Twice is nice

Written by Roudra Bhattacharya | Updated: Sep 21 2013, 08:30am hrs
There was a time when Skoda was synonymous with the Octavia brand in India. In fact, the Octavia was the first car to be launched in the country by Europes largest automaker, the Volkswagen Group. But that was over a decade ago when the Indian premium car market was limited both in terms of demand and choice.

Since then, a lot has changed; for instance, Indias GDP has grown 2.3 times over the last decade. This means that there are a lot more buyers in the market looking for premium cars today. At the same time, there are many more manufacturers competing for the market share. That, clearly, is both a challenge and a boon for Skoda, which expects strong results from the new Octavia that is due for launch next month.

The Czech carmaker, which had switched over to the Laura brand in the middle of last decade for the previous generation of the car, will now have its task cut out. It has to convince buyers that the reborn Octavia is a better option than rivals like parent Volkswagens Jetta, the Hyundai Elantra, the Toyota Corolla and the Chevrolet Cruze.

So, how good is it Up straight, I was quite impressed by the new Octavia and later in this review I will explain why. I also had the perfect playground to test the newest kid from the Skoda stableHimachal Pradeshs winding mountain roads flanked by the majestic snow-capped middle Himalayan range. My drive started on the smooth and wide NH22 from Parwanoo to Chail, before branching off to thinner single-lane roads on the way to my endpoint at Mashobra, a small town near the state capital Shimla. After a nights rest, I drove back to the starting point at Parwanoo. The drive, with its combination of freshly-laid tarmac and pothole-filled state roads, helped me gain new respect for the Octavia.

While Skoda cars have always been well-builtsomething that indicates years of German ownership and the engineering precision that comes with itwhat was fantastic about the Octavia was the stability in sharp turns and the delightfully accurate steering. These, I believe, are the gains accrued from the Volkswagen Groups highly modular new MQB platform. One of the first MQB derived products along with the Audi Q3 and the Volkswagen Golf MKVII, the Octavia has shed weight all around, even as it has grown in wheelbase over the previous generation by 108 mm.

Design lines, though, stay true to the original Octavia, and the later Laura. The new Octavia has more bulges than before, yet it has got sharper edges lending it a sense of sophistication. Maybe Skoda is trying to convince us that the Octavia is more premium than ever before, but in Europe that would be a tough job. Resemblance to sedans in the Volkswagen family comes in the form of a sharper side profile like that in the Passat and Jetta and LED daytime running strips (not on base model) that reminds one of its upmarket cousins from Audi. What makes the car unmistakeably Skoda, though, are the C-shaped tail lights that debuted with the Rapid. The Octavia also gets Skodas new corporate face that highlights a bigger grille and a revised logo. True to the original design, it is not a sedan in the traditional sense either, rather a hatchback where the rear windshield is connected to the boot lid. Family car buyers will be pleased with this feature which gives an easy access to the large 590-litre boot, space which can be further increased to a massive 1,580 litres with the rear-seat folded down.

I drove both the 143PS 2-litre diesel TDI automatic (6-speed DSG) and manual variants, and the 180PS 1.8-litre TSI petrol automatic (6-speed DSG), and my pick is the diesel manual. That is not only because it gave me the torque I so love, but also because it let me choose my gear ratios. Of course, there is a tiptronic option on the DSG automatic for manual gear shifting, but that never really gives the same feeling as the pure manual. The automatic diesel just felt a bit late in delivering the power, though there is enough of it once youre really there. But if raw power is what you are after and everything else is less important, the 1.8-litre petrol auto is your thing. Its lighter than the diesel, and has much more linear power delivery characteristic to a petrol engine that many would love. There is also a fourth 1.4-litre base petrol variant, though that pales in comparison to the rest.

While the Laura was already loaded with segment-topping technology, more hi-end features have now filtered down from the elder sibling Superb in order to make the new Octavia an even more attractive option. Apart from a 5.8-inch colour touchscreen display that can sense when your finger is near it, the Octavia now gets adaptive headlights that minimises blind spots by illuminating dark corners while cornering at night, a panoramic sunroof and an intelligent power management system that shuts off devices if the battery runs low. Apart from all regular safety features, it also has a multi-collision brake system that automatically slows down a car after an accident so that it doesnt hit anything else.

The Octavia feels wonderful even on bad roads with its light steering and pliant ride soaking up most of the bumps. A good ground clearance also helps. In its segment, where the Elantra is the newest player, it will also be the most feature-packed option and with the most updated designat least until the new Corolla is launched next year. We are yet to know the price, but I expect the base petrol (manual) variant to start at around R14 lakh (ex-showroom), though most will go for the diesel that will likely be priced around R15 lakh. My verdict is that at an aggressive price point the Octavia has everything in place that Skoda needs to make a strong comeback in a slowing market. We hope it can revive sales in the C-plus segment that have contracted over the last two years.