Price: from £15,990 (£20,240 as tested)
Engine capacity: 1.4-litre turbo petrol
Power output (bhp @ rpm): 138 @ 4,500-6,000
Top speed (mph): 134
0-62 mph (seconds): 8.1
Fuel economy (mpg): 53.3
CO2 emissions (g/km): 121
When the chap from Skoda dropped off the new Octavia I can't say I was overly excited. I had a couple of hundred miles of Suffolk country lanes to cover visiting some relatives and I would have preferred to be doing in the Porsche Cayman due to be tested the next week (reviewed here soon). You see, the third-generation Octavia is a spacious and affordable sets of wheels and it's far more refined than the model it replaces, but it doesn't exactly do excitement. You wouldn't call it attractive either.
Duty called, though. But after a quick motorway run and a dozen or so sun-drenched East Anglian miles I found myself actually enjoying this cheap Czech family car. The Skoda badge doesn't just mean affordable anymore, it means you're behind the wheel of a perfectly put-together piece of kit, and there's great joy in that. It's a joy that stems from the little things working just perfectly, without any hassle or compromise. Inside, the switches are just where you expect them to be, the driving position comfortable and the gear stick a lovely and light tool for a precise change, while on the motorway it's economical, smooth and quiet as it dominates the outside lane with ease. As you push on, it handles tricky B-roads well.
Of course, there's a catch and this car isn't as cheap as you'd think – the new Octavia is about £1,000 more expensive across the range than the old model – and the model I fell for was the top-spec Elegance model with leather seats, cruise control, collision braking, dual-zone air-con, keyless entry and lane-keeping assist. It also had the more powerful turbo-charged 1.4 petrol engine. That's a lot of kit for a basic family car and it will set you back nearly £21,000. In my book that's still great value for money but I'm not sure who is spending that much on a new family car these days, especially when most of these extras sits in the not strictly necessary column.
If £21,000 is too much, the cheapest S model with a more modest engine (mine was the punchy 1.4 turbo petrol) is just £15,090, including alloy wheels, air-con, a touch-screen DAB radio with Bluetooth and a host of safety features. One option worth ticking is the Bluetooth+ wireless aerial connection. It's a small mat inside the cubby ahead of the gear lever, which I soon discover from the accompanying blurb is a £180 option that boosts mobile reception via the car's aerial and helps prolong battery life. I often run internet radio off my smartphone in test cars and this little gadget is a gem. Either way, whether you splash the cash on a top-spec model or go for a more wallet-friendly set-up, the Octavia is a bigger car than it used to be; it's 90mm longer and its 690l boot is bigger than the boot on a more expensive Ford Mondeo.
In February I said the new VW Golf was "probably the best" new car I was going to drive all year. It turns out I was wrong. The Octavia is based on the same underpinning as the Golf (they are both manufactured by VW) and while the Golf handles better, the Octavia is spec-for-spec £2-3,000 cheaper than its VW cousin. And it's bigger. Does that mean it's a better car or the best car on the road? No. I'm not going to make that mistake twice, but I will say that with the Octavia you get an awful lot of car for your money.