An executioner telling someone strapped to an electric chair “this might sting a bit”. Satan strolling up to Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein to say, “Hot today, isn’t it?” A friend telling you that “having kids will change your life”.
One of these anecdotes is an understatement on an almost cosmic scale, and it’s the one that all parents hear, repeatedly, not long before the life they thought they had disappears forever.
Parenting is hard, and getting harder if you listen to the science, achingly captured in a recent book called All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. This points to social research showing that people who don’t have children are actually happier, and have better marriages.
One telling study finds that most mothers prefer slaving over a hot stove or cleaning toilets to spending time with their kids. You don’t want to hear what modern fathers – who spend seven times more hours per week parenting than their own dads did in the 1970s – have to say.
One of the areas hardest hit by the child-induced fun fall-away is your driving pleasure. A Porsche Boxster is obviously out as your daily drive (the Cayenne and Macan are meant to make me feel better about this, but they don’t), and people who feel the need to have more than one child end up asking me what sort of SUV they should buy, to which I reply, unfailingly, none of the above.
Load-carrying and a low centre of gravity need not be mutually exclusive, as long as the station wagons still roll. A good wagon can be damn near as much fun as a good car, particularly if it’s an Audi RS6. In the real world, your choices are somewhat more prosaic, but while you have to give up the idea of owning a sexy vehicle, you can at least still buy driver involvement and performance.
One obvious choice is Holden’s VF Commodore SS Sportwagon, a re-booted version of one of our favourite family sedans, powered by a 6.0-litre V8 with 260kW and 517Nm when fitted with the six-speed auto, and designed for our conditions by local engineers.
A more radical option, and one that many motorists wouldn’t be able to name on sight, is Skoda’s Octavia RS, which takes maximum advantage of the company’s Volkswagen parentage by purloining the fantastic Golf GTI’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine. It also benefits from the distinct advantage of looking like an Audi A4 Avant with a mild nose job.
Sadly, the test car we’ve been given has been painted with what you might call the opposite of a colour. My wife, whose company I’ve never previously enjoyed at work before, said it reminded her of something, though – the skin of a corpse. It’s really annoying when your wife is better at your job than you.
Inspired by some kind of sadomasochistic urge, we’ve decided to put these two through the ultimate family wagon test by pouring both my family and that of photographer Thomas Wielecki into them for a weekend away.
Calling it a holiday is unwise, firstly because I know it won’t be and secondly because I don’t want to scare Wielecki, who, despite having had his first child, daughter Matilda, six years ago, has never been away with his kids. His excuse is that he travels a lot for work, so he just likes to be at home, but he reveals that other parents have told him that taking children away is a sure recipe for suffering, and he’s been avoiding it. For six years. His youngest boy, the wonderfully named Enzo, age three, thinks Sydney is the whole world.
It took months to tie Thomas down to a date, and when I did I’m sure he swore a vow to make me suffer for it by putting both me and my family, who before this trip honestly had no understanding of what I do for a living, through a ceaseless schedule of photographic torture. At one point, my wife, the will to live draining from her frozen face, asked me in disbelief: “Seriously, is your job always this boring?”
I was also faced with the road-testing challenges posed by having children in the car. It’s fine to analyse straight-line performance, because this is greeted with cheers, involuntary laughter and the occasional “wow, I just vomited in my mouth, Daddy!” But enthusiastic cornering is out, just like late nights, spur-of-the-moment sex (or spur-of-the-moment anything) and being so sick with a hangover you can’t get out of bed (they don’t give a crappy nappy, just get up).
Over the years, I’ve developed coping mechanisms for driving with kids, based around starting out slowly and smoothly enough to shush them to sleep and then finding a windy road. The trick from there is to observe which way their heads are lying against their child seats and to only go hard into corners that will push their scones in that direction. Going too fast the other way leads to lolling heads and soon after to screaming and crying.
