What is it?
The third-generation Skoda Octavia vRS. With a 154mph top speed, it’s also the fastest Octavia ever. There’s a multitude of choice, with 217bhp petrol and 181bhp diesel engines, hatchback and estate body styles and a manual or DSG twin-clutch paddleshift gearbox (both with six speeds) resulting in eight different versions, before you’ve began to think about colour and spec. Prices range from £23,755 for a manual petrol hatch to £26,215 for a DSG-equipped diesel estate.
The engines are shared with numerous VW group products, perhaps most recognisably the VW Golf GTI and Golf GTD. Engines come from the mk7 versions of those, both 2-litre turbo four-cylinders, and both driving the front wheels of the group’s highly acclaimed MQB platform, which focuses on weight loss and has so far served up clean, sharp-handling cars with a focus on neutrality.
The latest Octavia is a physically bigger car than the Golf: 380mm longer overall with a 15mm longer wheelbase, which translates into a much roomier cabin and a boot so enormous you could be tempted to convert it into a student bedsit. The vRS sits on sports suspension that is 12mm lower than the set-up of other Octavia models (13mm lower for the estate) and significantly stiffer. Other features include a new progressive steering rack that quickens the ratio as more lock is applied, and an electronic differential lock (XDS+) that brakes both inside wheels to give the effect of a mechanical locking diff.
There are different driving modes (Eco, Normal, Sport, Indivudual) selectable via a centre console-mounted vRS button, with a sharper throttle, weightier steering and a rather vocal sound synthesiser activated when Sport is chosen.
What’s it like to drive?
Unsurprisingly, given its array of shared parts, it’s cut from the same cloth as those sporty VWs. The Octavia vRS is incisive and predictable to drive quickly and effortless and cosseting when you’re just mooching. The ride is as firmly sprung as fast VW Group produce we've driven before, though well damped overall. Specify the rather fetching optional 19in alloys (pictured right, they’ll be hard to resist in the glossy brochure), however, and you’ll have to prepare for some noisy wheel-thumping on bumpy roads.
You can really feel the array of technology at work, the steering sharp and asking of smaller inputs than you’re probably used to, and the XDS+ really noticeable as you build speed. We had quick laps of the Goodwood Motor Circuit to sample the vRS and the effect of those braking inside wheels hauling the Octavia’s 1350kg into shape wasn’t always subtle. And while the hugely grippy chassis tends to take all you can give it, you can unshackle the rear wheels’ tenacity a little by overlapping steering and hard braking.
Which engine to choose depends entirely on your scenario. The TDI diesel combines 181bhp/280lb ft power with a claimed 61.4mpg (combined) and, if you go manual, exceedingly low 119g/km CO2 emissions. It is therefore a great value choice, particularly if you’re a company car user, though its sizeable mid-range punch soon peters out and it’s not a fun engine to work hard. The sound synthesiser also seems play a petrol-esque noise over the top of the unmistakably diesel engine, which might appeal to some, but its wholly unnatural.
Our choice, perhaps predictably, is the fizzy 217bhp/258lb ft petrol, which endows the vRS with real pace – more than enough speed for real-world, on-road driving – and hooked up to the slick manual gearbox, leaves you wishing for nothing more complicated.
The DSG vRS reaches 62mph in 6.9sec and can go on to a 152mph top speed, but it’s beaten by the 6.8sec and 154mph of the six-speed manual model. Yet DSG does suit the car, with gearchanges barely noticeable when pootling around. You might find yourself using the paddles more than you expect to, as in plain old ‘Drive’ the gearbox sometimes isn’t as quick to change down as it should be, while in the more aggressive ‘Sport’ setting it’s annoyingly over-keen to hang on to a gear.
How does it compare?
The Octavia vRS is up to £3000 cheaper than a relative Golf GTI or GTD, and comes with 18in alloys, Bluetooth, a digital radio and Bi-Xenon lights as standard. If you don’t need the VW badge, it offers one heck of a deal in comparison.
Offering similar value credentials to the Octavia is the new Ford Focus ST, which starts at £21,995 with a 247bhp petrol engine and offers an estate version; from £23,095, it’s £700 less than the Skoda, but its boot volume is 240 litres lower. The Ford’s a more agile and interactive car to drive, however, and is far looser hipped with the ESP pared back.
Perhaps the most tempting alternative to the Skoda, though, is the new SEAT Leon Cupra. It's priced higher - starting at £25,695 - but it is more potent, with a standard 261bhp peak output and the option to raise this further, to 276bhp. It also gets a proper mechanical differential, so it's a sharper, more enthralling car to drive than the Skoda. It's a smaller, less practical and more conspicuously styled car, however.
Anything else I need to know?
Sales will be split roughly 70/30 diesel/petrol and 65/35 hatchback/estate. Around 20 per cent of Octavias sold in the UK wear a vRS badge (a number which may well rise given how fleet-friendly the new diesel is), making our shores the model’s second biggest market behind Germany. Despite the room this leaves for something more powerful and niche (a lend of the powertrain from the next VW Golf R, perhaps?), Skoda isn’t interested. ‘Skoda has to be volume’, a spokesman told us. ‘We need to stay affordable’.
There are no plans for an iteration of the Golf GTI’s Performance Pack option, though some Skoda high-ups did seem enthused at the thought of more power and a proper differential…
The Octavia looks set to be the only Skoda to wear a vRS badge, too, with performance variants of future Fabias rumoured to be ruled out while models such as the Rapid, Superb and Yeti won’t get the go-faster treatment, either.