This is an origins story, which means it’s all about comparing and contrasting between old and new. Taking an original and tracing its DNA through the subsequent generations, discovering not only how a car has evolved, but also how it has stayed the same. Is it still true to the original formula? But when looking at the Octavia vRS, it’s impossible not to begin by comparing it with another original: the original in fact. The Golf GTI. Now, we all know that the Golf GTI was a seminal car: it set the scene for the hot hatch genre we know today. It was the go-to all-rounder. A car that could ferry kids and kit about Monday to Friday, then outgun MGBs on Sunday. For its first two generations the package was unsurpassed, but in 1991 we got the Mk3, which changed the formula.
It was bloated and that diminished this once lithe and sprightly pup. The Mk3 gave way to the Mk4 in 1997, but that didn’t claw back much of the original’s agility or hot hatch credibility. It had plus points. For example, it was one of the best - if not the best - built Golfs ever, with an interior that would be left untouched in a nuclear blast zone, and it had sumptuous details, like dials backlit with wonderful blue hues. Now, all that was a boon for those looking for an everyday hatchback, but when it came to slapping a GTI badge on the back, people craved more. Of course they did. High expectations are what happens when you’ve built not just a reputation but a genre.
The point in time we’re talking about is the late 1990s, and getting back to Skoda, it had a history, too. But unlike VW’s, which was largely positive, Skoda’s wasn’t at that time – at least not here in the west. We all remember the jokes – jokes that were up there with the ones about Ladas and ‘Ya mum’ when it came to giving a good old slating. Need a reminder? Here’s one: ‘What do you call a Skoda at the top of a hill? A miracle’. Boom boom, as Basil Brush would say.
This was ignorant, of course. Skoda had a long and proud history of making quality cars dating back to 1905. It had many successes in motorsport, too, including the RAC Rally, where it consistently won the classes it entered from the 1970s. Yet all most of us saw was the image of a red-oxide, rear-engined Rapid looking sad and steamy at the side of the road. But the beauty of being at the bottom, as Skoda was back then, compared with sat on the pedestal on which VW was perched, is there’s only one way to go, which is up. And that was indeed the direction of travel.
After The Wall came down there was a lot of wrangling between western car manufacturers to wrestle control of Skoda from the Czech government. BMW, Fiat, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Volvo and, of course, VW, all wanted a piece of the action and were furiously filing business plans. By 1991, VW had won the boardroom battle. It had bought a 30 per cent share, which it planned to grow steadily over the decade until it had Skoda sewn up lock, stock and barrel by 2000. Halfway through that period, the Octavia was born – the first Skoda with the springboard of Wolfsburg’s R&D budget.
Renault’s plans were to make Skodas on old Renault platforms, but the new Octavia sat on the same PQ34 platform as the Mk4 Golf and, for that matter, the Audi A3 from the period. And what were the expectations? All Skoda buyers were hoping for was an honest, affordable price and something that wasn’t crap. Well, with mechanicals of that quality, it certainly wasn’t, and Octavia sales boomed. But Skoda wasn’t content with this already mighty leap. It wanted more: a model to celebrate its motorsport history. So in a little corner of the factory at Mladá Boleslav, work started on a sportier version.
It would be called the Octavia RS in most of the world, harking back to cars like its 130 RS, where those letters stood for Rally Sport. Ford UK had a bit of a strop about that, though, so to stop things going legal – a battle Skoda didn’t need and was unlikely to win – the company stuck a little ‘v’ for victory in front of those two famous letters.
What we got was, essentially, a Mk4 Golf GTI ‘Plus’. The Octavia looked the part – it was styled discreetly, elegantly even, so as not to rouse too much interest, which gave it plenty of wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing appeal. And it was just that, because it had more power and torque than the Mk4 Golf GTI. Rather than using the GTI’s Audi-designed 1.8-litre 20-valve turbo with 150hp and 155lb ft, somehow, Skoda had managed to wangle the AUQ version. This produced 180hp and had 173lb ft of torque. So yes, the vRS, like the Golf GTI, was still relatively heavy by the standards of the day, but it had more brawn to compensate.
The EA113’s a good engine, too. Not legendary, like the high-revving box of tricks you’d find lurking under the bonnet of an EP3 Type R. It’s more stoic than that; more beefy than peaky. It all starts with plenty of low-end, turbocharged muscle, so there’s no need to wind it up to make great strides across the countryside – just keep it smack-bang between 2,000 and 5,000rpm and you’ve got all the flexibility you need. But, of course, you’ll want to wind it up just for the hell of it. And when you do it still revs to the 6,500rpm redline keenly, but don’t expect an enlivening four-pot bark. It doesn’t do that, although it’s not untuneful, either.
