Since the arrival of the Mk1 Octavia in 1996, Skodas have slowly but deservedly earned themselves a reputation for being among the most honest and dependable cars on sale. And, almost exclusively in Britain, the marque has also become virtually a mainstream choice for people looking for affordable performance, too. In many UK households, a Skoda is the most sporting car on the driveway. One in five Octavias sold in Britain are badged vRS.
When the first model was launched in 2001, the standard Octavia had already become a storming success with over a million sales. Seeing an opportunity for a halo model to spruce up the range, the brand used its entry into the World Rally Championship with the Octavia WRC to create a hot version of its five-door hatchback. It meant the first vRS-badged Skoda landed with genuine motorsport credentials. Not that you’d have known it at first glance.
Even when given the green light to make something powered by the VW Group’s 180hp 20-valve 1.8-litre engine, Skoda’s designers were careful not to overegg the mature design crafted by Peter Schreyer (who went on to create the first Audi TT). For a model that cost less than £14,000 new, it was targeting buyers wanting a broad, VW Golf-like usability, so illustrating its extra punch with youthful features risked losing a large percentage of customers. The vRS was given new bumpers, 17-inch alloys and a little rear spoiler, along with Skoda-green calipers, but by and large it remained unchanged.
Inside, things were even plainer, with only a set of two-tone, part leather seats and a golf club-like gear lever with the vRS logo illustrating that this was the sportiest variant. The rest was, well, rather boring, but it was also typical of the VW Group breed in that it was brilliantly functional. In contrast to today’s focus-grabbing infotainment systems, the first Octavia came from a time when most ancillary controls were operated outside of the eyeline. Its ease of use satisfied a growing number of faithful, returning customers from all over Europe.
As a sporting model, however, there was clearly intent to expand the Octavia’s remit. To draw in buyers wanting something with added heat, the vRS was given the blown four-cylinder motor that also ended up in the Mk4 Golf GTI, with which it shared the PQ34 platform. Given that the Mk4 GTI had not overcome the weight-related issues of its predecessor, such a setup did not suggest much would come from Skoda’s hot hatch. Yet Skoda’s sporty five-door cost from only £14,000, could sprint from zero to 60mph in just 7.6 seconds and topped out at over 140mph, so it was always going to muster up some interest. Those performance numbers are fairly respectable even by today’s standards – and that price shows just how far up the ladder modern vRSs have climbed…
Time has been good to the Octavia vRS, the simplicity of its look – the clean, horizontal lines of the nose and clutter-free design at the back – has aged remarkably well. The car exudes an innocence that’s been almost completely lost from mainstream car design, but slip inside and that slim boot spoiler in the rear view reminds you that fun things can happen here. Starting the four-cylinder engine is no more dramatic than it would be in a lesser model, nor is pulling away anything different because the motor is barely audible. Skoda’s heritage car, a red 04-plate model, is as fresh as they come. But even it hasn’t managed to avoid the classic Skoda minicab squeaky clutch pedal syndrome; probably fixable with a spray of WD40 although we think the noise adds to the car’s budget charms.
That being said, there’s nothing budget about the way the Skoda rides. The 1,325kg car uses MacPherson front struts with coil springs and a torsion beam rear setup, with an anti-roll bar to stiffen things up further at the back. And you know what? At normal pace the ride is remarkably supple, with that lovely rubberised feel to the damping that cars of this era were so good at offering. On a rough Oxfordshire B-road there’s nothing to challenge the setup’s ability to soak it all up, with the 205-width tyres, Khumo Ecsta HMs wrapped around the 10-spoke wheels, feeling more than well matched to the task.
The engine offers a surprising amount of low-down grunt, but really wind it up and it’ll pull happily to 6,000rpm. The redline starts at about 6,500rpm, but spinning the crank that fast is unnecessary because the meat of the performance is to be had between 3,000rpm and 5,500rpm. It’s never set your hair on fire quick – and offers nothing like the explosive top-end of an EP3 Type R – but the 20v unit has such a wide window of performance it makes keeping up momentum along a route an effortless practice. In requires less work from the five-speed manual, which in our car feels tight and precise, even if the odd-shaped lever feels slightly awkward in the palm.
Then there’s the car’s hydraulic steering, which provides genuine feedback from the front axle under load, and inspires enough confidence to keep up that momentum through the bends. You sit fairly high and straight in the bolstered chairs with good visibility, the thin-rimmed, leather-wrapped wheel ahead putting a sizeable space between your hands, allowing you to rotate the fronts with great precision. At 1.7 metres wide the Octavia’s also compact enough for you to place it on a British B-road well within the boundaries of its white lines, shorten the lines through bends and, when the corner tightens enough, explore the chassis’s playfulness.
Because yes, this is a Skoda that will offer a small but satisfying amount of rotation at the rear, once you switch off the ESP – labelled ASR for ‘Anti-Slip Regulation’ in typically sensible Skoda fashion. The vRS is not a car to bite you in the backside, the way it lets go at the rear is too predictable for that. Instead, it is so sweetly balanced that it rewards smooth inputs to the controls. In this way, while outright grip is not exceptionally high, it’s remarkably easy – and satisfying – to really press on along a technical route, where you can relish in the chassis’s ability to soak up bumps and smooth over dips with great body control. There’s roll, but only to a certain degree, after which the damping holds the mass above it with admirable consistency.
Quite often - and not unusually for the era - it shames the brittle, unyielding rides of current-day hot hatches and reminds us of the simple joys associated with a machine that has components so beautifully matched. The Mk1 Octavia vRS’s nonchalance has, arguably, prevented it from stealing the limelight like the livelier alternatives of its world, such as the Type R and Clio 182. But as a package, nothing from this era and price range can match the Octavia’s breadth of overall ability. And we’ve not even touched on the spaciousness of its cabin and convenience of its hatched boot, or the ease at which the motor can achieve fuel economy in the high 30s.
It might not be the car to get you crawling out of bed at 6am to go for a drive, but it’s entirely capable of surprising you on what would otherwise have been a mundane trip - which has remained a hallmark of the model for subsequent generations. Certainly we'd recommend that Skoda's engineers revisit the vRS's starting point before they start signing off the next stripe of fast Octavia. Not least because they plainly got it right at the first time of asking.
SPECIFICATION - SKODA OCTAVIA VRS
Engine: 1,781cc 4-cyl turbocharged petrol
Transmission: 5-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 180@5,500
Torque (lb ft): 173@1,950-5,000rpm
0-60mph: 7.6 seconds
Top speed: 144mph
On sale: 2001-2004
Price new: £14,000 (est)
Price now: from £1,200