A little while ago, I moved from a position of indifference to gushing enthusiasm over the worthiness of plug-in hybrids. That was after spending a week or so in the Volvo V60 T6 Recharge. It just worked really well. On every level. As a car it was plush and comfortable and extremely practical, and, as a hybrid, its 40-mile real-world range meant the petrol engine fired only on long journeys. And unlike a full-blown EV, there was no range anxiety or lengthy stops for fuel. It was, I concluded, a ‘have your cake and eat it car’. The only thing is, it’s £51,000. Admittedly, that isn’t cheap. So I decided to see what alternatives there are if you want all the cake for a bit less cash. And I did it properly. I even broke out the calculator and did some maths.
When it comes to V60-matching practicality, you can’t do much better than a Skoda Octavia Estate. And I love a Skoda. Like Volvos, they always seem fit for purpose, which is my main criteria when it comes to evaluating cars. They’re well thought out, so they tend to be easy to live with, and they only come in one size: large. The Octavia’s so big, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that it’s actually a Ford Focus rival. The other upside is that Skodas are always keenly priced. And the Octavia iV Estate, in mid-spec SE L trim, is just £35,890, so it’s a lot cheaper than the Volvo if you’re paying cash.
However, few people pay cash these days. So doing this properly, I looked at a PCP comparison for a private buyer. With a deposit of £5,000, an average of 10,000-miles-a-year, and a 36-month contract, the Octavia is £608 per month, while the V60 is £780. That’s quite a difference, then. But hybrids are also tax avoidance schemes, which is why many people choose them as company cars. So I did the same scrupulous investigative journalism to work out their monthly BIK cost for a top-rate tax payer. Again, the Octavia is cheaper: £96 per month compared with £136 for the V60. That's only £40, then. So depending on your circumstances, perhaps the Octavia isn’t quite the nailed-on bargain it once was.
Right then, if the price isn’t necessarily the absolute clincher, is the Octavia up there, relatively speaking, with the V60 in terms of all the other things: space, driving dynamics, quality and hybridness? Well, starting with practicality, in some ways it is. The iV’s boot is a lot smaller than the regular Octavia wagon’s (490 litres vs. 640 litres), and it’s also smaller than the V60’s, which is 519 litres. That’s because the iV’s boot floor is much higher than usual, but while it’s no longer exceptional there’s still a decent amount of room in the back. There are some fillips, too, like 40:20:40 split-folding rear seats and room for the charging cables under the boot floor.
Passenger space is excellent. There’s masses of space in the front seats and the rear seats are good as well. Not quite as roomy as the V60’s behind my driving position, but you can still comfortably get four adults onboard, and five at a push. The driving position isn’t as perfect as the Volvo’s, though. You still get comfy armrests, clear dials, and great visibility past the comparatively thin windscreen pillars, but the relationship of seat, pedals and steering wheel is a bit off. The seat itself is great, mind. It’s electrically adjustable in this SE L model and very supportive, but I couldn’t get it as low as I’d have liked. And the pedals aren’t as deep into the footwell like they are in the Volvo, which gives you a perfect bathtub driving position – legs stretched out and the steering wheel as close to your chest as you’d like. Because the pedals are farther forward in the Octavia, I ended up compromising on bent knees just so the steering wheel, at its maximum extension, wasn’t too far away. Still, this isn’t a dealbreaker.
Neither is interior quality. I think the Octavia looks smart at a cursory glance. There are bits of cloth trim on the dashboard, some soft and textured plastics in the key places and lots of shiny bits. It all helps to brighten it up inside. But there’s no doubt the substance is left wanting. That’s fine – it’s a cheaper car – but it feels less sturdy than the previous Octavia. That was a bit dull inside but very well made. Here, there are more than a few wobbly bits and the switches on the centre console work with a Pound Shop twang. The V60’s in a different league in this respect – it’s one of the best-finished estates on sale, and that’s at any price.
In terms of handling, neither car is pin-sharp. But that’s okay. I’m more concerned about comfort than cornering prowess in cars like these. Like the V60, the Skoda does what it needs to well enough. The steering feels connected and accurate, and despite the body roll, which is prodigious, there’s plenty of grip to see you safely on your way. As long as the trade-off is comfort, then all’s well in my book. So is it comfortable? Well, it depends. Remember the days of 17-inch wheels and pillowy-walled tyres? This car is a welcome return to them. And combined with the soft springs it feels really lovely and wafty over gentler undulations without feeling underdamped. Over long stretches of motorway it can be amazingly cosseting.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t cope so well with sharper hits. Neither does the Volvo, to be fair, but it’s far better than this. Over the more abrupt stuff the Octavia is clumsy. Ridges and potholes cause a proper thump and the occasional shudder, whatever speed you’re doing, and even when it’s not thumping, the boom and clunks from the rear suspension make you think it’s riding worse than it is. It's quiet at speed, mind. There's not a lot of road noise and hardly any wind noise. Even the brakes are okay. They’re not completely free of regen corruption, but they’re still easy to use. Other than the ride issues, it's not far off the V60 dynamically.
