No matter how much the Skoda marketing machine bangs on about ‘emotional connection’ - a strong contender for sound bite of the day at the launch of the newly refreshed Octavia vRS in Vienna - we all know this is a car that will be bought by clued-up pragmatists who might fancy a Golf GTI but value its powertrain and underpinnings installed in a larger, more practical and family-friendly hatch or estate bodyshell for less money and with a badge that cheerfully gives ‘emotional connection’ the finger even more.
Just to clarify that, vRS prices start £25,130 for a petrol-powered, 6-speed manual hatchback - £3390 cheaper than the newly-revised Golf GTI in five-door form.
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The latest changes amount to little more than a mild facelift and standardisation of the 227bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine previously reserved for the now supplanted vRS 230, teamed with an electronic diff similar to but not as aggressive as the VAQ LSD in the Golf GTI Performance Pack, keep things bubbling along.
The old 230’s role will be filled by a new ‘hot’ 242bhp vRS with a 7-speed DSG in due course. What looks set to be the continuingly popular diesel version retains the previous model’s 181bhp. Estate versions follow in a few months’ time.
In line with the whole-range updates recently introduced for the Octavia, the vRS wears a new grille, LED headlights and ‘squared-C’ tail lights. It also has a marginally spruced-up interior with new Alcantara seats, the VW Group’s latest 9.2-inch touchscreen infotainment system and more conspicuous (but not too conspicuous) ambient lighting. Not that it needed much improving – both in design and material quality, the Golf-based fascia and trim panels are, for all practical purposes, as good as the VW originals.
In addition to the pokier powertrains, vRS models are treated to a 15mm drop in ride height and a 30mm wider rear track while 19-inch alloys can be ordered in place of the standard 18-inchers.
Unsurprisingly, performance claims for the 2.0-litre petrol are identical to those for the outgoing 230 model: 0-62mph takes 6.7sec (a tenth quicker than the old regular spec 217mph model), eventually rolling on to a maximum of 155mph. Four-wheel-drive remains an option, but only for models with a diesel engine or DSG transmission.
What’s it like to drive?
Usefully multi-layered. The vRS combines very decent performance with dynamic tenacity - if not quite the Golf GTI’s nimbleness - and a pleasantly low-fatigue driving environment. It feels handily quick rather than genuinely rapid.
Part throttle responses are keen enough but you need to bury the pedal to unlock any real urgency, though the acoustically-enhanced throaty gruffness piped into the cabin does a pretty good job of making you think you’re going faster than you are. This is most pronounced when you press the ‘vRS’ button on the fascia which also sharpens the throttle and adds a little more weight to the steering though no more feel.
It’s all very smoothly administered. Nice precise gearchange, too. Grip, poise and a faithful helm are the keys to making decent progress with deceptively little effort. Body movements aren’t quite as well controlled as a Golf’s but roll is modest and, helped along by the trick electronic LSD, pinning an apex and powering through it soon becomes second nature. The brakes are well up to the job, too – it isn’t all about brightly coloured callipers.
Yes, there are more satisfying steers than the Octavia, cars with even more ‘emotional connection’. Like the Skoda, they’re all breathed on versions of standard family hatchbacks. If you’re prepared to spend the extra, a BMW M135i or Honda Civic Type R or, indeed, a Golf GTI will be more fun on a challenging road.
Opt for Ford’s Focus ST-3 and the price difference dwindles to a mere £655. But none of these can match the Skoda for space and family-transporting practicality. Add that to the mix and the Octavia vRS remains a compelling proposition.