Top Of The Pops

This isn’t a reference to the latest trends in popular music but a look at the top-selling cars in Europe and UK colour trends in 2016 …

According to Autocar® a leading UK motoring magazine, only fourteen different models of car dominated the number one selling position in twenty-eight European countries. Furthermore, fourteen of those top positions were occupied by VW Group cars which comes as little surprise given their overall reliability and relatively conservative styling that doesn’t date as quickly as some manufacturer offerings.

Top of the popularity list is the Volkswagen Golf. This model was the preferred choice of new car buyers in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Of these countries, only Germany and Sweden boast mainstream car manufacturers but, interestingly, Germans support their home industry whilst the Swedes relegate their native Volvo into second, third and fourth places. Even then, the combined Volvo sales still fell short of Golf purchases by nearly 5000 vehicles.

Unsurprisingly, given its space, practicality and value, the Škoda Octavia triumphed in its home market of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Poland and Switzerland. In the Czech Republic, buyers are very supportive of their own product as the Škoda Fabia took second place in the sales chart and half of all the country’s top-sellers are Škoda models. The Fabia also claimed second place in Poland making that country a lucrative market for the Czech manufacturer.

The Nissan Qashqai sealed first place in the tiny car market of Croatia and narrowly beat the Octavia to second place in the equally small market of Latvia. Renault claimed top spot in their home market of France with the Clio, which also was the favoured purchase in Portugal, a country that has an affinity towards small French cars. Other European markets share a variety of different models, none of which have dominance. Denmark car buyers favoured the Peugeot 208 whilst the uninspiring Toyota Yaris was top of the pops in Greece. Buyers in Hungary opted for the Suzuki Vitara which may be because it’s manufactured there but the Octavia was in a respectable second place. A strange choice of buyers in Ireland was the Hyundai Tucson, pushing the Golf into second place.

Fiat dominated sales in their home market of Italy with the Panda. With their twisty and often congested roads, it’s not surprising that an economical small car was first choice. The Fiat 500 was most popular in Lithuania where the Nissan Qashqai reached second place. The Fiat 500L took first place in the small car market of Serbia with the Octavia again coming second. Another country supporting their home market was Romania with the Dacia Logan and Duster in first and second places respectively. The Dacia is very much a budget product and is the Romanian arm of Renault. Prices are kept low by using discarded platforms and engines from earlier Renault models and benefiting from low manufacturing costs. The downside to these models is driving vehicles which are some ten years behind the times!

The final three best sellers are the Škoda Fabia which triumphed in Slovakia although the Octavia wasn’t far behind. Sales in Spain were dominated by the home-built SEAT Leon with their Ibiza in a close second place. Bringing up the rear is the United Kingdom where the Ford Fiesta was the number one choice. I’m sure there are people who think that the Fiesta is a British product but no Ford model is built in the country. It is most likely that Fiestas sold in the UK are manufactured in Portugal. The car is a strange choice given its odd styling and the fact that it depreciates at a higher rate than some comparable models from competitors.

Staying in the UK, an analysis was taken of the most popular colour choices for new cars. Monochrome colours are the most popular as white, black and grey take the top three spots. Of these colours, white dominates the charts with 20.51% of 2016 registrations. Blue remains the most popular primary colour and stood at fourth place with 15.38% of the market. Brown has fallen out of favour with demand down by 40.1% on 2015 sales. Somewhat strangely, beige has also dropped by 27.6%, possibly because buyers see it as an unexciting colour. Silver, which once dominated new car sales, found itself in sixth place in 2016, a drop of 7.5% on the previous year.

Of the top-selling ten cars in the UK in 2016, six were finished in black, two in white, and one each in grey and blue. Given the percentages shown above, it must be assumed that more of the less popular vehicles sold were finished in white!

Mid-Life Crisis?

In order to breathe new life into existing models, many manufacturers give mid-life facelifts to some of their cars.

As loyal readers of my blog will be aware, I have a penchant towards cars from the VW Group. I am not saying for one minute that other manufacturers don’t produce fine products, but personally I like the understated styling of VW Group models which don’t date at the alarming rate of some design offerings available today. Take the styling of the current Ford Fiesta as an example. This model compares directly with the Volkswagen Polo and Škoda Fabia yet depreciates some 7% more in value over a three year period. Most Japanese manufacturers appear to have lost the plot where styling is concerned, having adopted aggressive front ends and protruding tail-light clusters. This is simply the trend of the moment and avant-garde designs fast lose their appeal with the buying public. Whilst some would say that many VW Group products are rather staid, they continue to hold their value over the years and rarely look out of place amidst more futuristic offerings.

