Talk to an Englishman about Skoda, and he will most likely roll his eyes and laugh as he remembers uninspiring, unremarkable cars produced by communists for their comrades and exported to, among other places, the UK (more recently) and Australia (back in the 1980?s).
But that was a long time ago and times have changed.
Now sitting comfortably under the Volkswagen umbrella, Skoda is a completely different outfit, and has recently established a foothold in Australia having returned in late 2007.
In a little over a year, Skoda?s brand awareness in Australia is tracking reasonably well at 57.5 percent, obviously trailing the likes of established importers like Subaru, Mazda and Toyota (Toyota enjoys a 97.4 percent brand awareness in Australia). However, Skoda in comparison is only just getting up a head of steam.
The average Skoda buyer is 35 ? 39 years old, they are generally ?early adopters? of new products and are metro based. Interestingly, it is the top end of the range that is selling the best (thanks largely to the RS variants), a trend that sees Skoda developing more of a premium reputation in Australia than first expected.
Now that Skoda has the ?we are here? phase of its return to Australia out of the way, it is tasked with expanding the range of vehicles that it sells in Australia, and the new third generation Octavia is the first new model off the boat in 2009.
In addition to a number of technical changes and some much cleaner new styling, the model line-up has been revised to include a new entry level 1.6-litre model.
The 1.6 litre petrol engine is available with a 5-speed manual transmission as standard, and a 6-speed automatic transmission is also available as an option. The entry level engine produces 75kW and 148Nm and returns 7.8 l/100km.
The second petrol engine on offer is the turbocharged 1.8 TSI, offering 118kW and a heftier 250Nm. This 1.8 TSI has replaced the original 2.0 FSI (110kW) engine and is the only engine in the Octavia range to be offered with Volkswagen?s relatively new 7-speed DSG transmission as an option.
The 7-speed DSG transmission is so efficient that the DSG equipped 1.8 TSI consumes just 6.7 l/100kms (less than the 1.6 litre model), although it does require a diet of premium unleaded.
The diesel engine offered with the new Octavia is the 2.0 TDI which delivers a whopping 320Nm in addition to 103kW. It is available with either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed DSG transmission, and returns 5.7 l/100km (manual) and 6.4 l/100km (DSG).
Skoda has reworked the Octavia?s exterior and while it remains conservative, it is edgier and certainly more handsome. The main changes include newly shaped, bolder headlights, a more ?robust? radiator grille and a one-piece front bumper. The rear sees restyled tail light covers and a new bumper with integrated ?cat eyes?.
Inside the Octavia, the steering wheel, dashboard, air conditioning controls and trim inserts on the doors and the central console have been redesigned. In addition, new upholstery fabrics and an improved line-up of ?koda audio and satellite navigation systems are available.
On the safety front, the new Octavia now includes six airbags (including side-curtain airbags), electronic stability program (ESP) and ABS brakes with electronic brake-force distribution.
The previous Octavia didn?t feature side-curtain airbags and scored 4-stars in Euro NCAP crash testing. Skoda is clearly hopeful that the new Octavia, now featuring the side-curtain airbags, will score 5-stars when it is eventually tested.
Skoda?s introduction to the new Octavia range took place in Adelaide and took in a mix of city and country driving. We took a day to complete a round trip from Adelaide airport, that took us up through the Adelaide Hills to Hahndorf and then down to the coastal town of Port Elliot before heading back into the Adelaide via Willunga Hill and McLaren Vale.
For the morning leg, I was handed the keys to a diesel manual sedan. If you are used to the Volkswagen product then you will feel at home in the Octavia, it all feels very familiar. The interior is extremely well constructed and has a solid air of quality.
Just like the VW product, fit and finish is hard to fault, there is an abundance of soft touch plastics and the instrumentation and centre console switches are neat, functional and classy looking. Looking at the quality on offer, I found myself double checking the price list.
The diesel proved to be a willing performer and the manual gearbox was such a joy to use there is simply no way I would buy the DSG in preference. The shift was positive and well weighted. It?s not quite a rifle bolt action but it is so easy to flick between gears that you find yourself changing down before corners just for the hell of it.
Pressing on through the Adelaide hills, the diesel provided ample urgency with creamy torque right through the rev range. It even revved like a petrol engine right up to its 4500rpm redline. Forget about diesel knock, there is none evident to driver or passenger, in fact this diesel actually sounds like a rorty petrol engine.
Dare I say it, the Octavia diesel has the ability to really entertain the enthusiastic driver.
The Octavia sedan?s ride was impressive. Well damped, with both compression and rebound valving well-sorted, the Octavia proved an eager handler that was more than happy to be tossed from one apex to the next.
Pushing the Octavia ultimately reveals some body-roll and steering that is a perhaps a touch too light, but this wasn?t a performance model and the tuning was skewed towards comfort, not ultimate handling.
More telling was its ability to soak up the rough stuff. The Octavia sedan displayed an ability to soak up broken bitumen that was remarkable and goes to show that when it comes to ride control, the Europeans are still the masters.
The post lunch stint from Port Elliot back to Adelaide gave me the chance to sample the Octavia wagon, equipped with 1.8 TSI and 7-speed DSG.
The wagon couldn?t quite match the sedan?s sublime suspension control, it felt more stiffly sprung in the rear, (no-doubt to help it deal with a load) although we are talking degrees here.
What you do get with the wagon is a luggage capacity of 580 litres. Folding the rear bench down extends the luggage capacity to 1620 litres.
The 1.8 TSI was punchy and refined and well matched to the 7-speed DSG gearbox. A silky smooth combination it is all over the diesel for ultimate performance, but can?t match the oilers low down grunt and fuel efficiency.
Unfortunately, the trip back through McLaren Vale was marred by slow moving traffic so the opportunity to put the wagon through its paces on some winding roads did not present itself. Neither did the opportunity to drive the entry level 1.6-litre Octavia, with only one being available on the day.
Skoda is expecting the 1.8 TSI equipped with the 7-speed DSG to be the volume seller. However, if it were my hard-earned, I?d be pocketing the keys to an Octavia diesel sedan, with the 6-speed manual.
We?ll be looking to bring you a more comprehensive review of the Octavia range in the near future.
2009 Skoda Octavia Pricing:
1.6 Manual - $26,990
1.6 Auto - $29,290
1.8 TSI Manual - $31,490
1.8 TSI DSG Auto - $33,790
2.0 TDI Manual - $33,990
2.0 TDI DSG Auto - $36,290