It must be tough being a Skoda Octavia vRS. Despite being a genuinely brilliant hot hatch in its own right, it can't quite seem to shake off the shadow of its brother. Face it, the Golf GTI has a badge, a heritage and a level of credibility that the Octavia vRS can only dream of.
While the Golf GTI needs no introduction, the Octavia vRS needs a chapter and verse just to get itself noticed.
It's fundamentally a Golf GTI in drag, but is it about time the Octavia vRS shook off its Primark image? PetrolBlog spent a week in the company of a very blue vRS to find out.
In a nutshell
The vRS badge is Skoda's performance brand and can currently be seen on the Octavia and, as reviewed on PetrolBlog in 2010, the little Fabia. The Octavia is available with a 200bhp 2.0 turbocharged petrol engine and a 170bhp 2.0 turbocharged diesel unit.
Both are available in hatchback or estate form, with prices from £20,440 to £23,390 excluding options. The VW Golf GTD/GTI starts from £24,665, meaning the Octavia undercuts the Golf by over £4,000. Perhaps it's me, but the Golf would need to be a significantly better car to justify such a difference in cost.
Being the sporting flagship of the Octavia range, the vRS is loaded with standard kit that's designed to give it kerb appeal and driver comfort. So you get a set of tasteful 18-inch ‘Neptune’ alloy wheels, cruise control, LED daytime running lights, dual-zone air conditioning, six-speed gearbox and lowered suspension.
Whichever way you look at it, at £20,440, the vRS represents tremendous value for money. Even with optional xenon headlights, full leather upholstery and space-saver spare wheel, my test car comes in at just £22,195. Still want that Golf GTI?
But don't think that the vRS gives you the ultimate spec. You'll have to spend extra for niceties such as heated seats, multi-function steering wheel, sat nav and parking sensors. At first it's a bit of a disappointment, but after a while it becomes quite refreshing to be free of distractions, not to mention the added weight that such options bring.
What they want you to think
“The performance of the Octavia vRS could rival many cars on the track, while its extraordinary spaciousness makes it a family friendly everyday car” – Skoda UK website.
What the experts think
“Forget about the looks and just think about getting a Golf GTI for a bargain price.” – John Simister, evo.co.uk.
“A comfortable cabin, brilliant refinement, an enormous luggage space... the vRS truly is a great buy.” - Auto Express.
“Fast, competent and not flash. It's a surprise they're not more popular” – Top Gear.
What your friends will think
Park the Skoda Octavia vRS on your drive and your neighbours will think you've either become a cab driver or are being visited by an unmarked police car. You'll also have to get used to defending the Skoda badge and explaining that the vRS is just a Golf GTI in drag.
Having said all that, the vRS won almost unanimous acclaim during my week with it. Everyone praised its looks and almost everyone took a step back when I told them it was only £20,000.
What I think
The Octavia vRS and I have form. As soon as the Mk1 burst on to the scene in 2001, I knew I had to have one. Its understated looks, blistering pace and Volkswagen underpinnings put it firmly on my radar.
For me, it was the insiders’ choice of hot hatch. A subtle ‘wink and tap of the nose’ kind of car. So, in 2005 when I need a practical car to replace my suddenly impractical VX220 Turbo, it was the only choice for me. I found a nearly-new car in a main dealer for just £10,000.
It was an absolute steal, not least because, having left my VX220 with the dealer in part-exchange, I drove away with a cheque for £7,000. The Mk1 was a great car, made even better by the fact that when I sold it a year later, I actually made money on it.
The Mk2 vRS never had the same appeal for me. The new model lost its subtly aggressive looks, and the diesel option meant that it became a favourite with fleet buyers, therefore losing its exclusivity.
But the facelift in 2009 put it back on the radar. The new enlarged grille and headlights managed to sharpen up its looks, with an improved interior, lower ride height and 20kg weight saving completing the package. The new LED daytime running lights aren't my cup of tea, but for wannabe Audi men, they are almost essential.
Styling wise, the current Octavia vRS is the best looking vRS to date. Even in ‘look at me’ Race Blue Metallic, it maintains a discreet, yet purposeful stance. The 18-inch alloys fill the arches, with the subtle rear spoiler completing the look. Casual observers may fail to notice the enlarged front bumper with honeycomb grille. If you like your performance cars to whisper rather than the shout, then the Octavia vRS should be high up on your shopping list.
Inside, you could argue that the interior is perhaps just a little too subtle. It's pleasant enough, but aside from the aluminium pedal covers and vRS logo on the steering wheel, seats and door sills, there's very little to give you a sense that you're driving something special.
Having said that, the leather seats are supportive, the non multi-function steering wheel is delightful and the overall quality is good. But there is a sense that a fair amount of the cost saving against the Golf has been derived from the interior. Little clues like the undamped grab handles give the Skoda away. The little things can mean a lot.
