Car Reviews

European Review: Škoda Octavia G-TEC Natural Gas

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I have talked about diesel, manual wagons in this space a few times already, so you probably know that I don’t like them. I don’t like their clatter and I don’t like their limited rev range and turbo surge. I don’t like the massive servicing costs of the common-rail ones, which is the price you pay for the reduction in clatter. And I hate the tons of soot they spit out.

There is one thing, though, at which they are hard to beat. It’s providing a combination of practicality and driving fun combined with fantastic fuel mileage. But hard to beat doesn’t mean impossible to beat. So, let me introduce a car that should, in theory, kick the diesel, manual wagon’s arse at its own game. The Škoda Octavia 1.4 TSI G-TEC.

What it is? In essence, it’s the only car anyone in the world needs. Which is what they say about the VW Golf, and they’re right. But this is also a Golf. Just a bit bigger, and a little bit cheaper. With lots more space inside. The rear seat legroom rivals that of the 5-series BMW, the trunk is huge, and everything is built just a little bit worse than a Golf, to fit in the Sloan’s Piech’s plan of the brand ladder.

Under its hood resides a downsized, turbocharged 1.4 TSI engine, offering a 138hp in its standard form. But this is not a standard car. This one has been factory fitted with a CNG fuel system. Under the trunk floor, there is a huge tank storing just 15 kilograms of compressed natural gas, while the original 50-litre (13.2 gallons) tank kept intact. Together, they offer a range of about 600 miles in normal driving (or 1,000 miles under “economy run” conditions), with 200 miles of those 600 in CNG-burning mode.

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The CNG brings great advantage in running costs – in the EU, it costs about half as much compared to gasoline, mile-for-mile. And at first, there are no significant differences between the ordinary gasoline-powered car and this one. There are sublte details, like the second fuel gauge instead of a water temp gauge in the tachometer, or the second fuel cap under the fuel door. There is also a slightly higher trunk floor, and the lack of a spare tire. Other than that, it’s just like ordinary car. The switching between fuels is automatic, and you won’t even notice it. The trip computer provides info about distance to empty on both fuels together, and each of them individually. Everything is nice and easy.

Under real life European conditions, this car gets about as cheap to run as it gets. With consumption of less than 4kg of CNG per 100km, it is possible achieve the cost of about $0.04 per kilometer ($0.06 per mile). At our electricity prices, about equals the cost of driving a Tesla in the same manner. As a matter of fact, I’m working on getting those two together to perform a real-life running cost comparison test. I have a strong feeling that Octavia may actually win.

At the same time, the CNG powered car still offers the smooth, quiet operation of gasoline engine, as well as its wide rev range. Couple that with an extremely nice interior, great build quality and top-notch suspension (the G-TEC, unlike other lower-powered Octavias, gets a multi-link axle in the rear), and you should have a clear winner on your hands. Even when I take into consideration that no real-life G-TEC will look like my press tester, which came as a top-trim Elegance model complete with navigation, automatic parking, lane assist, adaptive cruise control, heated leather seats front and rear, power everything including seats and tailgate etc., the car that is likely to get ordered by a typical customer (some mid-trim level with only a few options, costing maybe $25,000 with VAT and not $40k with VAT like the tested example) will look and function pretty well for what it is.

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The downside? Lack of power. Turns out there’s more to G-TEC’s modifications than just adding a second system, and it’s not just a different mapping, either. The company doesn’t talk about it much in its PR materials, but the G-TEC engine has a different camshaft and a different turbocharger from the gasoline version, thus slashing both power and torque curves. The result is a car that is, in real-life, slower than the lesser 1.2 TSI version, with power and torque seriously lacking in low rev-range.

Unlike a typical TSI engine, you have to rev it like an old N/A 1.6 four-cylinder. On Czech roads, with lots of corners and heavy traffic, this makes any kind of fast driving significantly uncomfortable – I once had to rush the G-TEC a bit, when I woke up just an hour and a half before I had to appear at lunch, in a town nearly 100 miles away. I made it, but overtaking on country roads was a pain and driving at 100+ mph on the highway required near-constant full throttle. This also meant that the fuel consumption skyrocketed from 4kg/100km to about twice that.

The other downside? The combination of small CNG tank with a sparse CNG station network in Europe. Two hundred miles on a tank is really not much, and with maybe one in 10 or 20 gas stations carrying CNG, you will probably end up running on an empty CNG tank quite often, burning more expensive gasoline instead. But even then, the 1.4 TSI is quite a frugal car, though nothing to write home about. Also, it is quite interesting that even when burning gasoline, the engine doesn’t get any of the lost horses back.

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In theory, the CNG cars combine a gasoline engine’s smooth, quiet power, with even better economy than diesel. And the G-TEC delivers at about 85% of this. As long as you’re leisurely, relaxed driver, you can achieve unparalleled fuel econmy, beating even some electric cars. But if you tend to rush, the car lacks in power significantly. The solution would probably be to offer the G-TEC version of the more powerful 1.8 TSI as well – and we can only hope we will get one, soon. With that, the obnoxious diesel, manual wagon can finally be taken out and shot, as it deserves.

@VojtaDobes is motoring journalist from Czech Republic, who previously worked for local editions of Autocar and TopGear magazines. Today, he runs his own website, www.Autickar.cz and serves as editor-in-chief at www.USmotors.cz. After a failed adventure with importing classic American cars to Europe, he is utterly broke, so he drives a ratty Chrysler LHS. His previous cars included a 1988 Caprice in NYC Taxi livery, a hot-rodded Opel Diplomat, two Dodge Coronets, a Simca, a Fiat 600 and Austin Maestro. He has never owned a diesel, manual wagon.

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