The Octavia is beginning to look like an East European military outpost in India. The lone Czech bastion is getting old now, but has still been fending off advances from the likes of Toyota and Chevrolet. And now, things look all set to get even more difficult for Skoda. That’s because the Octavia 1.9 TDI – the one car which other manufacturers have not been able to counter – is finally under threat. Hyundai have launched the Elantra CRDi which, on paper at least, has the requisite weaponry to take on the Octavia TDI. How do things measure up in the real world? Let’s see.
What’re you looking at?
The Elantra’s styling elicits – at best – mixed reactions. In my opinion, the scooped and sculpted Hyundai’s lines aren’t so bad, but it looks a tad dated. I don’t think the elongated front grille looks very nice, but combined with those sharply raked headlamps and the rather shapely front bumper, the overall effect isn’t offensive. From some angles, the Elantra actually looks like a bigger, revamped Accent – which might not go down so well with those who’re looking for a bigger, more ‘prestigious’ car. The Getz (which should also be launched sometime soon) looks very here-and-now, but the Elantra is a bit of a missed opportunity for the Koreans.
If the Elantra is a bit Punjabi Bagh, the Octavia is certainly Swiss chalet. There are no short-lived design influences here – the Octavia is all about clean shapes, straight lines and wonderful proportion. With its short overhangs and high waistline, the car looks just so well balanced. You could happily park one next to your neighbour’s BMW 3-series or Peugeot 405 and not be disgraced. Dark colours, especially navy blues and charcoal grays, suit this Skoda very well and give it an authoritative stance. There’s no getting away from it – the Octavia’s styling is a clear notch above the Elantra’s.
The inside story
I’ll say this right upfront – there’s nothing really remarkable about the Elantra’s interiors. Bijoy remarked that the upholstery looks like it’s from the ’70s, and I have to admit, the dash certainly does look like it’s from the ‘80s. It’s plush alright – there’s all the wood and chrome you’d expect – but it just doesn’t seem to work very well somehow. The facia looks dated and though all knobs and dials work just so, that intangible ‘feel good’ factor is missing. At night, with the lights switched on, the dials on the instrument panel light up in lurid shades of blue and red, while the LEDs and other lights on the music system are green. This lack of attention to detail is not on in any modern car, and certainly not in one that costs more than Rs 10 lakh. However, on a more positive note, the Hyundai is quite loaded with stuff – it has an 8-CD-changer, dual airbags, automatic aircon, height adjustable driver’s seat, 60/40 split folding rear seats and a trip computer. You’ll not want for kit, I promise you.
Getting out of the Elantra and into the Octavia is nothing short of a revelation – right away, the European car feels way better. Once the Skoda’s doors thunk shut, you feel like you’ve entered a safe, solid and comfortable bank vault. Frankly, the Elantra’s cabin feels very ordinary compared to the Octavia’s. The Skoda’s facia is simple, elegant and as far away from neo-glitz as possible. Straight lines, quality plastics (tan and black), simple controls laid out in a logical fashion, automatic aircon, tape/FM player, beige leather and cloth upholstery and comfortable and supportive seats. Actually, rear seat legroom is a bit restricted, but I’d be happy spending long hours in the Octavia’s driver seat. That feel good factor which is missing in the Elantra, is definitely present in the Skoda.