The question that one must ask is why models are given a facelift. Surely there would be no need for change had the designers got the product right in the first place. In reality, car makers want to keep their products in the forefront of the market place, and it is a constant battle to keep up with new and improved products from competitors. Facelifts therefore inject new life into existing models, extending their life for 18 months up to three years. In recent months, facelifts have been announced for the Audi A3, SEAT Leon, Škoda Octavia and VW Golf. The modified A3 is already available but buyers will have to wait until early 2017 for the updated models from the other marques.

To look at the aforementioned facelifted models, it is quite difficult to spot what is different. External changes include new or tweaked grilles, restyled bumpers, improved lights and new wheel designs. Most improvements are not visible from the outside as they centre around upgraded infotainment systems and enhancements to the power output of engines on offer. None of these are a bad thing and if they generate new life into a three or four year old product, it’s good news for the manufacturer. Limited changes to the exterior are also good news for the owners of pre-facelift models as only the diehard discerning buyer will be able to spot the differences.

Let’s start with the SEAT Leon. A reshaped front bumper now features a grille that has been stretched by 40mm, and the car is offered in three additional exterior colours. Interior trim has been upgraded and an electric handbrake and ambient lighting have been added. The new 115bhp 1.0 three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, already available in the Audi A3, Škoda Octavia and VW Golf; is now offered and the 1.6 diesel engine has had a power boost to 115PS. Add-on options include wireless phone charging, Traffic Sign Recognition and Traffic Jam Assist.

Next the Škoda Octavia. This boasts a new front end which has already divided opinion. It features split headlights with LED daylight running lamps and a wider grille that more closely resembles the new Kodiaq SUV. The lower bumper section has been tidied up with crisp horizontal lines designed to emphasise the car’s width. The rear bumper has also been restyled and the tail-lights tweaked. Inside, it is the infotainment systems that boast the biggest change. All systems now come with capacitive touchscreens which are larger in size. Optional features include a customised key that can store multiple driver preferences, a heated steering wheel, folding tables in the backs of the front seats and new cup holders that are moulded to the shape of bottles allowing them to be opened with one hand.

Now for the VW Golf which has a re-profiled bumper, slightly modified grille and air duct styling, minor restyling to the front wings and revised headlights with LED daytime running lights and a new full LED main beam function. The rear receives full LED tail-lights and a newly designed bumper and the model benefits from new wheel designs and exterior colours. Inside, there are revised trims for the doors, dashboard and centre console and some models can be specified with an Active Info Display with 12.3in high-definition monitor in place of standard analogue instruments. Infotainment systems are enhanced with larger displays across all models together with new or updated driver assistant systems including  Traffic Jam Assist, Emergency Assist, Lane Assist and an updated City Emergency Braking system. Needless to say, most of these options come at a price!

Finally the Audi A3. Key updates include styling tweaks with Xenon or LED headlights as standard. The front grille has had a minor restyle along with the headlights meaning the car now more closely resembles the larger A4. As with the other marques, the Audi also boasts new exterior colours and wheel designs. The main technological enhancement is the option of a virtual cockpit display in lieu of conventional analogue instruments.

Prices for the revised models are unlikely to deflect far from existing prices although uncertainties over exchange rates may ultimately have an impact. It’s fair to say that the improvements and enhancements across all these models are good for the consumer as they reflect the latest developments in technology. They should also reap rewards for the manufacturers as they either retain or attract new customers to their product range whilst remaining competitive in a fierce marketplace so it’s hardly a mid-life crisis!

For comparison pre-facelift photos of these models, please refer to earlier blog posts.

The Rise Of SUVs And Crossovers

The last few years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of SUVs on our roads …

Sports Utility Vehicles, more commonly known as SUVs, are now a very familiar sight on the world’s roads. From humble beginnings in the hands of one or two manufacturers, almost all main carmakers now offer at least one SUV in their range. Many companies now make SUVs in all their model segments meaning that the buyer can choose according to size as well as budget.

So what exactly is a SUV? It’s a vehicle designed to carry passengers in a traditional front and back seat configuration, whilst also providing increased luggage capacity. The vehicle sits higher above the road affording both driver and passengers greater all round visibility. Some of the larger, upmarket models offer various seat configurations to either preference passenger-carrying or luggage holding. Vehicles may be adorned with more rugged outdoor embellishments and also offer the option of four wheel drive. Early models were very much of a traditional box design and based upon light commercial vehicle chassis but nowadays, most models are closely based on their related car brethren and often described as crossovers.

