Four. In a row. That’s how many times Skoda have been voted ‘Best Manufacturer’ in the Auto Express Driver Power customer satisfaction survey. That’s impressive.
From the responses of 29,000 readers the Yeti was voted the most satisfying car to own in the 2012 survey, with the Superb and Octavia in second and fourth places respectively, sandwiching the Mercedes E-class in third. After a week with the Skoda Octavia vRS I’m wondering why it didn’t beat the Mercedes.
In case you’ve forgotten, the vRS badge is Skoda’s equivalent to GTI or VXR. It’s the sporty model which, in the Octavia’s case, comes with a choice of petrol or diesel engines, both 2.0-litres in capacity, both turbocharged and both available with a choice of six-speed manual or DSG automatic gearboxes. I’ve been driving the diesel version mated to a six-speed manual.
The Octavia vRS has always been a master of subtlety, not shouting about its performance but instead just getting on with the job of travelling quickly without fuss. It’s a good sign if a car is chosen for duty by Her Majesty’s Constabulary and for many years the unmarked Octavia vRS has been a thorn in the side of speeding motorists. If the Octavia vRS is good enough for the Police, does that make it good enough for those of us with a bit of petrol running through our veins?
This face-lifted version of the Mk2 Octavia loses a little of the subtlety thanks to two rows of LED running lights. Personally I think they’re a bit garish, but then I’ve never been a huge fan of the fashion for increasingly bright LEDs. The vRS is inflicted with them as standard and that makes it easy to spot from the front, making it difficult for the Police to sneak up on you from behind thanks to the tell-tale glow in your mirror.
From the rear the only giveaways are the small boot badge and a pair of chrome-tipped exhausts poking out from under the bumper. Look at the vRS from the sides and there’s very little to give the game away other than a set of red brake calipers tucked inside the 18-inch alloys. That makes it perfect for sneaky traffic cops, sitting in the left-hand lane and cruising at 60mph as they wait for their next victims to come flying by.
Now you may think that the Boys in Blue are driving around in Skodas because they’re cheap, but there’s more to their choice of car than the constraints of budget cuts. Yes, at a shade over £20k the Octavia is cheap when you look at the competition but that doesn’t mean that it feels cheap. One of the first things you notice when you climb inside is that the door shuts with a satisfying ‘thunk’. Most cars do that to some extent these days, but the Octavia has nailed that reassuring feeling of solidity.
That feeling continues as you settle into the driving seat. The steering wheel is suitably chunky and is covered in perforated leather that rests nicely in the palm. All the switches operate with a reassuring action that feels Germanic in its precision, but that’s not unexpected considering that the Octavia’s mechanicals and electrics are sourced from the Volkswagen parts bin.
The dashboard is a swathe of grey and black, broken only by the shiny black trim that runs from door to door via the dashboard. It’s not a cabin that shouts ‘performance model’ but it is comfortable and it feels like it could stand up to a good deal of wear and tear.
On The Road
The Octavia vRS had a very busy week in my care and covered over 700 miles. It started with a lengthy motorway slog, ended with an early morning dawn raid, and had commuting and a family day trip thrown in for good measure. The Octavia took it all in its stride and did everything that was asked of it without the slightest hint of complaint or problem.
On the motorway the Octavia is brilliant. The diesel engine settles into a quiet thrum in the background and the ample torque makes easy work of cruising at a fast motorway pace with no gear changes necessary. It’s as happy to cruise at 50mph in sixth as it is at 70mph and all it takes is a gentle squeeze of the throttle to be mixing it with the salesmen and Astra vans in the fast lane. While you’re doing this the trip computer is recording mid to high 50s on the instant economy reading.
In commuting mode the Octavia vRS works just as well. The suspension copes admirably with the worst of the decaying road network while the light gear change and clutch make crawling in rush-hour traffic a painless affair. The radio system, the entry level Bolero, works well but it does lack steering-wheel controls as standard. These are available as an option which is a shame as it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect them as standard on a £20k car.
On my daily 60 mile commute the Octavia was returning over 50mpg, an excellent figure when you consider the performance it can deliver when you see a rare gap in the traffic. It was a great place to sit back and unwind after a long day in the office, dual-zone air conditioning set to the ideal temperature and tunes being fed into the stereo via the sockets in the centre console.
