Skoda Octavia 1.8 TSI

words - Mike Sinclair
A facelift and new engine and transmission choices are key to Skoda's simplified Octavia range

Skoda Octavia 1.8 TSI update

Local Launch
Adelaide, SA

What we liked
>> New 'face'
>> 1.8 TSI and seven-speed DSG combination
>> Refined without being bland

Not so much
>> Don't be fooled by medium car tag
>> Options can bump driveaway figure
>> Haven't driven the base model

Overall rating: 3.5/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain/Chassis: 4.0/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 3.5/5.0
Safety: 2.5/5.0
Behind the wheel: 3.5/5.0
X-factor: 3.5/5.0

About our ratings

OVERVIEW
A year or so on from its relaunch Down Under, the Skoda brand is making steady but not strong progress. But, that's okay says its local keepers, the Czech-based Volkswagen-owned brand is still in the business of positioning itself to capitalise on a wider range of new-to-market products that will arrive in the next few years.

The all-new Superb is just around the corner -- due Down Under in the next few months. There's a Fabia light/small car in the wings and the Yeti softroader. Skoda meantime is busy building and refining a local dealer network and getting to know Australian consumers.

The all-new version of the Octavia will be the car that determines the size of the role the brand has to play Down Under. That car's still some time off -- the car upon which it will be based, the new Golf VI is barely into the showrooms itself.

That doesn't mean the volume seller of the Skoda line-up is going to be left to wither on the vine, however. Enter the latest Octavia -- a facelifted version of the five-door liftback and wagon that have driven the brand's success in markets like the UK and spearheaded its local arrival.

PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
For MY2009 Skoda has tweaked the Octavia and, as it has learned what local buyers want, simplified its model range and added a petrol entry-level model. Now boasting an entry-level 1.6-litre petrol variant, in a choice of liftback and wagon body styles, Skoda's volume seller now kicks off from $26,990 (price guide -- recommended price before statutory and delivery charges)

The cheapest Octavia is now a five-speed manual liftback powered by the aforementioned 75kW/148Nm fuel-injected 1.6-litre petrol four cylinder (Octavia's previous entry-level engine was the Volkswagen Audi Group's (VAG) venerable 1.9-litre 77kW/250Nm turbodiesel). A six-speed auto variant of the 1.6 is offered at a premium of $2300 ($29,290). An extra $2000 buys you the wagon version of either.

In the simplified Octavia range, the 1.6-litre model is only available in a single trim grade. And while it's aimed at positioning the close-to-medium sized car to tackle the top-end of the small hatch and wagon market, you'd be hard pressed to call the car a 'stripper'.

In addition to Skoda's impressive build quality and high-end cabin plastics and materials, the base Octavia's standard equipment list includes 15-inch alloys, aircon, power windows and locks, cruise control, trip computer, multi-adjustable front seats and eight-speaker iPod-ready single disc audio system. Seat facings are an attractive technical cloth.

A full safety pack is also standard. Stability control heads up an armoury that also includes antilock brakes with emergency brake assist, etc and six airbags, including full side curtain bags.

Two higher performance engines are offered, both matched to a higher standard specification -- unlike the launch range, Skoda has eschewed names for its new trim grades. What you see is what you get.

The top petrol is VAG's latest turbo direct-injected (TSI) four-cylinder 1.8-litre petrol which is matched to a choice of six-speed manual or the group's new seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automated sequential gearbox.

Six-speed manual and DSG variants of VAG's proven 103kW/350Nm pumpe duse turbodiesel top off the Octavia range.

The TSI pumps out 118kW and 250Nm and is also featured in the upcoming Superb and in longitudinal form (crank along the car, instead of across) in the Audi A4 entry-level offer.

The 'highline' Octavia range starts from $31,490 for the manual liftback 1.8 TSI, with the range-topping DSG turbodiesel wagon priced from $38,290. You'll pay $2300 to upgrade from manual to DSG on the 1.8 and TDI variants, and the petrol-diesel differential is $2500. The same $2000 premium applies across liftback and wagon.

