let’s concentrate on the more general things.

The driver’s seat is comfy. Although it could do with a little more lateral support to keep you in place in the twisties.


There’s plenty of room in both the front and the back.


The windscreen wipers work well.

And er...

Oh yeah, the boot is massive. The rear seat folds flat on top of the base but it doesn’t split (povvy spec thing again - sorry I wasn’t going to mention that was I).

In all seriousness, the interior is very much to my liking. Good quality, nicely laid out and feels typically Volkswagen.

Now, to drive it. Turn the key and the 1.6 TDi thrums into life. Definitely a diesel, there’s no mistaking that, but the noise is relatively subdued. A blip of the throttle pedal further emphasises its relative refinement. Select first gear and pull out of the car park. Into second then third. The gearchange is light and the stick slots easily from one gear to the next. Acceleration feels brisk under relatively light throttle pressure and the engine again shows its refinement. Brakes feel progressive and reassuring, not over-assisted.

Around town the ride is absorbent but a little unsettled over poor surfaces and the steering is almost totally uncommunicative. There’s very little kick-back through the wheel over bumps but nothing in the way of feel.

Heading out of town and onto the motorway the ride becomes more comfortable as the speed increases. Motorway ridges, ruts and the occasional pothole are absorbed well. Even here, the 105bhp from the little 1.6 feels ample, allowing for brisk acceleration from the second lane to slot in with the faster third lane traffic. This is a place this Octavia feels at home and could quite happily waft you along in reasonable comfort all day long.

For me though, that feeling doesn’t last long as my route has me leaving the motorway and heading for some of the Pennine’s most appealing A and B roads. Motorway cruising is all very well, but let’s see if this Octavia can handle a cross-country blat.

Well, in a word, no.

When you start to push on a bit and ask the Octavia to repeatedly accelerate, brake and turn, some of its weaknesses are revealed. Firstly, the engine, which provides ample acceleration under normal driving, feels a bit underpowered and soon runs out of puff when you’re on open country roads. Overtaking in particular requires careful planning and a good stretch of straight empty road ahead. Now this is not a total surprise, with only 105bhp to play with I’m actually impressed that it feels as spritely as it does. Clearly though, if this is the type of driving you like to do, you’d be better with the higher power 2.0TDi.

Another weakness revealed here is the handling. That softish and absorbent ride translates into excessive body-roll around the bends, excessive nose-diving under braking and a general bouncy, wallowy feel to proceedings. A series of quick S-bends has the car lurching from left to right to left, making the bends feel far more severe than they actually are. The unsupportive seats don’t help here. Nor does the numb steering which gives me no clue to how much grip I have. As it happens, I have plenty - the roly-poly handling dampens my enthusiasm way before the onset of understeer.

OK, so the Octavia is not a car for attacking the back roads but if you’re happy to keep the pace down and enjoy the comfortable ride and good all-round visibility then it’s actually quite an enjoyable drive.

Something that does impress though is the fuel economy. During my week with the car I filled up the tank twice. The first one showed a return of 54mpg. That was calculated manually - no fuel computer in this car (damn that povvy spec!). The second tank returned 52mpg. This is over a good mix of road and driving types - town, fast motorway, congested motorway and some spirited A and B road driving. If you drive mainly up and down motorways (the place this car feels most at home remember?) I wouldn’t be surprised if you could regularly return 60+ from a tank. Not bad considering this is actually quite a sizable car.

At the end of the week, I left the car, then returned to it to lock it (damn that povvy spec again!) feeling reasonably impressed. It feels well built, well designed and of good quality - better quality inside in fact than the Seat Leon I had recently been driving (another of VW’s sister companies). It’s quiet, comfortable and a great motorway cruiser. And that engine is a gem - refined, plenty powerful enough in most situations and impressively economical. All round then, a fine and practical family car.

The trouble is, stigma is a difficult thing to overcome. Despite what I really think of this car and how much the brand has progressed, the odds are stacked against it. Driving it has made me realise that image, unfortunately, does have some importance in my life. In numerous conversations I have tried to convince people of how good a car this is, the quality of materials, the great interior layout and design, the comfortable ride etc. But I have been met with mixed reactions ranging from rare nodding approval, to mostly "yes, I believe you , but it’s still a Skoda", to "you’re not having a Skoda" (my missus). And it’s not just other people’s prejudices that are swaying my’s my own too. Despite the Octavia’s valiant effort, I just can’t get over that past reputation, that stigma that comes with the badge. Ultimately, the sensible, clever, rational people will buy a Skoda, get a great car and be very happy. The rest of us shallow majority, we’ll buy something else.


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