Three-pedal hot hatchback restores some driver engagement lost in the automatic

What is it?

It’s a car with an actual manual gearbox. It says something about the current state of the market that it’s almost a bit surprising to jump into a hot hatch and be greeted by a stick gear change, but Skoda still does it and the world is all the better for it.

It’s attached to the same Octavia vRS hatch that we drove here (albeit in Estate form), with 242bhp and 273lb ft from the same 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol that VW uses in the Golf GTI. Not only that, the two cars also share the same modular platform, although in Skoda’s case the wheelbase has been pushed out by 67mm to 2686mm - the resultant bonus being a bit of extra rear legroom.

The Octavia also shares the Golf’s adaptive dampers - Dynamic Chassis Control - costing £945 and essential speccing if you’re ticking boxes. There are five settings in total, all controllable via a button in the centre console. 

As you’d expect, the looks have been breathed on for this hot version but not so much that you feel self-conscious driving it. I particularly liked the little Gurney flap at the rear; in the optional Quartz Grey metallic (£595) on our test car, it was a subtle addition on the boot lid.

Inside is dramatic, with swathes of Microsuede across the dash and upper door cards. The steering wheel has dimpled leather, there’s plenty of red stitching and vRS badges adorn the seat, gear lever and steering wheel. This all leaves you in no doubt that this is the sporty one, but it’s tastefully done. None of it feels token or out of place.

13 Skoda octavia vrs tdi 2021 uk first drive review on road rear 0

What's it like?

Happily, the Octavia vRS has the performance to back up those tweaked looks. 0-62mph is seen off in 6.8 seconds, helped by the VAQ ‘limited-slip’ differential that limits wheelspin. Strictly speaking, it’s an electronically controlled clutch pack, but when it achieves largely the same effect, we’ll let the technicalities go.

Fire the car up for the first time and you’re greeted by a synthesised exhaust note, attempting a rorty warble to make sure you know you’re in the hot hatch. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s too fake for my liking. It does bring an edge to the Octavia but it starts to drone after a while, like an A-level physics teacher who’s trying to make electrons sound exciting. You can turn it off, though.

The pace is impressive though, and the engine kicks on healthily from 2000rpm onwards, rarely feeling coarse even towards the top end of the rev range. The manual helps add a healthy dose of involvement. It’s a smooth shift, not as snicky as the best, but with a short, positive throw.

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The chassis is a slightly more relaxed drive than the Golf, but that suits the Octavia’s slightly more rounded ethos. The steering is a touch too light but the way the car leans into a corner, with just enough body roll to feel engaging, is fun. It’s a neutral, well-balanced chassis and suits the slightly more easy-going nature of the car. 

11 Skoda octavia vrs tdi 2021 uk first drive review boot

Should I buy one?

With a Skoda, this is the section where it tends to stand out as it’s where we start talking about the price. At £30,620, the vRS hatch is a healthy £2905 less than the Golf.

And that’s not some bargain basement price where you need to chuck a few thousand pounds at it to make the car more appealing. Dynamic chassis control is about the only thing we’d absolutely stick on, although the grey paint and Canton sound system (£590) are both nice additions. 

This or the Golf? It’s a toughie and a close call - if nothing else, that’s high praise for the Skoda. The Golf just edges it for the slightly keener driving experience, but the Octavia vRS is still a great car.

12 Skoda octavia vrs tdi 2021 uk first drive review on road front 0

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Madd59 4 May 2021

Funny looking grey.

jameshobiecat 4 May 2021
Good to see the manual gearbox getting some praise for enhanced driver involvement; I have never understood the concept of a hot hatch with an autobox.
The Octavia looks a good compromise between family friendly practicality and offering a bit of fun when one up and the price is fair considering the extra size over most rivals.
One concern, I've read various reports of the Octavia's driver assistance tech being intrusive, its really annoying on my currently car when pressing on so I'd need to convince myself that the Octavia was better. I've had to go so far as putting gaffer tape over the camera!
If I were in the market for a new car right now, this and the i30n fastback would be near the top of the list. The focus St wagon might be on the list too.
Will there be a manual estate Octavia?
si73 4 May 2021
@kiernan, I didn't read that, this or the golf, as a choice of this or the best hot hatch, as surely, realistically, that would be the civic, but I read it as highlighting that this still can't quite topple it's stablemate. Personally I'd have the Octavia over a golf every time but I'd take an i30N fastback over the Octavia.