You wouldn’t call the 1998 Skoda Octavia an interesting car. From any other manufacturer at any other time it would have been damned as finally as the last Escort or legendary Mitsubishi Carisma.
But like the Datsun 1oo-A or first Corollas the Skoda is a car that had the amazing power to end up destroying its not-very-different competitors. We documented this effect in one of DTW’s more quixotic endeavours here and here and here where the Skoda has a walk-on part (rather like Gavrilo Princip’s in relation to the Carisma’s Franz Ferdinand).
By 1998 the Skoda joke has worn off and WhyHowCar? was able to introduce the conservatively-styled, Golf-based, four-wheeled, petrol-and-diesel-driven, £11,550-costing, double-airbagged, 1750 mm-long, Czech-manufactured, VAG-owned hatchback as follows: “.. .now the much respected Czech firm takes on Nissan and Rover and the family car mainstream.” Mitsubishi didn’t get a mention.
About the Skoda, WhatCar?? said “New entry to family niche promising good value and finish”. And a big boot: 18.6 cubic feet (whatever that is in metric). The Nissan made do with 17.8 cu/ft and the poor old Rover struggled with a crampy 13.2 cu/ft. Enough room for a copy of Blizzard For Boys and some Fruit Gums, I suppose.
Up against the Skoda in the test was the Nissan 1.6 Equation: “Fine handling car and strongest Japanese rival in the family sector.” Faint praise, no? It was good enough to be an Infiniti in the US of Stateside. Most rated it highly as a driver’s car. Rover’s landmark 414i emerged from the text as “Upmarket Brit is a little small for the class, but has a strong image.” Image?
Interesting note: the Primera had no seat height adjustment on the very basic models.
In 1998 the Rover was “blessed with neat touches and a prestigious feel.” Yes, true, it had bits of walnut in various places around the cabin and chrome door sills and “leather effect” (sic). Chrome door sills must cost about two quid so why aren’t they on every car instead of nasty black plastic? However, you can’t sit on them and you can’t sit inside a Rover 414i as well as in the massive Skoda because the Rover had an ancient sub-structure with parts of the stone foundations going back to Roman times.
After six and bit pages and a full table of technical details, WhatCar declared Skoda to be its choice. “Far and away the best car Skoda has ever made” but the Primera was for the keen driver. I don’t know how much keen driving matters in that the Skoda trounced the Primera and the Primera always struggled because it looked too calm. Surely keen drivers don’t care? And yet not-being-for-a-keen-driver was the accepted excuse for the Carisma’s failure (I feel). When has a dull-looking car been rewarded commercially for its keen drive? Answers, please.
Rover’s demise is a little kernel growing in the 414i – even in 1998 the car wasn’t up to snuff, relying on mock-Tudor decor and Corinthian details. Six or so years later the game was up even as the Honda-based car kept its place in the showrooms, like carbon monoxide in a badly-ventilated bedsit bathroom.
The use of wood-trim and olde-England touches was an attempt to Brougham a very mediocre car into a higher league and the 400 instead landed with a bruising thump between two chairs, spilling its Wetherspoons bitter: too costly for its size and too small to mix it with the Mondeo, Vectra or indeed, let’s not forget, Skoda Octavia.
In June 1998 Car magazine declared the Octavia to be as good as a VW and better than a Vectra. “Image aside, it’s worth every penny”. The only reason people hear about image is because motoring writers keep hammering on about it. “The Octavia’s biggest appeal lies under the tailgate. It has a huge boot…” Skoda spotted that a big boot means a lot to families and sod the “image”. When did a car with image ever beat one with a huge boot?
By happy coincidence we can post-script this: Autcropley has a list of 2018’s best-selling cars (published in late June 2018). In Czechia, Estonia, Finland, Poland and Switzerland the Octavia is the best-selling car. (In Sweden it’s the S90 which is like the Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham being the most popular car in the US, isn’t it?).