Any new version of the Czech brand’s biggest-selling model has to succeed. We get behind the wheel of some pre-production versions to see if it’s on the right track.

Autocar UK, By James Disdale

© Image credited by Haymarket Media Group | First drive: 2020 Skoda Octavia prototype

The fourth generation of the eminently sensible Skoda Octavia is quite an important car for the Czech firm.
Despite the seemingly unstoppable rise of the SUV, even within Skoda’s ranks, it’s the Octavia that is its bread and butter, and since its introduction, it has accounted for around a third of the firm’s worldwide production. No pressure then.
We’re still a little way from seeing the car in the metal, but even so, we were given the chance to drive a couple of disguised examples. Both were estates, with each being fitted with either a 2.0-litre TDI or 1.5-litre petrol. There were also six-speed manual and seven-speed DSG transmission options.
Underneath the dazzling camouflage, the Octavia retains the familiar MQB platform, meaning it packs the same wheelbase and hardpoints. Still, the aerodynamics have been improved, by 14 per cent, meaning this latest model slips through the air more easily, while the estate models more steeply raked rear screen and a large roof spoiler give it very strong Volvo overtones when viewed from behind. Under the skin, the suspension and steering have been subtly massaged to deliver even greater comfort and sharper handling.
The biggest technical changes are reserved for the electrical architecture, which has been totally overhauled to allow the introduction of the latest driver aids. That means there’s now the availability of the latest Level 2 autonomous systems, which effectively combines lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control. Matrix LED headlamps are also an option, while the infotainment system has been heavily updated to include the latest connectivity - for example you can now update your preferences to the ‘cloud’ where they can be beamed to any other similarly equipped Skoda when you climb aboard. Neat.
Mechanically, the engines look familiar on the surface, but the 148bhp 2.0-litre TDI’s internals has been refreshed, including the use of new pistons and conrods. As ever, the changes have been wrought in the name of efficiency and cleanliness rather than power - a fact that’s highlighted by the revelation that the current entry-level 1.6-litre unit will be dropped in favour of a 115bhp version of this 2.0-litre. There will also be a 187bhp flagship, presumably for the vRS.
Speaking of other versions, once again the Octavia promises to have the broadest line-up on the brand’s books. Details are still sketchy, but on top of the cooking versions, there will be the aforementioned vRS and a high-riding Scout, plus both plug-in and 48V mild-hybrid models. There will also be a choice of two and four-wheel drivetrains, plus familiar hatchback and estate body styles.
Inside, the Octavia has taken another step upmarket. The cars we drove featured shrouded interiors, but a static display model revealed a classier design and greater use of premium materials. The end result looks good, but with its two-spoke wheel and wing-shaped dashboard treatment, the Skoda has more than a hint of previous-generation Mercedes S-Class about it. While space for occupants hasn’t increased (it’s still one of the largest in the class), there’s more room for luggage, with the hatch featuring 600-litres and estate 640-litres, which are increases of 10 and 40-litres respectively. Curiously, the improvements come as much from the way space is measured as an increase in size, Skoda now using the VDA method. So there you go.
WHAT'S IT LIKE?
Our time behind the wheel was limited to a tightly controlled convoy that was driving at a brisk rather than breakneck pace, plus we weren’t allowed to fiddle with any of the driver modes (it was Normal all the way), but the choice of roads that rolled over and through the Tuscany hills provided a variety of different corners and surfaces for the car to contend with. Either way, the limited run was enough to confirm that there aren’t any radical changes here, but Skoda has taken an already accomplished machine and given a vigorous polish.
Skoda’s engineers have targeted increased refinement for the Octavia, and the 2.0-litre TDI is the engine that’s benefited most. Both the internal changes and the improved sound insulation have taken the edge of the clatter, the four-cylinder now working away unobtrusively. It also feels more energetic than it’s WLTP-strangled predecessor, responding crisply to the throttle and revving more keenly. Of course, it does it’s the best to work in the mid-ranges, pulling with effortless muscle from less than 2,000rpm.
The 1.5-litre TSI petrol is the same EVO unit that’s already been seen in the VW Golf and Seat Ibiza. Featuring cylinder deactivation it’s a smooth and willing performer, matching the diesel for outright urge if not low-speed muscle. Yet it suits the Octavia nicely, it’s hushed delivery very much in keeping with the new model's increased emphasis on comfort and refinement. Both the gearbox options were impressive too, the six-speed manual benefitting from a slick action and progressive clutch, while the DSG shuffled its ratios with the speed and smoothness of a Monte Carlo croupier.
And it’s this sense of plush refinement that defines the Skoda’s dynamics. The suspension works more discreetly now, even on these cars with their less sophisticated torsion beam rear (more powerful versions and the 4x4s will get a multi-link arrangement). Tweaks to the springs and dampers (engineers were cagey at this stage as to the exact changes) have resulted in a fraction more compliance, while there’s much less bump thump over sharper imperfections. In combination with the quieter mechanicals and lower wind noise, it makes for hushed progress.
Point the Octavia through a series of corners and you’re in for a familiar display, as there’s the same assured poise we’ve become used to in MQB motors. The steering is precise and has a natural rate of response, while the beautifully integrated torque vectoring system ensures confidence-inspiring front end bite. It’s not a car that’s dripping with feedback or that delivers the last word in razor-sharp agility, but it handles neatly and flows down the road with all-of-a-piece security. It’s a satisfyingly able machine that strikes a fine balance between handling and comfort.
SHOULD I BUY ONE?
It’s too early to deliver our definitive verdict on the Octavia (we’ll have to drive production versions on UK roads for that), but initial impressions are good. Skoda has retained the existing machine’s impressive practicality, space and on-road manners, yet engineered in a welcome dose of refinement and technology. If Skoda manages to maintain its traditional value pricing, then the Octavia will represent a fine choice for those after a comfortable and sensible family runaround that’s satisfying to drive and loaded with the latest tech.
Skoda Octavia prototype specification
Where Tuscany, Italy Price TBC On sale 2020 Engine 4 cyls, 1968cc, turbocharged, diesel Power 148bhp Torque 251lb ft Gearbox 7-spd, dual-clutch automatic Kerb weight 1300kg (est) Top speed TBC 0-62mph TBC Fuel economy TBC CO2 TBC Rivals VW GolfFord FocusSeat Leon.
This article was originally published in Autocar UK.
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