It will come as little surprise, therefore, that the modern day SUV and crossover is far more than a utility vehicle. One of their main attractions is their increased ground clearance for on and off-road ability, although few people are likely to avail themselves of the latter. They have fast become something of a status symbol as they command greater road presence whilst still retaining the styling cues of a traditional car. Manufactures such as BMW and Audi offer an almost complete range of SUV models to meet the needs of most buyers whilst others provide a more limited choice or are only just entering what has become a very lucrative market.

A complete newcomer to the marketplace is SEAT who have just launched their first SUV to be called the Ateca. This will be a direct competitor to the revised Volkswagen Tiguan from their sister company. Currently, Škoda only make the Yeti which has been a success for the company but is now showing its age. In a few months time, Škoda will be unveiling their new model, the Kodiaq, which will sit at the upper end of the model spectrum both in size and price. A new Yeti is due within about eighteen months plus a small SUV based upon the Fabia. As their only existing SUV does not directly compete, this article is comparing the SEAT Ateca and VW Tiguan as both share the same MQB platform architecture.

As one would expect from SEAT, the new Ateca offers Spanish design flair. The car is derived from the current Leon, a model that is undoubtedly one of the best looking hatchbacks on the road. Delays in this car seeing the light of day mean that the company has been able to study the competition and, hopefully, get the product right from launch. First and foremost, the entry level model undercuts almost everything else on the market, and even the top specification models undercut the likes of the Renault Kadjar and Kia Sportage. Modifications to the proven VW 1.4TSI petrol engine enable two cylinders to shut down when driving at lower speeds although this is undetectable by the driver. The dashboard closely resembled that of the Leon, albeit with some improvements, one of which is an increased infotainment display. In SE trim, the car boasts 17″ alloy wheels, climate control air conditioning, rear parking sensors, cruise control and a driver profile select system. Whilst sharing the same wheelbase as the Leon, the Ateca is taller, wider and longer than its sibling, meaning there is more space all round for  passengers and 510 litres of luggage capacity with the rear seats in place.

The VW Tiguan has been around for several years and the previous model underwent a midlife face lift. The new model more closely resembles the family image and has sharper styling, better performance and efficiency than its predecessor. As with the Ateca, it sits on the ubiquitous MQB platform so offering similar accommodation to its cousin. Overall, the car is longer and this translates into boot capacity of 615 litres with the seats in place. In SE trim, expect to find 18″ alloys, an 8″ infotainment display, DAB, Bluetooth, climate and cruise control. The dashboard is typical of cars from VW, being exceptionally well assembled using soft plastics and ergonomically designed. It shares a broad range of petrol and diesel engines with its stablemates but compared with rivals is on the pricey side and lacks the special design flair making it appear rather anonymous.

There is a considerable price differential between the SEAT Ateca and VW Tiguan. In almost identical SE trim level, the Ateca costs around £21015 (€25300) whilst the Tiguan commands £25260 (€30320). Neither model comes with satnav as standard so expect to pay £525 (€640) and £725 (€880) respectively for that convenience. Whilst VW are always more expensive, reflecting their image and refinery, an additional £4200 is a lot to pay for what is essentially increased luggage capacity. The Ateca has been priced to sell, and with its more aggressive styling, is the preferred choice … that is until the all-new Škoda Yeti arrives in 2018. The battle may then begin!,

Battle Of The Giants

It’s not often that I review large or executive class vehicles as I’m very much in favour of economy and being environmentally friendly. Fortunately, nowadays, it is becoming easier to blend both these qualities as engineering and design advance in leaps and bounds …

Following my penchant for cars from the Volkswagen Group, mainly because of their more classic designs and overall reliability, this review is comparing two relative giants from both Škoda and VW in the guise of the Superb and Passat. The original modern-day Superb utilised a 10cm stretched version of the Passat model at the time, and was launched in 2001. Whilst never being a huge seller, it gradually commanded a larger slice of the market owing to its passenger and luggage capacity, not to mention overall reliability. It has therefore been popular with taxi drivers who opted for a larger car than the ever-popular Škoda Octavia.

This model was replaced in 2008 with the second generation Superb, which boasted a unique ‘twindoor’ arrangement with an innovative rear opening that could double as a regular separate saloon boot and full hatchback. The car was larger than its sister Passat derivatives and continued to attract new customers to the marque. Now, after over seven years in production, this model has now been replaced with the mark III Superb, a car that effectively takes Škoda into new territory.