Over and above the entry-level Octavia's specification, the highline models add 16-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, multi-function wheel, six-disc Bolero touchscreen audio system with HVAC display, heated folding mirrors, rain-sensing wipers and auto lights, fogs et al.

A simplified range doesn't mean Skoda won't offer buyers the opportunity to personalise their Octavias. Factory options offered on the new range include: leather heated seats ($2830); active xenon lights ($1490); sunroof ($1730); park distance systems, interior trim options, satnav ($2590 1.8 and 2.0, $3090 1.6); 17-inch alloys and sports suspension $1840 and for DSG equipped cars, a steering wheel with gearshift paddles ($190).

MECHANICAL
The key mechanical changes to the Octavia comprise the use of VW's stalwart 1.6 MPI petrol powerplant and the arrival of the latest generation 1.8 TSI.

The 1.8 TSI is a thoroughly modern powerplant, but should not be confused with the 1.4-litre 118 TSI engine used in the Golf VI. The engines share power output, but the bigger Skoda engine produces more torque (250 v 240Nm) over a wider rev range -- 1500-4200rpm.

The 16-valve 1.8 TSI is Euro 4 rather than 5 compliant for emissions and coupled with the new seven-speed DSG gearbox returns a combined fuel economy figure of 6.7L/100km. The manual 1.8 TSI is 0.5L/100km thirstier.

The 1.6 MPI is well known to drivers of base model Golf Vs. It's an honest rather than inspiring powerplant. Its humbler origins dictate its eight-valve design. In manual form, it returns combined mileage of 7.8L/100km in Octavia sedan and wagon alike. In the auto versions that number increases to 8.5L/100km.

The seven-speed dry-clutch DSG is VAG's latest. We've written plenty about the gearbox, which builds on the experience gained from VW's mould-breaking six-speed wet-clutch original. Smoother than the original, it also benefits from years of refinement in terms of both software and hardware. There's less hesitation when accelerating from rest and in auto mode the box is simply smarter.

More ratios allow the engine to operate in its most efficient rev range more often, but without the mechanical losses inherent in a CVT transmission. Skoda proffers fuel economy reduction as the chief benefit of the new box.

Other detailed changes under the Octavia's skin include new electro-mechanical power steering, which Skoda also claims contributes to fuel economy savings. Brakes have also been worked over -- as such the Octavia now sports larger front discs.

PACKAGING
The Octavia facelift freshens the look of what the writer considers was a handsome if somewhat plain five door. Debuted at last October's Paris motor show, the changes are typical of a midlife model makeover -- work of the front and rear ends, while the expensive bits (the door, door-openings, etc) are left untouched (save for new side mouldings).

The new front-end softens the car and links it more tangibly with its Roomster and Superb stablemates -- the new headlamps are quite sculptured and the grille tightly follows the Superb's styling lead.

At the rear there's a tidier styling treatment that adopts a deeper underbumper valance a la the Octavia sports models. And the quirky art-deco-style 'Octavia' badge has also been brought into the Noughties. It now sits proud as punch in an up-to-date font on the boot lid and also in classy "jewelled" highlights on the outboard edge of the new headlamps.

New alloy-wheel designs are featured -- even on base model.

Inside, the cabin quality has been lifted to match the improvements wrought of late by Skoda's parent company, Volkswagen in its Golf and Polo.

There's a new four-spoke steering wheel design, the instrument panel has been freshened (and now gets white illumination). Always one for clever storage solutions, there's now a handy compartment in the rear centre armrest.

Materials generally appear upgraded and the dash's centre stack has been revised to incorporate the latest 'Bolero' style audio, climate and satnav (where fitted) touchscreen presentation as used in VW's Golf VI and Tiguan. The aircon controls have been revamped and the 1.8 TSI and 2.0 TDI variants include a dual-zone set-up with new auto high and auto low functions.