As a workhorse the Octavia is supremely capable. That estate body shape allows you to throw in all manner of gear, whether it be a weekly shop or the huge pile of ‘essentials’ for taking the kids on a trip to the seaside.
It’s Not All Work, Work, Work
I’ve established that the Skoda Octavia is a great motorway cruiser, commuting tool and load lugger, but the Octavia vRS wants to be more than that. The vRS badge suggests it has a fun side too, and that means it’s time to set the alarm clock for an early run into the Peak District. I’m up before the sun and, with breakfast inside me and a flask of strong coffee inside the Octavia’s boot, I set off onto empty roads.
This is where the Octavia really starts to shine. The 2.0-litre diesel unit is one of the best on the market, with none of the tell-tale clatter so readily associated with diesels. It’s an incredibly strong engine and while the power output of 168bhp might not seem like much the 258 lb/ft of torque gives it great flexibility.
The six-speed manual gearbox is light and easy to use although it can feel a little notchy at times. You don’t get that connected feel that you would with the best manual shifters but it’s a minor complaint.
The steering is well weighted and avoids the overly assisted feel of a lot of modern cars. Responses from the front are quick and the 18-inch wheels find plenty of grip, even in the near-freezing conditions of this surprisingly chilly May morning.
Out in the middle of the Derbyshire Dales I get a chance to push the Octavia vRS, free of the constraints of rush-hour traffic. For a mid-size estate car that weighs 1,410kg it feels remarkably composed and even the dips and bumps of these back roads aren’t enough to put the Octavia off its stride. The engine is remarkably strong as long as you keep it between 2,000 and 4,000 rpm, and the Octavia can hustle along at a pace to rival many hot hatchbacks.
It takes a lot to faze the vRS and only once did it feel like the damping was struggling to cope on a stretch of closely-spaced humps. For the most part it feels stable and composed, especially when you push on the brake pedal. The brakes are easily up to the job of dealing with the Octavia’s mass, encouraging you to approach corners at higher and higher speeds.
In this environment the Octavia lives up to the promise of that vRS badge. On the same roads the petrol-engined version would most likely feel sportier, with it’s greater rev range and 208bhp, but don’t think the diesel is a second-class alternative.
The Final Reckoning
The Skoda Octavia vRS is very much like a Swiss Army knife. It has the tools at its disposal to cope with anything that modern motoring can throw at it. Comfortable over long distances, capable of lugging large loads, plenty of space for passengers and it’s a hoot to drive as well.
It was only when I came to write up this review that I spotted one astounding fact. The official EU combined mpg for the estate vRS is 49.6mpg. The figure shown by the trip computer at the end of my week showed 50.1mpg, averaged over 720 miles. So the Octavia vRS managed to beat the official figures, even after the very uneconomical run out into the Peak District. Admittedly it’s the trip computer’s calculation and I didn’t get to verify it by brimming the tank, but it is still very impressive.
Add to that the fact that the Octavia vRS is relatively cheap to buy and enjoys strong values on the second-hand market and you have a package that makes sense in so many ways.
So how did the Mercedes E Class beat the Octavia in that Auto Express survey? Certainly not by being better value for money so perhaps it’s all about those LED lights. Mercedes love to adorn their cars with more fancy lighting than Blackpool pleasure beach. As much as I hate to suggest it, perhaps Skoda should consider adding a few more to the Octavia. It might be enough to sway the judges next year.
Skoda Octavia vRS Scores
|PERFORMANCE||Strong, flexible, accessible performance.||8|
|HANDLING||Handles like a hot hatch||8|
|AFFORDABILITY||Good price, reasonable spec, low running costs||8|
|DESIRABILITY||I love its discrete underdog status||7|
|FUN FACTOR||It is fun, but perhaps a bit too sensible at times||7|
Skoda Octavia vRS Specifications
|Engine:||1,968cc 4-cyl Turbo Diesel|
|Kerb Weight:||1,410 kg|
|Top Speed:||140 mph|
|CO2 Emissions:||149g/km (Band F)|
|Official Economy:||49.6 mpg|
|Actual Economy:||50.1 mpg|
|Distance Covered:||720 miles|
|Price (as tested):||£21,260*|
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*Prices taken from Skoda website, May 2012