You probably won’t be surprised to hear that vRS-badged models account for 20 per cent of Skoda Octavia sales in Britain. In fact, almost one in ten Octavias ever made have come to the UK - and our love affair with the model’s sportiest variant is second only to Germany’s. As far as volume is concerned, it’s a classic example of a well-priced, fast and practical car making eminent sense to the masses. Certainly the manufacturer’s confidence in the model is high.
This does not mean continued success is guaranteed, of course. Not since Skoda started overtly testing the limit of its desirability. Case in point: the vRS version of the Kodiaq - a generously equipped and capably brisk SUV, but also one wearing a £40k price tag - which turned out to not be a combination universally applauded in the always objective forums. Soft ground then for the introduction of a high-spec vRS Challenge trim level at £30,085; a starting price which makes it just £1,915 shy of the hallowed (and much quicker) Volkswagen Golf R.
From a pure performance perspective, things don’t get off to a particular impressive start either, because the range-topper gets no more trouser length than the regular 245 variant – which costs almost two-grand less. Under the bonnet is the same EA888 turbocharged 2.0-litre offering 245hp and 237lb ft of torque, delivering the same 0-62mph time of 6.6 seconds in both six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG forms (it’s a tenth more for the estate).
What the Challenge gains, then, is in the fine print. There are 19-inch wheels in black as standard, Skoda’s VAQ ‘diff’ and DCC adjustable damping is standard fitment, plus, there's a more vocal sports exhaust and you get lots of black trim inside and out, as well as bespoke black vRS badges and parking sensors. Inside, it’s mostly top-spec 245, but those purposeful-looking and hip-hugging electric sports seats are now wrapped in Alcantara and heated, while there’s a leather-wrap for the vRS wheel. In total, Skoda says the added bits would cost a 245 buyer £4,535 in options, but it’s charging only £3,460 more as a nice little send off for the present Octavia generation, which will be replaced in about a year.
Consequently the Challenge is a smart thing to behold, and is certainly no contradictor of the subtle styling approach that the vRS is typically known for. No complaints from the driver’s seat either - or none to do with equipment, at any rate. The seats are standout items now and they are well complimented by the fruiter tone coming from the sports exhaust on start-up. This will inevitably disappear in the Octavia’s well-mannered default setting, but returns when Sport mode is selected - albeit in synthesised tones from the speakers, rather than the exhaust.
You’ll be wanting Sport regardless because this is where the engine and diff are at their most energetic. For a car that drives its front axle exclusively and can swallow up to 1,740 litres of luggage with its back seats down, the Challenge doesn’t half feel light on its feet. Even on a sunny April morning the front end’s bite is strong and the diff’s ability to juggle torque is impressive - up to a point. Ask too much and the inside driven wheel can quickly over rotate, even when you’re in third gear driving out of a bend, and it doesn’t happen with much warning, so you’re not really able to effectively manage it.
That’s always been true of the vRS, and rather than extracting every last drop of performance, the car encourages you to relish the security and momentum of its torque curve rather than chasing peak power. For this reason, even the best-specced Challenge won’t leave you giggling with excitement - but it will get you from A to B at great pace and with minimal mechanical drama once you learn to work around its quibbles. And when you consider the enormous extent of space behind you, the fact it can do this so well is worthy enough of high praise.
Wind it all back and - as ever - you’ve got a comfortable, effortless and frugal car that, with the DCC set to Comfort, rides perfectly well even on its larger rims and blasts down the motorway without fuss. Relative questions about the model’s specialness are not invalid - overwhelming familiarity with the immediate surroundings doesn’t help - but not once did we internally question the beyond-£30k price tag. The current vRS does most things too capably for it not to feel roughly at eye level with the current crop of almost direct rivals.
If anything, the car is now limited as much by its powertrain than anything else. If Skoda had successfully argued the case for a 300hp, all-wheel drive version of the Octavia (as Seat did with the Leon Cupra wagon) you’d be looking at the bargain of the decade. Instead, what we’ve got is a fast, comfortable, well-made and highly practical model justifiably breaking through its previous price ceiling by a few PCP quid a week. Credible then, but still ultimately an appeal to the head. Skoda will have to work harder in the next generation if wants to win hearts, too.
SPECIFICATIONS - SKODA OCTAVIA ESTATE VRS 245 CHALLENGE
Engine: 1,984cc four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto (DSG), front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 245@5,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 273@1,600rpm
Top speed: 152mph