Re-1998 Part 3 : Skoda Octavia

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.

1998 Skoda Octavia: wikipedia

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).

1995 Nissan Primera:

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.

1998 Rover 414:i source

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?).

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

10 thoughts on “Re-1998 Part 3 : Skoda Octavia”

  1. The Primera was indeed a decent car. But the Octavia and Rover 400 also drove well, so I guess its dynamics were not so superior that they elevated the car above its competitors.

    The Rover was a fine car, with all that was good about contemporary Hondas plus a little more warmth and chintz. But it was over priced. I fear JLR are repeating the same mistake with their current range, which is generally good but eye-wateringly expensive (at least in the UK).

  2. This Octavia was the first Skoda representing what Fugen Ferdl called a “smart buy”. It offered near VW quality levels at significantly lower prices combined with a sound dose of practicality.
    When looking at the shockingly slipped quality levels of current Audis (including my own) an Octavia is the significantly more attractive alternative. It even has a conventional hand brake, someting I honestly appreciate.

  3. I think the original Octavia deserves rather more praise than what comes across here.

    What Dirk van Braeckel and his team achieved with the design of this car was to convey a sense of solidity and quality without resorting to the kind of luxury/’premium’ tropes we’ve become so accustomed to. The Octavia therefore ended up a remarkably solid, but not clumsy looking device – not quite as refined as a Golf IV, but hardly coarse looking either.

    Today, the Octavia I remains a regular sight on European roads, particularly in eastern quadrants. Based on my own, entirely superficial impressions, it would appear as though the styling’s promise of superior quality was not an empty one.

    Given the Octavia did without much in the way of decorum, I’d have expected Mr Heriott in particularly to be more susceptible to its sober charms. (But then again, the Octavia happened to be the perfect car for more than one disgruntled Opel Astra F owner, which might explain certain hard feelings…)

    1. Octavia from Astra F is a step in the wrong direction æsthetically but Mr K. is right to note its almost Ulm-like sobriety. I always saw them as channelling Volvo’s 240.

  4. Here in Romania the monolith-proportioned Skoda was/is a very well sold car indeed (in 2005, our >still< emerging economy was really hungry for Octavias- the best selling car for that year). I suppose it came down to interior space, and the fact that Skoda preferred to locally "improve" the rugged landwhale- taller, sturdier suspension for crater-laden suicide strips. It might also have had to do with brand identity- B- novel/domebehind myback/managerin10seconds kind of folks- many around these parts- were keen on the Bauhaus Passat.
    Second-best, and not by far, at least not until Logan's Runs, was the Clio Symbol/Thalia. I'd appreciate and be quite thankful if you'd publish an essay on 3 volume'd hatches (like the Symbol, C4 Pallas, 206 Sedan, and so forth). I am quite fond of the Clio, it too offering a cavernous 510 l boot, and quite interesting proportions. Made in Turkey, it was quite a competitor, offering fair quality, ruggedness, for far less. Ist Gen. Octavias are starting to disappear, Together with the Passat's and Logans. Later rusting to oblivion. The small Clio is,however, surviving.
    The Octavia is an honest car, however most bought it because the wanted to get a lot of car for less money, and not because of its many other qualities. Almeras and Rovers were rare imports here, like bananas during the pre-decembrist dark days. (at least everybody had a job then. What they didn't have was the Octavia's luggage room – alas, roofracks did their best)

    1. Vlad (if I may) I love your turn of phrase; it’s witty, informed and you provide a view from a way of life I can only struggle to imagine from my very middle class, English existence – thanks for brightening these pages with your insights.

    1. In the VW emporium’s spare parts catalogue there are heavy duty suspension parts for most of their model range. It is not stated where these parts are fitted, but there’s an equipment codefor it on the car’s identification sticker.
      Most VWs and Skodas can be ordered with rough road suspension that’s raised by about 25 mm, has stiffer springs and comes with sump guard and additional underbody protection.

  5. As the owner of the current version in estate form, I am on (biased) record about my respect for the Octavia. It’s the most fit for purpose car I have owned.

    The 400 was not that aged by 1998 being based on the Civic not the Domani, and was blessed with independent rear suspension, not a torsion beam, tuned for ride comfort over handling. Rover ballsed up the market positioning by pricing it into the sector above its size would dictate. The four door had a well integrated boot and looked better than the hatch.

  6. It’s interesting how positioning a car between segments can lead to different results, as shown here. In case of the Rover, they put a D-segment pricetag on a vehicle that was actually too small to compete with Vectras or Mondeos. This obviously went wrong with most customers, unless they actually didn’t need the space but were willing to pay extra for some interior ambiance. For the Skoda however, the ‘in-between’ positioning was the very basis of its success: for the price and running cost of a Golf-sized car, you got the room you usually found in the class above. Thus, the Skoda soon became the choice for all practically thinking people who weren’t too conscious about their car’s image. The downside was the appearance with the wheelbase that looked too short for the large car, but in a pragmatic’s eye, this apparently wasn’t a big barrier to sales success.

    I think this pragmatic approach goes very well with Swiss mentality, which is why the Octavia is such a success here. The hidden VW badge helps to add a sense of reliability to the equation, even more so as the Skodas usually don’t get the very sophisticated top-notch solutions with their potential for failure, but rather the proven, sensible technologies.

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