Monday 16th January 2006


OCTAVIA VRS

Steve Bell samples the Q Car from Skoda

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Did you know that they have just celebrated their hundredth anniversary? Or how about producing their fastest production car to date? Yes, it’s the car of all jokes - Skoda.

Before you start making fun at this one, take a minute to hear the facts. Zero to sixty in 7.5 seconds (Still yawning?) It’ll push 149 mph too. Perked up a bit yet? Hear me out. Having just spent the day driving the new Skoda Octavia VRS, I’m actually mighty impressed.

Ok, it shares around 80% of VW parts, but, and here is the interesting part - to my knowledge the engineers were virtually left alone to fettle with the overall finish of the VRS. Which means the boys at the VW factory have kept their noses out.

I shouldn’t big it up, but as a brand, regardless of being associated with Volkswagen, they have done a fantastic job in getting the finished product absolutely right.

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Let’s start with the looks. Like any impulse buying, our brains are constantly absorbing things around us even if we don’t notice them, and I must say that although the styling is on the bland side, you’ll not forget it the next time you see one on the road. Unlike its predecessor, the new car doesn’t really shout from the rooftops about its appearance.

In a nutshell, with your new VRS, you’ll get a wider, deeper front chin spoiler, smart 17” VRS-only alloy wheels (the test car was fitted with factory optional 18”s) and a discrete boot spoiler. Like all so-called hot hatches now, twin chrome tailpipes are also fitted. As for the engine, Skoda have opted for the 2.0 litre 16 valve turbocharged engine found in an array of VW group cars including the new Golf GTI.

Value

What I liked so much about the previous VRS, was the fact that it was two cars rolled into one, but at a cracking price. The same can be said for the new model too. Standard spec with no options will set you back a mere £17,500 on the road. What has always baffled me is why does the VW group allow Skoda to price their products much lower than the rest of the company fleet?

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You still get exceptional Audi-like build quality, Seat value for money and Golf GTI performance. Look around, and you won’t be able to find an equivalent car for such, and I hate to say it, a bargain. Unlike the exterior, as you step inside you will find your seventeen grand being put to better use. There’s the VRS sports seats, a chunky three-spoke sports steering wheel nicked straight from the Golf, alloy look pedals and a splash of silver covering the dash and door inserts.

On the Road

The real gem is the way that it drives. Picking a good windy B-road is essential if you want to experience what the Octavia has to offer. The first kick between the legs is the power it has available. Although it only produces 197 bhp, the 2.0 litre engine when combined with a sweet close ratio six speeder, feels much faster than the figure quoted in the brochure.

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From a standstill it reels in 60 mph before you have a chance to use the rev range available in third gear. And, to help it catapult off the line, Skoda have tweaked with the throttle response, which means no matter how hard you jab the pedal, it refuses to kick back or jerk. Normally with so much torque available, the nanny state electronics interfere. But despite continually doing lots of standing starts, the front wheels were free to do what they are intended for and got on with gripping the tarmac. The six-speed gearbox, is again, a shared part with its brother and sisters, but it’s one of the finest boxes I have come across in a long time.

Twisties

Steering the VRS through the bends made me realize that you don’t have to fork out £40 or £50K to get such a buzz. The suspension didn’t budge or roll too far even though I was attacking a corners at speed. The chassis gives the feeling of raising its shoulders and hunching down ready for an attack, whilst the suspension tightens making the whole car feel extremely reassuring.

The seats fitted in the new car are not what I would say supportive, but there is enough padding to keep you upright, although I did feel that less of this would cure a high driving position, despite being able to adjust the height. The steering wheel is a little on the large side, but it is firm and comfortable enough give a reasonable feedback, but despite gripping like Velcro, it’s just missing out on being pin point direct.

Having spent the morning briskly driving on the Hook Road just outside of Basingstoke, it was time to slow things down and take in the other side of the VRS. Enjoy it’s handling and performance you will, but try to take a chill pill and enjoy its relaxed side too.

Alter-Ego

Now the VRS becomes car number two. You start to understand why the seats are the way they are. The suspension still remains firm, but somehow transforms and starts to pitch slightly. The chassis exhales and allows the car to roll gently through the bends. The engine becomes whisper quiet, whilst the gearbox is even more of a joy to use. The whole experience is as good as before, but on a slower scale.

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To sum it up the Octavia VRS is a cracking car. Well two cars in fact. Your £17,500 is going to go a long way. Don’t be put of just because it wears a Skoda badge. Remember, it’s backed up with a three-year warranty, the servicing charges are extremely reasonable and your getting Audi build quality at half the cost of the Four Rings. It will without doubt fulfil the most extreme petrol head. Oh, and did I mention that it reminds me of a Porsche 996..?