At first glance, one might think Audi’s used the name Sportback because it’s an estate-variant of the A3. In actual fact, Sportback is simply the name given to five-door models of the A3.
Given that there’s been an increase in the length of the wheelbase, it now finds itself competing with other larger hatchbacks such as the Skoda Octavia.
Those who buy on perceived value of the car’s badge alone will immediately find themselves demanding a test drive in the Audi, but we would say you might be discounting a rather good alternative by being so hasty.
If you took time to sit back and look at the facts and figures, the prices, and importantly, what the experts say, you might realise it’s not quite a clear-cut a decision as you first thought.
Don’t worry, we’ve done all this for you, and this head-to-head review should go some way to helping you determine whether the four rings are really the best option for you, or whether Skoda’s winged arrow hits the bullseye.
Okay, we need to be honest here – neither car is really going to make you ogle. The Sportback is criticised for looking so similar to the old model that it’s almost a challenge working out which one is which, whereas the Skoda is just unexciting.
Those who are considering the Audi in the first place are likely to be seeking some class, and the Sportback does this in the typical, subtle Audi-like way. The grille is what draws your eye in, but there’s nothing else that’s particularly bold to keep it there.
Once upon a time nobody would have dreamed of looking in a Skoda’s direction for something with class – it was firmly in the bargain-basement end of the market, perhaps unfairly.
Skoda appears to have been taking notes from Audi in how to present class in a relatively unexciting way – the Octavia does have an upmarket look to it, even if it lacks any particular feature you are likely to remember after watching one go past.
Interior and practicality
The Audi A3 Sportback wades into this area armed quite heavily – its cabin is obviously similar to that of the three-door A3, and that cabin is one of the nicest places to sit at this end of the market. The Octavia, however, is a larger car, and although it might not quite live up to the Audi’s level of quality it has a more impressive load space.
The extra two doors on the Sportback make it even easier to transport four adults – they don’t have to clamber in awkwardly – and the boot space has been improved from 350 litres to 380 litres over the three-door A3. Tall passengers have more legroom in the back, even if the front passengers are also tall, making it more suitable for long journeys with folk in the back.
Just as it’s all looking sewn up for the Audi, the Octavia trundles onto the stage with a class-leading cabin in terms of spaciousness, and a whopping 590 litre boot.
The quality of the Skoda’s interior materials is now good enough to be deemed by some reviewers as “Audi-like”, which is a very significant statement, and it’s clear the cabin has been designed for family use, because there are handy storage compartments aplenty.
In fact, the only place the Octavia really falls down a bit on is rear visibility – it’s rather large and the rear pillars and large boot may make reverse-parking a little trickier than it would be in the Sportback. Throw the rear seats down and the boot space in the Octavia swells to a fairly silly 1,580 litres in the hatchback, or 1,740 for the estate.
The A3 Sportback with the rear seats folded flat can only provide 1,220 litres, so the Skoda scores a massive win here.
You might be trying to work out where Skoda has made concessions in its budget when designing it, and it’s when the car is taken out onto the open road that it might become apparent.
Skoda’s made a change to the rear suspension – changing it from a multi-link set-up to a torsion bar – and testers have found that the ride quality has been affected, calling it a bit jiggly.
It certainly hasn’t been designed with pure driver engagement in mind, and the rest of the time the Octavia is quiet, refined and smooth, feeling safe to drive at speed and very grippy. Driver involvement is improved significantly if you go for the engaging vRS model, which has a more sophisticated (and sporty) suspension setup as well as a more powerful choice of engines.
Critics found the Sportback equally unexciting, and unsurprisingly similar to the three-door A3’s behaviour on the open road. Grip is plentiful, especially if you opt for an all-wheel-drive (quattro, in Audi-speak) model, and the steering is weighted well but there is a distinct absence of feedback.
Some also said the ride in the Sportback was slightly better than in the three-door A3, possibly because it’s been set-up a little softer due to being aimed at families, but this ride is compromised by larger wheels.
As with most cars in the Volkswagen Group, engine choice is nearly identical between the two cars – in both cases testers recommend the mid-range diesel for those doing higher mileages and the 1.4-litre turbo for those who stay more local.
One engine to avoid on both the Sportback and the Octavia is the 1.8-litre turbocharged TFSI petrol engine, it seems to be the least refined and doesn’t work very well with the gearboxes available in the A3.
However, the bulk of petrol sales will be made up of the 1.4-litre turbo – 120hp in the A3 Sportback and 138hp in the Octavia – and the diesel sales from the 2.0-litre that has just under 150hp in both cases and is capable of the mid to high 60s.
Those looking for squeaky-clean economy will find the Octavia’s Greenline 1.6-litre TDI very tempting, because it’s capable of 88mpg (theoretically) and is free to tax. The 1.6-litre diesel in the Sportback is also free to tax and can do over 70mpg, but more eyes are on a plug-in hybrid variant of the A3 Sportback called e-tron, with over 200hp and promises of around 188mpg.
Value for money and running costs
Skodas are no longer as cheap as they once were, but value for money continues to be one of the Octavia’s biggest strengths. The Sportback – well, it may be rather more expensive, but some would point out it has the image to carry it off.
Let’s look at what you get if you spend the minimum amount on each car. With the Octavia you would be parting with around £16,300 for the 1.2-litre TSI petrol in “S” spec. A basic Octavia leaves the factory with a staggering £5,000 worth of additional kit compared with the previous model on a like-for-like basis, so even in “S” spec you are well accommodated, and the 1.2-litre engine pleasantly surprised most experts who drove it – 55+mpg is good going, and it’s not fast but can keep up with traffic.
For just over £19,000, you get an A3 Sportback with the same 1.2-litre turbocharged engine, in “SE” spec – it’s also decently equipped but it doesn’t exceed Skoda’s level of generosity by enough to really justify the additional £3,000.
When comparing better equipped and more desirable models, the differences are still quite stark – an Octavia 2.0-litre TDI in SE Business spec is around £20,500 and an A3 Sportback 2.0-litre TDI SE Technik is over £23,500.
Once upon a time running costs and residuals may have given the Audi’s premium price some support but the Skoda matches Audi across the range – except for the e-tron model which is £8,000 or so more expensive than the priciest Octavia – and the diesel Skodas promise to hold value just as well as the Audi nowadays.
There is just 0.1 point in it when you consider the wowscores (the average score carwow generates for each new car, based on critics’ reviews) – the Skoda having the tiny advantage.
There’s clearly very little to separate either car on running costs and performance, and both cars are competent, comfortable transporters of people and luggage – although the Skoda’s larger body allows it to accommodate far more luggage than the Sportback.
When you consider the fact the Skoda is cheaper than the Audi across nearly the entire range, what could you say it has going against it?
We’d say the badge – unfortunately there are people out there who still remember Skoda jokes and don’t realise just how significantly Skoda has turned its image around.
We think that the Sportback is certainly worth considering if you feel that the Skoda is just a little on the large and awkward side, although you get parking sensors as standard on all but the lowest spec Octavia, so you’d have to be pretty adverse to bigger cars to justify that.
When all’s said and done we find it hard to recommend the Sportback over the Octavia, because it boils down to how much it all costs. It’s as practical, as comfortable, just as solid, built to the same high quality standard as the Audi, and you are able to get it all by paying less. You now have permission to eat your cake.