The third generation of the Skoda Octavia vRS has become a car made rightly popular by its tangy mix of Golf GTI running gear, hatchback (or estate) body, big engines and decidedly reasonable pricing.
On paper at least, the latest model continues doggedly along the same lines; it may share the 15mm longer wheelbase of its MQB range siblings, but the car is instantly recognisable as the kind of practical performance bargain that gets Skoda fans in a justifiable tizzy.
Starting at £23,000 for a 217bhp 2.0-litre TSI with a manual six-speed gearbox, rising to — coincidentally, the car tested here (although an oil burner and DSG are available) — the vRS is only eclipsed by the entry-level Ford Focus ST at the business end of the bargain basement.
Standard kit includes 18-inch alloys, rear parking sensors, Bluetooth, DAB tuner and dual-zone air-con, although what you’re really buying is the superior rear legroom and a 590-litre boot.
Skoda will also tell you that petrol models with a manual gearbox are the fastest production Octavias ever; and with 0-62mph falling from 7.2sec to 6.8, and top speed eked out to 154mph, it isn’t fibbing, but gains made in economy (now at a claimed 45.6mpg) and a 20 per cent drop in CO2 emissions to 142g/km will probably leave an equally big impression on British buyers.
Potential buyers excited by those last couple of figures, will be even more impressed by the diesel. The oil-burner records CO2 emissions of 119g/km and the promise of 61.4mpg on the combined cycle. All that in a package that will deliver a claimed 8.1sec 0-62mph time and a 144mph top speed.
Underneath, as expected, it gets much the same running gear as the regular Golf GTI. Shorter sports springs leave it 15mm lower than standard; the anti-roll bars have been beefed up and more negative camber applied, but the track remains the same as a standard Octavia, and there’s no funky e-diff upfront - just the updated software-based XDS+ system which brakes both inside wheels during courageous cornering.
On the road, the Octavia vRS is right on the money. As a company, Skoda talks relentlessly about only building cars that its customers will buy; tiptoeing precariously around the VW parts bin with its collective eye on the bottom line, only vaguely interested in the soulfulness that ought to define driver’s cars like the Skoda Octavia vRS.
In smaller models, this is a problem - consider the lukewarm Fabia vRS that no one is buying - but with the Octavia, the MQB’s apparently innate conservatism is to Skoda’s advantage.
Unlike the GTI, there is no expectation in the bigger, cleverly rebranded car that your funny bone ought to be continuously tickled. Low-brow entertainment is there to be had thanks to the jostling effect of the keenly felt turbocharger or the oddly raucous (and switchable) sound actuator; yet it all feels like an agreeable supplement rather than the car’s reason for being.
Certainly this is because the Octavia now feels and drives like the proper four-door contender it always hankered to be. But also because, faced with only passive suspension to fettle rather than the Golf’s more expensive adaptive system, Skoda has opted for noticeably slower spring and damper settings. The result is comfortable first, incisive second.
At slow speeds, aided by the vRS’s more sophisticated and quieter multi-link rear axle, the Octavia barely feels sporty at all. Only marginally more verve from the helm gives the game away — otherwise it’s appreciably civilised.
Likewise pressing on, which takes very little effort thanks to the usual surfeit of grip. The steering is precise rather than expressive; change of direction prompt rather than pointy, but there’s a pleasing neutrality from the XDS+ assisted chassis and enough guts to challenge it.
So, should you buy ones? Well, not if you want the last word in stimulation or involvement. Usher the vRS out of its generous comfort zone and it begins to sag at the shoulders as its bigger body shifts around and the (unswitchable) stability control intervenes. But that’s fine - Skoda will have already snagged most of its customers prior to that point.
Rather than yearning for a smidge more dynamism (as you might in the GTI) the Octavia’s size, comfort and familiar competence tend to make you grateful for its pep and content to go with its swift and steady flow.
With a family dotted around you - as most buyers will have - its unstressed and affordable idea of performance may very well seem ideal. That makes it a less emotional purchase than most of its overheated rivals, but an eminently sane and understandable one.