2021 Skoda Octavia estate review – it's everything the Golf isn't
The Octavia is better than the Golf… again
Every eight years the world of new family cars experiences something of a landslide. A new Golf appears with a thud at the top of the mountain known as Volkswagenspitze, and sets off a cascade of new Audi A3s, SEAT Leons and Skoda Octavias. They're all sister cars, sharing engines, platforms and infotainment systems. In the valley below, they land on the driveways of normal people who want quality motors to perform the day-to-day grunt work of family life.
And you can usually write the reviews of each of these cars from a standard template: the Golf is premium-ish, well-considered and pretty much the perfect car for average Joe. The Audi is expensive and reserved for people who love the badge above all else, the SEAT is the sportiest to drive but also the dreariest inside, and the Skoda is the roomiest. Done.
But for 2020, the Octavia has done something a bit surprising. It's hands down eclipsed the rest. It begs the question why Volkswagen and SEAT bothered. I've not driven the Audi yet, but I can't imagine it's really sharing a market with the Skoda. Watch my video below to find out why, or read on for more thoughts.
My week with the new Skoda Octavia Estate was spent doing ordinary things – the sort of things that are usually trip up fancier and faster cars. My first drive in it was a 360-mile round trip to Wales starting at 5am on a rainy Wednesday morning in October. Usually such a trip in a car with a manual gearbox would have me preparing to feel 5% more knackered than doing the same trip in an auto.
But within half a mile the Octavia's manual gearbox stuck out as one of the easiest shifts I've ever used. I know we're all driving gods, but honestly, the stick shift in the new Octavia is weirdly relaxing. It's smooth, and no matter what you do with the clutch pedal it just changes gear smoothly and blends into the background hum of driving motions as easily as an auto. Weird first impressions I know, but it set a theme for the rest of the car.
The new Octavia's bum is decent – but the hatchback looks better (unusually)
The seats in the top-spec Launch Edition car I had were supremely comfy, and there was just no hint of aural discomfort at motorway speeds either. There's no discernable wind noise, very little road noise and you get the strangest feeling that someone's secretly drugged you and bunged you in a rebadged Audi A6. Except the Skoda's cabin has some charm that you'd not find in an Audi. Subtle green lighting along the passenger dashboard, and a solid metal door handle that flicks up as an extension of the chrome door-card trim. It has a few tiny creaks, but generally speaking it's impressively well put together.
The hard bit of plastic forming the door grab handle is all that marks the Skoda out as a top-spec car that costs just £28,000. For comparison, that's £6,000 less than the Launch Edition of the new VW Golf. Yikes.
The Octavia has always been the most practical car of the Volkswagen Group sisters, and it's still true. The boot on the estate is 640 litres – up 30 litres over the previous model – and a darn sight more useful than the 380-litre space in the Leon and Golf. I know it's a boring thing to talk about, but it's so, so handy when you've got kids to be able to throw all their stuff in the boot and still have room for the ginormous Playstation 5 you picked up in John Lewis by accident.
This is why you buy the Octavia over a Golf. Loadsa room for your life
The back seats are incredibly roomy too. I'm 6'3" and had such a surfeit of room for my kneecaps that I'm starting to worry for the more expensive Skoda Superb's existence. The Octavia now feels like a limo. Presumably the next Superb will take on the Rolls-Royce Phantom for rear-seat shagging capacity.
Does it pass the 'driving like an arse' test?
Yes. There's a roundabout near my house that I arrive at about 120 seconds into any car journey. I've grown so used to driving big SUVs that I usually tip-toe around it, wary of dragging the stability control fairies from their ethereal slumber. Meanwhile the Octavia carved around it like I was in a hot hatch. You forget how well an estate car can handle, and the Octavia just doesn't roll – it grips and corners without drama. It's not going to make you Laugh Through Skids, but it's a family estate car. The suspension also does a decent enough job of smothering bumps, and you don't find yourself cursing every cats eye in the road like you do in the new Leon.
The car I drove had the 1.5-litre, 150hp petrol engine which was quiet, smooth and fast enough. It'll get from 0-62mph in 8.3 seconds and on to 139mph if you live in Germany.
But doesn't it have the dreaded new Volkswagen Group infotainment system?
Yes, it does. However, some of the criticisms I've levelled at the Golf and Leon's infotainment systems are alleviated – the Skoda gives you old-school physical buttons for things like 'max windscreen heating' and to turn the rear window heating on.
That row of physical buttons under the screen saves the Octavia from the air-con faff of the Golf and Leon
On the Leon you have to fumble through the touchscreen for all these things, and the Golf gives you feedbackless digital buttons. A win for the Skoda. The 10-inch infotainment screen that you get in top-spec models is sharp and colourful, but it takes a while to learn the menu structures.
What are the bad bits?
Honestly, very little. In white the new Octavia looks a bit bland, but the new styling looks classy – I particularly like the taillights and the hatchback version's bum looks even better, which is a rare thing to say. Otherwise it's just usual modern-car niggles – the car occasionally bongs at you for not being in the middle of your lane when you're in a contraflow in motorway roadworks, and the lane assist is annoying and you have to switch if off every time you start the car unless you want to fight the thing for the entire drive.
Everything in here is pretty well sorted – special mention goes to the chunky metal door handles which feel fab
Other than that I think it's fair to say the new Skoda Octavia pretty much perfects the 'normal car' thing. If you're after a family car with loads of space, and you don't want an SUV, then this is the best thing out there right now. I've never missed such a normal car a few weeks after driving it – until now.