Skoda Octavia Scout 4x4

words - Steve Kealy
Skoda's new wagon delivers value for money, but might not appeal to everyone

Skoda Octavia Scout 4x4 - Road Test

RRP: $39,990
Price as tested: $44,970
(Sat-nav $2490; leather $2490)
Crash rating: N/A
Fuel: Diesel
Claimed fuel economy (L/100km): 6.6
CO2 emissions (g/km): 178
Also consider: Subaru Outback (more here); Renault Koleos (more here); Audi A4 Avant (more here)

Overall rating: 3.5/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain/Chassis: 3.0/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 4.0/5.0
Safety: 4.5/5.0
Behind the wheel: 4.0/5.0
X-factor: 3.0/5.0

About our ratings

Skoda has come a long way since the bad old Iron Curtain days when the Czech brand was the laughing-stock of the car world. It used to be that Skoda drivers were middle-aged men in flat caps with strange accents and who bred ferrets, left-wing student union radicals, or both. The once-venerable brand bore the brunt of sometimes not entirely unjustified jibes:

Q: How do you double the value of a Skoda?
A: Fill the fuel tank.

And so on.

In truth, Skoda has a rich history and is one of the world's oldest vehicle manufacturers, having been established in the 1890s first building bicycles, then motorcycles and finally cars. It's heyday was before WWII, then as the century evolved, with Communism in charge of what eventually became the Czech Republic, quality, engineering development and performance took a back seat to egalitarian affordability.

In 1991, the Volkswagen Group took over the factory and Skoda joined the wider Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG). In the half-a-generation since then, the slipshod image of yesteryear has been completely erased to the point that in recent years Skoda has ranked at or near the top of the European JD Power customer satisfaction surveys and VAG's own quality ratings.

Currently the top of the Skoda tree in Australia, the Octavia Scout 4x4 is a good-sized, extremely nimble, decent-handling family station wagon with all-wheel drive and a transverse four-cylinder 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine -- and that's just the big bits. In keeping with Skoda's catchcry "Simply Clever", elegant and thoughtful details abound, like the auto headlamp and wiper options, useful see-you-home lighting and copious storage options... The more you look, the more you find.

If this immediately begins to sound like the all-Australian perfect vehicle -- well, sadly -- it's not. For a start, though the six-speed manual's a good one, there's currently no auto option. Thus with the lion's share of vehicles sold in Oz autos, the Scout is preaching in a rather small church.

Further confounding the suitability of the Skoda Scout for Australia is the sky-high diesel price anomaly.

Any number of commissions with acronyms for names bang on incessantly that diesel buyers are being gouged at the pump, but, eunuchs that they are, they're powerless to actually do anything about it. Thus, there's little $/100km advantage in buying an oil-burner.

This is not fault of the Scout, but in the absence of a petrol powertrain option in the Scout, it further limits its appeal. The Scout's perky and responsive 2.0-litre TDI engine emits that typical raspy diesel growl. But you either love it or you hate it -- it's always audible. (More on the Scout's mechanicals at our local launch review here.)

Then there's the fact that the Skoda, built in Europe for Europe, is a wonderful cruise-missile if your national speed limit is 130km/h and no-one much minds if you give it a squirt while overtaking -- so long as it's done safely.

At such speeds, the Scout's steering, handling and gearing all work in harmony, rewarding the driver with a finesse and tactile response that few other cars can match. Think BMW 3 Series Touring, Audi A4 Avant or VW Jetta and you'd be close. But drop down 30km/h and suddenly that six-speed gearbox is one-third redundant -- and the ratios are all wrong... You're working the tautly-sprung but well-gated gear-lever incessantly -- fourth is too short, fifth a bit tall and sixth just wishful thinking.

In such conditions, the clutch -- firm and precise initially -- can eventually begin to feel heavy and laborious. In other words, keeping the Scout at Australian speed limits can be a chore, as can a sustained bout of inner-city driving.

Aggravating this is something we've rarely struck in a diesel before: slow-speed stalling. Normally a diesel will have excellent low-speed torque and will tolerate slow-speed rolling starts in second gear or idle-speed gradual clutch engagement in first -- but not the Scout.

Our Skoda would stall unless there was distinct pressure on the throttle. It felt as if there was too little flywheel, the compression in the engine was really, really high, or the gear ratios were uncommonly tall. Three different diesel-experienced drivers all suffered the same symptoms. Owners of the cars will quickly learn its idiosyncrasies and accommodate this foible, but it illustrates that the Skoda is, well, different.

