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Skoda Octavia vRS estate 2020 review – still a performance family car sweet spot?

Latest-generation Octavia vRS takes the new Mk8 Golf GTI’s underpinnings and technology to continue its unlikely performance car lineage

Evo rating
  • A bigger Golf GTI. Value for money
  • Can feel a little ordinary if you don’t engage with it

Skoda’s fourth-generation Octavia vRS doesn’t stray far from the tried and tested formula that has served the Czech hot hatch and fast estate for nearly two decades. It still sits on an extended version of the Golf’s platform, that of the new Mk8 in this instance, and borrows its engine and gearbox and much of the latest technology the VW Group has been handing out to its brands in recent years. 

When the Octavia vRS’s launch process is complete, petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid engines will be available, along with six-speed manual and seven-speed double-clutch gearboxes. While front-wheel drive will be the most popular drivetrain format, four-wheel-drive variants will also be available with the forthcoming diesel engine. 

The first example to pass through evo’s hands is the £32,695 estate with a petrol engine and DSG gearbox.

Engine, transmission and 0-60mph time

You won’t be surprised to read that with the new Octavia being Mk8 Golf-based the vRS continues to use the GTI’s EA888 2-litre turbocharged engine. Initially it will be available with the 242bhp and 273lb ft petrol unit and seven-speed DSG box, with the six-speed manual arriving before the end of the year. A 196bhp four-cylinder turbodiesel is also available, with two or four-wheel drive, while a third option for the Octavia vRS is also being launched: a 242bhp plug-in hybrid ‘iV’ will be joining the line-up, sharing its drivetrain with the new Cupra Leon e-Hybrid.

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Our four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engined test car with its seven-speed DSG gearbox has a claimed 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds and a 155mph maximum speed. 

Technical highlights

A specific chassis for the Octavia vRS includes a 15mm lower ride height and stiffer spring and passive damper rates along with a wider rear track. MacPherson struts (front) and a multi-link arrangement (rear) underpin the chassis. A Performance mode allows you to select a more aggressive engine and gearbox map and, of course, enhances the engine sound through the stereo. 19-inch wheels are standard and so too is VW’s electronic front differential. 

Pay an additional £995 for the Dynamic Chassis Control and you can also choose between Comfort, Normal or Sport mode for the dampers, adjusted via electronically controlled valves. Steering weights can be selected via the Driving Mode Select software, which also provides an Individual mode to allow the driver to pick and choose a range of dynamic settings. 

A whole host of new safety assistance systems are packed into the fourth-generation vRS, from lane assist, driver fatigue alert and radar cruise control to Crew Protect Assist, which, when it anticipates an accident, will close all windows and tense the seatbelts. 

Inside, the new Octavia’s features a version of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, a head-up display and a new 10-inch touchscreen to control the infotainment system, plus a small, Porsche 911-style DSG gear selector. There’s also carbonfibre trim and Alcantara covering a considerable proportion of the interior. The new sports seats look the part, although the manually adjustable seats of our test car sit you too high, giving a feeling of being pitched forward out of the seat. 

Depending on the specification and body style the new Octavia’s kerb weight falls between 1489 and 1629kg. 

What’s it like to drive? 

Just as Skoda’s designers have done a detailed job to give this fourth-generation Octavia vRS a look that marks it out as something a step above the regular models, so too have the engineers in addressing how it drives. 

As with all previous generations of vRS models, this latest version is a keen performer. The EA888 is far from a charismatic engine, but what it lacks in vocal range it makes up for with a broad performance window, blending its turbocharged shove of torque with the available power for an increased level of harmony over its predecessor. 

There’s no longer the thump of torque that would cause an unloaded front wheel to fight with the tarmac. Rather the low-down delivery (peak torque arrives at 1600rpm and stays for another 2700rpm) is smoother and better mannered, the e-diff much better calibrated to manage the performance range. 

When the full 242bhp arrives at 5250rpm there’s a fizz to the top end that’s often missing with this engine, but in the Octavia vRS it feels Skoda has spent a considerable amount of time to give its latest hot hatch and fast estate a shot of character.

However, as with previous vRS generations, the DSG gearbox doesn’t suit the character of the car, with the shifts relatively slow – especially downshifts – and lacking punch even in their sportiest setting. The steering wheel-mounted ‘paddles’ are little more than an apologetic afterthought and something the VW Group brands need to address in their performance cars. Or they all need to ask Lamborghini who supplies the paddles for its cars.

Dynamically the latest vRS retains its predecessor’s ability to surprise and delight, with a flow to its chassis and a linearity to its steering that is still an unexpected pleasure. It never feels flustered or out of its depth, the chassis’ ability well matched with the engine’s performance capabilities. 

There’s work to be done with the optional DCC dampers though, with Normal mode a little loose at times and slow to react to quick directional changes – despite the dampers automatically switching to their Sport setting if the car detects harder driving. Selecting the Sport mode tightens the body control; some will find it harsh on most of the UK’s back roads, but there’s a sense that there’s a sweet spot to be discovered. 

Improvements have been made to the steering, too. It’s not transformed to rival a McLaren 765LT’s rack, but the weighting is natural, the feel authentic and you make fewer corrections when pushing on. It’s now much closer to that of a Golf GTI than it has ever been.

Criticism with this latest vRS, as with its predecessor, is centred around the car hiding too much of its personality when you’re not extracting its core performance, and feeling a little normal as a consequence, which it is anything but.

Skoda’s approach to the fourth-gen vRS is nothing radical: the headlines don’t scream bold claims, the hype is almost non-existent. Just the way it has always been with the Octavia vRS, then, which remains an under-the-radar performance car that retains a wide appeal and is certainly a more-than-capable alternative to a Golf GTI for those who need more space. On this showing the latest vRS remains an evo favourite.

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