Because the engine is so flexible the five-speed ‘box doesn’t need your constant attention. It’s a good ‘box, mind, albeit without being the last word in tactile pleasure and with an odd-shaped lever. Still, it’s precise and light. In fact, all the controls are. The clutch has an insightful bite point and the brake pedal is easy to judge. On the day of our test, which produced torrents of rain, you could lean on the middle pedal right up to the point of anti-lock assistance and, with a little relaxation in pressure, feel the grip restored.
If you bat away the ESP – with a simple push of a button back in the day – it’s possible to get just a lovely amount of fizz pulling out of a T-junction, too. But, if you go too far over the wrong side of the traction line, the situation becomes irrecoverable with just a gentle lift. The only way to restore purchase is by properly backing off; if you don’t there’s the unpleasant thud, thud, thud of axle tramp that rattles column to your gnashers.
This is the rudimentary side of the vRS’s front end – at least in the wet – and it’s not a lot better when you go to turn in. The steering is quite vague to begin with, so every time you bung it into a corner with gusto on low-grip asphalt it’s like a game of Russian Roulette. Will it grip, or won’t it? Will you crash, or won’t you? If you find there is grip and make it to the heart of a corner, things get better. Once there’s a quarter-turn of lock on and the lateral loadings are rising up through those front McPherson struts, the steering builds reassuring heft. And if you keep chasing the understeering limit the weight will drop off, too, but by then it’s too late.
There’s no interim phase, here; no gentle onset of understeer. There’s just understeer. The binary kind, like you get with a cold set of Cup2 Rs. Funnily enough, the vRS wasn’t on Cup2 Rs, though I reckon the tyres may have been to blame for the staccato grip. When Harry was taking a few pictures I had a look at what was on each corner. I clocked 205/50 17s all round, which is as it should be, but Kumho Ecsta at the front and Lassa Imperius at the rear. As we know, it’s never good to mix and match rubber.
Somewhat perversely, I found myself quite enjoying the perils of the front end, and wasn’t fazed by the body lean and some slightly unnerving body movements if you hit a testing series of bumps mid bend. This was born from the days before adaptive dampers, and a one-size-fits-all suspension set-up. And I can see why these vRS’s often racked up big miles, because it’s very compliant. Sure, you can hear the bumps being dealt with beneath, but the imperfections themselves are seen off very effectively.
Inside, the quality isn’t on the Mk4 Golf’s level. It’s bolted together well but there’s little plushness in the basics beyond a soft-touch dash. All the lower elements are deployed in hard, unyielding plastic and the trim-strip highlights are, if anything, lowlights: cheap, silver-painted plastic that appears to have been through a dot matrix printer. That didn’t stop me enjoying the refreshing simplicity of this Mk1 Octavia’s cabin, to which the vRS adds some choice trinkets as pointers to its status as the range topper.
The Skoda Symphony stereo, for instance, and digital climate controls. The perforated three spoke leather steering wheel, silver-rimmed dials, and part-leather sports seats with their swollen side bolsters that look great. They’re not the best at holding you tightly in corners, though, but they are soft and comfortable all the same. I also like the low scuttle and comparatively uninhibited view out. And the smell, which is essence of old leather and a life well lived.
Right then, on to the current vRS. I’d say the first similarities can be seen from outside. It might be more chiselled than the Mk1, and in this shade of Phoenix Orange it’s not a shrinking violet, but the basic tenet of its design is still clean and classy, and the vRS additions remain restrained. You can trace the lineage inside, too. Although it’s not as robustly put together as it once was, it has the same blueprint of slightly naff trim highlights, soft-touch elements only where necessary, with the majority of plastics feeling somewhat less swanky. But somehow it all works. It doesn’t feel cheap when you’re sitting in it and casting an eye around – although it does when you use the Poundland switches on the centre console. And like the old model, there are touches that differentiate it as a vRS, like red stitching and a strip of Alcantara spread across the dashboard.
The seats are superb. Not just comfortable on a long drive but, with big, firm side bolsters and sturdy shoulder wings, they’re actually bracing, too. Overall, I’d say the Octavia looks plusher than a Golf GTI inside; even though I’ve given the quality a mild bashing, it's no worse than the Golf in that respect, either – simply because VW’s quality has dropped off a cliff.
