"Welcome to the fold,” said the editor on my first day. “Here’s your first task: find us a used car for our long-term test fleet.”
“Right you are,” I said. It seemed like a great idea. As used car editor, running a used long-termer makes perfect sense. I’ll get to live with and own a car without all the high-tech bells and whistles and lengthy new-car warranties that we motoring journos are used to. Used cars are, quite frankly, where it’s at. And any accusation that I’m only saying that because of my job title will be roundly refuted.
But what to get? At first, the imagination ran amok. There are quite a lot of very interesting used cars out there now. An E46- generation BMW M3 counts as a used car, right? What about a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG? Or maybe a Vauxhall Monaro?
“No,” said the editor, quite firmly. “It has to be something sensible. Something affordable. Something Autocar readers would love to buy. Something you could use as a daily driver. Oh, and we haven’t got any money for you to spend, either, so you’ll have to get creative in finding it. Off you go.”
A few short weeks later I was taking delivery of our Skoda Octavia vRS Estate. A 2011 example finished in Brilliant Silver, it fits the bill perfectly. The Mk2 Octavia vRS is a car we’ve always felt to be spec sensitive. Serve it up in petrol hatchback form and a Volkswagen Golf GTI will always have the edge, but as a diesel estate – as here – the vRS starts to make a whole heap of sense, especially with the DSG automatic gearbox we’ve got.
The numbers tell the story. The 2.0-litre diesel delivers 168bhp and a solid 258lb ft of torque. Consequently, 0-60mph comes up in 8.4sec, with in-gear punch to match. All this while providing fuel economy – according to official figures – of 47.9mpg on the combined cycle.
Meanwhile, boot space is one of the best around – better in terms of pure capacity than a VW Passat Estate of the same age when the rear seats are upright and almost as spacious with them down. This, in other words, is a car that ticks every box.
But the Octavia vRS is also looking like great value these days. Prices start at £2500 for a baggy, high-mileage petrol hatch, but a good, solid, pre-facelift diesel estate can be yours for less than £5000, with an early diesel in hatchback form or a petrol model in either bodystyle fetching anywhere in between. A facelift TDI wagon like ours can be had with reasonable miles from £7000, with the very best low-mileage ones topping out at about £15,000.
So how on earth did we come by such a thing for the princely sum of nought pounds and nought pence? Well, time for a spot of full disclosure: we’re only borrowing it. Yes, our (well, that should be ‘our’) Octavia is actually part of Skoda’s heritage fleet. Which explains its faintly believable mileage and its fabulous condition.
You might argue that this isn’t fully representative of the 70,000-oddmile examples you’ll find on your local used car forecourt. I’ll give you that one. But the flipside is that it enables us to test drive a known good example to see how a Mk2 Octavia vRS stacks up today without wondering whether worn bushes, tired brakes or slack steering are distorting the experience. And rest assured that, in future, we’re aiming to try some proper, high-mileage used cars in this slot. Think of the vRS, then, as an exception rather than the rule – an opportunity we were given that seemed too good to pass up.
“Yes, but with that mileage, it’s sure to be problem-free,” I can hear you saying. Well, on only its fourth day with us, the vRS disproved that notion. Leaving the office that evening, I popped the key in the ignition and turned it. Nothing. Not even the reassuring sight of some dashboard lights. Oh.
I resorted to the timehonoured trick of turning it off and on again, by locking and unlocking it. Indicators flashed: there was life! I climbed in again. Dash lights came on, the car started and all was well. Almost. The traction control and brake warning lights stayed on, the clock had reset itself and the auto function on the electric windows wouldn’t work.
I tried a tentative pull-away, at which point the dash lights vanished. The auto gearbox felt jerky at first, too, as though it was relearning my driving style. But after a few miles it had smoothed out again. Even the auto windows started to work.
The next day, a man was dispatched from Skoda to check that all was well. He couldn’t find any faults, and to this day the car has been fine, so fingers crossed that it was merely a glitch caused by the car being raised from a lengthy slumber and pressed into daily service. I’ll keep an eye on it, though, and let you know. There’s nothing like a bit of used car jeopardy to add a frisson of excitement to your commute, eh?
Otherwise, though, I’m feeling rather pleased thus far. On the daily shuttle to work, the Octavia is every bit the consummate all-rounder I’d hoped it would be. At weekends, it has already proven its worth on a trip to the local DIY establishments. And in traffic, the auto ’box is a boon. It may be older than the rest of our fleet, but the vRS already feels like a welcome addition.