Motoring: gavin green

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There were grander, faster, and certainly more desirable cars. But, among all the status-enhancers at the recent Geneva Show, one new car stood out for its sheer good sense: the Skoda Octavia estate.

Skodas have come a long way since they were the butt of comedy club jokes. Back in the days when John Le Carre was in vogue, and when the only thing high-tech about Eastern Europe was its ability to dope its athletes (and not get caught), Skoda cars were ugly, sad, sluggish, smelly little things.

They were so bad, that Skoda undoubtedly did its bit - unwittingly - to bring down Communism. Skodas, along with Russian food queues, Bulgarian plastic shoes and Polish architects, all played their part. After all, what self-respecting Czech could honestly say their system was working, when that's all they had to drive around in?

But while most old Eastern European car makers disappeared when capitalism invaded, Skoda has prospered. It was bought by Volkswagen, which knows a thing or two about making cars - and also a thing or two about turning basket cases into winners, following social upheaval (look what happened to the Beetle after the Second World War).

Nowadays, Skoda builds Volkswagen-engineered and Volkswagen-designed cars, with just enough Czech content to keep the locals happy. And, because Skoda still has about as much kudos on this side of Europe as Russian haute couture, the cars are still cheap. Is it any surprise that, when people stop trying to keep ahead of the Joneses and buy a Skoda, they are invariably delighted? Skodas have the highest repeat purchase rate of any make of car in the UK: 82 per cent.

The newer the Skoda, the better. The Felicia, the only model sold at the moment in the UK, is made to VW standards, but it still started life as an old-school Skoda. Not even the face-lift that the Geneva Show previewed can disguise its origins.

The Octavia is an altogether better thing. Take away the badge, and it's a Volkswagen. But whereas the Passat, which it resembles in shape and size, starts at almost pounds 15,000, the Octavia will probably sell from pounds 11,000 when UK sales start this June. The estate version shown at Geneva - similar to the fabulous Passat estate - will start at about pounds 12,000 (four grand less than the base Passat, or, for that matter, just under pounds 4,000 less than the cheapest Mondeo estate). It is brilliant value for money, and will be quite the best buy in the family car class.

Unlike the Felicia, it also looks good. Big, chunky and stylish too, in a utilitarian sort of way (rather like a motorised Doc Martens shoe). I drove an Octavia saloon - a 1.9 turbo-diesel model - in the UK recently, and it felt as if I was driving one of the latest generation Volkswagen models (which, of course, is precisely what it is). The estate looks even better, as well as being even more practical.

Skoda is an important part of Volkswagen's grand plan to rule the automotive world. VW boss Ferdinand Piech - grandson of the Beetle founder Ferdinand Porsche - has clear goals for his four car brands, VW, Audi, Skoda and Seat. He wants Volkswagen to rival Mercedes for quality, Audi to take on BMW (mission accomplished, I'd say), Seat to rival Alfa Romeo for sportiness and style (some way to go) and - believe it or not - Skoda to usurp Volvo as the thinking person's choice for solid, safe transport. Volvo is helping Piech by slowly deserting its core market, as it (probably misguidedly) chases BMW in the stylish/ performance/ sports saloon sector. Skoda aims to fill the void.

If recent products are anything to go by, it will almost certainly succeed. Skoda is on a roll. Sales are booming (production was 357,000 last year compared with 170,000 in 1991) as quality improves and as the old Crap Commie stigma evaporates.

In Britain, the Octavia will be the turning-point in Skoda's fortunes. It is bound to be a huge success. After it hits the streets, the only people feeling uncomfortable about Skoda jokes will be those telling them.