Boxing clever at 25 | PH Footnote

The do-it-all Skoda Octavia wagon has now been with us for as long as there's been a PH. Czech mate

By PH Staff / Sunday, 2 April 2023 / Loading comments

Is there a better match made in heaven than the Skoda Octavia and a wagon-shaped backend? Sure, the model launched as a segment-splicing five-door liftback and is arguably more famous in that format, but if you were trying to characterise the car’s spirit or boil it down to its ’Simply Clever’ essence, it would surely be as the estate version that went into production swiftly after the Octavia launched in 1996. The Mk1 reached British shelves in 1998 – which means we’ve enjoyed 25 years and four generations of rampant functionality. And been glad of it. 

Skoda knows all too well that it has the Octavia to thank for the generally enviable way it is regarded today (unarguably among the great resuscitations of any brand in modern times). Yes, the Felicia preceded it and the Fabia initially outsold it, but the second generation Octavia, launched in 2004, caught people’s imagination almost immediately. Two years later, it was Skoda’s best-selling car globally – a position it has never relinquished despite the manufacturer introducing what seems like 45 iterations of compact SUV in the last few years. Skoda declared the wagon a ‘perennial bestseller’ in the UK when it marked its 25th anniversary (since the original concept was revealed) just last year. 

Much like the VW Golf or the BMW 3 Series, the long-running Octavia has become so intertwined with a wider perception of the brand that it seems hard to imagine it ever falling by the wayside. But the ceaseless shift toward electrification means the car’s position as Skoda’s tentpole is no longer set in stone. Much like the Golf and 3 Series, it is now beset on all sides by newer, funkier (typically stupider) EV models as its manufacturer sets out what it hopes will be an enticing stall for a coming generation of buyers. Much like the Golf and 3 Series, the Octavia has already been turned into a plug-in hybrid in its current format – who knows what Skoda has in store for the nameplate after that. 

If we’re lucky, it won’t stray too far from the established playbook. Volkswagen’s boss has already suggested that the Golf will live on past the end of combustion, and you’d imagine that when Thomas Schafer says, “we have iconic brand names, Golf and GTI – it would be crazy to let them die and slip away”, Skoda shares the sentiment. After all, the commonsensical attributes that recommended the Octavia to so many buyers over the years, are timeless. For as long as there are cars to drive, some of us will always be persuaded by something that is practical, ostensibly well-priced, sensibly proportioned, decent to drive and solidly put together. 

The current version is all these things. You can buy an Octavia vRS Estate for £35,235. It will come with a familiar 245hp 2.0-litre TSI four-pot connected to a six-speed manual. It will have 19-inch alloy wheels and handsome sports seats and look the part. It will do 40.2mpg and 0-62mph in less than 7 seconds. It will swallow a wardrobe. It won’t be astonishing to drive, yet it will get a hurry on without much fuss, and not a single soul will think you silly for buying it. A trifle dull perhaps, but sober decisions are often portrayed that way. And when a Ford Focus ST wagon is £38,350, and a Cupra Leon VZ2 Estate £41,010, the Octavia looks as rational as an onboard umbrella. 

So rational in fact, that when it came time to salute the model’s 25th birthday, we skipped it altogether and borrowed the TDI version. It surely says much about Skoda and the Octavia that you can still buy a vRS with a diesel engine when even Ford has packed up the equivalent ST. Granted, Volkswagen will still sell you a Mk8 Golf GTD with the same 200hp 2.0-litre motor, but you can’t have it as a wagon – and there’s no option of all-wheel drive either. For £38,310, you can have it all in a vRS that looks no different than any other. It must rank among the most old-fashioned prospects still offered for sale new in the UK. 

When we say ‘old-fashioned’ we obviously mean ‘from ten years ago’. The TDI is straight from 2013, when oil burners were at the peak of their pre-Dieselgate powers. Skoda’s delivery driver reckoned he’d got well beyond 60mpg on the motorway journey from Milton Keynes without trying especially hard. Giving no thought to it at all on a 200-mile round trip to the Cotswolds, the wagon averaged the best part of 55mpg and had barely knocked two illuminated notches off its fuel gauge by the time we got home. A week later, when Skoda collected the car after what seemed like half a million visits to the local tip with every conceivable size of cardboard box, it was still showing more than half a tank. That, dear reader, is what we like to call the good old days. 

Of course, there is no yin without the corresponding yang. The TDI claims 295lb ft of torque from 1,750rpm (just 14lb ft shy of a Golf R) but thanks to Skoda’s conspicuous efficiency bias when it comes to throttle response, your big toe will be halfway to the bulkhead before forward progress eventually aligns with your expectations. So while there’s a hearty amount of acceleration in the vRS repertoire somewhere, you need to go looking for it – which is somewhat counter to the ever-ready, real-world performance that traditionally distinguished fast diesels from their peaky petrol stablemates. 

It makes the Octavia seem slightly more ponderous than you’d hope from something designated vRS – but perhaps that swerves around the entire point of badge in 2023. Perhaps Skoda knows the Octavia buyer so well that it is confident any scepticism about the model’s responsiveness will be overshadowed by the satisfaction of only visiting a fuel station once in a blue moon. Perhaps it is sage enough to know that just because said buyer has opted for the vRS model doesn’t mean that he or she has abandoned the pragmatic worldview that explains anyone seeking out a Skoda in the first place. Perhaps, after 25 years of beating the likes of the VW Passat at its own game and still being on sale in unlikely, rumbly go-faster format, the Octavia simply is that clever. 

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