The Ocatavia is back , and on it rides Skoda India’s fortunes. As much as the original Octavia established the brand’s name and fame in the country this one has an even bigger task at hand, to drag Skoda India out of the funk it has found itself in and restore past glory. It, of course, is an uphill task but as we head out from Shimla, on the first leg of our drive from Parvanoo to Chail, the realisation dawns rather quickly: the new Octavia might just put Skoda’s house in order. I have two days with the new Octavia, driving down beautiful roads in the foothills of the Himalayas, the queen of the hills. Tonight we head to Charrabra and tomorrow back to Timber Trails in Parvanoo via Chail. This is a road that you either drive at crawling pace stopping every ten metres – such are the breath-taking vistas, or you drive with steely resolve like it was the opening stage of the Raid de Himalaya. I start with the former, stopping every other corner to shoot pictures and taking in not only the apple orchards and gushing streams but the car itself which makes for its own pretty picture.
The old Octavia, and the Laura that followed, were the best looking cars of their times, and a lot of it was down to the simplicity of its design. The strong yet uncomplicated lines, the clean detailing, the tight shut-lines, the feeling that everything was built to last. The new Octavia follows in the same vein: its lines are crisp, well defined and unfettered by excessive detailing and that new Skoda grille sits terrifically on the nose. It is at once sporty and sophisticated, the tight shut-lines again furthering that impression of quality and being built-to-last. It is almost Audi-like and that can only be a good thing. If you had to level criticisms it will probably be directed at the rear where some said it looked too much like a Rapid, but when you see one in the flesh I doubt you will complain. And there’s no way you will complain when ensconced inside the cabin. Quality of materials, which was already of a very high order, takes a further step up, there is more style to the dash layout, there is a new touch- screen infotainment system and the beige- black combination works very well, giving the cabin a further air of spaciousness. Which it does not need! Sitting on the Volkswagen Group’s revolutionary new MQB platform the Octavia has seen its wheelbase increase from 2578mm to 2688mm and that means rear leg room has grown from 47mm to 73mm. Boot space goes up to 590 litres, aided by that unique notchback design. This is almost Superb-levels of spaciousness and with the cabin being crafted with more style, Skoda would be well advised to bring in the Superb facelift quickly before it loses relevance altogether. As for the rivals in the segment the Octavia has them all beat, good and proper, on this front. What also bridges the gap to the Superb (and stretches it away from its class rivals) is the ride quality that is very accomplished over all kinds of surfaces, the Octavia cruising over bumps and irregularities without bringing it to the notice of passengers.
Post lunch I get a move on and begin to enjoy the 2.0-litre common-rail diesel engine, which is 2bhp up on the Superb, cranking out 138bhp of power and 320Nm of torque. This should give it a 0-100kmph time in the region of 11 seconds and a top speed of 215kmph but on these roads what really comes to the fore is the mid-range torque and flexibility of the engine. The 6-speed manual gearbox is a delight to operate and there is also the option of the 6-speed DSG twin-clutch automatic gearbox. Disappointingly though there are no steering wheel paddles to operate the gearbox.
Making haste allows me to experience the other side of the Octavia’s dynamic nature, a dilution of that sporty character. The Laura had a sporty edge to its suspension set-up, the new Octavia trades that in for better comfort and that means the Octavia is not as sharp and is more eager to understeer as before. There is a bit of body roll and the longer wheelbase means it doesn’t feel as planted as before. The steering too feels light and lifeless. That said the Octavia is never less than reassuring at whatever speeds I can muster over roads that twist and turn over themselves. By nightfall, when we pull into Charrabra there’s a big smile on my face. Next morning I swap into the petrol Octavia that gets the 1.4-litre turbo-charged petrol that also does duty in the Jetta developing 138bhp of power and 250Nm of torque. The motor does put on a game face when barrelling up the hills, and thanks to turbo- charging there is good low and mid-range torque to pull the Octavia smartly out of corners, but it lacks that enthusiasm which made the Laura 1.8 such a delight. Enthusiasts then will be well advised to stick with the 1.8 TSI motor which is also available on the range topping petrol Octavia, developing 177bhp of power and 250Nm of torque (the same as the 1.4 though coming in 250rpm lower at 1500rpm). This is up by 24bhp from the Laura and that should make for smoking sub-10-second 0-100kmph times. I didn’t get an opportunity to smoke any tyres as there was only one car with this engine on the test drive but we will have a full story on it in the next issue. The 1.4TSI gets only a 6-speed manual while the 1.8TSI gets only the 6-speed DSG automatic. To cope with the additional power the 1.8 Octavia also gets multi-link rear suspension that gives it far better road holding and a dose of sportiness to the dynamic character of the car. All other variants stick with the cost-saving torsion beam rear set-up.As for the Octavia itself, while it marks a significant step up for Skoda, it all boils down to pricing. Get it right and all those ‘Octavia is back!’ headlines will be justified.