I have been mentioning the new generation Skoda Octavia on BestSellingCarsBlog a lot in the past 6 months as it progressively climbed the European rankings to reach an all-time high 5th place in October and November 2013, ranking inside the Top 10 for 5 consecutive months between October 2013 and February 2014, whereas this had happened only twice before in the nameplate’s 16 year career. So far, 3.7 million Octavias have found a buyer since 1996.
Is this dramatic step-change in sales justified? What does it feel like to drive the car? I was lucky enough to be lent an Octavia by Skoda for a few days and thought it would be a good opportunity to evaluate how it withstands the harsh Australian terrain and how it is perceived in this country. I took it for a 1,600 km road trip from Sydney to the small town of Bourke in the Australian Outback, this way also reporting to you on the car landscape in a very unique region in Australia with the help of my photographer mate David.
Skoda has a relatively short current history in Australia: it relaunched here in 2007 after being present from the 50s to the 70s. Skoda sales were up 3% in 2013 to 3,555 units at #25 – below Fiat and Peugeot and above Chrysler and Mini – and are down 11% so far in 2014 to 726 sales. Back in October 2012 at the Sydney Motor Show I had a long chat with Skoda Director at the time Matthew Wiesner who told me “Skoda’s role in the Volkswagen Group in Australia is to create a very strong presence amongst the Japanese and Korean brands. We aim to be somewhere between 1 and 2% of the market by 2019.” In 2013 Skoda’s best-seller in Australia was, wait for it, the Octavia at #132 overall and 37% of Skoda sales here.
So it’s with Skoda’s best-seller worldwide and in Australia that we will explore the car landscape in Outback Australia, and it changes drastically as soon as you leave the outskirts of Sydney to cross the Blue Mountains and land in sheep shearing and cotton country in Bathurst, Dubbo and finally Bourke. Sturdier vehicles are required and the constant danger of having your car wrecked by kangaroos crossing the road at night means most 4WD are equipped with huge roo bars – the Australian equivalent to bull bars – I even spotted a Toyota Camry with one!
The agricultural activity in the region pushes the market share of utes (Australian slang for pick-up trucks) way up. The Toyota Corolla and Mazda3, national and New South Wales leaders, are very scarce. Instead, the preferred passenger car options remain large cars like the all-new Holden Commodore, Toyota Camry and Kia Optima (a surprise to me as it only ranked #116 nationally in 2013), indicating that this region of Australia has kept the purchase pattern that characterised Australian sales 6 to 8 years ago.
In fact, the car landscape is closer to what Queensland or Northern Territory 2013 sales charts would indicate, which makes sense as the area I drove to is culturally closer to these two States. The Toyota Hilux should be the best-seller in the area by far, but the Mitsubishi Triton strikingly outperforms its national level here as well, as does the Toyota Land Cruiser 70 ute which has become iconic in the region as well as in mining Western Australia. I will venture an estimated Top 5 best-sellers in Outback New South Wales: 1. Toyota Hilux 2. Holden Commodore 3. Toyota Land Cruiser pick-up 4. Mitsubishi Triton 5. Toyota RAV4.
All utes are over-represented, especially the VW Amarok which has now infiltrated even the most remote stations both in its highest double cab 4WD spec and its lower plastic bumper 2WD spec, and the Great Wall V-Series (aka Steed), equally frequent throughout the trip. I also spotted two Mahindra Scorpio and one Tata Xenon. When I told you Australian farmers loved their utes, any utes, that’s what I meant.
Next we review what’s good and what’s not with the Skoda Octavia, and interview two Outback Australians about their latest car purchase: a Holden Commodore ute and a Great Wall SUV… Stay tune for Part 2 of this Photo Report!