Overall rating: 4/5
It may just be a jacked-up, plastic clad Skoda Octavia Combi, but the Scout can slip, slide and saunter with the best of them. Refinement and automatic transmission need work though, and will it just be too expensive?
In the Metal:
As has become the accepted shorthand for creating a ruggedized version of a conventional family car, the new Skoda Octavia Scout is swarming with matte black plastic. It covers the wheelarches, the door sills and the undersides of the bumpers, where it's joined by that other automotive "we want to be a bit like Bear Grylls" visual tic - silver plastic. The effect is, of course, to make the Octavia Scout look like the trail-bashing, mountain-climbing, cross-training athlete for which it aspires to be the chosen transport, and it's a mostly pleasing design. There was already nothing wrong and much right with the clean, crisp, understated lines of the standard Octavia Combi estate and the Scout looks like more of the same, but with hiking boots on. The whole car rides a noticeable 31mm higher than a standard Octavia too.
Inside, there are only a few tell-tale differences to mark it out from a conventional Combi and they are mostly to do with the colour brown. If you like, you can have pretty much the entire cabin swathed in varying shades of everybody's favourite hue of the seventies - something that looks rather nicer than I've just made it sound. As with all Octavias, you can practically smell the quality as soon as you step in, the instruments and dials are clear and handsome and the space on offer just tips over the line from adequate to massive. There is loads of rear legroom and a 610-litre boot. That boot extends to 1,760 litres when you fold down the back seats and the front passenger seat can be folded flat as well to allow you to slide in items more than nine feet in length. Practical, then, and that's without even mentioning the double-sided boot floor (one side for shopping, all nice and carpet-y; one side for muddy boots and the dog, all nice and hose-down-able), the ice scraper built into the fuel flap and more.
We got to drive two variants of the Scout on this launch event. A third, the 1.8 TSI petrol model, will likely never give too much bother to the end-of-year-sales calculators. The top spec version uses the 180hp 2.0 TDI engine fitted with the six-speed DSG automatic gearbox and Haldex four-wheel drive. And to be frank, it's not likely to be worth the money. Yes, it's impressively punchy, but the bottom three ratios of the DSG transmission seem to be poorly chosen and the software makes the Scout hold onto those gears for too long at low to middling speeds, giving the effect almost of driving a recalcitrant CVT. There are also some refinement issues with the engine itself, which grumbles and grunts just a bit too much for our liking, although the extra ride height does seem to have quelled much of the annoying tyre roar that afflicts lesser Octavias.
You would be much better advised to go instead for the 150hp diesel, with the six-speed manual gearbox. It loses but 40Nm and to be honest, in normal main road driving conditions it felt little different to drive. Just as noisy though, but perhaps official (and seemingly realistic) economy of 55mpg will mollify your earache. Don't try and rush the manual gear change though - it doesn't like that.
Don't rush the steering either. Both of our test cars were fitted with an electronic driving mode change-o-prest-o button and the difference between modes was significant. In Sport mode (surely a silly setting to have on such a car, you would think) the steering felt decently weighted and accurate, if lacking in feel. In Normal mode though it suddenly went all light and wispy at the front end, and began to wander, at times almost alarmingly, in its lane. Either stick with Sport mode or just ditch that option and hope that the standard setup is better.
Thus far then, it would seem that you're better off saving yourself a chunk of change and just getting a lower-riding Octavia Combi with the 150hp engine and the same four-wheel drive system. Ah but, once we got off the tarmac and onto the off-road section, the Scout suddenly began to shine. All that black plastic and those silver bits are for more than just show. The extra ride height means the Scout now has a 16.7-degree approach angle and a 13.8-degree departure angle. Which means it can tackle hills, bloody big ones at that, and shrug them off as if they were speed bumps. It can also find easy traction on viscous mud, loose shale and dry, brittle gravel, can slop through dirty brown uber-puddles with ease and even tackle a 45-degree slide-slope and one descent so steep that Blackpool Pleasure beach rang us, asking for its roller-coaster back. It may not be a Land Rover Defender or Jeep Wrangler, but just like your 300-metre diver's watch, the Scout actually has a depth of reserves that vastly exceed your needs. It was hugely impressive, especially for what is essentially a humble family estate underneath.
What you get for your Money:
Hmmm. It is a touch expensive, isn't it? Even though the Czech brand has long since made the move from the bargain to the mainstream, you still think of Skoda as a budget brand at heart. There's no question that the Octavia Scout displays the sort of cool, unflappable road manners and solidity of quality that justifies its price tag, but even so, at that level you're starting to drift into Audi territory and that makes the Scout harder to justify, especially given the existence of the aforementioned standard Octavia Combi 4x4, which has around 90 per cent of the Scout's capability for presumably decent saving.
If you take a long hard look at yourself and your driving patterns, it's probably quite hard to justify the extra outlay needed to secure a Skoda Octavia Scout. The standard, low-riding 4x4 Octavia has plenty of what you need. But for those who live up muddy, occasionally snowy and rutted goat paths, and indeed for those who just can't resist the Bear Grylls styling package, it's a tempting mash-up of family estate and off-roader.