Slick Octavia passes road test with flying colours

The RS is probably one of the best all-round cars to come on the market


The landscape around us is on a slow roast, cracking and shimmering under a hot July sun. Some way back the road ceased its gentle rise and fall of open farm land and is now climbing into steep rocky crags, looking as much like a Lord Of The Rings special effect as it does a real, corporeal landscape.

It’s actually Wales, but following a day of hot sunshine and long drives it’s starting to feel a bit surreal. Still, the road that runs along the valley floor on the approach to the ferry terminal at Holyhead is twisty, open and mostly smooth so it forms an ideal playground on which to try Skoda’s new Octavia RS.

More desirable
The Octavia is something of an odd beast. It will actually outsell the supposedly more desirable Volkswagen Golf GTI, with which it shares its entire mechanical package. But according to Skoda Ireland, its customer base is largely drawn from lower income brackets than the regular Octavia.

Previous generations of the Octavia RS can essentially be summed up as like a Golf GTI but a bit bigger, a bit cheaper and a bit more practical. All of which is the case with the new version, but more so. It’s a lot bigger than the Golf, with a longer wheelbase and a significantly bigger boot.

Based on the same MQB architecture as the Golf, Audi A3 and Seat Leon helps to keep the Octavia’s weight down to a minimum, and the stiffly-sprung suspension keeps things on an even keel, even when presented with mile after mile of Welsh switchbacks. The steering feels weightier than that of the Golf GTI, as if there’s a little more muscle in its structure. It’s not a thoroughbred sports car by any means, but the spacious Skoda is fun to drive – properly so.

Big, high-backed bucket seats up front mean that long journeys are done without the usual twinges and tweaks of back ache or numb bum and the rear seats are almost equally comfortable. Cruise at the motorway limit and, aside from a lot of tyre roar from those standard 18in rims on coarse surfaces, you may as well be in a limo. Only the firm rebound of the springs as you cross expansion joints reminds you of the RS’s sporting intent.

Solid and reliable
That ride gets a lot firmer around town and there’ll be no mistaking the quality of any road surface you cross, but it’s not overly stiff. And it seems a fair trade-off for the calm and assured body control when you’re in the twisties. In many ways, the Octavia RS now feels rather like a more grown-up version of the old Subaru Impreza Turbo; solid and reliable with a slug of performance and sense of usefulness. The difference of course is that the long-dead Subaru’s thirsty petrol flat-four engine is here replaced by a 184bhp 2.0-litre turbo diesel that mixes strong (but not outrageous) straight-line performance with realistic 55mpg economy and Band A tax bills. That’s a tough package to argue with, but spare a thought for the 2.0-litre petrol turbo version, which packs a throaty 220bhp punch. Sadly, its 142g/km CO2 rating pushes it into Tax Band C, which will make it uncompetitive with the mechanically identical, but cleaner, VW Golf GTI.

Spacious and comfy
Either way, you’re getting one of the best all-round performance cars ever. The Octavia RS is spacious and comfy enough to be your daily family transport, tax and fuel efficient enough to keep the company accountants happy and fast enough to bring a smile to your face. Perhaps only its image holds it back?

The more fashion conscious will possibly prefer the same oily bits with a VW or Audi badge, but the Skoda buyer will genuinely be getting the better package, and at a starting price of €32,745. That makes it very, very hard to come up with a compelling counter-argument.

The lowdown Skoda Octavia RS
ENGINE: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel, 181bhp @ 3,500rpm, 380Nm @ 1,750rpm
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h in 8.2secs
FUEL ECONOMY: Claimed 4.6 L/100km (65mpg)
EMISSIONS: 119g/km (motor tax €200)
PRICE: From €32,745

Tarmac and gravel Hot hatch delivers cool performance
Skoda’s decision to give the new Octavia RS its debut at the Goodwood Festival Of Speed gave us the opportunity to scream along in the Skoda Fabia S2000 rally car.

S2000 is a category that was introduced some years back to try and create a more affordable stratum of international rallying, and it has worked rather well. The well-supported Intercontinental Rally Challenge has grown out of it, and home-grown stars of the like of Chris Meeke and Craig Breen.

Next to me amid the safety scaffolding of the stripped out Fabia cabin is another up-and-coming Irish driver, Robert Barrable. He’s the current Irish and UK Citroen Trophy champ and in 2010 won the Billy Coleman Award.

He confirms through the crackly intercom in my crash helmet that the PR boss of Skoda Ireland has challenged him to “make me squeal like a schoolgirl.” Thanks for that.

Bang! Wallop! Scream! Those trees suddenly look very close as Barrable nails the throttle, dumps the clutch and we’re off. The acceleration is staggering, especially considering we’re on a loose surface in a front-wheel-drive car. The little Skoda is snarling and spitting like a guard dog with bees in its mouth now as he punches and pulls the stubby sequential gearbox selector back and forth. Bang! Wallop! Scream! Bang! Wallop! Scream!

The gravel chips are keeping up a constant field of machine-gun fire on the underside of the car as the Fabia powers along, ducking and diving like a prizefighter avoiding a haymaker. There is never even a second to take stock and assess what’s going on.

The dust kicked up by our tyres envelops the car, but Robert can apparently see ahead well enough to give me advance warning of an approaching jump. I clench everything, hair included, as the Skoda takes off into the air, and just have time to calculate the osteopath bill before we come . . . gliding down.

There’s no crash or impact, just the sense of long, strong springs soaking up the weight of the car and then the acceleration starts again.

“How was that” Barrable asks me as I undo the strap and ease my portly frame out of the size-zero bucket seat.

“Great,” I manage to croak in reply, somewhat unconvincingly while trying to massage some feeling back into my right hand. I’d been gripping the roll cage for moral support with such force that my fingers have momentarily seized into position. It was great too, massive fun and utterly terrifying at the same time. I still cannot believe the performance you can get from a small, front-drive hatch when the race shop boys are let loose on it.

And the screaming? Oh, that was the gearbox. Honest, it was.