Implant engines developed for performance Golfs into Skoda wagons and you get…? Well, a pair of rather enticing opportunities, actually.
ARE you one of ‘those people’ whose thoughts about Skoda remain coloured by memory of what it once was?
Reboot, snap out of it. Times have changed; the world has moved on and Skoda, as a Volkswagen brand, is an international high-flier that has achieved real greatness in Europe and deserves no less than the same in our market.
Its cars really are THAT good and its credibility as a quality maker is so well-established now that I find it really annoying whenever remnant prejudice about how it used to be, and what it used to produce, still crops up in conversation as an argument against it being given reasonable consideration.
Admittedly, some Skodas are better than others. Personally, I think the larger the better, meaning – for the moment - the Octavia and the Superb (the oldest name it has, dating back to a pre-World War II vehicle), especially in their wagon formats. These cars are all about design excellence and sensibility. Maybe it’s the carryall aspect that Skoda is simply really good at, because it looks as though next year’s Kodiaq sports utility – so vital here because of our interest in soft-roading – also achieves massively well in that practicality aspect.
Anyway, back to the present. This week we have two petrol all-wheel-drive Skoda wagons to try out. The Octavia RS 230 and Superb 2.0 TSI are – at $57,990 and $64,900 – separated by just a few thousand dollars on price and united in using versions of Volkswagen performance engines developed initially for hot Golfs.
So, for family and for fun, then …?
OCTAVIA RS 230
For: Evocative soundtrack, restrained sports signatures, affordable performance Q-ship.
Against: Slightly awakward styling, no auto start .
SOMEONE in the family hankers for a car that satisfies their inner driving enthusiast – someone else with final sway says, that’s fine, but let’s be sensible about it.
So, here’s the answer. The RS sits neatly astride that fine line between genuine fun and true function that seems to be invisible to so many other wagon providers.
Numerous family haulers claim to be capable of a spirited punt; but with a 169kW/350Nm turbocharged petrol 2.0-litre that also ran local duty for a while in the Golf GTi Performance Pack, performance suspension tuning, tarmac-tearer rubber and braking power that would hold it in good stead on track days, this one walks the walk.
Yet it’s not so performance-focused as to be impossible for everyone other than the driver to live with. While this variant exhibits exceptional body control, balance and ride comfort, the tuning of the strut front, multi-link rear suspension, though clearly sports-minded, is barely brittle even on coarse chip. You’re not talking outright suppleness, but it certainly won’t leave rear seat occupants and the family dog in jitterish state.
You’d expect as much, because this model rides on the Volkswagen Group’s vaunted modular transverse (MQB) platform that underpins, in a more truncated format, such luminaries as the Golf and Audi’s A3.
The Octavia is unlikely to be compared with those models, because it is physically so much bigger. Octavia’s standing as being almost a Passat-sized car with a Golf-sized price tag is out of step with overall brand convention, but it surely has to make for an ultra-appealing buy-in. Also disguising the genetic ties is that Skoda takes a styling path that is quite different to the German way; there are as many creases and curves and, of course, that trademark grille dominates discussion (and splits opinion).
The substance sells it, moreso than the styling. It is a medium-sized car in practice, until you open the doors or the tailgate and take a look at the space on offer inside: Then it just seems larger still. But exacting maximum interior spaciousness without comprising road space seems a Skoda speciality; the Superb wagon is even better at pulling off this trick.
The enormous cargo capacity is perhaps the Octavia’s strongest weapon; 588 litres before you even consider folding the second row seats down, in which case it opens out to a whopping 1718L. Exceptional? Just about, yes, but as I say then you look at the Superb and it’s all the more capacious still. Maybe there’s a Czech tradition that says you have to cart around wardrobes and like-sized stuff, because both wagons are emphatically up to it.
The VW-ish-ness of the ergonomic layout and the general feel and look is undeniable, anyone with familiarity with the parent brand’s current design will immediately feel a connect. But that’s hardly a hindrance.
In typical European style, too, Skoda is among those brands that thoughtfully provides a vertical net partition and a floor mat with carpet on one side, heavy duty rubber on the other. Shame about the teensy centre console cup holders, though.
