Weekend Edition: Rebuilding a brand – The 1996-2010 Skoda Octavia 1U

It’s 25 years ago since Skoda and Volkswagen shook hands and made Skoda a Volkswagen subsidiary. The agreement took place on March 28th, 1991, and on April 16th, Volkswagen took ownership of 30% of Skoda’s shares. In Dec 1994, VW took majority of Skoda’s shares with 60,3% in their pocket, and grew that to 70% a year later. It is frankly amazing that in roughly five years from putting pen to paper, Skoda and VW produced the 1U body Skoda Octavia. The first one rolled off the production line on April 3th, 1996.
While the Felicia hatchback was still obviously a development of the sharper-edged Favorit and the later, Polo-based Fabia still used the old pushrod engines dating back to the Gutenberg printing machine, the Octavia was a completely fresh design from the ground up, working as a testbed of sorts for the upcoming fourth generation Golf, yet managing to do some things better with less. If Skoda today can be seen as an extremely successful player on multiple markets, it all started with the humble-but-worthy 1996 Octavia, which lived a long and prosperous life.

For years, the 1U Octavia has been a fantastically dull car for cheap. Its only real caveat is the Golf-sized rear legroom, but the cavernous trunk really makes up for it, especially as it’s a liftback and not a saloon – a key difference in comparison to the 1998-introduced Seat Toledo, which didn’t have a large trunk opening as the glass didn’t lift with the tailgate.
The cabin of the first cars was probably the place where you noticed the desperate bargain-basement credentials of the initial production run, but it improved soon. Grey dials did it no favors, and in better specifications the plastic wood clashed horribly with the other, pale plastic materials.
It’s not easy to find a polished publicity shot of the first dashboard, but this one should make it clear. It’s not quite the kind of place, where one would sit voluntarily for extended periods, admiring the shapes and forms.
The interior layout was redone at facelift time, but you could still see some harsh, light stuff there.
Compare that with the special edition Laurin & Klement interior, and you can see why I like the top-spec model the best. The tan leather brightens up the Octavia with an obvious sense of perceived quality.
This wagon is also a L&K, judging by the wheels, the beige headrest and the little emblem on the fender.
The Octavia that’s probably a fan favorite and the only trim level that anyone has been able to be enthusiastic about is the vRS. Along with a good-looking body kit and hugging part-leather sport seats, it gained the 180hp version of the venerable 1.8-litre turbo engine – a serious slap in the back, if you consider most of the Octavias so far had been saddled with 1.8 20V non-turbo or 2.0 engines at best, or the 1.9 TDI:s with 90 hp or so. Or the starter grade 1.4 with 75hp.
I remember reading of 1.2-litre 60hp cars for some markets, but cannot confirm this at the time of writing. In the other end of the spectrum, you could get a 4×4 wagon with all the trimmings.
But this is the “first-gen” – as there was an Octavia around in the late 1950s-early 1960s – Octavia’s legacy: a worthy car that does exactly what’s asked of it, be it taxicab duty or police car use, but rarely meriting desire. It’s difficult to foist enthusiast instincts upon a car that’s such an invisible one, no matter how important it is.
And while used Alfa Romeo 156:s cost roughly the same as these Octavias, it’s not easy to justify buying one in any other case than outright need. For a lot of people, it’s been the right car at the right time, but it’s not something you would cherish, even if the Octavia doesn’t exactly rust eagerly, nor is it known for fatal flaws.
The Octavia 1U was actually built as long as November 2010, alongside newer generations and long enough for it to see Skoda producing more enticing cars than its mother company – the second generation Superb was available with the frankly enormous 3.6-litre VR6 engine, producing 260 horsepower. But the later Octavias do not quite merit similar admiration as the mid-1990s one, as they built upon a car that was already quite good. The 1U hit the market out of the blue.

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  1. Rover 1 Avatar
    Rover 1

    It’s important to note that the police car pictured is of a British police car.
    No wonder the UK doesn’t really have any industry left
    And my brother loves his vRS, his for six years now.

    1. crank_case Avatar

      They say the answer to everything is an MX5… here in Ireland, it’s actually an Octavia vRS. Need a car that’s reasonably quick, fun, economical, affordable to tax and insure, can be taken on trackdays, can be used as a family car, get bicycle in the back and maybe allow you to moonlight as a taxi driver = Octavia vRS. I have no desire or need for one myself, but people seem to swear by them here.

      1. Rover 1 Avatar
        Rover 1

        And until recently, (and maybe even now), without the ‘brand baggage’ of other marques?

        1. crank_case Avatar

          Nah, even the dogs in the street know it’s a long Golf, in fact that’s part of the appeal such is the strength of the cult of VAG here.

          1. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            Girlie magazine readers?
            A different cult of VAG. 🙂

      2. Monkey10is Avatar

        Exactly the same reasons for their success in the UK as well.
        (Except I hope that our police wouldn’t see the need to moonlight as taxi drivers…)

  2. JayP Avatar

    Skoda could make a market in the US…
    Buy a new Skoda instead of a 7 yr old VW.

    1. Vairship Avatar

      Their slogan could be: “We have Volkswagen ties, but no Volkswagen lies!*”
      *: Or at least we haven’t been caught yet in the US.

  3. smokyburnout Avatar

    I know mostly which Skodas are based on which Volkswagens, but for some reason (VW’s US lineup being all I’ve ever actually seen in person?) I always imagine they’re all a size bigger. The Octavia just seems like it should be a Passat-sized car?

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      That was always the first Octavia’s achilles heel: It’s sort of between the Golf and the Passat, yet based on the former’s platform. That gave it Camaro-ish overhangs and a cramped interior. Might have been the inspiration for the totally cavernous Superb.
      The one thing I remember most when it comes to remaking the Škoda brand are articles like this:
      February 2nd, 1998
      At the Geneva auto show last March, VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech described his brand strategies. Skoda was to be a Volvo competitor and Volkswagen a Mercedes fighter. At the time, some people dismissed the idea.
      It was no joke.

  4. theskitter Avatar

    I like the interior because it is plain.

  5. Tomsk Avatar

    Since it never came over here, my first awareness of the Octavia came through the World Rally Championship. It looked substantially bigger than the other cars running at the time, even though its Mk. 4 Jetta/Bora kinship is pretty easy to spot.

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