It’s been a long time since we’ve driven a car this good.
Instead there have been plenty of overweight, gargantuan monsters that take up most of the road and drink and emit like the term ‘global warming’ hadn’t been invented; cars that have exterior dimensions that would suggest far more interior space than actually exists; and cars stuffed so full of stupid gadgets that basics like ride and handling have been overlooked.
But the Octavia RS wagon is a completely different breed of machine. Nought to 100 km/h in a claimed 7.3 seconds – yet a combined fuel economy in the government test of 7.9 litres/100km, a figure we often bettered. A turbo 2-litre engine under the bonnet but the driving characteristics – instant throttle response and excellent bottom-end grunt – of a naturally aspirated 3 litre V6.
And a well-tuned one at that.
Load space that makes the area available for luggage in many four-wheel drive wagons look as silly as it really is. Six airbags, standard electronic stability control and tyre pressure monitoring.
And all at a price that is more than reasonable – excluding the major question mark over resale value (Volkswagen-owned Skoda is a brand effectively new to Australia), the AUD$39,490 looks positively cheap.
The Octavia is one of the two models that have accompanied Skoda’s born-again introduction to Australia. Launched with a range of engines and trim levels, the top-line Octavia RS uses a 147kW, direct injected, turbo and intercooled petrol engine. And it’s not just any ol’ turbo engine. Pinched from the Golf GTi, it feels even better in the Octavia with an incredible amount of torque available from just off-idle. This is one car that you can short-change at 2000 rpm every gear – and yet still get along quite adequately. Country road hills that in almost all cars we’ve driven require a down-change can be steamed up in the Octavia RS, sixth gear being held and held.
But when you want to go hard, take the engine to the 6500 rpm redline and it sings easily all the way. Even idle quality is superb, and the engine management mapping is so good that you can release the clutch in third gear and trickle along with your foot off the throttle, pulling away without a sign of a stutter or jerk when you apply more accelerator pedal.
The six-speed manual is quite short geared. This and the immense torque output allows the gears to be picked almost at will – you can change first-third-sixth, first-third-fifth-sixth, or down-change from sixth to second for a roundabout. Basically, whatever you want to do, the engine/gearbox combination will allow you to do it. This makes the Octavia’s driveline a combination for almost anyone and any occasion – driving most economically, keeping revs low and using the torque to waft you along; or alternatively, revving the engine hard. Or anything in between.
Throttle response is excellent: in fact, combine that with the available torque and lowish gearing and initially we found that when cornering on the throttle, foot movements were insufficiently smooth. But learning what the car can do takes only a little time, and then the response is simply a delight. The standard Electronic Stability Control is superbly calibrated and allows the driver to drift the car a little into understeer or throttle-lift oversteer; the natural handling tendency is a hint of understeer which makes the RS very easy to drive fast. Grip levels from the 225/40 Continental Sport Contact II tyres on 18 x 7.5 wheels are high and the damping and springing firm. In flip-flop S-bends the car’s body is settled and the ride is very seldom uncomfortable. However, the lowered suspension of the RS can sometimes be caught short for travel on Australian roads and there is pronounced tyre roar on coarse surfaces.
Brakes – they have red-painted calipers but are otherwise apparently standard Octavia – are fine, with a light and progressive pedal movement.
The steering is altered a little over other Octavias and is well-weighted and direct, although not nervous. However it does retain some of that characteristic apparent in nearly all Audi/VW (and now Skoda) products: a lack of intuitive feel of what the tyres are doing on the road surface.
Equipment inside is a mix that reflects Skoda’s priorities – a lower price than other products in the Volkswagen family but still retaining what is important. We think tyre pressure monitoring is an excellent safety device; the fitment of six airbags is also praiseworthy. (The Skoda Octavia has scored four stars in European crash testing but those cars don’t have the standard curtain airbags of the Australian-delivered models.) The seats have manual controls but the steering is height and reach adjustable. The climate control system has dual temp zones and – unusually for a non-Australian car in this price range – has rear vent outlets on the back of the centre console. The air-conditioning is good.
Other equipment includes a 6-stack dashboard CD radio (with MP3 and aux-input functionality), auto wipers, rear parking sensors, heated sports seats and a part-leather interior.
However the centre-of-dash LCD darkens considerably when viewed through polarising glasses and the headlights are poor for Australian country conditions, with an abrupt low beam cut-off and insufficient high beam penetration.
The Octavia RS wagon has been well designed as a load carrier. The rear hatch opens high to show a space behind the rear seat that is surprisingly large and is appropriately shaped to take big boxes. There are a couple of lidded hidden storage compartments and the rear seat back split-folds – the rear seat squabs can also be tumbled forwards to provide a flatter (though still stepped) rear floor. Six tie-down hooks and a luggage net are provided. A smaller-sized 205/55 spare wheel is located under the floor.
The front seats have very long runners: with these positioned at the rearwards position, back seat knee room can suffer. However, even with the seats forward a little, most front seat passengers will easily have enough legroom. There are plenty of storage spaces around the cabin with very large front door pockets and a lidded bin under the front passenger seat. This underseat bin and the rear-of-console bin are two of the few indicators of cost-cutting – their lids are insubstantial and would be more appropriate on a $15,000 car. The front wheel arches intrude into the passenger area – this squeezes the driving pedals together and offsets the front passenger’s footroom.
Build quality looked excellent with good paint, consistent (although fairly wide) panel margins, superbly shutting doors and a quality feel to the controls.
We found it exceedingly difficult to find major criticisms of the RS. Perhaps some won’t like the bold grille (but we think the styling as a whole has a cohesive elegance missing from many recent models - the body design is a few years old and looks better for it!) but in terms of practicality, ride & handling, performance, fuel economy and price, the RS wagon has it made. It’s the perfect car for someone (perhaps now with a partner and child) moving on from an Impreza WRX, others who want the practicality of a medium sized wagon without losing anything in performance or handling, or even an older and more conservative person who simply wants the available performance for rapid and safe open-road overtaking without sacrificing anything in fuel economy.
Truly a car for a lot of different people...