But one area where the Octavia vRS completely trounces the Golf GTI is in the practicality stakes. The Golf will give you 350 litres of boot space with the rear seats folded up. In the Octavia, you can add another 235 litres. At 585 litres, it's even knocking on the door of its big brother, the vRS estate, which offers 605 litres. It's an impressive figure which gives the Octavia vRS a real trump card over its rivals.
It's worth noting that the huge rear end does hamper rearward visibility, which is especially noticeable when trying to reverse the car. If parallel parking isn't your strongest point, you best fork out the optional rear parking sensors.
So it's cheap, good looking and offers levels of practicality that could shame estate cars and SUVs, but what's it like to drive?
In short, it's rather good, but you have to dig deep to enjoy yourself. It's not that it isn't fun to drive, because it is. But upon first acquaintance with the Octavia vRS, the temptation is to drive in a relaxed rather than enthusiastic manner. It's hard to explain, but it's all to easy to drive the vRS as you would a normal family hatchback.
It has a wonderfully smooth ride that's only really let down by a high degree of road noise. In fact, I spent the first couple of days cruising about, listening to the radio and enjoying the excellent climate control in the unseasonably warm weather.
Things aren't improved by a six-speed manual gearbox that isn't the most satisfying I've experienced in recent years. It's fine, but doesn't encourage you to shift up and down through the gears as you would say in a Civic Type R or a Renault Sport Mégane.
It's a minor point, but the Octavia has a ‘change up’ and ‘change down’ indicator to let you know the optimum time to change gear. But rather than being set to optimum performance, it's set to maximise fuel economy. I don't know about you, but when I'm enjoying a good B-road, I don't want to be reminded about economy.
Truth be told, for a more fluid drive, it could be worth investing in the optional DSG transmission with paddle shifts. I certainly loved it on the Fabia vRS, and at £1,210 it's not increasing the purchase price too much. Something to consider is that the increase in CO2 emissions from 175g/km to 180g/km puts a vRS with a DSG ‘box into a higher tax band.
One thing a DSG box won't help is the lack of aural stimulation from the engine and exhaust. At high revs, the note is one of strain rather than sports and doesn't encourage you to switch the rather good Bolero sound system off. But these issues fail to ruin what is a quite remarkable hot hatch. Don't let the understated practical looks deceive you.
There's no disguising the fact that the Octavia is over 300mm longer than the Golf.
There's also no hiding behind the fact that the German is the leaner of the two. Yet on a B-road, you don't give the massive boot a second thought.
The Octavia's chassis is superb, with a suspension that manages to flatten even the harshest of Britain's notoriously potted B-roads. It's rare for a performance car to feel so at home when being driven in a relaxed manner, yet still feel so exhilarating on a B-road. Add nicely weighted steering, very good brakes and superb levels of grip and it's no surprise that my confidence in the vRS grew the longer the week went on.
By the end of the week I was braking later, taking corners faster and accelerating out of bends much earlier. The Octavia vRS is a car that rewards effort and does its best to involve the driver. Practicality shouldn't be this much fun. At £20k, it has to be up there with one of the performance car bargains of the year.
I'd even go as far as saying it could make the five-door Mk6 Golf GTI redundant. In fact, with the three-door GTI almost made obsolete by the Scirocco. It's a wonder why anyone buys the GTI anyway.
The purchase price of £20,440 may represent tremendous value for money, but how does the vRS fare in other aspects? Well depreciation is something that you simply have to take into account when comparing the vRS with the Golf GTI. By year three, the initial £4,000 is wiped out. The Volkswagen retains close to 50 percent of its original value.
The first year tax rate is £275, dropping to £195 from year two onwards.
The Octavia vRS has a 55-litre fuel tank that prefers super unleaded. Based on the current UK average of £1.49 per litre, you'll be spending £82 on a fill up. Skoda claims a combined MPG figure of 37 and even when used enthusiastically, I was seeing an average of 32. So expect to get between 350 and 450 miles to your tank.
It may not have the kudos or the heritage of the iconic Golf GTI, but that doesn't make it an inferior choice. Spend some time with it and you'll begin to discover its talents as a proper B-road car.
Put aside any thoughts that the Octavia vRS is just a bigger, cheaper and less enjoyable Golf GTI. Instead look at the Golf as a more expensive and less practical vRS.
The PetrolBlog Score
Skoda Octavia vRS 2.0 TSI 6-speed manual
- Pint of milk: better than you might think: 8.
- Petrol station forecourt: a handsome hatchback that hides its practicality rather well: 8.
- You don’t see many of those: the low price makes them popular: 6.
- Is it worth it?: prices start at £20,400: 7.
- Petrolbloggyness: a discreet underdog - so very PetrolBlog: 8.
- Total for the petrol Skoda Octavia vRS: 74/100.