The 230 spec provides a few more embellishments than are meted the standard RS, though keyless start still isn’t one of them. Yet even without that curious omission it provides a lot of kit for the money - including xenon lights that turn into corners, a power tailgate and a cooled glovebox, plus all the salient active and passive safety aides – and, in respect to finish and overall build quality is right up there.
All this adds up to being a tangible smart money purchase for the family, not least because – as said – it achieves a ‘fun’ aspect, too.
Good enough to be considered a stand-in for the Golf GTi wagon we’ve never seen? Hmmm. While Skoda’s engineers have imbued the RS with enough character to separate it from other performance orientated versions of the same platform that are peppered throughout the VW Group, it potentially doesn’t quite reach that far.
Yet it is still outstanding. The longer wheelbase inhibits it from achieving that Golf deftness but trades off with a sense of stability and solidity, and the overall balance is right on target for the RS badge. It can be a little unruly if you want it to be, but it’s hard to reach the point where it seems too much of a handful. The braking is fulsome and the low, guttural growl of the twin exhaust pipes is invigorating under load. It can be a bit tiresome under light throttle, but the four-stage RS Driving Mode selector allows you to turn everything down and cruise in comfort.
Those RS-specific sports-orientated front seats are low-slung, broad-based and sufficiently long in the bolster for even the biggest drivers. The only niggle concerns that seven-speed DSG. The paddles mounted behind that chunky steering wheel allow for snappy changes, but it’ll still occasionally baulk when you’ve changed your mind about shifting up or down.
Safety is taken care of with a five-star ANCAP rating, nine airbags in total as well as multi collision brake assist and fatigue detect. ESC, traction control and EBD are also standard, so too Crew Protect Assistant, which can anticipate an emergency manoeuvre and prepare restraint systems ahead of an impact. However, driver-assistance stuff like city autonomous braking and steering lane-assist is still optional.
Overall, though, this car is a genuine high-performance sleeper.
SUPERB 2.0 TSI WAGON
For: Suave styling, smooth engine, interior space.
Against: Newcomers will play ‘find the engine start button’.
UPSIZE the packaging, upsize the engine – swapping now to the same engine that goes into the Golf R: So does that mean you also have an upsized outcome over the RS?
Well, not wholly. The Superb is certainly better for being even bigger, but there’s no Superb vRS in the range nor does Skoda show any compunction to add one. So itf you’re looking for Audi RS-level brawn, stick to those circles.
Two factors keep this edition from being an outright brawn leader. Wallop and weight. The engine that provides such a potent performance edge between the two Golf street racers has less of the first, being detuned back to 206kW and 350Nm because Skoda wanted to balance power with economy and also to enhance its torque, and it also has a larger and heavier body to haul.
Really, the 206 is more about being premium than hugely peppy, which really suits the machine’s big and friendly persona. Like the Octavia, it has a mode selection, but even the most dynamic setting is more laidback than in the smaller wagon, and same goes when you run the transmission in its manual setting and employ the paddle shifters: It’s more stirring, but never leaves impression that the road surface is in danger of being immolated.
That’s not to say you’re meeting a big softy. It's fun to drive when you want to go quickly, with the all-wheel-drive system ensuring there’s loads of grip and, even though the car is set up to soak up the bumps, it’s not so spongey that it behaves in ocean liner fashion through the bends; indeed, there’s relatively little roll. The steering could be quicker, but it offers a decent compromise between weight and feel. When you calm things down, the car settles into a cruise nicely, with a compliant ride and not too much noise coming into the cabin.
The initial big interest item here remains the engine nonetheless. Previous experience with this generation Superb has centred on the alternate turbodiesel, which would seem the more sensible choice in respect for economy and everyday usability. However, as we all know, diesels are hurt by Road User Charges and also carry a premium, so realistically this petrol will be more attractive to a high count of potential owners, not least those who won’t be clocking the sizeable weekly mileages a compression ignition mill requires to break even.