It would be fair to say that the styling of the outgoing Superb was somewhat dowdy despite the car offering exceptional value for money with its passenger and luggage space. The Passat has always upstaged it in the design stakes, and whilst only coming in conventional saloon or estate form, has been the VW Group’s market leader in the segment. However, this could be all about to change with the new Skoda incarnation. The Superb is now an exceptionally classic-looking car and gives the equally attractive Passat a run for its money. The ‘twindoor’ rear opening has been ditched in favour of a traditional hatchback opening, but the car gives the impression of being a traditional saloon. Once again, the Superb is built on a stretched platform some 80mm longer than the outgoing model, weighs about 75kg less, and is 47mm wider thereby providing more elbow room. Passengers also benefit from increased headroom, especially in the rear. A major factor of all Škoda cars is their luggage capacity compared with comparable models from other manufacturers, and the new Superb boasts 625 litres with the rear seats in place, increasing to a massive 1760 litres when the seats are folded. It is therefore likely to swallow almost anything one cares to put in it!

The car will offer a choice of seven fully turbocharged petrol and diesel engines depending upon the model derivative. The excellent DSG automatic gearbox will be available with selected engines so it should be possible to tailor-make the ideal package. Living up to the Simply Clever features offered by Škoda, the car comes with a built-in umbrella in each of the front doors and a rechargeable torch that also serves as a boot light. Even the basic model is well-equipped, boasting alloy wheels, DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and an infotainment touch screen. Better specification models have larger wheels, climate-controlled air conditioning, cruise control and rear parking sensors. For the ultimate in motoring, opt for the expensive Laurin & Klement spec with heated front and rear seats, adaptive dampers, powered tailgate, a TV tuner and more luxuries besides. These specifications apply to the UK market where models are generally better equipped as standard than in some other European markets. The interior layout is clearly designed for ease of use and driver comfort and avoids the gimmickry found in many competitor cars. Overall, the car is very well assembled and offers a comfortable and quiet driving experience, and with the entry level Superb S 1.4 TSI 123bhp engine currently costing £18640 (€25500), it will take a lot of beating in the value-for-money stakes!

More than ever before, the Superb is a real challenger for its cousin, the VW Passat. This model recently underwent a major facelift to become even bigger yet lighter than its predecessor, but at the same time becoming far more fuel efficient. Some top spec models command a premium price meaning that VW are targeting customers of smaller BMWs and Mercedes, but it has to be said that the car is of premium quality. Whilst the Passat is not the largest saloon car in the VW stable, it is the largest in terms of sales as the Phaeton is a super luxury saloon competing with the likes of the Audi A8 and Lexus LS. At first glance, the new Passat looks very similar to its predecessor, but actually boasts a 79mm extended wheelbase in a car that is slightly shorter due to reduced front and rear overhangs.

Specification across the model range has been improved and the car offers a sleeker look than before. As with the Škoda, the interior layout is conventional, with all controls readily to hand. Astute readers will note common switchgear used across many models in the VW Group. All models come with a 6.5 inch touchscreen, Bluetooth, DAB radio, curtain airbags and a driver’s knee airbag. Higher spec models feature sat nav, adaptive cruise control and other optional extras including the much-publicised Driver Assistance featuring, amongst other things, automatic full beam dipping, lane assist and side scan radar. Like the Sperb, the Passat is based on the MQB platform that has been discussed in previous model reviews. This platform underpins popular cars like the VW Golf, Škoda Octavia, SEAT Leon and Audi A3, so reliability should be taken as read. Luggage capacity is 586 litres with the rear seats in place but these can be folded top increase space. Remember, however,. that access is restricted as the Passat is a conventional saloon with a boot rather than the hatchback versatility of the Škoda Superb.

The Passat is a very well-engineered vehicle and now offers the complete package … a refined, comfortable, sporty saloon in a classic design that will retain its value better than many of its competitors. As with many things, the final choice between these two cars will be the price. As mentioned, the Superb actually offers more room than the Passat, and whilst it may not be right at the top in terms of overall refinement, it isn’t far off and offers exceptional value for money. The entry level Passat S 1.6TDI costs £22215 (€31000) which is over £3500 (€5000) more than the Superb … a lot of dosh! Both cars will offer estate derivatives at greater cost but offering even more carrying capacity making it a true battle of the giants!

Brand versus Style

Regular readers of my motoring blogs will undoubtedly know that I’m a devotee of Škoda cars but here is a review of two alternative marques from the VW Group …

In a world whereby most average family cars look very similar, making an informed choice on which car to buy can be a daunting task. Some people demand every conceivable gadget and gismo available, no matter what these may cost, whilst others are content in having a vehicle that delivers a solid driving experience without too many trimmings. Nowadays, most manufacturers offer products that are light years away from their models of fifteen years ago so ultimately it comes down to individual preference or even bias! Yes I am somewhat biased as I’m a firm believer in value for money rather than paying simply for an upmarket badge.

