Price: From £18,040 (range spans £15,990-£23,240)
Engine: 1,598cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 105bhp
Transmission: Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive (double-clutch auto optional)
Performance: 121mph, 0-62 in 10.8sec, 74.3mpg, CO2 99g/km
The motor industry tends to divide cars up into sizes: city cars, superminis, estates and so on. The average buyer, however, is more likely simply to choose a car which is the right size for their needs rather than worrying about categories. So perhaps there should be cars in between the standard sizes, to suit them. That's what Skoda, a company individualist in outlook, thinks too.
As with its previous two generations, the new Skoda Octavia shares hidden genes with the Volkswagen Golf. This time, though, the basis is the group's new MQB platform, in which the M denotes modularity. It is designed to be made in different sizes according to need, while still sharing much of what is expensive to make. It is also designed to be lighter so, like the latest Audi A3, Golf and Seat Leon before it, the new Octavia weighs significantly less than the old one.
This is despite being the biggest MQB car, with the longest wheelbase and the most cavernous boot beneath its long hatchback tail. All of which puts the Octavia in a size class above the more expensive Golf, with more space for people and paraphernalia, while making today's bloated Insignias, Mondeos and Passats seem unnecessarily massive.
The Octavia looks crisp and clean, with some lovely detailing but few of the exaggerated slashes and flourishes that will make many other new cars quickly look dated. The interior continues that theme, coming close to the much-vaunted premium feel of an Audi in its textures and quality, and featuring particularly crisp instrumentation.
The grab-handles now have the damped return action denied to past Octavias as one of the ways of demonstrating Skoda's lower status in the VW Group hierarchy – although one disappointing piece of cheapness remains to break the new spell: the tops of the rear door's interior trims, just below the windows, are of hard plastic and only the front occupants have the luxury of padded tactility.
To drive? The previous Octavias always felt good, and so does the new one, if you choose the right model. Trouble is, the best of all, and the only one to have sophisticated multiple-link rear suspension instead of a simple torsion beam, is denied to UK buyers because our importer thinks there will be no market for it. That car is the 1.8 TSI, with 180 turbocharged bhp, vivid acceleration and a smooth, precise, responsive demeanour.
Most Octavias sold in the UK have been diesels, and the new range gets two: a 105bhp 1.6 and a 150bhp 2.0. In optional high-efficiency Greenline guise, with an extra 5bhp, the former generates just 89g CO2 per kilometre. Petrol engines are a 105bhp 1.2 and a 140bhp 1.4, both turbocharged. The latter is lively enough if worked hard but oddly difficult to drive smoothly, with over-sensitive brakes, an inconsistent accelerator response, a fidgety ride and steering that lacks the 1.8's incisive edge.
The 1.6 TDI is a better bet, with a calmer engine and a pleasing feeling of being planted on the road. Like all new Octavias, it is impressively laden with standard safety kit including automatic emergency braking. Safety options include items once found only on the likes of an expensive Mercedes-Benz.
All of which explains why Skoda has become almost an alternative premium brand. Which is why the sooner the excellent Octavia 1.8 TSI becomes available in the UK, the better.
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