The Octavia, when launched here in 2001, attracted a lot of attention. And for good reason – it was fast, frugal, well built and very comfortable. Most importantly for our market, it came with an affordable price tag. This was the car that made Skoda’s fortunes here. When the second generation car was launched, the Octavia name was ditched in favour of Laura. This was also quite a success, but did not manage to garner as much fan following. Now, with the latest Octavia, the carmaker hopes to recreate the hype around the first avatar.
The plan Skoda has for India is pretty exciting too. There’ll be more powerful and updated versions of the ubiquitous 2.0-litre diesel and the fantastic 1.8-litre TSI petrol, and this time around, the range will include new, smaller engines like the 1.4-litre TSI. And that could mean a competitive starting price of something like Rs 12.5 lakh (ex-showroom). But is the new Octavia good enough to rise to the top?
Also read >> New Skoda Octavia variants in detail
Its clean-cut looks certainly are a good starting point. The bold, clean strokes and spot-on proportions help give it a stance that is difficult to fault. And that’s despite the bulk of the car. The focus of the design, of course, is Skoda’s new ‘butterfly’ grille, with its 21 high-gloss slats and two-tone flying arrow badge standing proud. Chiselled headlamps and a square jaw make up the rest of the nose. Detailing on the remainder of the car is minimal and almost Audi-like in its exclusion of the unnecessary. Still, a BMW-like flick is visible at the base of the C pillar, and a black splitter adds definition to the rear of the car.
On the inside, the car is more practical and less overtly luxurious, with the profusion of chrome highlights and wood panelling missing. The design of the dash is neat and minimalist, with large chamfered surfaces making up the various layers. The vents have a flick in them that mirror the C pillar kink, and the wide centre console has been tilted back at a jaunty angle. A large colour touchscreen takes pride of place on the centre console and Skoda has used plenty of black lacquer-like plastic around it. A generous amount of aluminium has been used on the doors and around the gear lever too, and a smooth velvet-like finish has been employed for some of the larger swatches of plastic on the dash. Also adding substantially to the neat and crisply ironed look of the cabin are the white-on-black dials.
In terms of space, there’s plenty. The new Octavia is clearly larger on the inside now, with the wheelbase a massive 108mm larger than the Laura’s. And the cabin feels noticeably wider too. There’s massive space in the front of the cabin and legroom at the rear feels as generous as an Audi A6! The seats match the rest of the cabin, and are large and remain comfortable over a day behind the wheel. The rear seats, however, would’ve done better with a bit more support. Otherwise, space and comfort are right up there with full-size luxury cars. There’s even plenty of cubbyholes and storage areas, be it bins for larger bottles or space for essentials like phones. The boot offers a very generous 590 litres and with the the rear seats folded, there’s a full 1,000 litres more.
One of the key differences between the new car and the old is the weight. The doors feel lighter to shut and the cabin lacks the heft and solid build of the earlier car. Weight saving, in fact, has been a key theme of the VW Group’s new crop of cars. The MQB platform, which this Skoda shares with VW and Audi, has been designed to be light and really efficient. Despite being larger, the use of high-strength steel has resulted in a weight saving of approximately 70kg, model for model. And this is good for performance, efficiency and tailpipe emissions.
The new Octavia is also lighter to drive than you’d expect. It’s easy to guide this 2.0 TDI with nothing more than your fingertips, and the electric power steering system also points the car in the right direction with a good amount of accuracy. It feels light and easy to drive around the city and feels quite Passat like. It turns with the same light, well-oiled feel from the steering and the ride of the big new Octavia is quite similar too; there is a bit of edge to it over sharper bumps but it’s generally pretty absorbent.
What’s also familiar is the diesel motor under the hood. This 2.0-litre unit is probably the VW Group’s most popular motor in India, and here in updated form (now called the EA288), it puts on a good show. There’s plenty of punch in the mid-range as the big Octavia rides the torque curve, and it gathers pace briskly all the way up to speeds as high as 160 or 170kph. It’s not the most silent diesel around though, and it does tend to sound a bit gruff when pulled hard. And, at lower speeds, there is a bit of turbo lag that you need to drive around as well.
This diesel, however, comes with a non-independent rear suspension. So, while straight-line stability is impressive and confidence from behind the wheel is good, agility isn’t great. The front and rear suspension feel quite disconnected when you drive enthusiastically and the Octavia doesn’t really respond well when you attack a section of corners.
The level of agility is much higher on the 1.8 TSI-powered version. Skoda says cars above a certain horsepower will get an independent, multi-link rear suspension and that makes a huge difference to the way the car drives. On a suitably fun road, the 1.8 TSI will have enthusiastic drivers beaming. It’s like a completely different car. It darts into corners with the agility of something half its size, the rear feels totally in sync with the very grippy front, and the really fast steering rack makes punting this car around a real joy. It feels light, agile and very modern from behind the wheel. What ups your confidence is the truly great set of brakes, which allow you to carry higher speeds into a corner with a bit more confidence. So complete is the transformation, it even rides better over poor patches. The electric steering system still feels a bit dead around the centre and there isn’t very much in the way of weight or feel, but the rest of the car is so good, you actually tend to forget the steering and enjoy the drive.
What’s even better is the updated and uprated 177bhp 1.8 TSI direct-injection, turbo-petrol motor. Under the hood of the Superb and the Laura, this is already one of our favourite engines, and now with more power and torque and greater responsiveness, it feels even better. It’s really smooth, it enjoys a bit of stick, and it integrates so well with the twin-clutch gearbox that it’s an absolute joy to pull up and down the rev band. And it’s punchy too. Peak torque on this motor starts as low down as 1250rpm, which is nuts for a petrol, so you can either pull the left-hand-side paddle and ask for explosive performance or just sit in a higher gear and let all that torque do the work. In fact, if anything, this motor feels punchiest in the mid-range, and that spurs you on even further. What we’ll miss is the six-speed manual – Skoda plans to launch this car in India with only the DSG automatics.
What Skoda has on its hands is a potential winner. Its freshly chiselled looks will appeal to most, space and comfort are from a segment above, and the cars are likely to be well specified and priced as well. The 1.4 TSI (not driven here) is likely to start at Rs 12.5 lakh (ex-showroom), the 1.8 TSI will cost a bit more, and you should be able to get a decently specified diesel for Rs 14 lakh. The clever bit is that the diesel and petrol versions each have different characters, perfectly suited to their use. The 2.0 TDI is more comfort oriented and not as fun to drive. The 1.8 TSI, on the other hand, is agile, exciting and comes with an engine that can deliver explosive bursts of power. All Skoda India has to do now is cross the T’s and dot the I’s and make sure it improves its aftersales service experience.