And really, if you can’t see yourself adding around 1000kms every seven days, then the petrol will seem worthy of serious consideration. Though not as torquey as the oiler, it is nonetheless quite agreeable. There’s decent pull and refinement but, above all that, it seems to have an easy knack for delivering achievable thrift, not least when cruising at 100kmh. It’s claimed number on the ADR combined cycle is just 6.4L/100km and I was delighted to acquire an impressive 6.9L/100km while on a test run that, admittedly, started off with a two-hour open road run then comprised, from thereon, a great deal of driving in the 70-100kmh speed range.
The direct shift automatic gearbox is as good in marriage with this engine, too. The diesel is brilliant with DSG because it just has so much muscle, but this 2.0-litre also acquits well, offering smooth shifts in auto mode and fast ones when changing manually.
Of course the other part of the Superb's appeal is its practicality. With 660 litres of space, or 1950 litres with the seats down, this is one of the most spacious station wagons around in respect to load capacity. And, as we noted with the diesel, that compartment is also brilliantly detailed, with good-sized cubbies and nets to stop items from rolling around within the boot.
Its other appeal is that it also has a brilliantly capacious cabin for occupants, too. The rear seat is a great place for any adult, with generous leg and head room. It’s also extremely comfortable.
Another plus point is that this edition offers a maximum braked capacity of 2200kg, so is one of the few big wagons left that can still stand equal with a medium to large sports utility if you’re planning on hauling a boat or small caravan.
The four-wheel-drive also abets in this duty but you shouldn’t expect it to enable this model to undertake the same degree of soft-roading adventuring that you could undertake in a crossover; Skoda’s Haldex system is potentially pretty good on grass, sand and snow – where this model will come unstuck is with its relatively modest ground clearance. Parking it alongside our own Subaru Outback highlighted how much more of a ground-hugger the Skoda is.
Thus, it is most definitely a family car first and foremost, but flexible wagon enough to suit if you want practicality but aren’t keen on an SUV or four-wheel-drive. Sorting out exact competitors won’t require much research; straight away you’ll see that the most obvious alternate is a car from the VW side of the family, the Passat TSI R-Line: Same engine, same kind of all-paw drivetrain, but a slightly smaller car and, erm, also a $5500 more expensive option.
Specification-wise, they’re running even-stevens: Skoda also equips with Passat’s adaptive cruise, lane departure warning, drive-mode selection with adaptive chassis control, three-zone climate air, keyless entry/start with power tailgate, full leather upholstery and satellite navigation. It has standard rather than sports-style front chairs, and VW offers a softer leather, but otherwise you’re just paying for the badge and a different styling approach.
Actually, a superior styling; an affection for straight lines and sharp creases doesn’t do much, in my eyes, for the smaller Skodas, the bigger than get, the better they look. The biggest car of the moment might, in time be outshone by the impending Kodiaq SUV, but at the moment the Superb wagon is impressive; while I still find the brand’s frontages a bit too confrontational, the car nonetheless looks suave and has just the ‘right’ stance. The gently sloping roof line and steeply raked rear wind screen are both beautifully designed and help to hide its 4856mm length well.
Perhaps, yes, it is a shape that is sensitive to colour, in which case the test car’s silver seems the perfect choice, as it too diminishes any sense of visual bulk. All in all, though, it’s truly a car that wouldn’t look out of place when parked up amidst the swank brands’ wagons.
The Passat, by comparison, though potentially better in its detailing (though the Superb doesn’t lack for that, either) just isn’t as interesting to look at.
Mind you, the Superb deals a similar kind of blow to the Octavia. You wouldn’t just buy bigger for the noticeably improved interior dimension (and better looks) but also for the noticeably better interior; it benefits of course from being a newer design and also one aimed at a more affluent customer.
The basic recipe for both is the same, but it simply has even more of a genuine luxury feel; enough for owners to play guess-the-price games with those unfamiliar with this car. The materials are just a little bit nicer and even though they provision the same kind of touch screen, the Superb’s graphics are just a touch sharper. It’s ergonomically more solid, too, save for the weird placement of the engine start button on the side of the steering column, right where the key would otherwise go.
Both cars now run Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, but oddly the Superb’s had real issues picking up phone call prompts, the point where I gave up the Siri side altogether and went old-fashioned, calling up menus etc. First world problem, huh?