The Skoda Octavia vRS has always been a hard car to argue against, especially so as an estate. Its combination of talents has usually turned out to be as amenable as its load space, typically combining performance, practicality, hard-wearing quality, and - most notably in the last generation - a decent drive as well. Throw very competitive value into the mix and it's easy to see why the vRS wagons have found so many fans, from school runners to police interceptors.
That level of widespread popularity does present Skoda with a not unwelcome problem: how to update the formula so a right-thinking audience considers it worth upgrading, without changing it so radically that those same people start to wonder what else might be out there. Which is all the more crucial as we head into 2021 as recent alternatives like the Ford Focus ST estate are not themselves short of objective qualities.
Fundamentally, the new vRS follows the blueprint laid down by the new Cupra Leon and Golf GTI derivatives. Underpinned by the latest 'Evo' versions of both the MQB architecture and the EA888 2.0-litre turbo, this Octavia makes 245hp and 273lb ft, resulting in 0-62mph in 6.7 seconds and 155mph. Which, unsurprisingly, makes it about as fast as the old 245hp Octavia vRS. No bother, really, because there was no issue with the previous car's performance; it's just a little odd to see as we've become so used to cars getting faster and faster. A six-speed manual is standard, although our test car featured the optional seven-speed DSG. Elsewhere in the range you can have all-wheel drive but only as an option on the 200hp diesel, and the vRS is also offered as a hybrid for the very first time.
The flagship petrol model does not make an overbearing first impression. We counted this in the car's favour. Even against the Golf with which it shares so much, the Octavia is more logical and intuitive inside, with a few extra buttons making a noticeable difference to ease of use. Bar a couple of tech mishaps during its time with us (including a complete reset at one point of the 10-inch central screen) the Octavia's is exactly the kind of interior you would expect and hope to find in a Skoda vRS. The seats are great, the perceived quality good enough and the design appropriately mature yet desirable enough for those who don't much like the look of the Ford. Who knew green interior lighting could look quite so classy? Certainly, when it's six o'clock on a Saturday morning and there are 300 miles to do, the Octavia's cabin is difficult to find fault with.
Its road manners are equally agreeable: the Octavia lopes along quietly and comfortably on the motorway at 40mpg, the shift-by-wire DSG automatic is dutiful and any passengers in the back are treated to enormous amounts of room. Plus 600 litres of boot space. So far, so Skoda. It's when you deviate off the motorway that the changes to this fourth-generation vRS make themselves known. While retaining its mellow, refined, commodious side, the Octavia wagon is noticeably more capable when it comes to twistier roads as well.
Chiefly that's due to the improvements at the front axle; like its Golf GTI compatriot, this Skoda has noticeably greater bite and tenacity when it comes to the powered wheels. Although standard progressive steering reduces the ratio from 2.7 turns lock-to-lock to 2.13, the vRS doesn't feel wantonly eager at the wheel like a Focus ST. Rather the improvements come in traction and outright grip, this vRS hanging on much more doggedly and retaining any lost composure sooner, the combination of VAQ electronic diff locking and revised traction control feeling considerably more cohesive and effective than before. Previously the assists might intervene before the VAQ could do its thing, or the latter could disturb the work of the former - here the alliance of the two feels more collaborative.
And it means the pace you can carry in a fairly innocuous looking Skoda is enormous. As with the Golf, there's a greater breadth of settings for the adaptive dampers, meaning body movements can be ruthlessly tied down in a manner they couldn't before. The brakes are mightily effective and even the Sport steering doesn't spoil the show with excess resistance in the way it so often can. Some might bemoan the missing all-wheel drive for the 245hp vRS but, honestly, on this experience (with summer tyres, too) it really doesn't feel like it will be much missed.
Furthermore, while the same criticisms that were levelled at the Golf can be applied here, they seem considerably less irksome in a family estate car than in the original hot hatch. Call it a question of remit. The engine noise still drones (although here is very quiet), but that hardly seems a dealbreaker. The paddles for the automatic are again small and cheap - and the gear display is barely visible - but this is surely a car unlikely to leave auto mode. And, yes, perhaps a little more life from the brake pedal and the steering wheel would be nice. But those are hardly deal breakers in a model that has never sold itself as a paragon of driver involvement.
No, the vRS is all about doing things easily well enough to impress everyone not at all interested in its limits, while offering just enough extra ability to satisfy those who are. In that regard, the latest version qualifies as a very successful overhaul, most notably in the handling department. That improvement might not prove much of an advantage against the gathering tide of SUVs waiting to pinch the fast wagon's USP, but it's nice to see that it hasn't put Skoda off making what could be the best Octavia yet. That Focus ST twin test should be very interesting indeed.
SPECIFICATION | SKODA OCTAVIA VRS
Engine: 1,984cc, turbocharged four-cylinder
Transmission: 7-speed DSG, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 245@5,000-6,700rpm
Torque (lb ft): 273@1,600-4,300rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,475kg (DIN, without driver)
Price: £32,695 (£33,620 with Dynamic Chassis Control dampers)
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