[tl:gallery size=460×307]

‘BIG’ IS THE word to describe the new Skoda Octavia. ‘Big’, because this is Skoda’s best-selling car across the world, so there’s a lot riding on the third generation, due in UK showrooms this March. And ‘big’ because it’s much, much larger inside than most rival family hatchbacks.

New Octavia rivals

On paper, the Octavia competes with the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf.  Prices start from £15,990, which means the Octavia undercuts the cheapest Golf five-door by £950. Inside, though, the Octavia is as accommodating and practical as much larger, more expensive cars.

The old model was roomy, but Skoda says the new car has another 73mm of rear kneeroom (nearly three inches). I’m 6’ 3”, and I could sit behind the driver’s seat set up for me with room to spare. A Focus or Golf aren’t even close – it’s more like a Ford Mondeo or Volkswagen Passat inside.

Luggage space is also in a different league to most small hatchbacks’. There’s 590 litres to fill, 210 litres more than the Golf offers. Tip the seats forward and that expands to 1580 litres. With the seats down there’s a step in the load floor and the seat backs don’t lie flat, but these are minor quibbles when there’s so much room on offer. Hopefully the estate, which will have been unveiled by the time the first customers take delivery of the hatchback, will address these issues.

Octavia on the road

Space and practicality may be the Octavia’s strongest suits, but they’re by no means the only cards the Skoda has to play. The car’s underpinnings are closely related to those of the Golf Mk7, which is just about the best small hatchback to drive. Although not quite as fluid and supple as a Golf with adaptive damping, the Octavia isn’t a million miles away, with real poise and balance on twisting roads. It’s not an exciting car to drive and the ride is rather firm, but it is secure, stable and controlled. That bodes well for the Octavia’s ability to tow a caravan.

All but the entry-level S models come with Driving Mode Selection, which gives a choice of Normal, Sport, Eco and Individual set ups. Sport weights up the steering, provides a sharper throttle response, and holds onto a gear for longer on models with the DSG automatic transmission. Individual allows the driver to adjust the steering weight, throttle response and other settings separately. As the name implies, Eco optimises the car’s systems for fuel efficiency.

If you’re going to use Sport mode often, the 2.0-litre diesel is the engine to go for. With 236lb ft of torque and 148bhp, it has the muscle to make the most of the Octavia’s able chassis. It’s economical, too, returning 68.2mpg on the combined cycle, helped by the car’s low kerbweight. The heaviest version, the 2.0 TDI DSG, weighs just 1350kg. That gives an 85% match figure of 1148kg. The braked towing limit on a 12% gradient is 1600kg, and the noseweight limit is 75kg.

The 1.6 TDI is lighter still with a kerbweight of 1305kg for the manual and 1320kg for the DSG auto. There’s more clatter from under the bonnet of the 1.6 TDI and with 184lb ft of torque it’s noticeably slower. However, with a £1900 price advantage and official combined economy of 74.3mpg, it wins the pounds, shillings and pence argument hands down.

If you prefer petrol power there’s a choice of 103bhp 1.2 TSI and 138bhp 1.4 TSI engines. Both cost much less than the diesels, so make sense for low-mileage drivers. As tow cars, though, the petrol options are short of muscle.

Whichever engine you choose, the new Octavia promises improved safety levels compared with the old car. Stability control is standard across the board, there are up to nine airbags, and a range of high-tech safety aids are available.

Basic S-spec cars come with alloy wheels, air conditioning, electric front windows, Bluetooth connectivity and a digital radio. Upgrades with SE trim include dual-zone climate control in place of basic air conditioning, along with rear electric windows and rear parking sensors. Top-spec Elegance models have Alcantara and leather trim, satellite navigation, a fatigue detection system, and cruise control.

All told, the new Octavia a big improvement over its capable predecessor. The Skoda may not have the cachet of the VW badge, but it’s roomier, more practical and better value than the new Golf. We’ll find out how well the Octavia tows in the spring.