2021 is a year of double celebrations for Skoda.
Not only does it mark 25 years since the Octavia made its debut but it’s also 20 years since the brand’s first vRS performance model arrived in the UK.
Fittingly, that model was the Octavia vRS which set the tone for the following two decades with its blend of hot hatch performance and Skoda’s traditional high-value proposition.
Early models were petrol-powered five-door hatchbacks, using a 1.8-litre turbo unit producing 178bhp but almost, unthinkably for the time, in 2003 Skoda added an estate body variant to the line-up.
Not content with one act of hot hatch heresy, in 2006 Skoda took things a step further and launched a diesel-powered version of the second-generation Octavia vRS. Purists scoffed at the idea of a “hot hatch” with diesel power but it proved a remarkable success thanks to its tax-friendly CO2 levels and the diesel vRS outsold the petrol for the following 14 years. In fact, in the last generation diesel outsold petrol nearly two-to-one.
Since that second generation, every version of the Octavia vRS has come with multiple drivetrain and body style choices. The third generation introduced a four-wheel-drive option and automatic transmission while the latest fourth-gen has added a plug-in hybrid version alongside the regular petrol and diesels, both of which are the most powerful and technologically advanced versions yet.
That PHEV version offers an intriguing promise of 242bhp and 38 miles of all-electric range but for now we’re focusing on the more traditional 4x4 diesel estate.
Central to the whole setup is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel engine. It’s mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and four-wheel-drive system managed by the sixth generation of Skoda’s electronically controlled multi-plate clutch.
The engine is the most powerful diesel currently fitted to a vRS model, its 197bhp a 16bhp increase over the previous generation and in this setup it’s the quickest vRS to 62mph, covering it in just over seven seconds.
It’s certainly quick off the mark but there’s something so controlled about the way the Octavia puts down its power that never feels quite as fast as the stats would have you believe. Where the engine’s abilities are more obvious is in its mid-range shove, 295lb ft of torque allows for muscular in-gear acceleration and makes it easy to pile back on pace between corners.
When the going gets twisty the Octavia feels composed but you’re still aware of its size. This isn’t a nimble hot hatch that shrinks around you as you dart from turn to turn. Rather it’s impressively controlled and suitably direct thanks to well-weighted steering, lowered sports suspension and the work of the all-wheel-drive system. It’s a characteristic that’s been common to every generation of Octavia vRS and, slightly frustratingly, while some cars thrill at any speed, it’s only when you’re really pressing on that the depth of the Octavia’s abilities start to emerge, leaving it feeling capable but a little aloof. Our car lacked the optional dynamic chassis control, which might have improved the feeling of engagement, but on the basis of this version, it’s good but not great.
Against a direct competitor like the diesel Ford Focus ST it’s perhaps not quite as sharp but it steals a march on the Ford in other areas.
Principally, that superiority comes in the Octavia’s practicality and overall feeling of quality. The vRS gets unique sports seats, red contrast stitching and plenty of Alcantara trim but beneath the sporty touches is the same premium look and feel that’s common across the fourth-generation Octavia. Where once it was the clear budget brand in the Volkswagen Group, now the Octavia can sit proudly alongside the Golf and Leon with a glossy, high-quality finish and well laid out cabin.
The hatchback version of the Octavia is already a hugely spacious and practical vehicle, with plenty of room for five on board, loads of handy storage spaces and 600 litres of boot space. But for £1,200 more you can (and should) take that further. Not only does the estate look better but it improves rear headroom, adds another 40 litres of luggage space and makes the boot easier to access and use.
At £34,000 the Octavia vRS isn’t the budget wonder it once was but in terms of all-round ability it’s a hard prospect to beat. There are more thrilling hot hatches/fast estates but, like so many generations of vRS before it, that doesn’t lessen its appeal as a complete package. It’s still fun to drive enthusiastically when the opportunity arises and the rest of the time it’s a high-quality and hugely practical family machine that doesn’t cost a fortune to run.
Skoda Octavia vRS estate
Price: £33,535 (£4,315 as tested); Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, diesel; Power: 197bhp; Torque: 295lb ft; Transmission: Seven-speed DSG automatic; Top speed: 152mph; 0-62mph: 7.4 seconds; Economy: 55.9mpg; CO2 emissions: 132g/km