There was a time, in the not so distant past, that Skoda was a by-word for poor quality, unreliability and general cheapness. With a lot of help from the Volkswagen-Audi Group, Skoda have managed to pull off one of the greatest brand reinventions of modern times. When you drive a Skoda nowadays, what you really have is a VAG chassis and engine combination, with a thin coat of eastern European design on top. And yes, this Czech veneer is still not on par with the German equivalents, you often find yourself with a bit of a bargain.
Historically, Skoda was VAG’s proving ground. New technology and gadgets were fitted as standard to Skodas, and if they were well received, rolled out to the rest of the VAG range. If they tanked, well they were simply chocked up to “being a Skoda”. Of course, being German designed and engineered, tanking rarely occurred and the result was a swathe of reliable, dependable cars at bargain prices. And so, the rebranding went on…
And the jewel in Skoda’s new good-reputation crown? The Octavia VRS.
Based on the same platform as the Volkswagen Golf GTi, SEAT Leon Cupra and Audi S3, it has always been a bit of a dark knight. Older models lacked the ostentatiousness of the SEAT or Audi, or the sheer road presence of the VW, but they were always very capable cars. And the new one has even more bark to go with its latest dose of bite.
Offering two petrol engines and a diesel, the VRS comes with 230bhp or 245bhp for the petrol powerplants, or 184bhp for the diesel. With the petrol engines (really the ones you ant), you are getting one of the VAG EA888 engines. So far, these units have proved reliable in every application, reliably making considerably more power in Golf R or Cupra R guise. The engine is well refined, quiet when you want it to be, and shouty when you don’t. You might find yourself longing for a bit more brutality in a car that should be lighting your trousers on fire, but the fashionably h igh fuel economy for a car of this class will soothe you a little. The car pulls well, no doubt about that. But you do expect something a bit more dramatic when it comes to putting your foot down.
The version I drove had the optional DSG gearbox, something Audi have been perfecting for a few years now. If flapping through a gearbox is your thing, this gearbox is fine. Engine changes are slick, with only a slight hint of jerk. There is a strange little chirp from the exhaust on full throttle upshifts, that in my time driving I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not. It certainly adds a degree of drama to spirited driving, but it sounds (and is) artificial. And I will always prefer realism to scripted drama. Multiple downshifts under hard braking will still catch it out from time to time, but in all honesty, it seems more of a gimmick then something that gives any meaningful performance enhancements. I think most will be perfectly happy the six-speed manual and a third pedal. I would also worry about expensive repair bills in the future – that’s two clutches instead of one remember!
The chassis is where this car really shines. You can overcome the undramatic power delivery of the 2.0 Turbo engine, and the scripted gearshifts by opening the Octavia up on a B-road. It holds a line beautifully for car of its size, and you won’t find yourself correcting your steering inputs. The steering is direct, loads up nicely and will give you plenty of warning before the front tyres give up. What’s more, you don’t need to be an expert at throttle control to get the back end to fall in line as and when you need it to. Having played around in the car on the B-roads of Hertfordshire, it was almost a surprise to get out and remember just how big the rear end is! It doesn’t handle like a front wheel drive saloon should. It feels lively and spirited. It feels, dare I say it, like a Golf.
The size of the Octavia really is the car’s USP. The Golf looks the part, the Audi is a pleasure to sit in, the Leon shouts “LOOK AT ME!” … and the Octavia lets you bring the whole family and suitcases away with you. The hatchback version I drove has a 590-litre boot, but if you opt for the estate, (which you definitely should) you get 610. Compare that to the measly 380 you get with the Golf and you start to understand why you might pick this car over the others.
Interior wise, Skoda have done better than previous attempts. They have taken lessons from their German counterparts and started to address the cabin. Old Skodas tended to be bland and plasticky, with a strange concoction of colours and materials in a vague attempt to be trendy. The new Octavia is a comfortable place to see out a long drive, although the lack of options on interior colour mean you are stuck with a rather dull and seemingly never-ending sea of grey. The VRS comes with a plethora of toys and gadgets with almost everything as standard on the VRS; you get Satnav, Bluetooth, Electric seats, Cruise control and Xenon lights. Whilst playing the “Car Configurator” game before writing this, the only options I added were keyless start Lane assist. You can upgrade the Satnav, lights and cruise control to be fancier, but all in all, this is a very well-equipped car.
The Octavia VRS continues its long-fought battle with the hot hatches of the rest of the VAG group, as well as contenders from Vauxhall, Ford and all the French manufacturers. It won’t blow you away with straight line performance, but the chassis does plenty to put a smile on your face. The real selling points of this car are how fantastically equipped it is as standard, and the copious amount of luggage space. I don’t think Skoda have got the younger market cornered just yet, but for the family man wanting to smile again whilst driving, the Octavia needs to be on your list.