As do-it-all vehicles go, the Skoda Octavia vRS Estate has been one of the best you can buy since 2001. A boosty petrol engine, a boot that could carry the Death Star and a unique sense of sensible style has made it a bit of an everyday icon.
The Octavia vRS’s eye-opening first act caught everyone’s attention in the early 2000s. Suddenly there was a turbocharged Skoda that wasn’t just bigger, more practical, more spacious and cheaper than a Golf GTI: it was also much faster. What the hell was going on?
Then along came the second generation. The MkII added 200cc, 19bhp and even more space, not to mention a diesel option and a new chassis; this time adapted from the MkV Golf GTI’s. It was a belter; quick, nimble and it looked great. My black 2006 car still looks great today, even if some of its recent coat of Auto Glym Super Resin Polish has been washed off by persistent rain.
Next to Dave the Octavia’s clean, simple features the Corrida Red MkIII that rolls up next to it looks over-designed, those divisive split headlights causing all sorts of comment section dramas and the 19-inch wheels coming across a bit… yobbish, by comparison. It’s a 2017-registered press car but this vRS 245 estate is the same as the one you could buy brand new today.
It’s here to meet its ancestor, the two separated by 11 years, two facelifts and one all-new generation. They share only a name and a common purpose: combining maximum luggage and passenger space with a decadent slice of hot hatch fun. First taking the slightly battered but still cool flip-key to the older statesman, I fire-up the 2.0-litre, 197bhp TSI engine to the sound of a pleasant thrum and the characteristic background tick-tick-tick-tick of the old EA113 lump. The clutch on this 51,000-miler still feels fresh, biting positively as I negotiate a way out of the car park and onto open roads.
There’s no denying the relatively equipment-barren cabin is pretty poor by modern materials quality standards. Some of the plastics are chips-cheap and there’s barely anything to play with. The CD player and aftermarket connection for an MP3 player are about your lot. At least there’s less to distract you.
This is an easy car to like. Straight away it feels like it’s all cut from the same piece of cloth. The engineers on the project clearly talked to one another and the overall effect is a machine that, biffing around and between towns, feels relaxed, assured and well within its abilities. Boost after 2000rpm arrives after modest lag, but it suits the laid-back character you need for everyday scratching around.
There are no adjustable driving modes, here; it’s all down to your right foot. Press harder; work the comfortably palm-shaped gear lever later, and the engine comes to life. That organic engine noise grows and the chassis seems to tighten, increasing the car’s alertness and poise. Before you know it, you’re shifting along nicely and enjoying a composed, balanced ride that even boasts a little throttle-adjustability.
Keep pressing past eight tenths and the K03 turbo gives up the ghost, flattening after 4500rpm and noticeably tailing off after 5500rpm. Attack bouncier roads and the supple suspension eventually teeters out of its comfort zone, too, making you wish for a little more vertical damping control. The old-fashioned hydraulic steering makes a decent fist of twisty roads but the rack speed is clearly geared for that eight-tenths target.
Back at the car park I switch to the 7500-mile MkIII. Under the red vRS’s bonnet is a third-gen 2.0-litre TSI petrol engine from the chain-driven EA888 family, which replaced the EA113 in the 2006-2008 car. Tickling the throttle on the way through town, it’s surprising how similar it feels. It’s quieter, sure, but initially it responds with the same leisurely low-rev boost. Its numerous revisions soon change the game, hitting you faster, sooner, with a hefty 66lb ft more torque. This is a properly modern engine.
The MkIII’s stiffer chassis transmits that muscle with much less of the MkII’s layer of compliance. Back-to-back there’s a brutality about how it slams its torque into the floor, regularly troubling the fast-acting traction control system even in the dry, where the lazier setup in the MkII allows surprising wheelspin before clumsily waking up. Fundamentally, though, the two feel very much akin up to 4000rpm – and about as quick as one another.
After that, the intervening decade of development slaps the MkII down. The vRS 245, the most powerful vRS ever, suddenly roars ahead, finding a new turn of speed and yanking at the front wheels all the way to the 6000rpm redline. Kept in line by electronic limited-slip diff technology specific to the 245, it’s much more frantic, but it can keep a tighter line around bends and it’s way, way faster. So is the steering rack, which never weights up in the natural way that the MkII’s does but allows you to fly through empty roundabouts with a brisk left-right-left flick of the wheel.
The MkIII’s limits of grip and composure are in the next county compared to its dad here. It could cover the same tricky country road, or a lap of a tight, twisty circuit, much more briskly than the black car. To add to that there’s more passenger space and an even bigger boot, and in this test it was 5mpg more efficient. Technically, and measurably, it’s vastly superior to my £4150 MkII, but it’s not necessarily all good.
Those 19s, for example, provide an inescapably firm ride even in the optional adaptive dampers’ Comfort setting. The sat-nav, one of a long list of things the older car lacks, looks fantastic in situ but proves as frustrating as a night alone with a Rubik’s Cube. It refused point-blank to accept postcodes and denied that my destination town even existed. You shouldn’t need to read the manual with these things, but I had to.
The boomy, aggressive noise in Sport mode is fine in isolation and you’d easily get used to it, but against the MkII it’s the difference between an original watercolour and one of the prints derived from it. The effect is the same, but only one is real.
Driving the MkII again, the similarities between father and son hit home. The driving position, the seat shape and the general everyday feel; the way they carry their estate bodies, are all intrinsically connected. There’s common DNA there. The new kid feels just like it should, in a way: it’s like the old guy but faster, tighter and rowdier. Looking at it another way, though, the 2006 car is more relaxed where the current version always wants to go faster. There’s more compliance in the older car that lends it a more carefree attitude versus the MkIII’s thirst to prove itself.
Both of these cars are fantastic. In the black corner is a multi-talented but ultimately limited wagon that still manages to find plenty of charisma. In the red corner you’ll find a phenomenally capable and fast all-rounder with more of a bias towards speed and grip than comfort. I wouldn’t be upset to have either on my drive.