But in terms of battery range it's far behind. Officially, the Octavia iV Estate does 41 miles on EV power. Well, I couldn’t get it to do much more than 26 miles, while the V60 managed 40 real-world miles easily on a single charge. That said, the Octavia's range is still useful for pottering around locally, but for the journeys I do I ended up using a lot more internal combustion. Running on that alone (as in the battery depleted from the start) I saw up to 57mpg on one trip, which is fantastic. Generally, it gravitated to around 48mpg, which still isn’t bad and there or there about the V60’s average.
One of my journeys involved a lane closure on the M25 and a lot of crawling traffic. And then I noticed that the Octavia has an annoying trait – a driveline shunt from the motor. I was so bored in the traffic that I ended up inventing a game called ‘How gently can you press the accelerator’ just to see if I could smooth this out. I couldn’t. Once you’re above a snail’s pace you don’t notice it, though, and what you notice instead is how torquey it is. Very much like the V60 you can make great progress without trying, but being front-wheel drive, it’s easier to screech the front tyres in the Octavia with a squirt out of T-junctions. It’s not as hot-hatch-quick as the V60 at full chat but, quite honestly, it still has all the performance you could reasonably need.
So far then, the Octavia is behind its pricier rival, but doing admirably for a value proposition. Right up until the software bit. Remember I said that Skoda’s are well thought out and easy to live with? Well, I’ve re-evaluated that. This car is infuriating, on many levels. It’s the usual thing: manufacturers letting software engineers mess about, trying to invent things they think we might need, which we don’t, and forgetting to get the fundamentals right. Take the infotainment system. It didn’t crash - the first time a modern VW system hasn’t done so - so that’s an improvement, but my goodness it takes forever to boot up. And when the Skoda bit has, there’s a further delay for Apple Carplay to get to 95 per cent functionality. I say 95 per cent because that includes working navigation and phone apps, but my radio app often wouldn't come online until many minutes later. The CarPlay icons are also tiny and not very responsive.
So what about the Skoda menus? Well, they have much bigger icons, which is good, but there’s way too much unnecessary faff. The climate control consistently reset itself to 22 degrees every time I got in, despite me leaving it on 19. Why? And because the auto mode would only ever huff a bit of cold air – even though we’re in a heatwave and the interior temperature was white hot – I tried putting the fans up manually. Well, that’s simple, right? No. You have to press the climate button on the dashboard, but that doesn’t take you to the screen you want. No, it takes you instead to the ‘Smart A/C’ screen, which, as with anything named ‘smart’, is stupid. It just gives you some default options like ‘warm my hands’ and ‘cool my feet’. I wanted none of those things. I wanted a setting for ‘prevent heat stroke’, but it doesn’t have one of those. So I had to press yet another icon to find the screen I wanted in the first place. The normal climate screen. The one that lets you do the things you want to do, like turn up the fans. Arrgghh.
There’s more, too. The hybrid system seems to take forever to sort itself out when you turn the ignition on. You wait what seems like an eternity before you can select a gear, and if you do that too soon, it often gets cross and tells you to press the start button again. And it actually says 'again', so it knows you've pressed it once, which means it really is just being bloody minded. Then there’s the suicidal lane assist. Really, it tried to kill me several times, and nearly succeeded through some roadworks and a set of temporary traffic lights. The cones put me on the wrong side of the road, and when I'd passed them and was cutting across the white line back to my side of the road, the Octavia steered itself, with some conviction, other way. It actually drove towards the car that was stopped, facing me, at the other set of lights. Now, I don’t mind admitting that I shouted a very rude word at that point. Of course, lane assist is another thing that immediately turns itself back on again every time you start the car because it’s a safety thing. Except it isn’t. As my experience proves, it’s really more of a silent assassin.
All this left me a bit depressed. I still think the Octavia is fundamentally decent. And I could live with most of its foibles for the saving it offers, but not the software issues. As with so many VW products these days, these are just too annoying to confront day in, day out. It means that I simply couldn’t recommend this car to you, even though I really wanted to. Not just because I am used to relying on Skoda as a voice of reason in an increasingly befuddled market. It's normally such a bastion of sensibleness, and to lose that feels like a bereavement. What I'd hoped to say is here’s a great cost-saving alternative for our financially constrained times. But, instead, I'm saying spend the extra if you can. Especially if you’re a company car driver. As I said, the V60 T6 just works on every level, and £40 a month extra to keep your sanity seems like a bit of a bargain.
1 / 14