I realise it’s an old and oft-discussed issue, but I have experienced VW shooting itself in the badge.
I was recently loaned a brand new VW Golf Estate for the day whilst my Octavia of similar form was in for its 10k oil-change. I have frequently read over the past few years how the differential between VW Group’s brands has blurred, but this is the first time I was presented with an opportunity to witness the phenomenon so directly. And, although I should not have been, I was a bit taken aback at the experience.
I’ve always kept the view that the Golf is a bit special. A cut above. Very cleverly set aside from the Leon and Octavia, just nuzzling beneath the A3 in the perceived quality stakes, and with an additional layer of warmth compared to its Audi cousin. What was I on? Could I really have fallen for the marketing guff so completely? Like, OMG, I really am a gullible, naïve, idiot. Shoot me, now!
First, I am not even sure if, in Estate form, the Golf is a nicer looking car than the Octavia (Skoda has generously done its best to improve the situation in favour of the Golf by giving the face-lifted Octavia a really clunky new headlight arrangement). Second, the Octavia is huge inside (and outside, to be fair) compared to the Golf – more akin to the Passat than the more compact VW.
Third – and critically – such is the uniformity of the components used across the two cars, it’s really, really hard to discern even detailed differences. In past versions of the two cars, the stuff one touched, felt and could see on the surface was evidently different and differentiated in terms of visual and tactile quality. This is not the case in the current versions.
Sitting in the driving seat of the Golf with the car static, so many aspects of the car look and feel the same as the Octavia. It’s evident to anyone with any spark of curiosity that the platform ‘matrix’ of components and the structural framework in which they sit are the same; typefaces differ, certain graphics too (most notably the way the numbers on the tacho and speedo radiate out from the centre on the Octavia vs. them being kept on the horizontal axis in the Golf), but it’s really only the most pedantic minded of differentiation.
Material quality is the same – I am convinced that anyone feeling that the Golf is superior has been placebo’d by brand-prejudice. Door card design and quality, flock-lined door bins, etc., all present and correct … and shared. The positioning of the electric door mirror controls is less ergonomic on the Golf than the Octavia. The Octavia still has a manual handbrake rather than the Golf’s electric job.
I like the way the Golf’s dash wraps around, with the centre-stack angled towards the driver in the manner of a 90’s BMW, although the main-event of that stack, the 8″ infotainment screen is a facsimile of that in the Octavia.
Details, details – the two cars trade them self-consciously. One can almost envisage the two, meticulously differentiated, brand mood-boards in front of the designers as they picked how and where to create minor differences. Hence, much as I like the umbrella and ice-scraper so thoughtfully provided by Skoda with their own specifically designed storage cubbies, I can’t help but feel that I’ve been played to register them as ‘Simply Clever’ touches.
Drive the cars and it’s the same. The Octavia feels bigger and so slightly less wieldy, but otherwise, everything is identical give or take the odd margin that is so marginal that it’s impossible for any bar the most ardent of car-nerds (as my son and daughter often refer to me) to tell. Gearchanges? Snap! Steering feel? Snap! Throttle response? Snap! Seat comfort? – advantage Octavia as it has better side support and a standard lumbar support adjuster (they are very comfortable seats). It’s possible the Golf is a little quieter. OK, so point made.
And … so what? We’ve known for a good few generations now that they are ‘on the same [MQB] platform’ and that there’s not a lot of difference. The thing is that the design of the Skoda is no longer ‘a bit quirky/ ugly’ (that nose-job aside), the build and material quality inside and out is now identical – change the badges and you would be none the wiser – and, the driving experience of both cars is similarly similar.
I’m not going to argue that the Octavia is better than the Golf (that’s not the point I want to make), although I have read a number of magazine test comparisons that do. More broadly, the Kodiaq seems to have gained wider critical favour than the Tiguan, the Karoq than the T-Roc, the Superb than the Passat … Even more broadly, every UK test of the new Polo I have read places it in a marginally inferior light to the latest Ibiza.
In mitigation, the pricing differential across these three badges has also blurred to the extent that it’s hard to tell which is supposed to be ‘premium’, so maybe VW Group does not care about this obfuscation of its brand portfolio strategy. As a counter to that counter, on that basis, you’d have to be truly deluded or just prejudiced to buy an Audi A3 over a Skoda Octavia, or an A1 over an Ibiza, as the price differential there really is significant.
Moreover, even if margins on a Skoda are now as healthy as they are on a VW (and, therefore, in theory VW Group management is indifferent as to which brand is selling more than the others), if I was the Chairperson of VW Group, I’d want to understand how much it was costing to sustain the different brands in the current format and whether it continues to represent good value for the shareholders. Finally, as a consumer – and car nerd/ lover – it’s confirmation that real choice has rapidly diminishing dimensions in the new car market.