By Jonathan Crouch
A Skoda Octavia was once the least sophisticated of all the Volkswagen Group's family hatchback products. That wasn't the case by the time this MK3 model Octavia came along on 2013. Almost nothing was held back for this third generation version. It was still bigger and better value than most of its rivals, a Mondeo-sized medium range hatch for the price of a Focus-sized one. But the difference with this third generation design was that it was finally clever enough to change the way that cynics thought about Skoda. Let's Czech it out as a used buy.
You can trace the Skoda success story of the last few decades back to the original launch of one model: this one - the Octavia. Right from its very first appearance in 1996, this has been a car that's always super-sized its value proposition, offering more space than the class norm. For first and second generation versions, that class saw competition amongst Focus and Astra-class family hatches. This MK3 model though, took a step up in the world, virtually big enough to compete with Mondeos and Insignias in the larger medium range segment.
An Octavia then, that was usefully larger than ever before - and cleverer too - as it had to be to distance itself from the simpler, smaller Skoda Rapid model that hit the market a few months before this car arrived in the Spring of 2013. The Rapid is the car to choose for Skoda motoring as it used to be, light on frills and cutting-edge technology but solid, reliable, value-laden and built to last. This Octavia, in contrast, was more of a signpost to the kind of direction the Czech brand wanted to go in the future: one sharing the very latest technology with more luxurious brands in the Volkswagen Group stable.
There was a price tag to go with that of course, but it was one that still offered an affordable way into state-of-the-art thinking, most notably the hi-tech 'MQB' platform this car shares with SEAT's Leon, Volkswagen's 7th generation Golf and even the pricey Audi A3. Underpinnings that allow the kind of technology and roadgoing dynamics that back in 2013, buyers had simply never seen in a Skoda before. An Octavia then, that was guaranteed to surprise those familiar with the brand and others new to it. This car sold until 2017 when it was facelifted inside and out. It's the pre-facelift 2013 to 2016 hatch and estate models we concentrate on here.
What You Get
It's a mark of the flexibility of the Volkswagen Group's MQB modular transverse platform that it can produce a couple of cars as different as the MK3 Skoda Octavia and a MK3 Audi A3. It was stretched to make this Skoda significantly bigger than its Audi counterpart (it's bigger than the MQB-based VW Golf and SEAT Leon models too) but that apart, beneath the panelwork, almost everything else about these two cars is actually the same. You can't tell an Audi buyer that of course, but Skoda customers will receive the news with smug satisfaction, released, as they are, from the burdens of badge equity.
These people will probably quite like the fact that the look and feel of this car is very similar to its predecessor, despite Chief Designer Josef Kaban's attempt to create what Skoda called 'an engaging and elegant new look'. The similarities persist despite the difference in size: this car is 90mm longer and 45mm wider than its MK2 predecessor, making it all the more impressive that it also manages to be up to 102kgs lighter. That's been achieved through very careful attention to detail, plenty of which you begin to notice once you start to examine this car more closely. At the front, the 19-slat corporate grille is flanked by highly detailed headlamps with patterns inspired by traditional Czech cut glass.
Moving further back, you follow the sharp so-called 'tornado line' that profiles so many modern Volkswagen Group products, there to stretch the car visually and emphasise what Skoda rather optimistically hopes will be seen as a 'coupe-like silhouette' around rear side windows shaped like jet aircraft tailfins (no, we couldn't see it either). The way that bold creaselines cleverly separate the surface areas is especially evident at the back where the familiar C-shaped rear lamps can feature hi-tech LED lighting.
But it's when you lift the heavy bootlid that you get a feel for what this car is really all about. It's absolutely huge, the 590-litre load area you reach over a notably low lip 28mm longer and 125-litres bigger than with the previous generation model, the space on offer almost double what you'd get in a comparably-priced Ford Focus and over 50% more than you'd get in a Volkswagen Golf. Even larger medium range models can't match this: it's 10% bigger than a Ford Mondeo or Vauxhall Insignia from this period and over 20% bigger than a Mazda6. Push forward the split-folding rear bench to free up 1,580-litres and the Skoda's advantage is just as great, even if the space available isn't quite flat. But of course, if you're likely to be doing that on a regular basis, then you'd do better to opt for the estate variant, a car which offers 590-litres with all the seats in place or 1,740-litres with the back seat folded.
Was all this achieved at the expense of rear seat occupants - as was the case with the first generation version of this car? No. Enter in through the wide door openings and you'll find that, thanks to a 108mm wheelbase increase, there's more headroom and elbow width than there was before - though still not quite enough to really comfortably take three adults on longer trips. But then, previous Octavias have always been accommodating. Traditionally less attractive has been the Spartan built-down-to-a-price feel offered up behind the wheel. This car does better here. You still wouldn't think you were in an Audi but everything's certainly much more Volkswagen-like in terms both of fit and finish, the feeling supposed to equate to that of 'wearing a well tailored suit', according to the design team.
A few budget touches remain - the hard, cheap plastic used to trim the interior just below the windows on the rear doors for example. But overall, thanks to things like a soft touch slush-moulded dash and the addition of damped grab handles, the feeling of thirift and over-riding solid sensibility that characterises Skoda's only slightly smaller Rapid model isn't as evident here.
The white backlit instrument panel was re-designed for this MK3 model but probably the biggest interior change lies in the way that stereo, navigation and trip computer functions are wrapped up into a clear and easy-to-use infotainment touchscreen. There are lots of clever cubbies too - with storage areas big enough to take a 1.5-litre bottle. We particularly like the smart 'phone holder, placed down by the (thankfully conventional) handbrake. We all have to cart our smartphones about with us: why can't every cabin house them as neatly as this one does?