Under the hood
The Elantra’s 1991cc, turbo-charged, 16-valve, SOHC, inline-four isn’t hugely refined, but provides adequate performance. This engine produces a respectable 110 bhp (20 up on the Octavia TDI) and 25 kgm of torque. This, coupled with the car’s 5-speed manual gearbox (ratios are very well matched to the engine’s torque curve and shift quality is not too bad either), is enough to take the CRDi from 0 to 60 kph in 5.48 seconds and from 0 to 100 kph in 12.09 seconds. Now while this won’t exactly get you a place in the NHRA’s hall of fame, it’s certainly enough to keep you ahead of most traffic. If you can find a road long (and empty) enough, the Elantra CRDi will also do 180 kph, which should be enough for most people. Bottomline is, performance is not lacking, but we do wish that Hyundai had made the effort to engineer more refinement into the Elantra’s powerplant. The Octavia’s 1896cc DI turbodiesel inline-four isn’t extremely impressive on paper – its 90 horsepower and 21 kgm of torque are well below the Elantra CRDi’s numbers – but somehow manages to add up to more than just the sum of its parts. While the CRDi mill is eager to impress, rushing ahead to perform as soon as you prod the accelerator, the TDI is more restrained. You don’t get performance in chunks and gobs – you get a steady stream of it. It is, admittedly, slower than the Elantra, taking 6.50 seconds to get from 0 to 60 and 13.00 seconds to get from 0 to 100 kph, but in the real world, that doesn’t translate into any driveability issues. And at around 12 kpl, the TDI is at least as frugal with fuel as the CRDi and maybe even a little bit more. Overall, the Octavia’s engine isn’t quite as contemporary as the Elantra’s, but on the road, runs it close in almost all respects.
Road and track
The Elantra is fitted with inqadquate rubber (the 195/60 rubber wrapped around the Elantra’s 15-inch alloys, leaves a lot to be desired), but the rest of the package is not so bad. There’re McPherson struts and coil springs at the front, dual-link with coil springs at the back and an anti-roll bar at both ends. Steering feel is far better than what we’ve got used to on Accents and that gives you the confidence to push the car hard. The CRDi car feels relatively soft and is set up for mild understeer, but within limits, it lets you have fun. It’s also loaded with electronics – ABS, EBD, BAS and Traction Control – so the Elantra lets you get away with things which might get you into trouble in, say, a Corolla. And I don’t see too many people complaining about ride quality either – the Elantra is fairly softly sprung, and remains comfortable over relatively bad roads.
If there was one word I’d use to describe the Octavia’s handling, it’s unflappable. Suspension is coil springs and dampers (independent all around) aided with anti-roll bars on both ends and feels very well composed. There’s mild understeer when you’re pushing hard, but the small steering wheel (nicely weighted and positioned just right) conveys a lot of feel – certainly more than the Elantra’s – and the car is good fun to hustle around a set of fast bends. The Octy doesn’t have traction control, which is fine really, but Skoda should have provided anti-lock brakes and discs on all four wheels. The Elantra’s brakes feel significantly more powerful and offer more feel and feedback than the Octavia’s anchors. However, I do think the Octavia’s suspension movements are better controlled and offer at least as much ride comfort as the Elantra’s.
East or west?
So you see, the old Czech has put up a tough fight against the Chaebol. The Elantra is certainly the newer car, but in the areas of styling, interiors, fit and finish, ride and handling, it hasn’t managed to oust the Octavia. It does offer a more contemporary engine, better engine performance, better brakes and better equipment levels though and that has to be worth something. Also, the Elantra CRDi has a price advantage over the Octavia TDI. Ex-showroom, Mumbai, the Elantra CRDi would costs Rs 11.00 lakh, which compares well with the Rs 11.91 lakh which an Octavia 1.9 TDI costs, in Elegance trim. Of course, there is also the base model 1.9 TDI Ambiente, which goes for just Rs 10.30 lakh, but cuts out on luxuries like leather upholstery, alloy wheels and CD-player etc.
So what’s the better car, eh? Very tough question. But here’s what I feel – with its significantly higher equipment levels, better engine performance and overall price advantage, the Elantra offers better value for money. For many people, that should be enough to swing the deal. But the Octavia still feels better engineered and more substantial, is more comfortable, handles better and yes, also looks better. After spending all that money, you’d want your car to put a smile on your face every time you open the garage and look at it. And you’d want to feel really good once you get inside and start driving the thing. The Octavia is the car that’ll put the bigger smile on your face every time. And once you start driving it, you’d never want to stop. Czech it out...