You tend to see a predominance of Mercedes and Porsches in Stuttgart. They define the look of the town as much as the TV tower, the opera house and, well, the liberal sprinkling of Audis and VWs and the fine dusting of just about every other car you can think of. It’s a true mix; the initially noticeable bias ceases to seem unusual after a couple of hours. Home town advantages apply just as much to BMW in Munich, Audi in Ingolstadt and VW in Wolfsburg.
But Mladá Boleslav, an hour’s drive out of Prague, is different. This place really is Skodaville, a town so subsumed by its country’s most famous product it’s hard to shake the impression you’ve arrived in a weird post-communist dystopia where the rotting tendrils of the old regime still cling onto the decision about what the populace should drive. Not everyone who drives in Mladá Boleslav drives a Skoda, but you can travel for minutes along the main street and not see another make of car.
On the end of a 14-storey apartment block that faces the town’s plush Skoda dealership/museum a stone’s throw from the factory, the 100-year story of Skoda is being told in a 100-feet high painting. At the bottom, near street level, is the very first Skoda, the Laurin & Klement Voiturette A, made in Mladá Boleslav in 1905. It seems to be buried deep beneath the earth’s crust. High above, depicted sitting on a grass surface in the sun, is the latest Octavia. The slogan reads ‘100 Years of Evolution’.
It’s an impressive sight that fittingly expresses the scale of Skoda’s involvement with the town. The company’s premises take up a third of the town’s municipal area. Over 75 per cent of Mladá Boleslav’s economically active inhabitants are employed by Skoda and unemployment is among the lowest in the Czech Republic. No wonder they all drive the dream, however old, however humble. There is no stigma attached to tooling around in a 40-year-old 100L, of which there seem to be an implausible number, some running on hope and a prayer, some just on prayer.
We’ve come to Mladá to drive the fastest and most powerful production Skoda ever, the new Octavia vRS. It’s good for almost 150mph. And rust isn’t a colour option: the Race Blue finish of our estate is one of the three new colours.
The vRS is something of an image-breaker. Not least, of course, because of the big numbers attached to the engine. It’s the same 2.0-litre 16-valve direct-injection FSI turbo that powers the Golf GTi and develops 197bhp and 207lb ft of torque between 1800 and 5000rpm. The closest any other Octavia engine gets to that is the naturally aspirated 2.0 FSI. And it isn’t that close, trailing by 50bhp and 59lb ft. There are nippy Octavias and brisk Octavias and then there’s the vRS, with its claimed top speed of 148mph and 7.3 sec 0-62mph time. Different league.
The ventilated disc brakes are rather larger, too. Naturally, Skoda has painted the calipers green to draw attention to the fact. The colour flashes vividly through the 10-spoke alloys. It all looks very tasty, with a 12mm reduction in ride height and pencil-line tyres. Bodyshell reinforcement further bolsters the hard-core cred.
The styling of the vRS is more than understated, the way Skoda likes it. The 17-inch alloys are the big clue, but there are also twin chromed exhaust pipes, chunkier bumpers and sills, those knucklesome green brake calipers, numerous stylised vRS badges and reflectors in the rear bumper. The hatch has a tailgate spoiler, the estate does not. Mostly, however, the vRS looks more warmed over than red-hot.
Given its on-paper assets, the vRS can’t help but be a multi-layered talent, recalling elements of the Golf GTi but in a still more practical and versatile wrapper. Looked at another way, it should combine rapid and rewarding performance with dynamic tenacity (if not quite the Golf’s fleetness of foot) and a low-fatigue driving environment. Head-scratchingly good build quality is a given. And all for £18,200. Choose a front-drive Audi A4 Avant with the same engine and you’re looking at £24k.
For the first handful of miles, the vRS feels quick, but not that quick. There’s a slight dullness to the throttle response at low to medium revs. It isn’t that it doesn’t pull well, just that it does so with little apparent urgency. It simply doesn’t do part-throttle exuberance. Bury the throttle in the carpet, though, and the FSI turbo not only starts sound special – gruff, but in a smooth George Clooney kind of way – it also hauls like 200 horses should, scything through four, five and six thousand revs on a soaring curve of aerobic energy that shows no sign of ebbing, even as it closes in on the cut-out. It’s all very smoothly administered; the vRS’s speed is obvious and immensely satisfying.
Many of the Bohemian roads we pitted against the vRS’s chassis are poorly surfaced and awkwardly cambered; by turns fast and flowing and almost demonically twisty. Grip, poise and a responsive, faithful helm are the keys to making decent progress with deceptively little effort. The vRS has all three in abundance. And a great gearchange. Not the world’s fastest, but with a satisfyingly compact action.
The vRS feels harder-edged, more precise and more physical than the regular Octavia, with modest body roll and genuinely keen turn-in. Ride is unapologetically firm, but seldom agitated. Yes, there’s a suggestion of torquesteer. Switch off the ESP and there’s understeer, too. But the quality of the steering – direct, meaty but with just the right amount of damping – is a real bonus. Even if you shut down the power on the limit mid-bend, without ESP, only the merest tweak of corrective lock is required – thanks to the quick rack, it’s more of an instinctive nudge. Then there are the powerful and deliciously progressive brakes. In short, the poise and fluency of the fastest Octavia is hugely appealing. All the more so when you lift the tailgate a gawp at the simply huge boot. Surely this car sets a new high-water mark for having it all for an almost absurdly reasonable price.
Conspicuous in the cabin is a solidity, precision and honesty of build familiar from any Octavia but with a few trim flourishes that lift the usual sober-to-a-fault ambience. The vRS-logoed sports seats are both form-hugging and good looking and the dash, as ever, a deftly judged mix of functionality and gently flowing forms.And it doesn’t skimp on standard hardware. There are four airbags, a CD-based stereo system, an on-board computer and very effective climate control.
So, as you’ve probably gathered, the Octavia vRS estate is a deeply convincing piece of kit. The focused effort and intelligence Skoda has lavished on it shines through. Its broad spread of talent is formidable and impressive but, perhaps more importantly, desirable in a way many must have thought a Skoda could never be. The density of quality engineering is remarkable for just over £18k but, as with all the best cars, it’s the way the Octavia vRS seems to exceed the sum of its parts as a driving machine that sets it apart.David Vivian