All hail Skoda’s approach to mainstream modernity and its Octavia model!
No less than ‘seven million’ Octavia models have rolled off the production lines at Skoda’s Mlada Boleslav factory since 1996 and Iain Robertson, both as a former owner and the writer who broke the Octavia story in the UK, appreciates it greatly.
Prior to 1986, when VW commenced the process of acquiring the Skoda company from the newly independent Czech government, its products were mainly rear-engined, Communist era machines, the decades old carmaker having been starved of development resources for much of the post-WW2 period. They were tough but uninspiring, despite winning consistently in the motorsport arena. However, a few ‘more conventional’ examples of the firm’s front-engine/rear-driven Octavia had been sold in the early-1960s, at famously low list prices (£500).
So named and derived from Latin, because it was the eighth car designed by the firm since 1945, the Octavia name would be revisited by VW during the early-1990s, as it created its first, all-Volkswagen model for a new generation, albeit on soil that had been producing cars for as long as Mercedes-Benz had. From a personal standpoint, which led to my unique British invitation to view the airy Norman Foster-esque factory built for the new Octavia and to drive the first of a new generation of family cars, I was grateful to Jiri Hrabowski, the former Czechoslovakian water polo Olympian and, then, PR Director of the carmaker.
Although impressive, that first run of left-hand drive Octavias would not be UK imported, as there were already a number of ‘modifications’ and enhancements intended for our market, the launch of which was still several months in the future. Yet, I was able to write a run of UK ‘exclusive’ stories for the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Auto Express, which caused a minor ‘shitstorm’. Subsequently, having been given the opportunity to test drive the first UK market registered Octavia 1.6GLX, which became the most photographed example of the line-up, I purchased it, when it was just three months and 4,000 miles ‘old’, as my personal transport. It was a rare machine at the time and I found myself engaged in an unwitting, near but unofficial ambassadorial role for Skoda.
Inevitably, the Skoda Joke Book continued to fill its pages but the joke would soon be on all of the perpetrators. Skoda reliability had never been in question. It was the apparent lack of inspirational desire that kept its presence at a low ebb. Yet, Octavia changed it comprehensively and, with the company’s centenary taking place in 1995, I made no bones about according it the title of ‘Car of the Century’, as it was such a massive gamechanger.
The modern Octavia has always been built on a lightly revised VW Golf platform. Unfortunately, this important structural appendage has led to the car being regarded as a rival to the Golf, various Seat and even Audi models, all of which are dimensionally smaller and significantly less spacious, notably in boot capacity. Yet, as the consummate family car, the Octavia has always percolated to the top of any across brand comparisons, let alone class rivalries with other brands.
The first major group to adopt Octavia in the UK was the taxi scene, because it recognised the models’ multiple talents. The estate car (combi), later sporty vRS and multi-surface Scout variants served to cement a brand and model reputation that remains unassailable. Of course, it is helped by the fact that its lineage is incredibly strong. The design language in evidence is readily traceable through each of its four generations, which serves to highlight that it was ‘on the money’ from the outset. Naturally, this makes it incredibly difficult for Skoda to make any radical styling departures. However, like its Golf foster parent, whatever high-end technology weighs-in from Wolfsburg, is soon incorporated in the latest Octavia.
If there is one downside, it lies in affordability, a long-time premise of Skoda, and, while the buyer-in-the-know seeking a bargain will still gravitate towards Skoda, price parity with the other equivalent models in the broader VW remit has had a beneficial impact on them. Yet, the Octavia remains immensely popular and is still the (SUVs notwithstanding) best-seller it was always intended to be. The ‘Simply Clever’ marketing exercise has created a notional differential, with Skoda always boasting of at least one, or more details that carry human value. Of course, it is the ‘human touch’ that makes Skoda significantly more appealing even than Volkswagen, or the markedly higher-priced Audi brands. However, an ultimate irony exists in the brand’s reputation related to engineering reliability and integrity; countless customer service surveys have always placed the Octavia on a much higher platform than any of its in-house rivals.
While an over-7m production run is a tremendous result for any carmaker, it is worth noting that my initial claim being attributable to Mlada Boleslav is not strictly true, as it is a figure bolstered by production at both Chinese and Russian factories (and also a ‘failed’ Indian operation, where the cars were regarded as ‘too expensive’). Yet, without its Czech inspiration, those locations for local production of Octavia would never have existed.
The latest Octavia is a product of which more than just its ‘mother’ would be proud. Aside from my Mark 1 hatchback, I owned an early Octavia Mark 2 1.8-litre turbo-petrol vRS, a later 2.0-litre turbodiesel vRS and a mid-life Mark 3 vRS (also diesel and modified by Skoda to 212bhp), in an array of Skoda models acquired over 21 years. All of them were totally dependable and delivered significantly more than the sum of all their parts. Although VW needs a pat on the back for enabling Skoda to grow and develop in the manner in which it has, the Octavia is the much-lauded, much-rewarded midfielder that continues to warrant the market’s well-deserved attention. While it has never received the official accolade, in its own way, the Skoda Octavia is an unqualified ‘Car of the Century’ that deserves every ounce of praise heaped upon it.
Conclusion: Midfield mainstreamer though it may be, the Skoda Octavia is a mature performer that never ceases to surprise in so many areas. Its impact is felt across both private sales and business user arenas and, finally, there are no more Skoda jokes that apply…which you might like to direct at any French car, especially Dacia, from now on!