Large-car aspirants needing to downsize fuel bills and emissions footprints without shrinking anything else should look at Skoda's Superb.
Ask most potential family or fleet large- car buyers where the best choice is offered and the chances are they'd head for the Ford and Holden dealerships. And why not? For those with greener intentions Holden already has its SiDi Commodore engines which can squeeze 1000 kilometres from a tank, while Ford is soon to use EcoBoost fours for the Falcon.
However, there's a third choice now, in the form of Skoda's Superb range which offers the biggest drivetrain lineup for any large car, with petrol fours and sixes, two diesel station wagon versions with all-wheel-drive, and within Aussie large-car budgets.
And it is a large car, not an upsized family four with delusions of grandeur. In terms of rear legroom, the car is closer to a Ford Fairlane than a Falcon, and the station wagon tested here fronts up with a swag of load space while the sedan's own luggage room impresses, with a tailgate that can be accessed as a boot or hatch.
The entry point is a 1.8-litre TSi, a 118kW turbocharged four which may seem a tad small for such a car. However, once driven it is a very convincing tool, especially with a seven-speed DSG gearbox and a crisp sub nine- second zero to 100kmh time.
The Superb's other petrol unit is a naturally aspirated 3.6-litre V6 which is only offered in New Zealand in the 4x4 station wagon, though you could indent a sedan should you wish. Two grades of 2.0-litre diesel engine are also offered, with 103kW or 125kW, the latter of which also has better equipment and additional airbags.
The former of those diesels in the station wagon creates the most compelling of Superbs. Priced at $51,000 the Superb TDi 103 undercuts the Commodore SiDi Sportwagon by $1390 and trumps its load capacity with seat top volume of 633L seats fixed, and 1865L seats folded. True, it doesn't match the Commodore for power, but it beats the Holden for torque, with 320Nm against 290Nm.
Ford no longer does a Falcon wagon, and if you go for a Territory 2WD you will beat the Skoda's load volume, though rear legroom doesn't quite get there. If you want to get down to single- figure L/100km numbers, it would have to be the cheapest V6 diesel version of the Ford, at $59,990. The combined fuel economy figures for the Skoda, Holden and Ford are: 5.9L/100km, 9.3L/100km, and 8.2L/100km respectively.
Though it doesn't front up with quite the stonk of its $11,000 more expensive 125kW sibling, the TDi 103's common-rail turbo four, working through Volkwagen's six- speed DSG transmission, is more than sufficiently grunty for day-to- day running and its smooth, flexible mid-range and relaxed sub-1800rpm 100kmh open-road cruising gait is remarkable.
Well-weighted steering conspires with oodles of grip to match the feeling of solid reassurance offered by the car as a whole. It turns in accurately and tracks in an incisive manner, belying its considerable length.
On the test car's 16-inch rims, the Superb wagon rides splendidly over pock-marked streets and potholes which might be reason for opting for the lower spec car, as posher versions have lower- profiled wheel and tyre combinations and are slightly less cosy over bumps as a result.
Visually, the Skoda sets itself apart compared with its Australian competitors. A big chrome moustached grille gleams at the front, while its long, squared-off and slightly severe sedan profile is eased in wagon form with standard roofrails and a recurved hatchline. There are stowage boxes either side of the load area, and load hooks and netting to secure loose items, while in the cabin, elegant but hardwearing plain and patterned dark grey upholstery sets off the interior's subtle brightwork and detailing.
For four, tall, well-sized adults, the Skoda is really without peer. No-one offers more legroom and though the car doesn't have quite the rear width of the Falcon and Commodore, a centre passenger could be added, though they'd be a little more snug for shoulder room than in the Aussie sixes.
The new Skoda Superb is at its best in Combi or station wagon guise, with class-leading practicality and, in TDi 103 form, astonishing fuel efficiency. Factor in all the usual European safety acronyms and sound system and bluetooth connectivity and you have a large car that can front against anything else the automotive world can offer.
Sadly, those with long memories but shorter levels of automotive knowledge will still park the Skoda's abilities at the bottom of their shopping lists.
However, when the brand's peerless reliability over the past 15 or so years is taken into account, it should really be right up there at the top.
* Drivetrain as tested: Transverse FWD DOHC 1968cc turbodiesel four with six- speed DSG automatic transmission. (Also available 118kW 1798cc turbocharged FWD DOHC four cylinder models with 7-speed DSG and a 4WD 191kW 3597cc petrol model with 6-speed DSG).
* Performance as tested: Superb TDI 103 - 103kW at 4200rpm, and 320Nm at 1750 to 2500rpm. Maximum speed 206kmh, 0-100kmh 10.2sec, 5.9L/100km, 154g/km CO2, (Superb TDI125 - 125kW/350Nm; 220kmh, 8.8sec, 6.0L/100km, 157g/km).
* Dimensions: L 4838mm, H sedan 1462mm, wagon 1510mm W 1817mm, W/base 2761mm. Weight, sedan 1494kg, wagon 1516kg. Fuel 60L.
* Safety: ABS, ESP, traction control, front, side and curtain airbags standard 5-star NCAP rating.
* Pricing as tested: Superb TDI 103 sedan $48,500, wagon $51,000. Other Superb sedans from $46,000 to $59,500, other Superb wagons from $48,500 to $69,000.
* Hot: Massive passenger and load volume; very frugal; brilliant pricing; comfortable, balanced chassis.
* Not: Rear seat width; name still offends those with long memories and no imagination.
* Verdict: The best affordable large family or fleet sedan out there. Worthy of all its awards.