The Skoda Octavia has a no-nonsense reputation for offering space and good value. More than 500,000 have been sold in the UK since 1998, and the quick vRS version has also gained a cult following.
By adding more pace to the mix, the Octavia vRS appeals to those wanting a hot hatch, but with a need for practicality. Pricing has traditionally pitched the vRS as a cut-price – and roomier – alternative to the Volkswagen Golf GTI, offering more car for the money.
For this fourth-generation Octavia vRS, the key message from Skoda is one of more technology, and even greater space inside.
As before, buyers can choose from a five-door hatchback or an even more spacious estate. The range has expanded to include a plug-in hybrid and a diesel, although it was the 245hp petrol hatch that appeared outside my front door.
“That car is fit!” was the unexpected shout from my wife on the arrival of the Octavia vRS.
With plenty of bold angles, deeper bumpers and a set of 19-inch alloy wheels, it certainly has street presence. The large front grille may be an acquired taste, but the absence of chrome trim helps it blend with the overall design.
Sharper lines, black exterior badging and a subtle rear lip spoiler make the Skoda look more ‘compact executive’ than hot hatchback. Parked next to my own (bright red) previous-generation Octavia vRS, the new car looks instantly more mature.
Skoda has used the ‘Simply Clever’ tagline to promote its cars for a number of years. However, the 10-inch multimedia touchscreen in the new Octavia can feel ‘Simply Annoying’, or perhaps ‘Too Clever’.
With only a single row of hard buttons beneath it, the touchscreen controls almost every function. Forget turning a dial to change the cabin temperature, and welcome stabbing at a display instead.
It does become easier with time, and is less frustrating than the set-up found in the Golf GTI. Yet it still feels like a hindrance, rather than a help.
The touchscreen display is the only downside to a cabin that looks, and feels, genuinely upmarket. Swathes of Alcantara on the dashboard, red stitching and matte carbon fibre trim mean the Octavia vRS no longer seems like a poor relation.
Standard features such as Matrix LED headlights, a heated steering wheel, adaptive cruise control and an electrically operated boot lid continue the swanky theme. Satellite navigation is included, while the wireless Apple CarPlay connection worked perfectly on test. It goes some way towards justifying a list price that now starts beyond £32,000.
The front sports seats are chunky and supportive, and come heated as standard. Despite their size, they have no impact on legroom for those in the rear. Five adults can easily be accommodated inside, while the boot is suitably vast, with space for 600 litres of luggage.
Oh, and Skoda has remembered to include its trademark emergency ice scraper, hidden away inside the fuel filler flap.
Despite the elaborate exterior and interior makeover, the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the Octavia vRS is more familiar. It made an appearance in special editions of the previous-generation car, and is used in the latest Volkswagen Golf GTI.
On paper, the promise of 245hp and 270lb ft of torque makes for an impressive hot hatch. Much like the engine note itself, though, things are a little more muted in reality.
Initial acceleration does not feel as fast as the quoted 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds, but a healthy mid-range punch compensates. It helps the vRS gain speed with ease, and offers confidence when overtaking slower traffic.
The petrol vRS only comes in front-wheel-drive format, but is more than capable of managing the power. Even when the traction control system does make an appearance, it works to smooth things out, rather than stopping the flow.
A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, although our car came with the optional seven-speed dual-clutch DSG auto. There are paddles mounted on the steering wheel for changing gear, but they are tiny. In reality, the vRS is happier managing things itself, and most drivers will simply leave it in auto mode.
This means the DSG ‘box will make a determined pursuit to reach top gear, all in the name of maximising fuel economy. Engage Sport mode and it will cling onto gears longer, although kickdown can still catch the gearbox off-guard.
Our test car came fitted with the optional £945 Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC), and this is where Sport mode has an even more noticeable effect. Moving between driving modes changes the stiffness of the suspension, with Sport making everything feel primed for your favourite B-road.
Swapping to Comfort – via the do-it-all touchscreen – has a calming effect on the vRS. It makes motorway commuting a laid-back affair, and expands its degree of usability. The normal setting provides a balanced half-way house between the two.
It may not be a cheap option, but DCC is a box worth ticking for its profoundly positive effect on how the vRS drives.
Did driving the new Octavia instantly make me want to swap my older for the new model? Not quite. Whereas the previous Octavia vRS feels like a pair of comfortable jeans, the all-new version is closer to slim-fit suit trousers.
It’s sharper and more accurate, but slightly harder to feel instantly at one with. Skoda has chosen a variable-ratio steering system for the new vRS. The responses are immediate, but not knowing how much effort to apply can feel odd to begin with.
Ultimately, the new Octavia vRS has considerable cross-country pace, and comes with a greater degree of precision. It just feels a touch too clinical in its pursuit of performance.
Skoda wants the new Octavia vRS to deliver more technology and more space, and to feel like a premium product. It manages all of this with room to spare, whilst maintaining the performance and practicality that have gained it such a committed following.
Although not the quickest car in its class, the Octavia vRS does make a compelling argument for itself. It has neat handling, smart looks and feels like a major leap forward. Add the huge boot and spacious, well-equipped cabin to the mix, and Skoda should have no worries about finding buyers.
The pricier Volkswagen Golf GTI is the car that may need to start looking over its shoulder.
John Redfern writes for Motoring Research
0-62MPH: 6.7 seconds
TOP SPEED: 155mph
FUEL ECONOMY: 35.3 – 40.9 mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS: 157 – 181 g/km