The Skoda Octavia is a genuinely roomy family hatchback powered by a choice of smooth, punchy and economical petrol and diesel engines. It competes with models such as the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, but is bigger than both of them. That's surprising in the case of the Golf, as it and the Octavia share a platform. However, the Octavia is a surprising car all-round: surprising value for money, surprisingly practical (it has a 1,580-litre boot with the seats down) and surprisingly well built.
On the value-for-money front, the Octavia is very well equipped, with all models featuring a touchscreen infotainment system, alloy wheels, air-conditioning, Bluetooth phone connectivity and DAB digital radio. There are four trim levels: S, SE, SE L (previously known as Elegance) and top-spec Laurin & Klement (named after Skoda's co-founders).
Mid-range SE, with its dual-zone air-conditioning, all-round electric windows, rear parking sensors and front foglights, offers the best balance of price and specification (like for like, it's about £1,400 dearer than the S). The top-spec Laurin & Klement defies Skoda's modest image with features such as leather trim, a power-adjustable driver's seat and parking assistance, while nudging the price beyond £27,000, putting it firmly into Audi A3 Sportback territory.
There's a fifth trim level called vRS. As the name suggests, it's the high-performance version of the Octavia. Available with a choice of two petrol engines and one diesel, it's entertaining enough but not a patch on hot hatch rivals such as the Ford Focus ST or VW Golf GTI.
Lower down the range, there are three extremely refined, quiet and economical petrol engines and three smooth and even more frugal diesels, including a super-efficient GreenLine III version. For its balance of power, price and economy, our pick of the petrols is the surprisingly punchy 1.2-litre. However, if your annual mileage justifies the extra expense, our favourite engine of all is the 146bhp 2.0-litre diesel. It's powerful, economical and perfect for long-distance cruising.
All the engines are available with a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic gearboxes. For once, the smooth and fast-changing automatic is almost as economical as the manual, although it does cost around £1,000 more. The Octavia is an agile car with good steering. The suspension is a little firm, though, and the cabin can be noisy on the move.
Thanks to its maximum five-star Euro NCAP rating for crash safety, seven airbags and electronic stability control, the Octavia is definitely a safe car. The SE L trim level and above goes one better with a feature called Safety Assist. This scans the road ahead for objects that pose a risk and, if necessary, automatically brings the car to a stop to avoid a collision.
Skoda owners are a happy lot, with the Octavia scoring well in our Driver Power owner satisfaction surveys for practicality, quality and reliability.