This was easier with one child, like absolutely everything else, but with two you sometimes have to do a quick Scando flick to make sure their noses are pointed in the same direction. Hard braking is, of course, never an option, but I’m convinced this has made me a smoother driver.
In what was a blatant attempt to avoid Wielecki, I arranged to meet he and his family at our destination, the Kendalls on the Beach Holiday Park in Kiama, on Friday night. We really wanted to stay in on-site caravans, for humour’s sake, but they no longer have any for rent, so we had to put up with the luxury of beach-front cabins. While he wisely left at lunchtime, we left it until later and battled our way out of the traffic-tortured nightmare that is Sydney in the Skoda, with which I was instantly impressed.
Some of the VW-owned Czech brand’s interiors feel as though the budget ran out just before the designers opened the door to look inside, but the Octavia is surprisingly pleasant, with a cool, user-friendly touchscreen and nice scrolling graphics on the centre readout. The seats look and feel great, with red highlights on black, and rear legroom is well beyond what my kids – Connor, seven, and Emma, three – will need when they finally grow up and stop expecting me to deal with their boogers.
Packaging is a key skill of Skoda – that and designing company logos that frighten small children – and both cabin room and boot space (588 litres with seats up or 1718 litres flat) are almost bafflingly wonderful. I can only guess that they used Doctor Who as a consultant.
We’d demanded roof racks, mainly because Thomas liked the idea of getting something large and bizarre – like a space shuttle – on the top of each car for photographic purposes, but once I’d jammed absolutely every bit of unnecessary kiddy crap we own into the boot, there was no need to shove anything up top. I had a Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG in my driveway the same week, and by comparison its boot looks like an expensively lined purse.
Laden down with gear, humans and a bigger body (1438kg versus 1313kg for a Golf), I expected the gorgeous GTI engine to feel somewhat laboured, but its 162kW and 350Nm coped with the task manfully, helped by a sweet-shifting six-speed manual. Indeed, it did more than just handle the load – it provided fun, frisky acceleration and effortless overtaking once we finally reached the highway south.
The kids were briefly entertained by the age-old “I Spy” trick (and a debate over whether it is spelled “eye-spy”). This is particularly amusing with our three-year-old, who has no idea what letter anything starts with. Our salvation, as ever, was the portable DVD player, which filled the back of the car with animation while I faded music from the stereo to the front. It’s a mildly dissonant co-existence, but it works.
We found Wielecki that night behind his family’s cabin, looking like he may have just stopped weeping. “Holidaying with kids? Holidaying? This is not a holiday – do you even remember holidays?” he whined, wide-eyed. “It’s harder than looking after them at home. And I tried to do photography. With kids. It’s a nightmare.”
It was with hugely high hopes that we approached the next morning, then, visiting the nearby Little Blowhole, which alternately thrilled and scared the wits out of the kids with its percussive suck-whump-bang noises, followed by exciting bursts of spray. Many photographs were taken, but it wasn’t too arduous because the cars couldn’t be parked in the same frame as the blowhole.
It was the next stop, at an innocent-looking boat ramp, that was to prove our Dunkirk. After a couple of hours of stone-skimming, seagull watching, a food run and some related promises that yes, surely, we would leave soon when the man stopped taking photos, tempers on all sides started to fray.
Well, Wielecki doesn’t actually notice other people’s emotions when he’s shooting – nor does he eat or breathe as far as I can tell – because he’s in a flow state, but the wives were getting ragged. It was at this point that Thomas decided he’d like the children to pose for him in front of the cars. If you saw that footage of the guy feeding a crocodile at Shoalhaven Zoo who was bitten on the arm and dragged into the water, you’ll have some idea how this went.
I can tell my wife is becoming concerned that all the photos used in the magazine will be of our daughter bawling her eyes out, because Wielecki jumps in for a close-up every time she does. As you can imagine, this causes absolutely no tension at all... Our plan was to take the cars for a blast up the excellent Jamberoo Road, stop for lunch at the famous Robertson Pie Shop, swap and come back down, but ‘lunch’ is a nebulous concept for photographers.
