What are you driving?
It's the new Skoda Octavia and it has me a bit worried... You see, back in the remember-times, when we could still use airports, Skoda Ireland ran a rather lovely advertising campaign. A series of large posters running along the walls of the walkway that leads down to gates 100 and up proclaimed that Skodas are 'made for Ireland.' Some gorgeous photography inserted modern Skodas into scenes of Irish myth and legend, suggesting that if he just got down off that white charger, Fionn mac Cumhaill would have been much happier in a Kodiaq.
Whether or not those ads were responsible, they certainly seemed to ring true enough with buyers, as Skoda's sales trajectory in Ireland has, over the past few years, been apparently charted by NASA. From a time when the only people buying Skodas were bargain-hunters and taxi drivers, now the Czech brand has moved deep into the heart of the mainstream.
Most of that success is down to this car, the Octavia. Even in an age of SUV-obsession, the straightforward, straight-shooting, Octavia is still the best-selling Skoda model (it actually outsells its supposed peer, the Volkswagen Golf) and represents a third of all the marque's sales here.
So I'm worried. Worried by the prospect of this all-new Octavia. Well, not all-new - it's still based on the same basic building blocks as before (Volkswagen's MQB chassis and parts matrix) but new enough. Updated. Restyled. New interior. Upgraded engines.
Why am I worried? Well... For years now, we've suspected that Skoda's success would eventually start to rankle somewhat with its Volkswagen overlords. That Skoda would, eventually, have to be pegged back a little, to make sure it did not become too big for its boots in the carefully managed brand environment of the Volkswagen Group. Last year, with the arrival of the compact Scala hatchback, we seemed to see the first signs of that happening. Golf-sized and more-or-less Golf priced, the Scala is no Golf. It's fine, as these things go - roomy, solidly built, grand to drive - but not memorable, not exceptional in any way. Would the new Octavia be similarly throttled back to keep it in its place?
Name its best bits
Nope, not on this experience at any rate.
OK, first off, you're going to have to put down the SUV. That's it. Leave it there. Just forget about it. You don't need it. Never did, in fact. You just got suckered in by the marketing hype. What you actually need, if you're in the market for a family car, is this. The Octavia Combi, which means the estate.
I know, you think it's a commercial travellers' car, and that you need an SUV to have something practical. You're wrong. Come around the back and squeeze the little button that opens the electric hatch. Behold, the space: 640 litres of it. By comparison, a Nissan Qashqai holds 430 litres. If you're trying to pack buggies and strollers, shopping and schoolbags in, that's a massive difference. There's more lounging space in the back seats of the Octavia than there is in most SUVs too, and the Skoda pulls out a major environmental advantage as well, with CO2 emissions starting at under 120g/km, depending on the model, even on the tough new WLTP ratings.
On the outside, it's handsome, but perhaps very quietly so. The front end basically copies the Scala, and like the Scala looks a touch anonymous, but the Octavia's plain and simple panel treatments, at a time when some car makers seem determined to make their products appear 'pre-crashed' in an effort to stand out, are very refreshing.
The cabin is simply laid out and clustered around two screens. One is right in front of you, a big ten-inch one, acting as your instrument panel. The second, also ten inches in our Style-spec test car (an eight-inch version is standard) does everything else. And we mean everything, from climate control to music and radio to setting up various functions such as ambient lighting and more. It all looks exceptionally good and our Style test car came with the rather lovely touch of a dashboard upholstered with fabric, not plastic. It was a dark-grey, slightly tweed-like fabric that added a warm note to what might otherwise be a slightly austere cabin. The quality of all the fixtures and fittings is simply excellent, and little touches - such as the fact that you open the big, optional, glass roof by sliding your finger along a touch-sensitive panel - really amps up the sensation of classiness.
Under the bonnet of our test car was the latest 'Evo' version of the 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine, with 150hp. And I know I'm going to get flack on social media for saying this, but it's lovely: it's smooth, refined (except for a touch of growl on a cold start) and exceptionally efficient. We averaged 4.9 litres per 100km. That's 57mpg overall, including long motorway runs and some mooching around town. Skoda claims that the engine's 'twin-dosing' AdBlue system removes any conscience-prickling over NOx emissions, and its rated CO2 emissions are 122g/km. We know that such claims have proven baloney in the past, but we'll have to take them on face value for now, and in fairness this engine passes the tough new 'Real-world Driving Emissions (RDE) test. It works well with the seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox too, although we found that the new 'toggle switch' gear selector can be rather fiddly, and doesn't bring any major benefits in terms of storage space. Still, the sheer relief of being able to drive a car powered by easily-replenished liquid, having spent quite a bit of time lately in electric and plug-in hybrid models, was quite something. What was that about hydrogen not being the future?
Anything that bugs you?
The instrument panel is configurable to your tastes, but a touch fiddly to use at times, and it's not always entirely clear which of the physical buttons, mounted on the gorgeous two-spoke steering wheel, does what. As for the central screen, it keeps the heating and air conditioning controls lined up on the bottom of the screen at all times, which is helpful, but it's still not as naturally intuitive as real buttons, and once again here's a Volkswagen Group car with slightly glitchy software. Nothing specific this time around, but it would occasionally become confused or run seemingly a little slowly. More work needed. Equally, while the screens certainly look handsome, I'm not sure that they, and a few other options, would convince me to spend the €43,148 as-tested price of this particular vehicle. There are much more reasonably-priced Octavias in the range, and I think you'd be better off shopping lower down the tree than this.
If the Octavia has a weakness, it's dynamically. It doesn't drive badly, or anything, but it lacks the incisive, entertaining steering of its cousin, the SEAT Leon. Now, clearly that's yet another fag-paper wall that VW places between the two cars, in an effort to differentiate them, but it is a bit of a shame. You can feel that the Octavia's chassis has good, solid responses, but there's not enough feedback for you to exploit or enjoy it. You could sit back and relax, but our test car had 18-inch alloys fitted, which add too much thump and fidget to the ride quality. Who needs big alloys on a family car?
And why have you given it this rating?
Because that's what the Octavia is, and what it's best at - being a really, really, incredibly, really, fabulously solid family car. It is one of those cars that slides, effortlessly, into your life and your lifestyle and pretty soon you're wondering both why you never had it before, and quite what you might do once it's gone. Buy another one would be my advice - from its gargantuan boot to its comfy, high quality cabin, this new Octavia is proof that even when VW tries to quell Skoda's ambitions a little, the Czechs can't help it. Whether or not it's truly made for Ireland, it proved ludicrously capable in the hands of this Irishman.