The Skoda Octavia vRS is one of those cars which, on paper, sounds damn-near perfect. Underneath its spacious and practical saloon-like hatchback body you get the same mechanicals as the very good VW Golf GTi, for a whole £3000 less than its VAG stablemate. So, it's plenty fast, promises to be good to drive, is practical, and at £23,315, you'd need a very good reason to buy anything else if you want a brand-new mid-sized hot hatch on a budget. But, there is a very good reason, and that's the £21,995 Ford Focus ST.
We love our Focus ST long-termer, but it's a flawed beast, so can it really compete with a well screwed-together VAG product?
On the outside, the Octavia seems rather undramatic compared to the Focus. You get a black grille, honeycomb inserts in the lower part of the bumper, a small boot spoiler and some 18-inch alloys. Whether the lack of fanfare is a good thing depends on how discreet you like to be about driving something with a decent amount of poke.
Stepping inside, the half-leather interior doesn't seem quite up to the quality of the Golf upon which it's based, but it's taken a big leap forward compared to previous-generation Octavias. It's just all a little uneventful, with only a few splashes of fake carbonfibre bits to remind you this is the sporty version.
Around town, the ride is remarkably compliant, particularly over broken up tarmac and speedbumps. A little too compliant, maybe, making me wonder how composed the suspension would be when driving the car in a more spirited fashion. It turned out I was worrying about nothing, though, as when I switched over to sport mode - which sharpens the throttle response and quickens the steering - the vRS started to impress.
Despite the wafty ride, you can really throw the vRS around corners. It takes a lot to ruffle the Octavia's feathers. The steering is reasonably direct and well weighted, though like many modern power-assisted systems it does give a slightly detached driving experience.
The power delivery, meanwhile, is smooth and undramatic in a good way. The 217bhp and 258 lb/ft from the 2.0-litre four-pot turbo perhaps doesn't feel quite as quick as you might expect, but it's channelled through the front wheels with only a slight hint of torque steer.
Jumping straight from the Octavia into our Focus ST longtermer, I was immediately missing the Skoda's staid but solid cabin. The ST's dash is a maze of poorly laid-out buttons surrounded by cheaper-feeling plastics. The Recaro seats are more supportive than the Octavia's, but almost too much so - eat a few too many pies and you'll struggle to slot in. The outside gives a much clearer indication of its sporting pretensions, with its 'angry shark' face and centre-exit exhaust, not to mention the bright orange Tangerine Scream paintwork of our example.
On the move, the Focus instantly feels like a more hardcore proposition.
On the move, the Focus instantly feels like a more hardcore proposition. The clutch is snappy, while the sharp brakes allow little in the way of modulation. The suspension is hard, though fortunately not quite as crashy at low speeds as its Fiesta ST little brother. It's certainly got the power box ticked, too, with 246bhp and 270lb/ft from its turbochaged 2.0-litre four-pot.
That means that the Focus dispatches 0-62mph in just 6.5 seconds, 0.4sec quicker than the Octavia. The only problem is, that's a hell of a lot of power to lob at the front tyres. Sure, rivals like the Renault Megane RS and Vauxhall Astra VXR are similarly powerful and front-wheel drive, but they have clever suspension and differentials to help cope. The ST has neither; instead, it uses a torque vectoring system through the electronics to keep that boisterous power and torque in check. Does it work? No, no it doesn't.
Plant your foot on the throttle and the Focus writhes about violently while the steering wheel threatens to wrench your arms out of their sockets. It's unnerving when you're on a straight, and downright scary when trying to power out of a bend. That's a shame, because the steering is nicely sharp and accurate, and the stiff chassis taut through the corners. There is something quite exciting about that raucous nature, though, in a slightly sadistic 'I might be thrown into a hedge at any moment' way.
The engine is punchy and the car feels a good deal quicker than the Octavia, more so than the relatively modest 20bhp difference would suggest. It can't quite match the sonorous warble of the old ST's Volvo-sourced five-pot, but it's a decent sounding thing, even if the induction bark piped into the cabin feels like overcompensation.
There are, of course, things that aren't so good with the vRS. The optional Colombus sat-nav's incessant instructions that almost entirely interrupt the music, for example, or the nagging 'eco tips' that flash up on the display between the dials. But these are all minor things. Certainly, a little more excitement injected into the vRS wouldn't go amiss, but there's no getting away from the fact that it's good at pretty much everything, and versatility is half the draw with hot hatchbacks like these.
The ST may be more thrilling on a back road thrash, but for the wrong reasons. And for me, that rampant torque steer just spoils the driving experience. The Octavia on the other hand is so much more manageable, and I'd wager that it's a quicker car point-to-point. It's the more expensive of the two, but better equipped than the base-spec ST that £22k bags you.
Put it this way; if it were my money, I'd take the blue one.