Good: comfort, appearance, spacious interior.
Not so good: engine feels underpowered, no real off-road capabilities.
One of the things that comes with the job of being a motoring journalist is the regular questioning by friends who are contemplating the purchase of a new car. Usually I'll fire through what is now a regular line of questioning with regard to budget, particular requirements and the typical planned use as well as a few other things. In the last year one car has consistently come up as a 'best match' - the Skoda Octavia.
The Czech car hasn't won as many trophies nor enjoyed quite as much limelight as its relative, the Volkswagen Golf, but this doesn't represent any shortcomings in the car's all-round practical nature. In fact, it has now added a further level of practicality to its line-up thank to the introduction of Skoda's latest all-wheel drive system. Dimensionally, the Octavia in Combi format - that's estate to you and me - presents highly impressive amounts of cargo space. Open the wide hatch and drop the 60/40 split folding rear seats (a task that takes mere seconds) and you suddenly feel like you've become a van owner such is the amount of space available to you.
With the addition of a four-wheel drive system there is a drop in performance from the 2.0-litre engine, which in day-to-day driving won't seem all the noticeable, but it could be more prevalent if you have the car completely laden with heavy cargo. On the road the Octavia 4x4 performs very well especially when you venture onto poorer, less defined road surfaces. Grip levels never seem to wane, although the lack of an increased ride height and underbody protection does limit the car somewhat as to just how adventurous you can get with it in an off-road environment. That said, for heavy winters and those living in rural areas where road surfaces usually leave much to be desired, the Skoda will be more than up to the task.
Aside from the huge boot space, the Skoda can take three adults in the back (two comfortably) while up front the design and feel is of a car that can make cross-country trips a relaxing affair. Good supportive seats deserve a nod as they will leave you feeling fresh even after a three-hour drive. The dashboard display is simple and easy to read at a glance while the rest of the controls fall intuitively to hand.
Being a permanent four-wheel drive system you don't have any settings to choose from, meaning it's a simple affair. By its nature the manual gearbox doesn't offer quite the same level of slickness as other models in the Octavia range, though we wouldn't go as far as to describe it as unrefined. Anyone who has driven the more conventional and similarly engined Octavia will detect a slight lack of performance as some of the TDI's power and fuel economy is compromised by the four-wheel drive system and the additional weight that brings.
The Skoda Octavia 4x4 is unlikely to be a volume seller, but for those that do decide to go for one, they will take ownership of a car that will act as an excellent workhorse. When compared to more extrovert rivals such as the more expensive Audi A4 allroad quattro, the Skoda Octavia may seem like a rather plain choice. But the benignity of Octavia 4x4 is what makes the car a smart choice and one that could soon see it become a valued member of the family.
Ford Focus Estate: doesn't have quite as much space as the others (nor a four-wheel drive option), but it remains a practical and popular choice.
Hyundai i40 Tourer: no four-wheel drive version offered, but this is still a good family estate.
SEAT Leon ST 4Drive: shares a lot with the Skoda and is a keenly priced alternative with all-wheel drive.