Finally, there's the suspension -- like the transmission, it's firm, taut and magnificently controlled; it engenders a feel of tenacious grip -- assisted in no small part by the all-wheel drive, attractive 17-inch alloys and premium-quality 225/50 R17 rubber. The whole plot is capped off by well-controlled bodyroll (despite the high ride suspension), and precise steering control for accurate wheel placement... On asphalt...
But don't be fooled by the 4x4 labels along both flanks, the red badges on carpets, gear-knob and dashboard grabrail, that 20mm extra ride-height or the butch front and rear undertrays. While all four wheels are indisputably connected to the drivetrain via a Haldex clutch system, think snowy Alpine passes rather than the Gunbarrel Highway; think rain-slicked autobahns rather than up to the axles sandy tracks.

The firm spring-rates that make the Scout a corner carver on asphalt turn it into a bit of a pie-floater when it comes to even ordinary gravel roads. Certainly it will get through, up and down any regular unsealed road, but it does it with the faintly disquieting feeling of not really being in touch with the surface -- as if it's skating on, rather than biting in, to the road.

More dirt-oriented tyres would certainly help, but to soften the road-ride and provide more feel may require a change in rim-size too... These are murky waters indeed.

Of course, the 1635kg Scout comes with a full set of electronic driver aids and they're very, very good -- but where you'd get through in a more mundane vehicle without once invoking any of them, trying to make use of just a small part of the Scout's very decent performance will see the warning triangle on the dash blinking regularly, as the antilock brakes, stability and traction-control systems all do their bit to keep the car out of the ditch and going where it's pointed.

Illuminated control buttons on the reach and rake-adjustable steering wheel are classy, the reverse-parking sensors are paranoid and shriek when solid objects are a metre and more away, the luggage area is cavernously vast (560 litres with the back seats up, 1620 with them down), the load-through hatch in the rear seat armrest increasingly rare and auto-dipping mirror a nice touch -- although the exterior mirrors were adjudged too small, despite the blind-spot-cheating convex outer strip on the driver's side mirror.

All five seats are comfortable, with adjustable lumbar support for the driver. Indeed, getting comfortable was never hard in the Scout and there's decent legroom for adults front and rear, simultaneously. In fact, there's an odd vestigial footrest for the driver's right foot, as well as the left.

There's even a useful interior tug-down handle for closing the tailgate, which avoids the need to touch the tailgate -- which is just as well, because the rear of the car collects dust like George W collects bloopers.

There are six crash-bags (front, side and curtain) and the front seats have active head restraints. The usual slew of seatbelt pretensioners and force limiters are fitted for all outboard seats. The Scout even gently applies the brakes to dry the brake discs when the sensors say it's raining -- you need to be spending big dollars to get that level of technology from other European brands.

Satnav and the heated leather seats are extra-cost options; the touch-screen navigation system which integrates the audio system controls isn't worth the $2500 extra ask, however, when a $250 supermarket GPS system is more accurate. The Skoda couldn't find entire suburbs (but when there, admitted that it knew where we were after all) and tried to direct us up a non-existent road -- which would have required the climbing of a near-vertical cutting.

Under the floor of the huge luggage area is a 16-inch steel rim, mounting a temporary spare tyre. One can't help but wonder if, on other, perhaps less well-endowed Skodas -- this isn't home to a full-sized 'real' fifth wheel with a slightly less generous diameter and profile.

It's a minor point, but the typical VW instrument layout puts the trip-computer display between the tacho and speedo -- which is fine, but restricts access to the driver. Passengers either have to crane or simply are denied information about temperature, consumption, average speed and range.

With a fair slab of rush-hour commuting, a few spirited romps in the countryside and quite a few slitheringly rapid trips along unsealed roads, the Scout returned a perfectly respectable 7.4L/100km fuel burn over about 700km. The tank holds 60 litres, so a 1000km cruising range should be achievable.

All this might give the impression that the Skoda Scout 4x4 is an inferior car, but exactly the opposite is true -- it is a brilliant car, with quality in thought, design and execution at every turn. And it is hugely good fun to drive once you're in its preferred playground.

It's also sensational value for money, given that its underpinnings are pure VW.


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Published : Monday, 16 February 2009
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