All-paw punchy diesel Octavia doesn’t excite like the very best hot hatches but is still a compelling real-world performance car

What is it?

It’s tricky to shake the feeling that viewing this diesel-powered, four-wheel-drive Skoda Octavia vRS through a traditional hot hatchback lens would be doing it something of a disservice. After all, there isn’t a huge amount about its recipe that seems capable of making fans of the Ford Focus ST or Renault Mégane RS sit up and pay attention.

Not only is it a fair bit bigger (and heavier) than those two titans of hot-hatchery, but with 197bhp on tap, it might also appear to be a touch under-endowed in the power stakes. Of course, 295lb ft of torque is still incredibly healthy, but oil-burning four-cylinder engines have never been the easiest powerplants to get excited about - particularly when paired with a self-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.

And yet, ever since the first Octavia vRS TDI appeared in the mid-2000s, the car has carved out a fairly successful niche for itself. It’s a family-friendly performance hatch for the driver who is firmly rooted in the real world. Yes, it’s reasonably swift, but it’s also practical, economical and pretty comfortable.

This four-wheel-drive version adds a healthy additional dose of all-weather usability into the mix. It can be yours for £33,745 if you opt for a hatchback like this one, or £34,975 if you go for the boxier estate.

13 Skoda octavia vrs tdi 2021 uk first drive review on road rear

What's it like?

In many ways, it’s exactly like the front-wheel-drive version we tested a couple of weeks back. The calibration of the seven-speed DSG transmission still isn’t quite as sporting as you might like, but the diesel engine’s haymaker of torque means that acceleration feels effortless the vast majority of the time. Keep the engine turning over between 2000rpm and 3500rpm or so and the Octavia vRS can feel properly quick. 

It still doesn’t sound all that great, though. The warbling, chugging synthetic engine note that gets pumped into the cabin is a bit much at times - and I found that I switched it off pretty quickly. You don’t really miss it once it’s gone. 

The cabin is just as impressively equipped and spacious, and although our car didn’t come with the optional Dynamic Chassis Control adaptive dampers, ride comfort was still decent enough. The vRS sits 15mm closer to the ground than a regular Skoda Octavia, and body control feels notably more assertive as a result. But it’s still nowhere near as firm as some hot hatchbacks, and its longer wheelbase lends decent pliancy on faster, more undulating stretches of road. It’s sporting without being all-consuming, as is the case with so much about this car.

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The most obvious difference between this all-paw vRS and the front-driven diesel model is how it goes about changing direction. Where that car could at times struggle for traction as you attempted to get the power down mid-corner, this car feels far more assured and confident in its handling. 

Even through wet, sharp corners, you can get on the throttle early, confident that its four-wheel drive system will enable you to hold your line. True, with no VAQ limited-slip-diff-alike up front, it doesn’t have a particularly voracious appetite for apices, but that additional level of tractional security does help correct what was arguably the biggest black mark against the two-wheel-drive model’s name.

6 Skoda octavia vrs tdi 2021 uk first drive review cabin

Should I buy one?

Viewed simply as a hot hatchback, the Octavia vRS 4x4 would probably disappoint. It really needs - and deserves - a more nuanced approach than that, because ultimately there are far more immediately exciting performance cars out there for similar money.

That’s not to say the Skoda is an unenjoyable car to drive swiftly on a good road - far from it. It just won’t raise a smile quite as quickly as a bona fide petrol-powered hot hatchback would. That’s simply not where its strengths lie. 

The Octavia’s real charm comes from the fact that, for the rest of the time, it’d slip into your life as effortlessly as a pair of smart black jeans. It’s an impressively versatile car, this: not only is it comfortable enough for daily use, but it’s attractive and well made, too. The fact that it has a massive boot - and an even bigger one if you opt for the estate model - doesn’t hurt its appeal, either. Nor does its 60mpg-plus touring economy.

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Diesel’s days might be limited, but cars like the Octavia vRS TDI 4x4 show just how much real-world appeal the fuel can have when it’s powering the right car. Still, I don’t think we’ll see another Skoda like this. And that’s rather sad.

14 Skoda octavia vrs tdi 2021 uk first drive review static front


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