If you exclude premium names such as Bentley and Bugatti for example, then Audi is at the upper end of VW Group marques with Škoda and SEAT holding more lowly positions. Of course, that in no way derides these makes and they more than compete with both their cousins and other manufacturers. The VW Golf made its first appearance in 1974 and has been a world best seller for most of its life, now being in its seventh generation. A Mark 8 version is scheduled for the 2018 model year. As with most models, the car has grown from its original size back in 1974, with the current VW Polo about the size of the Mark 1 Golf. Sharing the same MQB platform as the current Golf is the latest SEAT Leon and this blog will compare the two models which are virtually identical in size.

There can be little doubt that the VW Golf offers a solidly built, quality-engineered car, coming in three-door, five-door and estate guises. Virtually every new incarnation of the model improves upon its predecessor, but in so doing, the price has reached what some might describe as epidemic proportions. As with nearly all manufacturers, the model offers far more standard equipment and safety features than at the start of this century, so these will contribute to higher prices. However, the danger is that the car falls outside the affordability parameters of the family market at which it is aimed. Performance comes from a range of proven petrol and diesel power units, all of which are turbocharged, and one even has a fuel-saving device that shuts off two cylinders when they’re not needed. The Golf excels in its riding and handling capabilities and few cars within the category can equal it. This is achieved through sophisticated suspension settings although smaller engined models have to rely upon a more traditional set up. Over the years, VW have refined their engines to the point that most offer an exceptionally smooth travelling experience.

The dashboard is well put together with all controls readily to hand and plenty of soft touch material. Switchgear is well damped and the overall ambience is one of functional comfort rather than an array of gimmicky buttons found in some manufacturers models, notably Ford and GM. As one would expect, the Golf is a safety-conscious zone boasting seven airbags (including a driver’s knee airbag) and stability control. Mechanical parts are marked to deter thieves and the car achieved a 5 star Euro NCAP rating in crash tests. Basic equipment includes Bluetooth, a DAB radio and air conditioning, but opt for a mid range specification to get adaptive cruise control, automatic sensor-driven lights and wipers, plus alloy wheels. The higher spec models also offer full climate-controlled aircon which is worth considering as an option on other models if made available as it keeps the interior at a pre-set temperature. A touch screen infotainment system sits in the centre of the dashboard, from which many features can be controlled. The Golf will seat four adults in comfort and five at a pinch. Boot space is about par for the segment and benefits from a height adjustable floor which is useful for eliminating a step up to the rear seats when in their folded down position.

Sitting directly alongside the Golf is the Leon from sister company SEAT. This car can be looked upon as the equivalent of a Spanish holiday, offering fun, flair and affordability. Whereas the Golf is very conservative in design, the Leon is more stylish and distinctive, yet shares the same platform, engines and technology … so basically a Golf in disguise! It offers both style and substance in a package comprising German engineering, Spanish flair and a build quality to virtually match its cousin. As with the Golf, there is a comprehensive range of engines including high powered derivatives for the FR and Cupra models at the top end of the model spectrum. Handling is generally good thanks to the suspension and damping set up, but some may consider the ride to be slightly on the firm side. Personally, I find this advantageous as it eliminates some of the sickening motion encountered in some vehicles. Overall refinement doesn’t quite match that of the Golf primarily because of more wind noise and models fitted with larger wheels suffer excessive road noise. Safety and security features are plentiful including seven airbags, stability control, tyre pressure monitoring and emergency brake assist. To help deter thieves, all models have an alarm fitted and the Leon also achieved a 5 star Euro NCAP rating.

Interior switch gear largely mimics that fitted in the Golf. Obviously, the sharing of common components is more cost effective and if they’re good enough for a VW, that is a compliment to the Leon! The dashboard is angled slightly towards the driver and is generally a match for the Golf in terms of refinement. The model also has a touch screen infotainment system with sensory response, and whilst this serves the purpose, it would benefit from being somewhat larger. Standard equipment includes basic air conditioning, Bluetooth and an MP3 compatible CD player whilst higher spec models get alloy wheels, cruise control and bright trim on the dashboard. The FR models add dual zone climate controlled aircon, sports seats and leather trim. The Leon easily accommodates four adults but there is enough room for a fifth. The model comes in three derivatives, namely a three-door SC, five-door and estate, and rear head and legroom is slightly reduced in the coupé model. Luggage space can only be described as average offering 380 litres with the rear seats in place, and as with the Golf, there is a step up when the rear seats are folded. The Leon does not offer the adjustable floor height to compensate for this and the boot area offers no useful storage facilities unlike the ‘simply clever’ features of Škoda models!

