David Motton

See other tow car reviews written by David Motton

We know what tow car ability the excellent Škoda Octavia Estate has, but what about with a manual gearbox? We hitch up and get behind the wheel to find out

Overview

Here is the latest Škoda Octavia – but what’s changed?

Well, the facelifted model’s split headlights are the most obvious update.

The Octavia also has improved infotainment systems, including the optional Columbus system fitted to our test car (£1050).

Mechanically, though, it’s largely as it was, which is no bad thing, given that we know what tow car talent the Škoda has – in fact, it has reclaimed its crown as our favourite lightweight tow car at the Tow Car Awards 2017.

However, the car that scooped a prize at the Tow Car Awards was a DSG auto, and here we are testing the manual.

Is it just as good or is the auto worth the extra? Let’s find out!

Towing

The Škoda is a very light car for its size, with a kerbweight of just 1354kg, including 75kg for the driver.

An 85% match, often recommended as a sensible maximum caravan weight for newcomers to towing, would weigh 1151kg.

Both major clubs consider matches of up to 100% to be acceptable for experienced tow car drivers, and that opens up a wider range of tourers to owners with a few years of towing logged.

For our tests, we borrowed a Swift Expression 484 with a Mass in Running Order of 1106kg.

The Škoda felt right at home towing the Swift, with impressive stability as we drove from the caravan dealership to the test track.

At a steady 60mph the Octavia was secure and composed. Only if caught by a really strong gust of wind did we feel any movement, and even then nothing alarming.

The estate handled itself well in emergency manoeuvres, too. The lane-change sometimes catches out cars that feel settled at high speeds, but the Škoda took this aggressive, repeated direction change in its stride.

Precise, well-weighted steering helped the driver place the car exactly, and body roll was kept in check.

Only when really pushing on could we feel some gentle tugging from the caravan, but the Škoda Octavia Estate never stepped out of line.

Performance is strong, too. Accelerating from 30-60mph, as you might when joining the motorway, took just 10.7 seconds.

A car’s in-gear 50-60mph acceleration is a good indication of the engine’s flexibility rather than outright performance, and the time of 10.6 seconds in fifth shows decent pull from low revs.

That’s what you’d expect when an engine has 258lb ft of torque – plenty for towing a tourer of the Swift’s size and weight.

That kind of low-rev muscle helps with hill starts, too. We’re back at our regular test track for this test with its 1-in-10 gradient, rather than the 1-in-6 used at the Tow Car Awards.

The Octavia coped easily with this slope, the handbrake holding car and caravan still without having to be pulled on with undue force.

The car pulled to the top of the hill easily without needing much clutch slip.

We know from the 2017 Tow Car Awards that the Octavia can handle steeper gradients, although the DSG auto fitted to that example certainly helped, because it means there’s no need for the driver to balance the throttle and clutch.

Slowing from 30-0mph took just 10 metres. There was no shunting from the caravan, however hard we hit the middle pedal – the brakes were easy to apply smoothly, too.

It’s hard to pick serious holes in the Škoda Octavia Estate’s performance as a tow car.

Yes, it’s light, but so long as it makes a suitable match for your caravan we doubt you will be disappointed.

If you do have a heavier van to pull it’s worth remembering that there are also 4x4 versions of the Octavia with kerbweights from 1490kg.

But for owners of reasonably light caravans, this front-wheel-drive Škoda estate makes a very capable tug.

Everyday driving

Leave the caravan behind and the Škoda continues to impress.

Performance from the 2.0-litre diesel engine is ample for most drivers. If it can cope with towing a caravan, it can easily cope with a cabin full of passengers and a boot full of shopping.

There’s plenty of mid-range shove for overtaking and, although it’s not the quietest engine when extended, there’s rarely any need to rev it hard.

Once up to a steady cruise it stays in the background, and wind and road noise are also acceptable.

Perhaps the VW Golf is quieter, like the example the Octavia went up against during 2017 Tow Car Awards testing, but there’s not an awful lot in it.

Where the Volkswagen does score over the Škoda is in ride comfort. The Octavia’s suspension is firm, and that is especially noticeable on cars such as ours with optional 18-inch alloys (17-inchers are standard on the SE L, and entry-level cars have 16-inch alloys).

But the firm suspension does keep everything tidy and controlled.

