This Part 2 of my Photo Report on the Australian Outback, you can check Part 1 here.
Now that we’ve described how utes are extremely well represented in Outback Australia, let’s weigh the pros and cons of the AU$34,690 1.8l TSI Skoda Octavia Elegance I drove. Firstly I need to shed my European angle over the Skoda brand as it hasn’t had the same history in Australia. A good way was to listen to what my Australian friend and Lexus RX driver David had to say. He expected a small compact car to turn up and was surprised at how big the Octavia was. Definitely not a embarrassing car to be seen in, he compared it to arriving at the Sheraton with a new Mini as he pointed out his interior designer had a Skoda. In Australia the Skoda name has an interesting quirk, as with most things European indeed.
It’s true that a car represents who you are, and it appears that here one would rather be represented by Skoda than Kia, Hyundai or even Toyota. It just seems cooler. Given Skoda’s role in the Volkswagen Group in Australia is to compete with Japanese and Korean brands, they are on the right track here. Value for money is what Skoda has been renown for in Europe and it rings true in Australia too. It is very spacious for the price, the boot is cavernous and the cockpit feels more comfortable than my dad’s 5 year-old Audi A3. It’s tight on the road with the turbocharged engine delivering a sporty drive. The controls are intuitive, the sat nav zoom is satisfyingly granular and the altimeter very precise.
A few pleasing details for a car of this price range: the cruise control automatically slows you down to keep at safe braking distance from the car in front without cancelling itself and resumes to the set speed again when the road ahead is clear, the bluetooth connectivity once set up actually works and recognises your phone without fail every time, to the point that it makes you feel the phone will stay connected in the car long after we’ve given it back! All in all, there are a lot of well thought-out things in the Skoda Octavia.
If the fuel economy is neither here or there (by European standards) at 7.5l/km on our 1600km road trip, there are a few elements that remind you this is a car manufactured on a budget. The audio system lacks richness of sound no matter how you adjust it and even though it has got a subwoofer it lacks mid-range. The glovebox is flimsy, as are the electric window buttons and the boot cover, plus there is no sunglasses holder. Finally one of the frustrations of driving in the Australian Outback is swarms of insects throwing themselves onto the windscreen, and for this the Octavia’s lightweight wipers didn’t rise to the challenge. Now that you know what I think of the Octavia, let’s get back to the Australian Outback car landscape.
As far as SUVs are concerned, I was surprised to spot more than a few latest Toyota Prado and Ford Kuga in Bourke, while the Hyundai ix35 was a repeat occurrence on the 200km straight stretch of road between Dubbo and Bourke where only a dozen vehicles passed us by – half of them massive long distance trucks, called Road Trains here. I only spotted a couple of Mazda CX-5 over the two days spent in the Outback and whereas I have started seeing 3 or 4 new generation Mazda3 per day in Sydney, there were none in the area, seemingly indicating Mazda buyers tend to be city slickers.
An Australian specialty that is now an endangered species is the sedan-derived ute, and I saw a few new generation entry model Holden Commodore utes, something you’d be hard-pressed to spot in Australian cities. In Bourke I had the opportunity to interview Commodore ute driver Scott Kelly. Tellingly, his Commodore is a company car that gets changed over every 18 months after 90,000 km, so he tended to distance himself a little from it (A large part of Commodores sold in Australia nowadays are bought as fleet). Scott didn’t seem too fussed whether the car he drove was a Toyota, a Holden or a Ford, but while “Other cars can be flimsy, the Commodore gets you good protection from roos” in the form of a powerful V6 engine block and strong brakes – no roo bars on Scott’s car.
Another striking element when studying the car landscape in Bourke is the very high prevalence of Great Wall vehicles. Our hotel manager Del Borthistle is one happy owner: “About a year ago the fifth gear of my Toyota Hilux went for the second time on my way back from Goondiwindi (QLD) – 570km away – plus I had already had the engine done on it, so I thought it was time to get myself a reliable car. I do the trip a few times a month, and sometimes I can only decide to leave at the last minute so I really can’t afford to worry about whether my car is capable or not. My daughter already drives a Great Wall SUV and she suggested I do too. I went to the Dubbo (NSW) dealer – 370 km away – traded my Hilux in, and within a week I was driving the Great Wall back to Bourke – they even fixed the roo bars in the meantime. I only paid $25,000 and have had absolutely no issues with it.”
When asked what is her angle on the ‘made in China’ tag, she waves it off: “you know some of my clothes I buy from Australian brands fall apart after no time whereas clothes made in China last longer, so I don’t mind at all.” Del’s Hilux was 12 years and 250,000km old, and she admits “my brother drove all brands of utes and he always goes back to his Hilux, so I must have got the bad one of the batch but I just had enough.” If Great Wall has managed to convince buyers like Del in Outback Australia where reliability is crucial as the next town can be up to 500km away with no petrol station in between, it seems fair to say the Chinese carmaker has a bright future ahead of it, even though it is struggling a bit so far in 2014.
This concludes the first Australian Outback Photo Report of its kind, I hope you enjoyed!