Using a title like “Octavia First Thoughts” would have been incredibly misleading since I have the car nearly a year, so I had to call this post something else. What with lying on my back in the garage with an angle grinder under a dusty WRX, I haven’t had a chance to jot down some thoughts on my Octavia VRS.
Why an Octavia VRS?
Well, the faithful, trusted, labrador-like Avensis was always a tool of necessity rather than desire. Bought to make commuting to work a financially viable exercise compared to pedalling a WRX for hundreds of miles per week, the Avensis made loads of sense. It was cheap to run, reliable, had a huge capacity in estate form and did everything that was asked of it, competently, assuredly and without fuss. What it lacked, however was involvement and anything resembling emotional connection. I could have lived with this for another while but the labrador was ageing. Last year it became quite hesitant under load, despite me cleaning the EGR annually. A fuel filter and 4 injectors later (the guts of €2k) didn’t improve things. Approaching 300,000km, a new job and the likelihood of a clutch and/or DMF, along with the need to sort that hesitancy (turbo? electrical fault?) meant it was time to look at a change.
So what were the criteria for the replacement? It had to be more powerful or more engaging than the Avensis, needed to be up to the family duties, have a decent payload for hardware/IKEA/recycling centre runs, oh and the budget was less than €20k including trade-in. These criteria ruled out the Koreans, most of the Japanese (except the Mazda6), the Mondeo didn’t do it for me, which left the Germans predominantly. I did think long and hard about an Insignia which seemed to tick lots of boxes, and seemed to offer incredible value. Two things mitigated against it, it didn’t seem to score highly on engagement and around the time I was following a project in Car Mechanics magazine which detailed how a small part failure led to a complete engine rebuild. I was intending to put up big miles on whatever I bought so it needed to be able to take a hacking. So what about the German machinery? I had narrowed it down to 520d, E220CDI A6, A5 sportback, Passat CC, Leon ST FR (Spanish, I know) and Octavia VRS. I eliminated the Passat on the basis that the prices were inflated and the model I could afford was looking a bit old in the tooth. The Audi would appear to do everything ok but seemed overpriced for what it was. The E220CDI seemed well priced but I couldn’t reconcile the old man image associated with it. A5 sportback seemed to be an ideal solution but too small in the back seats for the munchkins and the boot was too small. I drove a Leon on holidays and really liked it – it was a fabulous car that did everything competently and assuredly, especially in DSG form. The interior however, didn’t seem conducive to spending lots of time covering long distances and the rear legroom was a bit compromised for the kids. I thought long and hard about a 520d but the ones I could afford would be long in the tooth and most were in the demographic that meant I might be forking out for timing chain work or worse. The other thing that annoyed me about the 520d is how common they are – which is probably a testament to their ability – but I’m a petrolhead and I wanted something a little less common. Which is why I settled on a VRS
Why this VRS?
Having settled on a VRS, the next question was which one? Evo magazine ran one on their fast fleet a while back and pointed out that the DSG box mated to the 184 PS engine didn’t quite match as well as they could have, with a particular issue when pulling out at roundabouts where low speed seemed to confuse the box and it got caught between ratios. Not where you want to be when finding a gap at a roundabout. Manual it was then. At the time of purchase, sterling had been weakened due to the political events next door but while keeping an eye on the market here, a one-owner VRS in black came up for sale with a keen enough price. This particular model was better priced than its Skoda Approved equivalent which I’d test driven and I was offered a really good conditional price on the Avensis over the phone. The test drive convinced me this was the car for me once it was straight. The price looked even better when you consider the car had a number of extras – leather sport seats, privacy glass and a Canton upgraded stereo. Inspecting the car there were a couple of minor dings, and two tyres needed replacing so with those factored into the deal, we shook hands. Having spent most of my life favouring and driving Japanese cars, it was time to experience VAG machinery for the first time as an owner.
First impressions from the outside are that it’s a well proportioned car. The sporty bumper and (fake) twin exhaust trims hint at it being a little different than the normal Octavia. This theme is continued inside with sports-shaped seats clad in leather with red trim. Some fake carbon fibre inserts in the doors and centre console complete the look.
On the road it’s really well mannered, the ride is good and there’s a good feel of solidity to the car. I was worried the 18 inch alloys might hurt the ride quality but even on bumpy, potholed roads, it lopes along well. When pushed it actually responds quite well, and it takes more provoking than I would have thought to push it into understeer. The tyres aren’t wonderful so it’ll be interesting to see what a decent set of rubber does when I change them coming into the winter. Brakes are good, stopping well when asked with decent feel but I’d imagine fade would be an issue if the brakes were in constant use over a short period of time.
Being a diesel, it does come over all Massey Ferguson when you start it (or open a window) but for those of us whose sporting pretences put us behind the wheel of a diesel, Skoda have helpfully come up with a system that pipes subtly sporty sounds into the interior. This is a matter of preference, some might find it naff, I think it’s fine. Acceleration is brisk without being spleen-bursting and flicking it into VRS mode gives a nice wave of torque (and enhanced growl from the stereo – bwaaaaaarp), making progress swift, unfussy and brisk but you won’t be fooled into thinking you’re driving a Group N rally car. There is a flat spot around 1500-2000 rpm which is more pronounced in VRS mode, so I’m sure its something a competent engine mapper could smooth out but it’s not so noticeable as to be frustrating. The gearshift is solid, again quite useable and precise but not the rifle bolt action of some other hot hatches or performance saloons.
All in all, it’s a really impressive machine which is perfect for myself and the hordes of loyal followers who have driven and continue to drive the VRS model. A family car with a subtly sporty appearance, 184PS with 54mpg and a nice wave of torque to make real world performance more than acceptable, Isofix, loads of safety kit and a massive boot. Simply clever, as the advertising campaign puts it. Having said that, if I could get 55 mpg and cheap tax out of an Evo 9, or a low mileage 530d for less than what it’d cost to put the kids through college, I’d happily pedal something more left-field.