This latest incarnation of the SEAT Leon makes it one of the best family cars around, with its blend of practicality, performance and style. It is a rewarding car to drive owing to comfortable seats and an airy cabin. Opt for one of the lower-aspirated engines to yield the greatest economy. The Leon undercuts the price of the Golf across its range but the downside is that residual values will not be as great. However, for many people, the deciding factor when purchasing a car is the upfront price, and in this respect the overall package offered by the Leon is hard to beat. A VW Golf 1.6TDI 5-door Bluemotion with climate control and metallic paint currently costs €30400 (£22420). A SEAT Leon 1.6TDI SE 5-door with similar specification has a current list price of €27500 (£20255) so it’s clear to see that the Leon offers very good value for money.

Little doubt then that it’s a choice between brand and style!

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VW Golf Estate
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SEAT Leon Estate

Simply Clever

At first sight the title of this blog may seem slightly bewildering …

To an extent, this is an update of my blog in May when a comparison review of three cars from the VW Group stable was undertaken. This is a more in-depth look at two of the vehicles whilst the third is recently new to the market this year. The cars in question are the replacement Škoda Octavia and the all-new Audi A3 saloon whilst bringing up the rear is the Volkswagen Jetta, often seen as a booted version of the Golf.

All three of these vehicles are very similar in size and in many ways look similar to each other despite all being unique models. This rather illustrates the fact that computer-designed cars aimed at achieving maximum energy efficiencies all emerge from the design board looking very anonymous and manufacturers are left with detailed styling tweaks to try and make them stand out from the crowd.

The latest version of the Škoda Octavia has moved the model somewhat upmarket. It is larger overall than the model it’s replaced as the manufacturer introduced a new mid segment car called the Rapid some twelve months ago. The Rapid competes more equally with the likes of the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra and with the introduction of yet another derivative under the Rapid banner in the shape of the Spaceback, the model should have a considerable impact upon that market segment.

In order to differentiate their model lineup, it was necessary for Škoda to increase the size of the new Octavia which is now closer in size to a Ford Mondeo than the previous model. So back to the blog header of Simply Clever .. it’s the tag line of Škoda and for very good reason as will be seen from reading on!

All the cars being compared here resemble a conventional saloon (or sedan for readers in the United States!) However the Octavia is in fact a hatchback which offers many advantages when it comes to versatility and luggage capacity. Whilst all models have a starting price at so-called basic level, the comparisons here are based on the higher specification models from all three manufacturers but all powered by the same 1.6 TDI 105PS engine.

For a car as large as the Octavia one might imagine an engine of 1.6 litres struggling but for everyday motoring performance is more than adequate even though it requires relatively frequent gear changing at low speed. The ride is generally comfortable and the driver has reassurance from the grip the front wheels provide. A slick gear change offers accurate selection and apart from some wind noise at high speed, the car is generally quiet even with the diesel engine. One of the Octavia’s highlights is the build quality of the cabin which is a match for the VW Golf, always renowned for its finish. Standard safety features include seven air bags including a knee airbag for the driver, five star Euro NCAP rating, electronic brake force distribution, stability control and a hill hold braking function.

The dashboard layout is clear and functional rather than a remit for the whims of designers and incorporates one of the best touch screen infotainment systems currently available. All the car’s functions can be controlled from this unit ranging from fuel consumption data to telephone connection and satellite navigation. Seats are quite supportive with lumber support available for the driver and front seat passenger. There is adequate room for 6ft adults both in the front and rear. The boot is simply cavernous providing 590 litres with the seats up and no less than 1580 litres with the rear seats folded.

Even the entry level Octavia is equipped with alloy wheels, manual air conditioning, DAB radio, Bluetooth and a multi-change CD player all for a starting price of £15990. The comparison model here boasts dual-zone climate controlled air conditioning, engine stop-start technology, front fog lights, rear parking sensors, all electric windows, cruise control, satellite navigation, automatic lights and wipers, and part leather upholstery … all for an on-the-road price of £21090!

Next we have the new Audi A3 saloon that is an addition to the established A3 range of hatchbacks and cabriolet. Whilst most models are powered by high performance engines, the manufacturer has not forgotten the cost-conscious driver, hence the availability of the 1.6 TDI unit. The standard specification for the car is with sport suspension which by definition provides a firmer ride all round but customers can opt for a no-cost standard suspension configuration. As is to be expected from a quality front wheel drive car, road grip is good although road noise can penetrate the cabin. Safety features include stability control, front, side and curtain airbags and the maximum five star Euro NCAP rating.

