IAIN ROBERTSON

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While the model designation vRS possesses as much intriguing importance and status as GTi, RS, or RenaultSport these days, states Iain Robertson, a question remains, can 230ps (227bhp) be deemed as enough?

 

For many years, Rolls Royce and Bentley simply refused to state the power output of its engines, believing that ‘adequate’ was all that most of its customers would be concerned about. European legislation arrived in the early-1990s that made the company declare finally what a number of critics had been keen to know but that few customers ever questioned.

 

Yet, publicising potency has become a powerful marketing tool and inscribing it on the flanks, bonnet, or bootlid, of any middle-ground mode of transport can hike it onto an even higher plane. While the Teutonic brands (of which Skoda, thanks to Volkswagen ownership, is one indubitably) rely on subtlety in the main, image enhancement and forging a fresh umbrella that casts a protective sheen over an entire line-up remains a vital manoeuvre.

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The very first Octavia model of the late-1990s was met with a degree of suspicion by western car buyers. Yet, the ‘by VW’ tag carried immense strength and, without question, aided both the brand’s and the model’s subsequent growth in sales and market developments. When ‘vRS’ came along, it met the cost, performance and space demands to perfection and became accepted overnight.

 

However, it could be stated that vRS was losing its purchase, mainly because the entire semi-sporting sector of the new car scene was being bullied upwards with a demand for increased punch. The numbers game was being played out by any carmaker worth its salt but Skoda appeared to be dragging its heels, the initial impact of its vRS line being watered down, not least by the rest of the VW Group. As it happens, the latest Fabia range does not appear to harbour a place for vRS fans, who must now sate themselves with a ‘tame’ Monte Carlo trim level that delivers the look but lacks the vitality. The old chestnut about ‘familiarity’ might also have legs.

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Quite why Skoda has been instructed to run with a milder power upgrade than its sister models from Seat, or Volkswagen, having to ‘make do’ with 227bhp, rather than 277, or 297bhp, is surely wrapped up in brand politics. It has to be, because the Octavia, which shares the MQB platform (in German: Modularer Querbaukasten) that underpins the illustrious VW Golf and Seat Leon models, is known already to be capable of handling heaps more petrol power.

 

As it happens, I owned a hatchback version of the test car around five years ago, which was propelled by the 2.0-litre TDi engine mildly ECU-modified from 177bhp to 211bhp. Although based on the previous Golf platform, its performance was stunning, supported by a veritable mountain of diesel torque, played through the Group’s first-class and efficient, 6-speed DSG (twin-clutch, automated) transmission. Even using older core technology, I am fully aware that its chassis limitations were well within bounds.

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Yet, this latest model is significantly better than before, petrol, or not. The one major downside is that my ‘old’ diesel would return 50+mpg, while 35.5mpg is nearer the mark with the alternative, a figure that falls someway shy of the posted 43.5mpg achieved in the Official Combined test cycle for the car, although it is not really helped by the ‘stop:start’ technology. Ally that with the 147g/km CO2 figure, which demands a moderate £145 per annum in VED, and it is easy to understand the car’s relative affordability, in living costs terms, whether selected for business, or private use.

 

Dip into the performance envelope too eagerly and, despite the engaging revviness of the engine and the slickness of its gearshifts, you can literally watch the fuel gauge emptying. Yet, as Skoda states, this is the company’s ‘fastest model so far’, boasting a top speed of 152mph and the ability to crack the 0-60mph acceleration benchmark in just 6.7 seconds. These are impressive figures and they feel eminently eager and achievable at the helm, accompanied on every full-bore blast by a marginally more raucous intake roar and even an occasional ‘bark’ from the exhaust on manual upshifts. Skoda definitely understands how to garner sporting appeal.

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As an estate car, the Octavia offers many merits. The load area behind the front seats, with the rears lowered, is cavernous, albeit hindered slightly by a transverse strengthening beam that provides a lower hinge-point for the rear seats. Still, the vast majority of users will find little else to complain about, as the rectangular floor space is shaped for the maximum practicality and access is excellent through the full-height rear hatch. As it happens, using the rear for occupants, there is comfort, good leg and headroom and both outward visibility and seat access are above average. A flop-down centre armrest enhances comfort for just two occupants, although three will be comfortable otherwise.

 

The external styling follows the customary vRS standards, with deeper front and rear bumper units that help to differentiate it from lesser models in the range. Skoda feels that the engine upgrade warrants larger alloy wheels as part of the enhanced specification, now 19-inch diameter clad in 225/35 ultra-low profile tyres. While there is no denying that they look great, they transfer a lot of road noise into the cabin and the ride quality is no longer at the fluent pinnacle afforded by the 18-inch alloys fitted to the regular vRS. Even with the four-level adjustable chassis control set at ‘Normal’, the ride can be jittery, if not mildly disturbing. In ‘Sport’, while difficult to discern, it is just a bit harder.

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Not having resorted to the latest LED headlamps (although the daytime running lamps and the rear lamp units are all LED), the bi-Xenons, set into a black surround, give a mean glower to the Octavia’s face, enhanced by the black surround to the radiator grille; their nocturnal illumination is excellent. Puddle lamps are built into the door mirror housings. Apart from the ‘230’ logos applied to the lower edges of the rear doors, there are no additional model markers externally, which means that the Octavia continues with its smartly conservative, purposeful and engaging appearance.

 

Interior accoutrements are to a customary high standard. The full leather seats are bolstered sportingly and carry the green, red and white ‘vRS’ embroidery in their front in-built but adjustable head restraints. It is a nice touch. The heated front seats are electrically adjustable, although I feel that the motors located beneath them rob some of the manual seats’ greater range, as, for the first time in an Octavia, I felt slightly more cramped than usual. As a ‘six-and-a-half-footer’, I accept that I am on the extreme size front but, as a former Octavia owner, the slightly reduced amount of adjustment is more noticeable to me than it might be to drivers of a more average stature.

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I have no issue with the typical instrument and control clarity, or their fluent markings and applications. The main screen in the centre console is easy to operate using the buttons, or the ‘touch’ facility, and its sat-nav system is excellent. It is backed up with a small information read-out between the two main instrument dials that is accessed via the minor controls mounted on the steering wheel cross-spokes. Dual-zone climate and cruise controls are standard. At no time is the driver, or other occupants, made to feel as though they are in a ‘budget priced’ motorcar, the former trading ground for the Skoda brand, as every element of the cabin design is geared towards first class comfort, with a sporting edge.

 

Yet, it is the pricing of this model that gives me some concerns. Had it been powered by the Seat Leon’s, or VW Golf’s, punchier and more potent versions of this same petrol engine, I would have felt that the asking price of £29,040 would have been verging on ‘acceptable’. However, it is not the case. As with ALL Skodas, pricing has been allowed to escalate ever upwards further reducing some of the brand’s former and immutable qualities. It creates an awkward balance. Does the consumer invest in a perfectly competent and modern car but not think about the badge? In truth, while I have never doubted the integrity of Skoda as a brand, I believe that it is leaving behind its core customers, who now have no alternative but to consider other brands that might offer significantly better value for money.

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Conclusion:   In real terms, 227bhp is more than enough for this version of the Skoda Octavia. It provides strong performance allied to moderate operational costs. It could be more, of that there is no doubt, but as a ‘top-line’ model, it has many attractions. Yet, Skoda could be placing an unfortunate marker in the shifting sands of vehicle sales. Of course, it is possible to ‘do deals’ these days and most Skoda dealers will play that game but the list price of this model is far too high. Reduce it by £3,000 and bump up the power to Leon Cupra levels and the rush to buy would be immense. That would be enough.

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About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).