What is it?
It doesn't seem more than five minutes ago that Skoda was launching its latest Octavia vRS, but in fact, we were first introduced to it back in 2013. The higher-powered '230' petrol model followed late last year, and only now are we getting our first chance behind the wheel of the recently added 4x4 version.
But before you start conjuring images of a roomier, cut-price Volkswagen Golf R, Skoda is offering the vRS/4x4 combination as a diesel only. It is the VW Group's strong 181bhp 2.0 TDI, though, and its six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox comes as standard. Both hatch and estate variants are available, too.
Prices start at £27,515 for the 4x4 hatch, while the estate version costs a further £1200. Only an automatic vRS 230 costs more in the Octavia line-up, but sat-nav is now standard, while further features such as 18in alloy wheels, xenon headlights and climate control are included to sweeten the deal.
After an initial drive on the roads and ice of Austria, now we've had a chance to see if the 4x4 proves as worthy for consideration on our more challenging UK roads.
What's it like?
You might be wondering why Skoda didn't opt for the VW Group's recently launched 2.0 TDI 190 diesel for its diesel vRS, and, well, so are we. It's to do with hierarchy, you see; the Octavia can't be seen on the same playing field as a Superb and all that. Still, it seems strange.
In any case, it's essentially the same engine but with a very slight power deficit, so there remains usefully sturdy low-down shove when a B-road overtake is on the cards or you're caught in too high a gear when accelerating out of tight corners. It doesn't mind being revved, either, but neither on paper nor in practice does this diesel vRS match its petrol equivalent for outright pace.
The DSG gearbox is a little sluggish to change down, both independently and after pulling on the wheel-mounted paddles in more sedate driving modes, but throttle response and gearchanges are far more engaging in the car's sharpest 'vRS' mode. Get your changes just right and the 4x4's better traction will help it to haul itself to 60mph from a standstill slightly quicker than the two-wheel-drive DSG model.
Refinement is let down by some vibration through the wheel from low revs and (winter) tyre whine at high speeds, but the engine settles well at a cruise. It's not all diesel dirge in the cabin on wide throttle openings, either, because the vRS's sound symposer, if not producing a truly exciting note, at least offers one that's better than nothing.
Of course, 4x4 systems bring weight, and in hatch form that addition is 85kg. Even so, the Octavia vRS still does a good job of hiding its bulk, offering precise steering and enough bite at turn-in to keep you interested. Sure, its body rolls more than that of a hot Golf or Leon, but on our 4x4 models' winter tyres, grip levels on the road were high enough to ensure real confidence.
Ride comfort remains good, even on scarred UK roads. The vRS benefits from more advanced multi-link rear suspension than that of lesser Octavias and also gets a better tied down Sport set-up (12mm lower on the hatch, 13mm on the estate), which manages to keep it better settled over rough roads, if a little more abrupt on larger primary obstructions. There's no doubting its firmness, but crucially it never reaches uncomfortable levels.
Inside, you benefit from the same huge front space and solid build quality you'd find in any Octavia, and the standard sports seats are widely adjustable, hugging and comfortable. The fact that two adults can stretch out in the outside rear seats and a cavernous, practical boot is thrown in are strings to the vRS's bow that really do matter in this class.
Should I buy one?
Our experience of 4x4 variants of family and executive cars suggests the vRS 4x4 (at least on winter tyres) will offer far more capability than its front-drive equivalents.
Importantly, the diesel vRS's on-road experience doesn't suffer. Yes, the 4x4 is slightly heavier and thirstier and it emits more CO2, but the differences are outweighed by the genuine gains in traction if where you live demands four-wheel drive for at least some of the year. That the Octavia's stand-out space and practicality remain intact is equally significant. It's an expensive vRS, but ultimately it deserves to wear the badge.
The fact remains, though, that this isn't the best vRS. It's certainly swift and blends its punchy performance and decent agility with good fuel economy, but a petrol vRS will offer more thrills between corners while being every bit as practical - and for a lower price tag.
Skoda Octavia vRS 2.0 TDI 184 DSG 4x4
Location Surrey; On sale Now; Price £27,315; Engine 4 cyls, 1968cc, diesel; Power 182bhp at 3500-4000rpm; Torque 280lb ft at 1750-3250rpm; Gearbox 6-spd dual-clutch automatic; Kerb weight 1475kg; 0-62mph 7.6sec; Top speed 142mph; Economy 57.7mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 129g/km, 23%