Skoda has had an interesting row to hoe in NZ lately.
It has not only had to get over old and unflattering preconceptions held by people who remember the original cars, but has had to build the brand's name with younger buyers who've never heard of it. Not to mention establish itself in a rather hard-to-define niche.
Strictly speaking it's not a VW, just as a VW isn't an Audi. But it's from the same family, now.
They all share technology and expertise, and the values Audi and VW have in theory should rub off on the Czech brand. So a Skoda should be worth a bit more than a mainstream market car, right? But it still is from Czechoslovakia, with all the cold war connotations that country carries. Why should people pay more for a Skoda than for an equivalent Ford, or Toyota?
Thus the Fabia, arguably the best Skoda on the market during the re-introductory years, hasn't done that well. Even starting at $24,990 for the 1.4 manual it can't quite compete among buyers with 20 grand to spend and a strict budget; it costs more, without making an unbeatable argument for the premium. Though it makes up the lion's share of Skoda sales in Europe, just 47 sold here last year.
The Superb has similar problems. It's roomy, it's nicely built, but why pay $57,990 or more for not-a-VW? Only 15 people did last year.
The Octavia has been the NZ Skoda arm's staple, despite being very much an older design. Even Douglas Blair, Skoda NZ's general manager, admits the outgoing model was "not the most advanced car on the market." And, more painfully, "to be quite frank, the sales performance is nothing to write home about."
But it could be with the new model Octavia, which is a fundamental building block for the brand's future in New Zealand. And what Blair and his boss, Richard Giltrap, are bargaining on is that the quality message will come across. Giltrap, not only heading VW, Audi, Porsche and Skoda, has fingers in several other automotive pies and he's no stranger to car factories.
"The Skoda plant is a first-class facility," he says. "And I've seen one or two plants in my time."
Giltrap and Blair have pushed the spec levels as high as they can to match the quality message, then spent 15 months bargaining for a price that would work here. The car couldn't cost more than equivalent VWs, but had to be specced and built to justify a premium in our highly competitive market.
NZ's bargaining power is miniscule. Our annual allocation of Skodas would be finished by morning tea - on Monday. Which explains the 15 months required to make Blair's argument stick.
What drives him is the conviction a car of this size, this build quality and this spec could sell here. It fits, provided the brand perception challenge has been beaten.
Blair is a man with a sense of humour - he's turned up at a previous press event in a classic Skoda, crimplene suit and 1970s wig.
But faced with the poor brand perception that's a hangover from 30 or more years ago his sense of humour slips a touch. "People buy an Audi, it breaks down and they accept it. They buy a Skoda, it breaks down, and they'll say: ‘It's a Skoda, of course it bloody breaks down.'" Blair brandishes the warranty figures - they're impressively low. "It's ironic: we have to be better than brands which cost more."
And not just with the cars – the showroom, the salespeople's clothes, the frequency with which their rubbish bins are emptied.
That's all very well. One feels for him, one really does. But is the car any good? It's certainly practical. It sits on the same platform as Audi's A3 and VW's Golf 5, has the exact same wheelbase, but a bigger body. So it's roomier. Not only inside, but in the boot, which offers 560 litres with the rear seats in use.
It's handsome, too. The rear view, even with the easily recognisable taillights, doesn't stand out, but the front certainly does. Those strong bonnet lines offer a visual solidity and gravitas similar to Volvo, a brand Skoda benchmarked. That bonnet and grille in the rear view mirror could only be a Skoda, and this face is now a family one.
There are two petrol engines to choose from: a 1.6-litre FSI four offering 85kW at 6000rpm and 155Nm at 4000; and a 2.0-litre FSI four with 110kW at 6000rpm, and 200Nm at 3500.
And there's a 2.0-litre TDI PD turbocharged diesel with 103kW at 4000rpm and 320Nm on tap anywhere from 1750 to 2500rpm.
They're all VW-group engines, using the latest group technology. Only the 1.6 is mated to a five-speed manual. It and the 2.0 petrol have a six-speed Tiptronic auto, replacing the outgoing four-speed, and the diesel gets VW's six-speed DSG gearbox.
The MacPherson strut front and independent multi-link rear suspension are new to the car, and matched to a battery of electronic performance aids. The base Octavia gets ABS, EBV (electronic braking distribution), MBA (mechanical brake assist), MSR (engine drag control) and ASL (anti slip), with ESP optional. Both 2.0-litre cars add extra acronyms with the standard ESP (electronic stability control) bringing with it EDL (electronic diff lock) and HBA (hydraulic brake boost). With all that your chances of crashing are much reduced, but should you overcome them six airbags and active headrests should help reduce damage to the car's occupants.
That 1.6 is rather well-specced, what with all that and alloy wheels, dual zone climate control air conditioning, a chilled glovebox, rear parking sensors – the list is extensive, and suddenly Mister Skoda is right: the starting price of $31,990 doesn't seem so bad. Naturally the 2.0-litre gets a longer list of goodies, at $41,490 for the petrol and $44,990 for the diesel.
Review by Jacqui Madelin
ON THE ROAD
What do the new Octavias drive like?
Not bad at all. The 1.6 offers relaxed performance in the auto we sampled at the press launch – there'll be no reckless overtaking here, But it's not intended as a sports car, and buyers won't expect it.
The diesel was my pick of the bunch, offering plenty of poke thanks to the torque delivery, and though the suspension is more comfortable than incisive, again that suits the car's smart persona.
Materials and build quality were good, bar a squeak in the rear somewhere that, to be fair, could be blamed on rapid preparation for thr launch.
The only real quibble from our taster was tyre noise, which was worse than expected even from our coarse chip. Overall, a pleasant car, roomy, well-specced and handsome. And at last, offering enough quality, and features, to draw buyers from the mainstream.
SKODA OCTAVIA SPECIFICATIONS
Engines 1598cc inline, liquid cooled, direct injection, DOHC petrol, 85kW at 600rpm, 155Nm at 4000rpm; 1984cc inline, liquid-cooled, direct-injection, DOHC petrol, 110kW at 6000rpm, 200Nm at 3500rpm; 1968cc turbocharged diesel, inline, liquid cooled with high pressure direct injection system, 103kW at 4000rpm, 320Nm at 1750-2500rpm. All engines mounted transversely in front.
Transmission Front-wheel drive. Five-speed manual gearbox (1.6); six-speed Tiptronic auto (1.6 and 2.0 petrol); six-speed DSG auto (2.0 TDI).
Wheels and tyres 16-inch alloy with 205/55 R16 tyres (1.6); 17-inch alloy with 225/45 R17 tyres (2.0 petrol and diesel).
Performance 0-100km/h, 11.2 seconds (manual 1.6); 12.4 seconds (auto 1.6); 9.3 seconds (2.0 petrol); 9.6 seconds, (2.0 diesel). Fuel economy in l/100km(manufacturer's figures, combined): 6.6 ,litres/100km (1.6 manual); 7.6 litres/100km (1.6 auto); 7.2 litres/100km (2.0 petrol); 6.0 litres/100km (2.0 TDI).
Dimensions Length, 4572mm. Width, 1973mm (including mirrors). Height, 1462mm. Wheelbase, 2578mm.