We finally hit the road after swapping vehicles, no small task with child seats involved, and in the end I manage to torture Wielecki a little by leaving my extremely talkative seven-year-old in his car.
As is too often the case, I was pretty sure I knew how this comparison would end, based on how excellent I’ve found the VF Commodore in the past, so it was with lashings of surprise that I found the Sportwagon immediately lacking.
Compared with the Skoda, it feels lumpen, leaden and heavy (and it is, at 1849kg). Worst and most surprising of all, the steering feels dead at the straight-ahead and imprecise and soft overall. The interior feels slightly warmer and classier, at least in terms of dash surfaces, but it’s certainly no roomier, and Wielecki and I both thought its boot seemed noticeably smaller. This proves that we are idiots; it’s actually massive at 895 litres seats up, or 2000 litres seats down. It might not have helped that he’d put one of the wings of the USS Enterprise on the roof, meaning we couldn’t open the rear hatch all the way.
The V8 engine has its advantages, of course, with double the cylinders of the Skoda providing effortless torque, but it just didn’t feel as much fun as the far smaller unit in the Octavia. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. The numbers say otherwise, with a 0-100km/h dash time of 6.9 seconds for the Skoda and an unofficial 5.4 seconds for the Holden.
Sometimes numbers aren’t everything, I guess, although they are when it comes to fuel economy. Over our whole trip, the SS averaged a thirsty 12.2 litres per 100 kilometres versus 8.7 for the Skoda, which feels like another significant win until you factor in the 98RON-only sticker on the foreign car’s fuel flap.
The locally designed car does soak up the bumps in a more refined fashion, but the trade-off is a comparative lack of sharpness in bends. Of course, I wasn’t pushing as hard up and down this wonderfully winding bit of road as I would have been if kid-free, but I do seem to have been blessed with offspring who are resistant to car sickness, so I’m able to drive at a reasonable clip. At least until my wife shouts at me about “driving like that with our children in the car”.
Over a noisy, frenetic dinner that night at the local Chinese restaurant – which made me ponder whether there is any red cordial in prawn chips, while Wielecki looked like a man who’d recently had his testicles removed, or would like to – there was much talk of taking at least a one-hour break from photography the next day, for sanity’s sake.
It never happened, of course, as I woke to find the tireless Wielecki outside my window, emptying everything out of the cars onto the ground for yet another vital shot. Day two thus progressed much like day one, only it was colder, but we did get plenty of time to stare out across the lovely Kiama beach and to quietly ponder how lovely it must be here without kids. A young girl at a neighbouring cabin told us she and her two brothers had been staying there a week and that “we’ve had a great time, but my parents haven’t had any fun, ’cause we’re here”.
For the final run home through the fabulous Royal National Park, I got my son and Wielecki’s daughter to play a game that involved gaffer-taping his hands to his sides, and thus I was able to swap between the two cars undisturbed for some enthusiastic cornering.
The Commodore was very good, for a wagon, but its weight and steering let it down badly compared with the Octavia, and there’s absolutely no question which one I’d want to own as a family hauler. The VF is the better looking car, and undeniably the one I’d feel more comfortable telling friends and colleagues I’d bought, but the Skoda is simply better, unless you’re a V8 tragic with a company fuel card.
The final kick in the pants for the local contender is that its sticker price of $47,690 is heftily higher than that of the sporty Skoda, which represents simply absurd value at $37,840, making it cheaper than a Volkswagen Golf GTI.
Remarkably, while we felt like we’d gently tortured them all weekend, my kids said they’d had a fabulous time, and Connor revealed that Matilda was his new girlfriend and wanted to know when we could go on holiday with the Wieleckis again.
Personally, I’m fine with it, as long as there’s no photography, and I get to take the Skoda again. But I think Wielecki might opt for the electric chair.
This article was published in Wheels October 2014.