Skoda's new Octavia is easily the equal of its rivals in fit and finish

The brand used to be the butt of industry jokes. John Simister isn't laughing any more -- its quality is now up with the best

What is a Skoda nowadays? This is the company that reinvented itself after Volkswagen took control after Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution. The jokes have faded out now, but the sales pitch is still based on beating residual doubts.

Those people still do not accept that today's Skodas are credible, properly-engineered cars which embarrass the Volkswagens to which they are so closely related. A Fabia is more fun to drive than a Polo, a Superb is a smoother, roomier ride than a Passat.

Into this scenario comes a new Octavia, replacing the 1996 model which was the first Skoda based on a VW platform (that of the then-unlaunched Golf Mk4).

It shares, like Audi's A3, the base of the just-launched Golf Mk5. The fascinating part is the way value-driven Skoda is determined to compete with the best mainstream brands on quality, just as in 1996 when it pledged to take on the likes of Volvo and Rover.

At first, the new Octavia looks uncomfortably similar to the old one. It has the same front and rear overhangs, arched roofline and hatchback tail, but this time the wheels are big enough to stop the over-bodied, under-wheeled look. A longer gaze reveals this is a sharper, more definite car.

It is also bigger than before: 2.7in added to the wheelbase, 2.6in added to the length, 2.8in added to the total legroom.

And, outside, there is a strong hint of Volvo: it has similar "shoulders", especially where the rear wings flare out from the pillars, and the trick Volvo uses in the new Volvo S40 to give the front more attitude.

The bonnet is narrow at the front, then flaring out to the edges of the windscreen. Its pedestrian-impact-friendly height, is emphasised to suggest power beneath.

Skoda design chief Thomas Ingenlath has a clear idea of how a Skoda has to look. "Look in the museum here, and the history," he said at the Octavia's unveiling at Skoda's factory in Mlada Boleslav. "We could not put such a front grille on our cars without that."

And that Volvo resemblance? "I'm much more comfortable with people saying our cars look like a Volvo than a Volkswagen or Audi."

This car is easily the equal of a Golf in quality, fit and finish. It has the same padded upper cabin surfaces, hard but crisp mouldings lower down. The door seals are a snug-fitting work of art. The roof pillars are fabric-covered. The edges of the boot and bonnet apertures are painted and lacquered where a BMW's are not.

Engines are the usual mix of petrol (from 1.4 to 2.0 litres) and turbodiesel (old-tech 1.9, new-tech 2.0). The diesels can be had with VW/Audi's marvellous double-clutch semi-auto gearbox, too, and of course all Octavias have the excellent, Ford Focus-inspired suspension.

If the prices (sales start in June) represent Skoda's usual value, this car could just be one of the smartest buys of all.

SKODA -- THE CAR THAT CAME IN FROM THE COLD

Vaclav Laurin and Vaclav Klement began making bicycles in 1895; they moved on to motorcycles and cars, and in 1925 merged with industrial machine company Skoda.

They built Hispano-Suiza cars under licence, and a decade later Skoda had a whole range of cars. But the factory got destroyed on the last day of the Second World War, forcing a total rebuild.

The first Skoda seen in Britain in 1960 was the 440. Then, in 1964, came the 1000MB. This evolved into the squarer S100 family, to be replaced in 1980 by the Estelle whose popularity gave it enough visibility to get the jokes going.

There was a coupe version called Rapid, viewed by the motoring press as a cut-price Porsche 911, but still the jokes flowed. They eased back after the arrival of the Bertone-styled Favorit in 1989, and then Volkswagen got involved.

By 1993 the Favorit had metamorphosed into the Felicia. Next came 1996's Octavia. The rest we know.

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