The Octavia might not be the most exciting car to drive, but it is poised and competent.

And the Drive Mode Selection system allows the driver to alter the steering weight and throttle response to add a sportier feel.

Around town a more forgiving approach to potholes would be welcome, but the Octavia’s relatively small size makes it easy to thread through busy streets.

So, it’s a competent everyday drive as well as a fine tow car.

Space

None of the Škoda Octavia Estate’s rivals pack in as much space for passengers and their luggage. It really is a very roomy and practical car.

In fact, there’s as much space inside as you’ll find in some much bigger and pricier estate cars.

There’s lots of room for the driver and front seat passenger, and a comfortable driving position is easily achieved, with plenty of adjustment for seat and wheel.

The standard of finish is high, and the optional Columbus navigation system looks as good and works as well as those in many prestige cars.

We’re pleased to see that the air-con controls are kept separate from the touchscreen, which makes adjustments easy.

It’s in the back of the car where the Octavia really scores, because it has loads of legroom.

There’s enough room for a passenger of six-feet or over to sit behind an equally tall driver, and air vents between the front seats.

However, there is a transmission tunnel in 4x4 versions that eats into a third rear-seat passenger’s foot space.

Luggage room is more generous than in most rivals. With the rear seats upright there’s 610 litres to fill.

Catches on either side of the tailgate release the rear-seat backs to increase the space to 1740 litres.

Some larger and much more expensive executive estate cars can’t match those figures.

Running costs

The Škoda Octavia Estate is great value, and SE L spec offers a good level of equipment as standard.

Although the list price is £24,565, What Car?’s Target Price researchers have found discounts of £1500 or so.

Your money buys 17-inch alloys (upgraded to 18-inches on our long-term test car), cruise control, LED headlights, Alcantara and leather upholstery, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, satellite navigation with an eight-inch touchscreen (again, upgraded on our test car), dual-zone climate control, and rear parking sensors.

Pretty much all the safety kit you’d expect is included, too, with driver, passenger, driver’s knee, front side and curtain airbags, as well as stability control as standard.

Side airbags for rear-seat passengers cost an extra £435, and are packaged with what Škoda calls the ‘Crew protection assistant’, which senses if an accident is likely and closes the windows and sunroof, and tightens seatbelts. The car scored five stars from Euro NCAP when the model was tested in 2013.

Running costs should be affordable, with an official combined figure of 65.7mpg.

Resale values of around 40% after three years and 36,000 miles are respectable.

Technical specs

Engine size1968 cc
Kerbweight1354 kg
85% KW1151 kg
Towball limit75 kg
Maximum towing limit1600 kg
Power148.0 bhp
Torque258.0 lb ft
Official MPG65.7 mpg
CO2113 g/km
30-60mph10.7 seconds
30-0mph10.0 m

Verdict

It would be wrong to suggest that the facelift has transformed the Octavia.

In fact, not everyone will take to the new split headlights.

But if you subscribe to the view that you don’t fix what isn’t broken, then Škoda’s light refresh is really all that was needed.

We’d be happy to tow long distances with the Octavia. The relatively low kerbweight may be off-putting to some, but what the Škoda can sensibly tow it tows very well.

The 2.0-litre diesel engine is employed in some of the VW Group’s much bigger and heavier cars, so it hardly has its work cut out in the Octavia.

There’s plenty of power and torque in reserve to cope with pulling a caravan.

The Octavia feels planted and secure at speed, and handles emergency manoeuvres well.

Is it as good as the DSG auto? Yes. The choice between the two really comes down to personal preference when choosing what tow car to buy.

In everyday driving, the Octavia may not be the most exciting or dynamic choice, but it is thoroughly competent.

It’s quiet enough at motorway speeds, and composed on country roads. Our only complaint is that the ride could be more comfortable.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Octavia is the sheer space it offers. Adults can sit comfortably in the back, and boot space is plentiful.

The Škoda is also good value. It’s keenly priced, economical to run, and has lots of standard equipment.

That all adds up to create a thoroughly capable all-rounder, both as a tow car and as a family estate car.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Space is great for people and luggage
  • The engine is powerful and torquey
  • It's a stable, competent car – when towing and in everyday driving
  • Cabin quality is high

Cons

  • Some might not like the new-look headlights
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