We weren’t exactly bowled over when we reviewed the new VW Golf 8. It did pretty much everything well, of course, but it doesn’t move the game on from the Mk7 all that much. In some areas, it might even be a little worse.
Regardless, it still seems to be the one to recommend. Most of its rivals come with potential deal-breakers, but with the dependable Golf, there’s no smoking gun that’d make you want to walk away. “Still The Best, Just Not By As Much,” is the way we put it, but the trouble is, we hadn’t driven any of the car’s VW Group MQB Evo cousins at the time. Now we have, we need to think about retracting that statement. Because the Skoda Octavia and the Seat Leon might just be better.
We’ll run you through the Leon another week to avoid VW Group C-segment overload and focus on the Octavia for now. And what’s immediately clear with the latter is the intention to push Skoda as a more premium brand - it feels properly upscale in there. Much more so than the Golf. The dash is a neat, uncluttered design with a fancy piece of silver trim running across, and on this SE L model, there’s some lovely microsuede cladding on the upper part. The way the unusually shaped door handles appear to sprout from the ends of the silver trim pieces on the door cards is a nice touch too.
In the Golf, there are a surprising amount of cheap-feeling bits and pieces, but there’s precious little to grumble about in the Octavia. It’s all well built, too, which means I’m happy to overlook the weird two-spoke steering wheel.
Like all of the MQB Evo cars, it commits the cardinal sin of sticking climate control functions in a surprisingly sub-par infotainment system that ought to be more responsive. But it gets a leg up over the Seat and the Golf in UX terms with a little button on the steering wheel that means it only takes two presses to turn off the (thanks to Euro NCAP) always-on lane assistance. Result!
The 148bhp 2.0-litre ‘TDI’ diesel engine in our test car can only be specced with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. This means moving away involves playing with an odd little stubby selector protruding from between the front seats like an unwelcome growth. What’s wrong with a traditional grip-shift design?
This is another one of those engines that shows, particularly with non-performance cars, how useless a 0-62mph time is in the real world. 8.8 seconds sounds relatively leisurely these days and is exactly the same as the sprint managed by the 148bhp 1.5-litre TSI VW Golf we tried a few months back, and yet the Octavia feels significantly faster.
It’s all about the mid-range, where the TDI’s 251lb ft of torque reigns supreme. All those times you’re on the move and need a burst of speed - joining a motorway, accelerating to the national speed limit - this engine truly delivers. It’s also amazingly quiet, very refined and will return over 60mpg on a cruise without you even trying. It’s a shame that just as manufacturers have really nailed diesel engines, the buying public is turning away from them. Largely thanks to the auto giant that brings you this car. Awks. Moving on…
The adaptive dampers are very soft in Comfort mode, which you’d think would make the Octavia more cossetting. In reality, the opposite is true - the ride never seems to settle, and there’s an uncomfortable amount of body movement as it clumsily crashes over speed bumps like an oil tanker in rough seas. I ended up leaving it in Sport mode for much of the time, just to quell the wallow. I suspect the best solution would be to go for the passive dampers, although we’re yet to try an Octavia with them fitted.
In any case, the extra give in the suspension doesn’t hamper it all that much in more dynamic driving. Much like its relatives, the Octavia does all it needs to and more, with plenty of grip and traction even when the car’s driven like no mid-spec Octavia ever will be. There’s no real steering feel, but that’s normal in a car like this. It’s nice and quick, at least.
Including options, this SE L First Edition is £30,605. Sounds like a lot, but a Golf with a matching spec (or as close as the configurator will allow) is going to set you back a few grand more. That’s for a car which doesn’t feel as plush, and is a lot smaller - the Octavia’s fastback body style provides a huge boot with a usefully big opening, making you wonder if the estate version is really necessary.
We’ve always had a soft spot for the Octavia at CT, and that’s not just because we used to run an old one that’d clocked over 400,000. It’s always had the feel of a plucky, underdog spirit to it, but it’s now moved beyond that. The Octi is not just the car you recommend for the value and space - it’s now genuinely one of the best ‘normal’ family cars out there. And yes, it’s definitely better than a Golf.