Octavia vRS rules but Skoda needs to take care
Making absolutely no apology for testing the latest Skoda model and declaring its user value up-front, Iain Robertson believes strongly in the ethics of the Czech manufacturer, even though the price tag is now steep.
When I suggest that a Skoda is no longer a value-for-money proposition, in the way it once used to be, I suppose that I ought to highlight that an equivalent VW model would be at least £2,000 pricier, while a corresponding Audi might be around £4,000 costlier, all of which affects the buying potential. All consumer prices have crept up inexorably over the past few years since the economic crash of 2008, whether by greed, or necessity, is up to your perceptions, but I have my own view on the issue.
When Skoda launched its current Octavia model, I was among the growing fan base hoping to see something innovative but knowing quietly that it would be more of the same, thank you, with the customary upswing in quality expected of Skoda and its subsequent models. Disappointment is never on the cards. When I drove the new hatchback I was impressed, as ever.
Yet, one version has evaded me. The vRS, of which there are two variants, one petrol, the other diesel and it is the latter that I have now sampled most comprehensively. There is always something immensely and timelessly alluring about Skoda’s high performance models. For me, it is the little elements, such as the stitching of the vRS logo into the seats. Or, at least it was, as the company has elected to emboss the sporty logo into the tombstone front seat head-restraints, with the latest version, introducing a contrasting fabric ‘yoke’ (red in this case) instead.
The seats are typically supportive and exceptionally comfortable. Still featuring a partial hide with cloth detailing, the hints at raciness now extend to red double-stitching on the shift gaiter, the parking brake lever, central armrest, steering wheel rim and seat bolsters. The driver is confronted by a pair of matching rev-counter and speedometer dials, with an alpha-numeric multi-dot display covering whatever functions are dialled up between the two main instrument faces. It is efficient and it works.
If anything, the most obvious enhancement is to the interior space. It had always been good but rear seat occupants, behind two tall people, used to be compromised a touch. The new model boasts the customary spacious boot area, which still whips the backside of all its rivals, but greater consideration has been given to the cabin space, which is now a lot roomier and just as easily accessed. Of course, dropping the rear seats to extend the load area is now made easier, with a pair of pull levers located closer to the hatchback door.
The new frontal design that heralds Skoda’s sleeker styling language is very crisp, the black grille providing a useful home in its top-centre for the larger, more prominent ‘headdress and arrow’ company badge. The sharper lines running up the bonnet and continued into the flanks rankle slightly, even though the car is still handsome, because Skoda is now starting to look like other brands within the VW Group, which is something it eschewed in previous iterations. I worry sometimes that designers lose their inspiration and allow other influences to weigh into view. Fortunately, the daytime running lamps are simple strip affairs, rather than those annoying multi-LED units used by rivals.
While the tail-end of the Octavia is fairly well-resolved, it is not as attractive as that of the Peugeot 508, which I believe has one of the best looking ‘bottoms’ in the business. Fortunately, the vRS benefits from a pair of stylishly chamfered oblong exhaust outlets that add to the meatiness of its rump, the bustle-like bootlid being topped-off by a slim rear spoiler that does not cause rearward view obstruction. The alloy wheels, now in 5×3 spoke form and 18-inch diameter on the test car (19s are optional), look right and would look even better finished in gunmetal grey.
As a daily driver, the Octavia vRS makes loads of sense. Its 2.0-litre diesel engine is not only exceptionally smooth and devoid of dieselly traits but it is also deliciously punchy and uses the overall 40kgs reduction in kerb weight of the new model to surprisingly good effect. The unit now develops a healthy 181bhp, allied to a hefty slug of torque (280lbs ft), which means that it pulls from as low as 1,000rpm in 6th gear, without complaint. In fact, most progress can be made around town in top gear, without using the throttle pedal at all (one of the diesel traits that I can almost live with).
Put into perspective, this vRS will top out at just shy of 150mph, delivering a 0-60mph benchmark figure of just 7.8 seconds, which means that it is realistically quick by any definition. However, fuel efficiency is one of its key attractions and while the Official Combined figure of 61.4mpg might be someway out of the reach of normal mortals, especially if dipping into the performance envelope becomes a regular treat, I did record an excellent and entirely liveable 52.2mpg during the car’s tenure with me. Thanks to a modest 119g/km CO2 rating, the annual VED charges are also low (grade C).
One of the questionable improvements made to the new line-up is the adjustability of the electronic media. Skoda’s engineers have always offered a good standard setting for the vRS, with an upgraded option, for more ‘hardcore’ vRS enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the new car’s stock setting is hard, with the switchable option being a lot harder, also incorporating throttle and steering responses within the sphere of a single button push. Although fairly malleable, I still found it annoying that too many parameters can be altered, at the expense of comfort and previous vRSs were notably comfortable.
Yet, grip levels are outstanding and the active differential that flips the role of the antilock brakes, by braking either wheel to reduce understeer, into providing a most progressive handling capability, albeit one that can be a tad intrusive at times (I switched it off by holding-in the stability control switch and tolerating the amber dashboard warning light), opens up a raft of fun potential otherwise. Live with the beefed up suspenders and the vRS can put a smile on the driver’s face that is difficult to remove.
Overall, the build quality of the car is beyond reproach. Okay. So you will not feel as though you are in an Audi but why should you? There are no creaks, rattles, or grumbles and everything that the Octavia vRS does, it does with aplomb. If I have one preference, it would lie with taking the £1,390 option of the 6-speed, sequential manual, automated gearbox (DSG), with steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters. As a most effective way of masking the swift shifts needed to get the best of through-the-gears acceleration, DSG is ‘king’.
Conclusion: As a business, or personal vehicle, the £23,965 vRS diesel makes good economic, as well as practical sense, even against a might of more costly alternatives and the fact that I believe the car to be around £2,000 too expensive. Still, at least it might encourage a beneficial deal to be struck in the showroom.