You know what you’re getting if you buy a Skoda Octavia. Since its launch in 1996 (we’ll ignore the slow-selling model that shared its name in the 60s), it’s played a huge part in Skoda’s image change under Volkswagen Group ownership. Clever buyers have been tempted by its ‘like a Golf’ appeal, but with a bigger boot and lower price tag. As such, it’s consistently been Skoda’s most successful car, accounting for 28.7% of sales in the UK last year.
The Octavia’s been given a facelift for 2017 in a bid to keep it feeling up-to-date alongside the (also recently updated) Volkswagen Golf. But the firm has trod carefully – it wouldn’t want to frighten conservative buyers by doing anything too drastic, would it?
Visual updates go as far as new split headlights (a bit 2010 Mercedes E-Class in our eyes – we’ll let you decide whether that’s a good or bad thing), along with a wider Kodiaq-esque grille and updated front and rear bumpers. It’s ever-so-slightly longer than before, and the rear track has been widened by 20-30mm to broaden the Octavia’s stance and improve stability.
Inside, all versions now come with a new 8.0- or 9.2-inch infotainment system with gesture-anticipation tech and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard.
For our first drive in the new Octavia, we jumped in the fleet special: an SE Technology, aimed squarely at company car drivers with its ultra-efficient 1.6-litre 115hp turbodiesel engine. With around 71% of the UK’s Octavia allocation last year going to fleet, it's important Skoda caters for this market. As such, the SE Tech comes with the kind of features that’ll make life that little bit easier for business users: sat-nav, an in-car wi-fi hotspot, adaptive cruise control and parking sensors.
While the SE Technology feels anything but spartan, the majority of private buyers will opt for the mid-range SE L. It’s at this level where the Octavia starts to look almost premium – watch out Volkswagen Golf – with its Alcantara and leather interior, a chrome strip on the front bumper and LED headlights. We tried this spec paired with the 1.4-litre TSI engine (we’ll come onto driving impressions shortly), along with the top-of-the-range Laurin and Klement model.
The latter features unique 18-inch alloys, a premium audio system, heated leather seats (brown in our test car) and the 9.2-inch infotainment screen. If you’re thinking this is starting to feel a bit Audi, don’t worry – there are some features to keep your feet on the ground, such as an old-school manual handbrake and no electric boot release.
Whichever spec you opt for, it’s easy to forget the Skoda Octavia is a rival to C-segment hatchbacks such as the Volkswagen Golf, Seat Leon, Ford Focus and Mazda 3. There’s so much space, with a huge boot (590 litres in the hatch and 610 litres in the estate), and interior quality makes you wonder why you’d bother spending the extra money on a VW. The seats are comfortable – important when so many Octavias will cover huge distances up and down UK motorways – and plenty of adjustment in the driver’s seat and steering wheel make it easy to find a good driving position.
How does it drive?
The Octavia’s quite a satisfying car to drive, with accurate steering and a precise manual gearchange. We were surprised to find the 1.6 diesel we tried offered just five gears, but Skoda has tweaked the ratios to mean it’s not causing a din at motorway speeds. The flip side of this is having to drop down to third when passing through 30mph limits, but that’s something you’d soon get used to.
A pleasant surprise came in the form of the 1.4-litre TSI petrol engine. If car buyers are, as reports suggest, about to turn their backs on diesel engines, the 1.4 is a very pleasant alternative. More refined than a diesel, yet with 150hp on tap, it’s good for brisk (if not fast) progress.
We sampled the 150hp 2.0-litre diesel paired with both the six-speed manual and DSG dual-clutch auto ’box. While both are fine, our pick of the pair would be the DSG. It suits the Octavia’s laid-back approach, and selectable drive modes (Normal/Eco/Sport, plus Comfort if you select the optional adaptive dampers) means it works well no matter whatever mood you’re in.
We haven't tried an Octavia with the adaptive suspension but, despite erring on the firm side, the standard setup provides a compliant ride, particularly on the smaller 16-inch alloys.
Should I buy one?
If you’re wanting to make a statement or looking for something with a bit of dynamic flair, you should probably look elsewhere. But as a practical, efficient hatch or estate, with a surprisingly upmarket interior and a not-too-depressing driving experience, the Octavia is the same commendable choice it’s always been.
Choose whichever engine best suits your requirements. While the 1.6-litre turbodiesel wouldn’t be our first choice, it’s more refined than many of its rivals and will do the job for the most frugal-minded buyers. The 1.4 TSI is a surprising delight, while the 2.0-litre diesel is the do-it-all engine of the range.
The updates for 2017 are minimal, and not all to our taste (ahem, the styling tweaks), but we rate the new infotainment systems. They’re slick to use and make the car feel more premium than before. High-mileage drivers will also appreciate the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There are some tempting finance offers, too, making the Octavia an even more sensible proposition for the private buyer.
Prices and launch deals
Prices start from £17,195: that buys you a 1.0 TSI S, an engine that sounds small but, with 115 hp, performs better than you may think. The core diesel-focused 1.6 TDI 115 SE Technology is £20,590, and even the fruity VW Golf GTI-engined vRS 230 is only £25,145.
Skoda's launching the new 2017 Octavia with a special-rate finance deal, with APR pegged at 2.9 percent. If you buy on PCP, it will give you £1,500 towards the deposit, and take an extra £500 off the price if you buy before April 30th. That takes the cost of a 1.0 TSI SE down to £229 a month, provided you're able to find a £2,431 deposit. Don't have any cash for a deposit? Simply put £289 down, and then pay that for another 41 months.
Gallery: 2017 Skoda Octavia UK First Drive