Good: standard equipment, value, practicality, polished drive.
Not so good: questionable front-end styling, base trim level is a little too basic.
It's been said to death already (we're as guilty as anyone else), but it's impossible to look at the Skoda Octavia's new face without pondering what exactly the thought process was behind its design. Fussy doesn't come close, but if you can manage to look past its strange snout you will find yet another excellent iteration of Skoda's hugely popular hatchback.
Apart from the new headlights, front grille and larger air intake, not much else has changed in the cosmetic department. The rear lamps are now full LED items and there's the usual addition of new wheel designs, but the overall appearance is broadly the same. This generation's understated, classy looks have aged nicely since its introduction back in 2013, so there was clearly no need to get too drastic with the pencils. Except for the headl... OK, that's enough now. We digress.
Opening the solid-feeling door and exploring the interior, a gentle update of the fascia catches the eye first. The Octavia (like its MQB platform brethren) gets the ergonomic basics so right that you don't even notice anymore. The only mild annoyance is the senseless switch to touchscreen volume controls on the centrally-mounted 9.2-inch Columbus infotainment screen, which is otherwise excellent and contributes to a generally upmarket feel that edges this car closer than ever to the Volkswagen Group's premium offerings in this segment.
Space is exemplary, too. The hatchback's cavernous boot does mean that legroom for taller rear-seat occupants may be a tad tight, but it still can't be touched for practicality. Skoda's hallmark neat touches abound (like the cooled glovebox), and it's a great place to be for driver and passenger alike.
On the road, it's no surprise to learn that the car is still a wonderfully competent steer. Our test car rode on the optional 18-inch 'Alaris' alloys, which tended to give a slightly choppy ride on bumpy tarmac. Best to stick with the smaller-diameter rims then, but the general sensation is that of a pliant and predictable chassis that will be more than adequate for the vast majority of buyers. Refinement is very acceptable, with only the distant intrusion of some wind noise at motorway speeds to upset the near-silence.
We sampled the 2.0-litre TDI engine mated to the six-speed manual gearbox, and while the 150hp powerplant can get a little grumbly under load, it's not a big issue. In fact, this unit makes the Octavia a deceptively quick mover, and the 340Nm of torque means that overtakes can be carried out swiftly and safely. Fuel economy is good, the mpg figure steadfastly refusing to dip below the mid-50s range over 1,400km of combined town and country motoring, and the low emissions allow it to fit into the €200-a-year tax bracket. Even more fuel efficient are the 1.6-litre TDI options with their lower price tags, but in our opinion the extra grunt of the bigger engine makes it a worthwhile choice. Those looking for a petrol derivative can choose from the outmoded 1.2-litre TSI or new 1.0-litre TSI variants, the latter being our pick of the two.
Thankfully, Skoda hasn't gone wild with the price list either. A snip under €20k will get you the cheapest car in the range, the 1.2-litre TSI-engined Active, while at the other end of the scale a 2.0-litre TDI car with the DSG gearbox and Lauren & Klement trim option will lighten your wallet to the tune of €35,750. Standard equipment is improved throughout the offerings, although some will still find the Active variant a little lacking. Our test car came in at €29,571 thanks to its Style trim and some additional extras including the aforementioned wheels, but the €27,650 (with this engine) Ambition will strike the perfect balance for many.
Overall then, another outstanding Octavia. It's very difficult to find anything to complain about with this car, and the Czech brand can be confident of ongoing sales success in the segment for the foreseeable future. It achieves the difficult endeavour of combining quality, refinement and equipment with a sensible price tag, and for many Irish buyers it's as close to the ideal family hatchback as there has ever been. It surely stands to reason that we'll be seeing plenty more of those unusual headlights on our roads over the next few years...