► The all-things-to-all-people estate is back
► Benefits from updated Octavia's interior
► 2.0-litre TSI hits all the right notes despite being quieter
Schrodinger's facelift – the simultaneously easy and difficult task of replacing an already brilliant car like the Skoda Octavia vRS Estate. Easy because there isn't much that needs fixing, difficult because unless you change something everyone will ask why they should bother buying the new one.
Unsurprisingly the basic recipe here is untouched – the vRS remains a cheaper, more practical and easier-to-live-with version of the VW Golf GTI. Except this time that claim is strengthened on all points - more luggage space, better refinement, and oily bits shared across both cars from day one. There’s no inferior DSG or lower powered engine for the Skoda.
What’s more, the VAQ clutch pack differential that transformed the old car’s handling is now standard issue, as is a substantially upgraded cabin and a load more tech. Could it be that the vRS is now a better all-rounder than the GTI full stop, rather than with the usual caveats?
Well - is it still massive inside and wicked fast?
The compelling combination of 242hp under the bonnet, 640-litres in the boot and extra knee room in the rear remains. The petrol powered vRS TSI tested here is the purest and as always the least sensible, not least because there’s a forthcoming plug-in hybrid that matches its for power, and a diesel that brings the performance gap even closer than before. And both promise lower fuel bills.
Skoda has gone to some length to make the new TSI a more rational choice though with the promise of greater efficiency from its 2.0-litre turbocharged four pot thanks to increased fuel injector pressure and new piston crowns. Our car stayed resolutely above 30mpg even when driven quickly (when the old model would frequently dip) and hit the mid-30s on a cruise.
It’s also noticeably less vocal than before and for once that’s a good thing, as it suits the Octavia’s role as a more laid back hot hatch alternative. There’s a bit of muscle at the top end of the rev range but none of the synthetic warble piped in via the speakers that the old vRS had. Tyre noise remains, but altogether the cabin's a quieter place.
The power also feels less boosty and the gearbox more decisive, no longer banging down the cogs or holding onto low gears unnecessarily. It’s still a quick car, but the delivery is less dramatic, so it’s even easier to deploy that most vRS of traits – making incredibly speedy progress without your passengers noticing.
Is it exciting to drive?
That depends on your definition of exciting - the vRS has a chassis to match its performance, offering up loads of predictable traction and agile handling, but look elsewhere if you want raw, seat-of-your-pants thrills.
In the dry the front end grip is prodigious and the VAQ diff inconspicuous in its machinations, although there's a bit of slip and slide from the front in the wet, particularly in response to uncareful throttle application mid-bend.
That could be down to the tyres though - it looks like you get Bridgestones from the factory despite the 19-inch wheels (the old vRS had Bridgestones on the 18s, and Pirellis on the 19s). I never got on with these on my old vRS long termer both in terms of wet weather performance and noise.
The steering remains a bit too light but features a variable rack, which is faster than the standard car and slower than, say, a Honda Civic Type R. It’s a similar story in terms of bodyroll too, which is also pitched right down the middle.
Our car had the standard non-adaptive suspension and with no smaller 18-inch wheel option this time I reckon the damper upgrade is essential. While the ride was acceptable enough it was just a touch too jiggly in one sense and too rolly in another, when historically the fancier set up does a better job of both.
All-in-all though the handling hits the perfect middle ground between of tenacious grip and flamboyance - it's more involving than an all-wheel drive Audi S3, less wayward than a Ford Focus ST - so you can pilot what is quite a substantial estate car confidently on your favourite b-road.
Is it nicer inside now?
Much – the quality of the materials feels a lot better and the design is more interesting. The last car was ergonomic enough but drawn with a lot of straight lines, and didn’t feel anywhere near as high-tech as a Golf. The new car is a big upgrade, and one you won’t have to explain away by reminding passengers of the pricetag.
You also get the same 10-inch central screen as the rest of the VW Group and to be honest this takes a bit of getting used to, particularly when the menu and home buttons are on the left hand side, rather than the side nearest the driver. A 10.25-inch digital dial screen is standard in the new car too, but just like last time it doesn’t offer a whole lot more than a decent analogue set up.
As well as looking a bit tired inside the old car was lagging behind in the tech department too – but not here, with LED Matrix headlights and a head-up display, plus driver assist kit like blind spot monitoring, Collision Avoidance Assist which can steer around obstacles and Turn Assist to improve safety around junctions.
The vRS bucket seats are supportive and comfortable and a fully electric gear shifter arrangement frees up a bit of space for a storage pocket in the central tunnel. There’s also an extraordinarily long armrest that slides so far forward I thought it might bop the windscreen.
The Skoda Octavia vRS Estate is a brilliant car, because the old one was brilliant and all the good stuff has been carried over. The biggest and riskiest changes (plug-in hybrid version, more powerful diesel) are yet to come, but it’s encouraging to see that the simplest version is still hitting home runs.
As to which version you should buy, the jury’s still out on whether the hot PHEV drivetrain will make more sense in a Skoda suit than it has elsewhere in the VW Group (noteably the Cupra Leon), but if you’re really committed to a sensible hot hatch with a capital S then the best choice, as it always has been, will be the cheaper to run but not much slower diesel. However unfashionable that statement may be.
That’s a particularly pertinent point now the petrol engine sounds less evocative, plus the fact the TDI comes armed with more horsepower than ever, a 0-62mph time only one tenth off the petrol, the option of all-season all-wheel drive and a two tonne towing capacity, if that’s your thing.
For those of us still wedded to the idea of revs and resonating exhaust notes (albeit more toned down in this model) the pure petrol estate is still pound for pound the best all-rounder on sale. Fast, fun, practical, spacious and cheap. Nothing else this side of an Audi RS 6 compares.