What to Look For
Skoda had ironed out quite a few problems common to earlier Octavias by the time it came to this Mk3 model but inevitably, a few issues have persisted and we found a few of them during our ownership survey. One owner complained of an acoustic resonance over rough surfaces and said his car had an engine vibration that could be felt through the steering wheel at around 3,500 revs. Another recognised problem is the way that this MK3 model collects water that gets trapped at the bottom of the front doors.
Other issues? Well one owner complained that the sat nav kept locking up and had to be continually restarted. Another reported a door controller failure. There were air conditioning compressor/pump problems and on one car, the rear door seals came apart. There was an issue for one owner with the front headlamp washers - they had to be re-set in order top work properly. On another car, the dual mass flywheel had to be expensively replaced and the gear selector kept sticking in reverse gear.
(approx based on a 2013 Octavia 1.6 TDI 105PS ex VAT) An air filter will be priced in the £14 to £17 bracket, an oil filter will sit in the £6 to £8 bracket and a radiator will be around £70 to £100 (though go for a pricier brand and you could pay in the £115 to £150 bracket for one). The brake discs we came across cost in the £22 to £55 bracket (or in the £70 to £102 bracket for pricier branded items). Brake pads are in the £11 to £30 bracket (or between £40 to £80 for pricier brands). Wiper blades cost around £27. A headlamp will cost around £105 and a wing mirror will cost around £88. A timing belt will be around £60, though you could pay around £110 for a pricier brand.
On the Road
As with the Volkswagen Golf and the SEAT Leon, the German engineers who created this car took a pragmatic approach to driving dynamics, deciding that drivers opting for lower order engines wouldn't care too much about cutting edge handling response. So the sophisticated multilink rear suspension is reserved for the performance-oriented vRS models, the most powerful of which uses the 2.0-litre TSI petrol unit borrowed from the Golf GTI.
Most used car buyers will focus though, on the mainstream variants that are all suspended with a much humbler torsion beam arrangement. It's disappointing to find such a simple set-up in lower order Golfs but it seems to matter a lot less in this Octavia. Partly because you're less likely to approach this car and want to throw it about. And partly because the simple suspension set-up isn't detrimental to ride quality: on the contrary, it's very good, even over very poor surfaces. As a result, this is a restful car to use and a great long journeying companion.
Particularly with the torque of a decent turbo diesel engine under the bonnet. There are two main ones on offer here, with the base 1.6-litre TDI the unit that proved to be the most popular of all Octavia variants amongst British buyers. It pushes out 105PS in standard form - or 110PS if you find this Skoda in eco-minded Greenline form. Either way, expect to make 62mph from rest in around 10.5s on the way to a top speed just over the 120mph mark. You'll get a similar level of performance from the 105PS 1.2-litre TSI petrol option that many lower mileage users will prefer. A 115PS 1.0-litre TSI engine was introduced in 2016.
To be honest, this car doesn't feel that fast with any of these engines fitted - and in its volume diesel guise would benefit from a sixth speed in its manual transmission to ease the engine strain at higher revs. Not that you'll be short of speeds if you select a variant fitted with the DSG auto gearbox option, this transmission offering up to seven ratios, but with the usual auto transmission sprint-sapping penalties attached. Still, you can perk things up a bit by recourse to the kind of hi-tech intervention you simply wouldn't expect to find on a family-minded Skoda of this sort: 'Driving Mode Selection'. It's the Czech brand's version of Audi's 'drive select' set-up and it's standard whatever your engine choice on all but entry-level Octavias to allow you to match the set-up of the car to the mood you're in and the road you're on.
To use 'Driving Mode Selection', you simply press the system's 'mode' button, then use the infotainment touchscreen to select between 'normal', 'sport' and 'eco' driving settings, depending upon the kind of progress you want to make. Or you can pre-programme your own bespoke settings using the 'individual' menu. The system will then adapt the engine torque, the accelerator sensitivity, the power steering and, if appropriate, the auto gearbox response to suit.
You'll certainly enjoy all of this more at the wheel of one of the pokier mainstream variants, either the 140PS petrol TSI 1.4 or the 150PS diesel TDI 2.0-litre. The 1.4 puts out 140PS - worth pointing out as the same engine in a pricier Golf only manages 122PS - propelling you to 62mph in 8.1s on the way to 134mph, figures almost identically matched by the willing 2.0-litre TDI diesel. The 1.4 TSI unit was upgraded to 150PS guise in 2015.
And handling? Well as we suggested at the beginning, it isn't really geared towards the needs of the enthusiast driver, though to be fair, bodyroll is well controlled and the steering direct and precise. If you're after more than that, then you'll appreciate one of the sporty vRS models. Horses for courses you see. And if those courses are likely to be on the rough and muddy side, then you'll be interested in the four-wheel drive system also developed for this car, primarily for a Scout estate model with additional body cladding and a raised ride height.
The Octavia name - based on the latin for 'eight' - is an almost inseparable part of Skoda's history, dating all the way back to 1959 when it arrived to designate the eighth design produced by the Czech brand following World War II. In modern era guise, Octavias have sold prolifically, enough, if placed end-to-end, to fill all three lanes of the complete M25.
But those sales of course date back to a time when this was a slightly smaller and much less sophisticated car. This third generation Octavia was an altogether more sophisticated thing, a car you can electronically tweak to suit both your mood and the road you're on. A Skoda that can automatically park itself, brake itself or dip its own headlights. A Skoda in fact that can do everything you'd expect a comparable Audi to do - at a substantial price saving.
There's a cost for that of course: don't expect one of these to be super-cheap on the used market - in the way that family-minded Skodas used to be. But you're getting a lot more for your money with this MK3 model Octavia. If you doubt that, then try one. It might surprise you.