Photography by Richard Pardon
The VW Golf GTI seems to be the question to most answers and answer to most questions, and this new one looks in danger of becoming not just ubiquitous, but wearily omnipotent. Trying to break that stranglehold though are the new Skoda Octavia vRS and the Kia Proceed GT. It would be nice if one of them could pull it off, just for a change as much as anything else.
We’ve got a pretty basic GTI in this test, with three doors, a six-speed manual gearbox and no trick diff or Performance Pack, which means 217bhp at 4500rpm from its turbocharged 2.0-litre engine. The only option is the touchscreen nav system, at £1135, which brings the price up to nearly £27,000. Which, come to think of it, is rather a lot for pretty basic GTI.
The Octavia is running the same engine, but through a DSG gearbox, and costs £1200 less as standard – although this one has more optional extras on it, so it’s marginally even more expensive than the Golf.
The Kia has a turbocharged 1.6-litre motor, developing 201bhp, and in this Tech spec comes in at only £22,495 with nav as standard. It’s also a great looking car, with raised hips and those ice cube daytime lights. Alongside the rather conservative Golf and the hefty Octavia, which suffers from some pretty aftermarket-looking alloys and fake exhausts, it is by far the sexiest looking machine.
But it’s not just about looks is it? Before worrying about all the everyday stuff, we gave them a bit of a thrash, and instantly a pecking order appeared, with the Kia looking way off the pace.
The issue with the Kia is that the weights and feel of the touchpoints are all wrong. The gearchange is light and notchy, performing the job but without any relish, and the hard, thin steering wheel pings back to its centre position with a rubbery boing, and there’s never much resistance to turn against. What little there is doesn’t feel like it has been generated by the scrub of rubber on Tarmac, either.
I’m pretty sure I’m not a 17-year-old learner again, but I stalled and kangarooed the Kia more than I did my mum’s poor old Renault 5. The problem is the Proceed GT has got less torque than a hand whisk (ironically you can have a torque meter display as one of the dials), and light, springy clutch and accelerator pedals.
On the track, which allows you to consistently test these things, the over-riding impression of the Proceed GT is a lack of consistency. In each braking zone the initial push of the middle pedal is an exploration, a discussion of whether more pressure might, or might not, be needed. It’s just so mushy, compared to the crispness of the VW Group cars.
The same can be said of the handling. It is accentuated in wet conditions, but drive the same corner hard a dozen times and each time you’ll end up having a new experience: swingeing oversteer followed by dopey understeer, or vice versa. It might be as much to do with the choice of tyres as anything else though, but when it’s pushed the Kia responds eccentrically, and the traction control cuts in rudely – so much so it makes the dash vibrate. And then there’s the thrashy engine note, which isn’t very pleasant.
At the other end of the scale is the Octavia. Although it is on the same platform as the Golf, the wheelbase is 50cm longer and it’s heavier, the result being that it handles more securely, but more ponderously too. Its natural state is safe understeer, and on the road this set-up translates to swift progress that’s very nicely damped – which is just right for this car. It’s not exactly a track-day special, is it?
The Golf though, when you get it right, gives that lovely impression of the front and rear in harmony. With better brakes, keener acceleration, lovely precise steering and such poise you can make a number of small, constant alterations mid-bend without upsetting it. The one irritation on track is that you can’t entirely switch the traction system off, but it tends to nibble around the edges to help out rather than stride in and take over. But with a beefy exhaust note and accurate gearchanges, it’s a car that just gets better and better the more you drive it.
And it gets better the more you live with it, too. A lot has been made of VW Group’s new ‘MQB’ platform and the way it allows space to be freed up, and it’s in this three-door car where it’s at its most obvious. There is so much space in the front, you can climb into the back easily, and once there find plenty of legroom too. And the storage volume is excellent: little things such as the width of the door bins and the depth of the cubby holes in the dash. Even James Herriot doesn’t stick his hand in such deep, dark recesses.
So the Golf is surprisingly, pleasantly practical, even if it can’t hold a candle to the Octavia, which is from a different planet. It is massive. The 590-litre boot is a vast plain of cheap carpet and rear occupants have almost as much legroom as they might in a Superb. It’s a hatch, and it’s hot, but it’s no hot hatch in the traditional sense.
I’m not entirely sure about the neoprene seat coverings, although those who suffer from incontinence might think differently, but they are superbly comfortable on the long haul and grippy through a fast bend.
But such is the quality in the new Octavia that it doesn’t feel like a repository for last-generation Volkswagen offcuts anymore. Its infotainment system is crisp, clear and easy to use and the materials throughout are robust, nicely trimmed and well screwed together.
The same could be said of the Kia’s cabin, which is more techy – especially the smart graphics on the displays – and coolly finished with piano black inserts. I could live without the jingle on start-up and switch-off though, which sounds like something from a local TV weather forecast.
What this all means is that the Proceed GT starts well, but more exposure to it throws up all sorts of areas where it’s deficient compared to the other two. But the Golf and Octavia are both superb cars. Anybody choosing the Skoda is getting an extremely fine car, but for me, even at the extra cost, the all-round brilliance of this relatively basic GTI is hard to beat. Some things never change.
Shot at Rockingham – CAR’s race circuit partner. rockingham.co.uk