David Motton

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BUYING A CAR is rarely an entirely rational decision. But if it were, a lot of us would end up driving the new Skoda Octavia Estate.

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Although it's a little light for towing, it ticks just about every other box as a sensible tow car and family workhorse. In fact, pound for pound, it's one of the best estate cars on sale.

Big and clever

For starters, it's simply huge inside. There's 610 litres of space for luggage with the rear seats upright (up five litres compared with the old model), rising to 1740 litres with the back row folded flat (an increase of 85 litres).

It's not just big. A lot of thought has gone into the design. The load floor can be set to a variety of different positions, giving one huge space, or some hidden storage under the floor, or a vertical partition. With the floor flush with the tailate opening and the rear seats folded down there's a near-flat load space. As an optional extra, the front passenger seat can also fold, giving room to load items nearly three metres long.

It's good to see that the seat backs can now be folded using levers on either side of the boot as well as by pulling catches on the top of the back seats (a standard feature on SE and Elegance models), and there's space to stash the luggage cover under the boot floor. The floor itself can be flipped over, giving a choice of wipe-clean or carpeted surfaces. It's nothing revolutionary, but these are all useful, well considered features.

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Roomy interior

Like the hatchback, the Octavia Estate has plenty of room for passengers as well as their luggage. The old car was class-leading for cabin space, but the new Octavia has grown inside in every direction. A 6'3" passenger can sit behind a 6'3" driver with room to spare. Air vents between the two front seats should keep anyone in the back cool on a hot day – something that’s missing from too many family cars.

Up front, even very tall drivers should easily find a comfortable driving position, and anyone trading in the previous model will notice a definite step up in the quality of finish. The Skoda no longer feels like the VW Golf's poor relation inside. 

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On the road

The Octavia is better to drive than before as well as roomier and more practical. A fine balance has been struck between comfort and control. At low speeds the suspension is a little firm, but the Octavia is smooth and stable on the motorway and handles neatly on country roads. The Driving Mode Selection function on SE and Elegance models allows the driver to choose normal, sport, eco or individual set ups. Sport weights up the steering and sharpens the throttle response, but it doesn't make a night-and-day difference to the Octavia's composed and tidy drive. Real excitement will have to wait for the sporty vRS model, on sale this summer. 

Of the four engines available from launch, the 2.0 TDI 150PS (148bhp in old money) is best suiting to towing. With 236lb.ft of torque, there's no shortage of overtaking punch, and the Octavia's light kerbweight contributes to the brisk acceleration.

Of course, treading lightly on the scales is a mixed blessing for caravanners. The 2.0 TDI with DSG transmission we drove weighs 1367kg (including 75kg for the driver not included in Skoda's published kerbweight) giving an 85% match figure (as usually recommended for stable and secure towing) of 1162kg. But that's still high enough to make lightweight four-berths like the Adria Altea Shannon and Elddis Xplore 304 sensible matches. The legal towing limit is 1600kg, so if you are an experienced and confident tow car driver there's nothing to stop you pulling a heavier van, although we'd never recommend exceeding a 100% match.

We also drove the 1.6 TDI. Official combined economy of 74.3mpg for the manual improves on the 2.0 TDI manual's 68.9mpg, but with a lower kerbweight of 1322kg and a 52lb.ft drop in torque. Even so, the engine is responsive and unstrained in regular driving, and should cope with light vans and trailers. It has five gears rather than the 2.0-litre's six, and there's a muted drone from under the bonnet at motorway speeds. But otherwise it's a fine alternative to the 2.0 if price and economy are higher priorities than towing.

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For and against 4x4

 

Alongside the front-wheel-drive models, Skoda is also introducing 4x4 versions of the estate. From the outside, only the 4x4 badging gives the game away. Otherwise the four-wheel-drive cars look identical to the standard models.

They might be unassuming from the outside, but the 4x4s have important advantages for towing. The traction benefit of sending power to all four wheels should go without saying, but the 4x4s also weigh more and have higher legal towing limits. The 2.0TDI 4x4 is 108kg heavier than the 2WD and the legal towing limit increases by 400kg to 2000kg.

The 4x4 models also benefit from a more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension set up, which promises improved handling.

We’d be lying if we said the 4x4 cornered or rode very differently from the regular car, but when the standard set up is so good that's hardly a criticism.

The 4x4 test route included an off-road section. The dry gravel track was not the most testing environment, but I was impressed by how smoothly the Haldex 4x4 system shifted power between the axles.

As standard the 4x4 has the same ride height as the standard car, but there will be an optional off-road pack giving more ground clearance for owners who regularly head off piste.

Or you could wait until the new Octavia Scout arrives in 2014, with SUV-lookalike styling. Think of it as an alternative to the VW Passat Alltrack, but expect a much lower price tag.

 

Price and spec

 

 

You'll pay at least £16,790 for an Octavia Estate, which is £800 more than the cheapest hatch. That buys you a willing little 1.2 TSI 105PS petrol engine which works well in other models, but may be a little slow in an estate loaded with kids and luggage. There's also a 1.4 TSI petrol with another 35PS, priced from £19,190.

The 1.6 TDI diesel costs from £18,840, and the 2.0 TDI starts from £20,940. The cheapest 4x4, the 1.6 TDI, costs from £21,490.

There are three trim levels; S, SE and Elegance. Even the basic models have air conditioning, alloy wheels and an eight-speaker stereo, plus seven airbags and a host of electronic aids including Trailer Stability Assist.

The new Skoda Octavia Estate goes on sale on June 21st. If your van is light enough to make a suitable match then you'd be hard-pressed to buy better.

 

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