The quality of the cabin is first class although it isn’t as simple in design as that of the Octavia. A novel feature is the slim infotainment screen that pops up from the upper part of the dashboard. The multi media interface offers control of most of the car’s main functions via a control dial and a few buttons. Note that the Octavia’s infotainment unit is touch screen operated and as your hand approaches, a menu pops up! The front seats are both supportive and multi adjustable allowing most people to get comfortable behind the wheel. Boot capacity is 425 litres which can be increased by folding the rear seats flat but access is restricted owing to the saloon design.

The A3 saloon is available in two trim levels with standard specification including dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, and sports seats. However, in order to bring the specification in line with that of the Octavia, extras costing £3240 will be needed bringing the on-the-road price to a staggering £25520!

Finally a look at the Volkswagen Jetta. In essence this car resembles a mini Passat which is no bad thing although it looks fairly staid and anonymous. As with the other vehicles reviewed, the Jetta comes with a choice of engines but again for comparison purposes it is the frugal 1.6 TDI model that is being costed. This unit is both fuel-efficient and a willing performer, providing plenty of pace and good acceleration when overtaking. Road holding is reassuring as is to be expected from a proven front wheel drive unit and the steering light yet positive. There is some slight wind and road noise at speed. All the usual safety features are on offer including front, side and curtain airbags, stability control, and a five star rating from Euro NCAP.

Whilst this model is a derivative of the Golf, the build quality of the dashboard doesn’t appear to match that of its stablemate. This may be because the car is built in Mexico where quality control standards are not quite as high as those in Europe. However, the car will readily accommodate four adults on well supporting seats as this model grew in size from the previous generation Jetta. Boot space is remarkably generous offering 510 litres with the rear seats in place. This can be enhanced if the 60-40 rear seats are folded down.

The base model with air conditioning, full electric windows and remote central locking will set one back £19315. However, to have a comparably equipped car to the Octavia, it will cost £24079 which includes £2844 of extras on top of the Sport trim which offers alloy wheels, cruise control and automatic headlights as standard.

The diesel engine referred to in this review offers fuel consumption in excess of 70 mpg for the Octavia according to official tests. Personally I think that is extremely optimistic although careful driving should yield in excess of 55 mpg on a regular basis. Both the Octavia and A3 have Euro V CO2 exhaust emissions of 99 g/km meaning they currently fall into the zero road tax bracket whilst the Jetta emits 109 g/km putting it into the £20 road tax bracket. For those fortunate enough to be able to afford a new car, both are attractive propositions; at some point in time we all need to take positive action to help our environment rather than selfishly driving around in fuel guzzlers that pollute the planet!

Time now to summarise. The biggest car of the three reviewed is the Octavia although only by a narrow margin. With the largest wheelbase, it doesn’t compromise on interior space and also provides the largest luggage capacity. The practicality of the car is further enhanced by the hatchback styling. From a visual perspective, the A3 undoubtedly wins but at a hefty price. Whilst offering reasonable value for money, the Jetta really doesn’t cut the mustard as it is lacking in so many respects at base level. As reviewed, the A3 costs £4430 more than the Octavia and the Jetta £2989 extra. This brings me back to the title of this blog .. namely that Škoda live up to their promise of being Simply Clever!

And to reiterate that fact, you’ll find neat little touches in the Octavia such as a multi media holder, waste paper bin and ice scraper behind the fuel flap. Simply clever!

Spoilt For Choice

When it comes to choosing a new motor vehicle today, whether new or used, one is literally spoilt for choice. There are vehicles covering all market segments ranging from small so-called city cars to the almost incongruous off road vehicle that spends most of its life on the school run! In between, there are the more traditional family hatchbacks and saloons and an ever-increasing array of multi purpose vehicles aka people carriers.

There are now approaching 34 million licensed vehicles on the roads of the United Kingdom. Fifty years ago, this figure stood at 10 million and grew during the boom period of the 1970s to stand at over 20 million by 1983. It is fair to say that this phenomenal growth rate cannot be sustained by our overcrowded road network, not to mention dwindling supplies of motor fuel. Despite ever increasing demand and very high prices, the most popular choice of vehicle is still the conventional family hatchback or saloon. The only difference today is that approximately 50% of all new vehicles sold are powered by diesel engines. Such an option was unheard of in the 1960s with only a trickle of diesel-powered cars being available in the 1970s. As these engines have become far more refined coupled with the ability to offer exceptional miles per gallon, so has their popularity. In addition, diesel engines have lower emissions as measured by a European Directive and therefore attract lower annual road fund licence fees.

