Skoda - where the sensible money goes
WHETHER you are selling cars, politics or ice cream, it's important to have a clear idea of what your product is all about if it is to stand any chance of success in a crowded marketplace, writes William Scholes.
It's why marketing types like to talk about 'unique selling points', or USPs - in other words, the thing that you are selling has something you can't get anywhere else.
There's an ice cream shop in Dunfanaghy in Co Donegal, for example, whose USP is the most amazing lemon ice cream.
And Stormont, as we have again been reminded only this month, has a range of USPs that serve to really set it apart from other political systems.
Many people will have formed the view during the Red Sky debacle that the scrutiny function of the assembly's committees was almost laughably inadequate and was in fact an opportunity for the political class to flick two fingers at the electorate; disclosures in this newspaper about Sinn Féin's social media liaisons with Jamie Bryson won't have persuaded anyone to change their mind.
The only connection between Stormont and Skoda, one of whose fine cars is the subject of this week's review, is that the limo-like Superb is favoured official ministerial transport.
There are better reasons to buy a Skoda than the fact that luminaries such as Nelson McCausland and Carál Ní Chuilín have been driven around in one - though not, of course, at the same time. That would just be silly.
Flogging cars is a serious business, and so it is that Skoda offers buyers a clear and consistent ownership proposition to differentiate it from other members of the Volkswagen Group family.
Skoda has been the victor in numberless ownership surveys and reliability charts over the last 10 years. It's no wonder punters love them.
Compared to the equivalent Volkswagen or Seat, a Skoda will usually have a bigger boot and more space for passengers. It might also be a little cheaper.
Audi, meanwhile, does a far better job of distancing itself from its VW Group relatives, chiefly through having far superior interiors.
Not that there is anything wrong with a Skoda/VW/Seat interior, though the design aesthetic tends to drab and functional rather than the wow-factor and cool flair you'll find in Audi.
The particular flavour of Skoda being tested this week is an Octavia vRS, a suffix which in Skoda-land is equivalent to GTI and which also means it's the variety you are far less likely to find in service as a taxi.
To be more accurate, because the vRS in question came fitted with a diesel engine, the Golf GTD, with which it shares a platform, engine and numerous other oily and electronic parts, is a better comparison.
You may remember we reviewed a Golf GTD estate earlier this year, and found that it slotted neatly into the 'all the car you will ever need' category.
Spacious and well-built, with above average performance, sensible running costs and a reasonable value for money price tag, it's a car that covers a lot of bases for real-world family buyers - if you ignore the fact, that is, that so many of these customers now prefer a crossover or SUV to a hatchback or estate.
Much of what we said about the Golf also applies to the Octavia.
Negatives include a resolutely dark interior and an engine which, while it offers commendably brisk performance, does have a narrow power band.
In general use, this is not a problem, for taken on its own terms the Octavia is an effortlessly swift car in everyday driving.
But given the sporting aspirations of the vRS line, it is a frustration that the diesel engine runs out of puff so soon.
The test car did come loaded with the excellent double-clutch automatic gearbox, however, which does a good job of mitigating against this trait by changing gears quickly and smoothly.
It's a six-speeder, though, and the seven-speed version found in other VW Group products would likely fare better with the engine's torque spread.
One of the petrol-engined vRS models, which share the Golf GTI's units, would do a better job of satisfying a keen driver.
The test car also had one other drivetrain upgrade over the standard vRS, and one which is unavailable on equivalent Golf or Seat Leon models - four-wheel-drive.
Previous experience of both the Octavia vRS diesel and Golf GTD has revealed a tendency to spin the front wheels under hard acceleration from a standstill or low speed on greasy roads, as well as the occasional spinning-up of an unloaded front wheel where hard cornering meets determined acceleration.
Four-wheel-drive, then, should be a worthwhile addition to the Octavia's arsenal. And so it proves to be.
A blast through the testing Barnes Gap in the Sperrins is a stiff test for any car's chassis, and despite rainwater streaming across the road, it was impossible to provoke or detect any loss of traction from the Octavia's front axle; impressive stuff.
Slightly less impressive under these conditions was the suspension's lack of finesse. In the Skoda's defence, it should be remembered that this was a particularly challenging piece of road which makes most cars wilt; however, one might equally hope that a car marketed for its sporty demeanour would have coped more favourably.
Taken together, then, the Octavia vRS diesel is better at playing the part of the eminently accomplished and swift cruiser than it is as a hot hatch.
Skoda seems to know its buyers better than most manufacturers, so it's likely to have got the balance between comfort and corner-on-its-door-handles sportiness just right for its target audience.
It means that as an out-and-out driver's car, there is much to like rather than love about the vRS.
Does it deserve the nod over the Golf GTD? Probably, though to what extent you agree will largely depend on how you view the relative merits of each brand's image.
Most people would regard the Golf as having the stronger image, if that sort of thing matters to you, while the Octavia has an almost anti-image; which, in some circles, perversely means it has a strong image of its own...
If back seat lounging space and boot volume (590 litres dwarves 380 litres in the case of the hatchback variant, as tested) are high on your priority list then the Octavia easily trumps the Golf.
The Skoda, as befits its place in the VW Group hierarchy, comes with a lower list price than the posher-by-degrees VW. A vRS diesel hatchback with a manual gearbox retails at £24,750, with the equivalent Golf costing £27,975.
The price differential holds when you add a DSG gearbox (£26,140 v £29,390), estate bodywork (£25,970 v £28,675) or both (£27,360 v £30,090). The Octavia's 4x4 drivetrain is available only with the DSG gearbox: the hatchback starts at £27,590 and the estate at £28,810.
That tells only part of the story with regard to price; both cars are available with aggressive discounts, with deals on the Octavia regularly advertised by dealers in this newspaper while excellent lease deals can be had on the Golf. You pays your money and you takes your choice...
The sensible, purely rational decision would be to choose the Skoda and have a laugh at the Volkswagen owners who have paid a few thousand more for what, according to the spec sheet, is essentially a very similar car.
But when it comes to cars, we aren't wholly sensible and rational, which is why more people in Northern Ireland still buy VW Golfs than they do Skoda Octavias.
Or maybe that just means people in Northern Ireland have no sense?
:: AT A GLANCE
Skoda Octavia vRS 4x4
Price: £27,590. As tested £30,390. Options included satnav upgrade £1,050, heated front seats £250, leather upholstery £925, black design package plus £800
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, six-speed double-clutch automatic gearbox, four-wheel-drive; 182bhp, 280lb/ft
Performance: Top speed 142mph, 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds
Fuel economy: 57.7mpg (EU combined); 40.1mpg (real world)
CO2, road tax, benefit in kind: 129g/km - not liable in first year, then £110 annually - 25 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (93/86/66/66)