Of course as this is a facelift, little has changed in terms of the overall Octavia offering. Check out our original launch review here for more.

SAFETY
Octavia's safety story is quite strong -- and has been since launch. That said, it is still only rated as a four-star car by EuroNCAP -- most new cars in this category score five.

In Australian trim, it arrives with the full complement of active and passive safety systems including stability control, antilock brakes and six airbags across the range.

The latest Octavia adds a new anti-whiplash system to the front seats.

COMPETITORS
Skoda pitches the Octavia against midsized cars -- despite the fact it is Golf-based and rolls on the same wheelbase as the top-selling 'small' VW.

The Octavia offers a number of clever packaging tricks (and great incidental storage) but when compared to the 'big' mediums such as the Camry, Mondeo and Accord there's a real difference in available cabin space. Even the Honda Euro and Mazda 6 offer substantially more passenger room than the Skoda.

For the buyers who consider the medium segment cars too big, the Octavia could be just right. The Skoda also compares well in terms of comparative equipment levels.

In terms of its pricing of the new 1.6 model, Skoda says it has positioned it to inhabit the top-end of the bread and butter small car market.

Sounds like they're having a bet each way...

After 18 months of establishing the brand and "telling Australian car buyers we're here", Skoda Australia boss, Matthew Wiesner says Skoda wants to "more than ever position ourselves at the quality end of the value segment."

"The new range has a far easier mix of engines and drivetrains for dealers and customers to get their heads around," he commented.

ON THE ROAD
We were unable to drive the new 1.6-litre base model at the local launch but will endeavour to grab one for a seven-day test down the track. Though any driving impressions will have to wait until then, we can attest that the car presents as a cut above the 'normal' stripper version.

Standard alloys make a difference to the exterior presentation and Skoda's choice of interior fabrics and finishes also present very well.

We spent most of our time during the launch loop to the south of Adelaide and on to Port Elliot in what should prove the volume seller for the brand -- the seven-speed DSG-equipped 1.8 TSI.

A smooth and eager powerplant, any lag from the turbo four is well masked by the DSG's clever programming. Step off is sprightly and, unless you're heavily into the throttle, the box shifts quickly into the higher gears for maximum economy and minimum revs. Not surprising given its European origins, at highway speeds this is a quiet and relaxed drive.

On the 1.8's standard 16-inch alloys the ride's more than acceptable and though it's hard to be categoric, we reckon the updated car offers better bump absorption and more body control than the initial batch of Octavias we drove. Only real sharp-edge bumps catch the suspension out -- as they would any conventional sprung car -- and the car is commendably controlled when you do feel the urge to up the pace.

Indeed, Skoda seems to have hit a sweet spot between delivering good ride and precise and predictable handling. The latest Octavia's electro-hydraulic steering is pretty sharp too.

There's a theory that the Czech Republic's less than perfect roads give the brand an advantage over its German 'flatmates' when it comes to tuning for our local conditions. Whether that's the case or not, we're not much fussed... Just don't change what you're doing Mlada Boleslav

Despite its modest capacity, the 1.8-litre turbo four's midrange is strong. It's not just a grunter engine though -- it's happy to spin out to the redline or the DSG's smarter shift points. Without steering wheel paddles (they're an option), we found we left the engine/gearbox combo to its own devices.

We'll give the revised interior a thumbs up. In the higher grade models too the materials have been upgraded. The Bolero touch screen audio/climate system is classy and far and away ahead of the Japanese and Korean offering in this price and size class.

It's not overstating the case to say owners of Audi A3/A4s will see plenty of familiar cues inside the new Octavia -- particularly from the driver's seat... The trip computer is a straight lift from the superseded B7 generation A4.

There we've said it -- or at least written it... Audi and Skoda in the same paragraph! Though Ingolstadt might not be too happy, we're pretty sure the Czechs will be chuffed.

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