According to a statistical report, in 2010 the average engine size of all licensed cars was 1750cc. With the advent of smaller engines with turbochargers, this figure is likely to fall. In the UK that year, Ford manufactured 15% of all licensed cars with GM Vauxhall making 12%. According to the report, almost 50% of all licensed cars in the UK are manufactured by Ford, Vauxhall, Volkswagen, Peugeot and Renault.

On the basis that the most popular choice of vehicle is still a traditional car, this article is looking at three latest offerings from the Volkswagen Group, namely the Audi A3, Škoda Octavia and VW Jetta. I make no apology for selecting models from this major manufacturer as they constantly outshine models from competitors especially in terms of reliability. To some, their designs may appear rather staid, but this is a long term bonus as they hold their value better than current avant garde designs on offer from some manufacturers, notably Ford and Peugeot to name but two.

Given that the models all come from the same group stable, final choice can be quite daunting as in many respects the vehicles offer a choice of the same engines and transmission, even sharing the same or modified platform. So what do the individual models have to offer?

First is the Audi A3, the design of this third generation car still looking similar to the original model. This is a general trend of VW Group cars whereby their conservative styling evolves rather than changing dramatically. Not only does this maintain easy recognition of a brand name, it also helps older models retain their value. This latest model provides a stylish exterior with an excellent interior made of high-quality materials. There is plenty of kit for the enthusiast but even base models come equipped with stop-start technology for fuel saving, alloy wheels, Bluetooth connectivity and air conditioning.

Comfort in the revised A3 has been improved by tweaking the suspension settings although the firmer sport settings are available in the top end models. The stiff suspension and lack of equipment were hallmarks of the previous model so great attention has been paid to rectifying these deficiencies. Whilst the car is the same length as its predecessor, the wheelbase has been stretched to provide more interior space as well as offering a slightly higher boot capacity. This now stands at 365 litres with the rear seats in place and 1100 litres with them folded. This new model received a full five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating. This is the only car in this review to come with a choice of three or five door bodywork.

Next is the all-new Škoda Octavia. Once again this model is something of an evolution of the previous model but unlike the Audi A3, the car is considerably larger than the one it replaces. Whilst giving the impression of a booted car, the Octavia is, in fact, a hatchback. The design is best described as understated, offering smart classic looks at the expense of design wizardry. Coupled with the conservative exterior is a cleanly-designed, functional interior but build quality equals that of the VW Golf which is hard to beat. Standard kit includes air con, stop-start, alloy wheels, Bluetooth and DAB radio with touchscreen. Other details offered by the Octavia include luggage restraints, a reversible boot floor and a useful ice scraper concealed inside the fuel filler cap! Like the A3 this vehicle received a full five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating.

To drive, the Octavia is comfortable with little body roll but lacks the excitement of the VW Golf. However, for a car of its size, the engines are very frugal yet still manage to power the vehicle capably. The accommodation offered by the Octavia has always been a major selling point and this new model provides 590 litres of boot space with the rear seats in place! Additionally, rear legroom beats the competition hands down and is close to that offered by the VW Passat, Vauxhall Insignia or Ford Mondeo, all cars in the category above.

Finally a look at the Volkswagen Jetta, often described as a booted Golf but actually a separate car in its own right. From the front it shares the familiar VW face which leads into a car some 90mm longer than its predecessor. In profile the car resembles its bigger stablemate the VW Passat, itself a traditional saloon car with a boot. Driver comfort is high and passengers enjoy more rear legroom than in the Golf owing to the longer wheelbase. The dashboard mimics the logical layout from the Golf together with similar build quality. Luggage is well catered for by the 510 litre boot space  and passengers are well protected by a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating.

The Jetta offers the same well-weighted controls that drivers expect from Volkswagen products and provides good value for money especially as discounts can be obtained by shopping around. Most models come with alloy wheels, air con and cruise control.

So which one to buy? Ultimately that depends on what one is seeking from a motor vehicle. Undeniably the Audi A3 has the sportiest pedigree of the three cars reviewed as well as the prestige associated with the brand but those come at a price. The Škoda Octavia offers the roomiest car of the three and is built to the same exacting standards. It also matches the others in terms of standard equipment and for those who have hitherto snubbed the marque, the company now sports a smart new logo which is as every bit upmarket as the car itself. The VW Jetta lacks the image of its sister car the Golf but offers a traditional saloon format at a competitive price. However residual values are unlikely to match those of the Golf.

In a recent press review, both the Audi A3 and Škoda Octavia were awarded 40 points out of 45 whilst the VW Jetta only achieved a score of 37. Prices of the A3 three-door currently range from just under £17905 to over £28160. The Octavia entry level model is £15990 going up to £23240 for the top of the range whilst £19075 is the starting point for the Jetta increasing to £23410.