The motor is the venerable EA888, which, just like the old EA113, can be found gainfully employed throughout the VW Group. It’s in the Golf GTI, of course, the R, and even a Porsche no less: the entry-level Macan, in case you’re wondering. It delivers a similar recipe to the old car, but slightly expanded. There’s more power for a start, with 245hp and 273lb ft, which is plenty. It has similar tractability to the old car, so the performance remains accessible. The difference is that it starts from an even lower point in the rev range, at around 1,500rpm. And it spreads its torquey tentacles all the way into the midrange so it’s invariably responsive and ready to romp off, yet still worth ringing out. The EA888 is unfailingly linear, so there’s no building to a crescendo, but it keeps pulling to peak revs nonetheless.
There’s something different about it; something controversial even: the augmented noise. Now, you can turn this off and, if you do, the EA888 sounds like it always does: gravely and largely insipid. But when the sound booster is on, well, this simple four-pot sounds like…how can I put this? Like a big old V8. I know that’ll upset some people. It’s a flipping full-on folly, of course. But - gulp - I quite like it. I hate false exhaust noise normally, and while the vRS’s note is as honest as snake oil salesman, I have to say, on this occasion I’ll have a bottle, please. And it’s sort of real. The exhaust pulses might not come from eight combusting cylinders, but they are the same off-beat pulses that a V8 would produce – just made by a speaker positioned in the exhaust.
This is all reflective of the vRS getting ever more complex. It has modes for the exhaust, the steering, the engine, and, naturally, the chassis. And not just simple adaptive dampers with a few default settings; you can vary the vRS’s on a sliding scale from the infotainment screen. This is also good, though. It means you can trim them out exactly how you want, from overt spongy comfort at one end, to mildly punishing at the other. I settled on the happy medium of about two-thirds along the scale towards sport. That kept the body control tight (and a big improvement over the old car’s) and the ride firm rather jarring.
It means that, as a general rule of thumb, you can drive the vRS in a committed way. You know it’ll stay settled and surefooted over the ups and downs of a country road. I like the steering, too. What about that EPAS vs. hydraulic debate? Well, from this evidence EPAS wins. The later car is so much easier to read. There’s more connection all the way from the straight ahead, so you don’t feel like you’re rolling a dice every time you enter a bend. It has a lot more grip, too. More than you’d imagine, considering it’s heavier and the tyres aren’t that much wider at 225/40 19. It helps that they’re the same at each corner – Bridgestone Potenzas, for the record. The six-speed manual remains slick, the brakes are progressive and powerful plus, like every Octavia there’s ever been, it offers masses of passenger space and a huge boot that’s accessed via a wide-opening tailgate.
It all makes this current vRS a good hot hatch. Not a great one, admittedly, in the same way that the original wasn’t up there with the best, either, but both are better than you might think. They’re quick enough compared with their contemporaries and lively enough for fun. They offer infallible and generally enjoyable handling (I have no doubt the Mk1 would be immeasurably better on with a decent set of tyres). They’re both ideal long-distance machines, too. Proper all-rounders, you might say, in the mould of a Golf GTI. Except, I’d say, both are better than their GTI equivalents: the Mk1 because it’s quicker, and the current one because it has a classier interior, which as I’ve said, is much, much bigger than any Golf’s. And you still get all that for less cash than the Golf, just like the original.
I’ll be honest: there was a time when I thought VW should’ve ditched the Skoda brand. It should’ve started again, with a new name that moved things on more quickly from the jokes and the jibes. That, by the way, was Renault’s plan, had it taken over Skoda. But I am glad that never happened. I’m glad VW stuck with Skoda, because it feels an honest and authentic brand. Twenty years on, and the sniggering has largely stopped. Sure, I meet people labouring under the impression that Skodas are still crap and I pity their ignorance. The journey the company has taken – to build better and better cars – started here, with the Mk1 Octavia and the vRS. To answer the question at the start, yes, the Octavia vRS has stayed true to its roots. And in my opinion, it’s still better than the Golf GTI. Not bad for cars that people once joked would double in value if you filled them with fuel.
Specification | Skoda Octavia vRS (Mk1)
Engine: 1,781cc 4-cyl turbocharged petrol
Transmission: 5-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 180@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 173@1,950-5,000rpm
0-60mph: 7.6 seconds
Top speed: 144mph
On sale: 2001-2004
Price new: £15,100 (2003)
Specification | Skoda Octavia vRS (MkIV)
Engine: 1,984cc, turbocharged four-cylinder
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 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 from: £33,945
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