A Golf GTI engine in a cheaper, more spacious package. Where's the catch?
Some fast-car buyers prefer to fly under the radar (not just the speed trap kind), and this is where the likes of the Skoda Octavia RS comes in.
It particularly helps that Skoda is a brand that, in Australia, still sits deeper in the shadow of its parent company Volkswagen than it deserves. But the Octavia is also a model that continues to take the subtle approach to performance styling.
The sheetmetal of the third-generation Skoda Octavia, which debuted here in November 2013, is again formed of mostly conservative lines and shapes – though there’s more interesting details to be found this time.
Going for the RS version, as about 30 per cent of Octavia buyers will, doesn’t bring anything OTT visually. As it is with some Audis wearing the same two letters, the devil is in the detail for those in the know to nod at.
There’s a bit more beef to the front and rear bumpers, with the latter gaining a diffuser-style treatment, a red reflector strip, integrated chrome tail-pipes, and LED tail-lights. Up front the lower airdam has a honeycomb cover and there are bi-xenon headlights with integrated LED daytime running lights.
Move to the side and as standard the Skoda Octavia RS rides on its own design 18-inch alloy wheels, with brake calipers painted in red.
The raciest part of the sedan is arguably a rear spoiler, though that’s hardly in WRX or Evo territory in size or height.
And inside the trim choice is a case of you can have any colour like, as long as it’s black.
If you want to be a little bit more extroverted, Skoda offers Black Packs with either 18-inch ($500) or 19-inch ($1000) black alloys, matched by gloss black chrome on the grille and side mirrors. The wagon also gains black roof rails.
Statistics seem to prove Skoda Octavia RS buyers like a 'Q-car', with 70 per cent choosing the wagon body style over the ‘liftback’ sedan (at a $1350 premium).
An even bigger percentage (90) of Octavia RS customers will pick the turbo petrol engine over the alternative turbo diesel (saving $1000 in the process).
And the majority are picking the best choice.
The engine (and platform) is borrowed again from the Volkswagen Golf GTI, though where the last Octavia RS only had the 147kW version from the Mk5 the new RS jumps straight into the 162kW unit of the current hot-hatch.
A weight penalty of between 84kg and 93kg for the bigger Octavia slightly blunts performance compared with the GTI – 0-100km/h is 0.3sec slower at 6.8sec, for example – but this remains a ripper of an engine.
The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder remains a joy to rev out yet supremely flexible for cruising and everyday driving, with a particularly elastic third gear in the six-speed DSG gearbox almost single-handedly tackling the brilliant launch route around NSW’s Snowy Mountains region – where road engineers clearly didn’t discuss the word ‘straight’.
Its 350Nm of maximum torque delivered between 1500 and 4000rpm keeps within touching distance of the 2.0-litre turbo diesel’s mid-range kick (380Nm between 1750 and 3000rpm) found in the 135TDI model. In fact, choose the manual petrol and fifth gear will take you from 80 to 120km/h 1.7 seconds quicker – 6.4 v 8.1sec.
The diesel is still a good pick for drivers looking purely for touring purposes rather than back-road blasts and it will use less fuel, though the economy advantage of 1.4 litres per 100km isn’t unlikely to persuade keener drivers – a group particularly attracted to RS-badged Skodas. That gap also shrinks a bit more – to 1.2L/100km – with the six-speed manual. (It's worth noting the 162TSI DSG's 6.6L/100km matches the GTI DSG despite the bigger body and extra weight.)
We only got to test the DSG auto, and the paddles give driver direct access to responsive gearchanges though the Sport mode is also effective if you just want to focus on the steering. The petrol's engine note is less pronounced than it is in the GTI, and wind noise from the base of the windscreen was also noticeable in all models we tested at higher speeds.
The test cars didn’t feature the Driver Mode Select that will be standard on the RS come its April arrival into showrooms. This allows a sportier set-up of engine, gearbox and steering at the touch of a button, though the Octavia RS misses out on the adaptive dampers standard on the GTI.
The Skoda Octavia RS’s lowered, sportier suspension is still masterful over country roads, tautly controlled yet never harsh and allowing a degree of suppleness for back-soothing progress. The standard fabric sports seats are also exceptionally comfortable.
However, through tighter, bumpier sections, the 162TSI is ultimately more composed than the 135TDI despite Skoda saying there are no fundamental differences between the petrol and diesel suspensions.
The heavier diesel engine is more obviously to blame for the 135TDI’s front end that takes a bit more coercing into corners, though with both engines – and body styles – the Octavia RS swings through corners with strong grip and accelerates out of them with impressive traction.
The standard XDL extended electronic diff lock also borrowed from the GTI can at times be felt nipping at brakes on both the front and rear axles to help nudge it around the corner without understeer, though the stability control system this operates through is also designed to work with good drivers and not intrude unnecessarily.
ESC can’t be switched off, though an ESC Sport mode is effective at allowing some entertaining back-end movement through fast corners. It can be selected via the touchscreen menu or, more easily, by depressing the stability control button on the centre console for a few seconds.
When grip does start to reach a limit, it’s the driver’s backside rather than hands that are provided with the most crucial information, though conversely many owners will appreciate the RS steering’s immunity to rack rattle and the absence of torque steer.
The steering’s alertness immediately off centre is also likeable, after which it settles into a pleasantly linear manner as it’s turned from lock to lock.
At more sedate speeds, some owners might wish to be looking at a more performance-oriented cabin.
Besides a smattering of RS logos here and there, the most obvious differences compared with a Skoda Octavia Elegance is the dimpled steering wheel with red stitching that’s also used on the seats and gearlever surround, and the red and black sports seats.
Still, that also means there’s the same simple-to-use and smartly presented 8.0-inch touchscreen that allows you to pair your phone easily or find functions in a matter of seconds. The colour screen is also flanked by handy shortcut buttons.
And as with all Skoda Octavia models, the not-quite-a-small-car-not-quite-a-medium-car dimensions provide abundant back seat room and cargo space.
Because even the sedan comes with a tailgate, there’s not a significant amount of extra boot space in the wagon – 588 litres vs 568L, though the cargo advantage extends from 20L to 130L when the rear seats are folded.
Both offer ski ports, and Skoda lives up to its ‘simply clever’ marketing line with touches such as the boot-wall seatback release levers in both body styles, various hooks, and the cargo floor cover that is carpet one side and rubber on the other.
If lifting heavy items into the boot will be a regular occurrence, it might be worth noting the wagon has a loading lip 7cm lower than the sedan’s.
The wagon is also available with an optional auto tailgate.
There are a handful of options for both body variants, though the Skoda Octavia RS is quite liberal with standard features.
You can see a detailed breakdown of inclusive and optional features in our Skoda Octavia RS pricing and specifications article, but standard-gear highlights include bi-xenon headlights with integrated LED daytime running lights, 8.0-inch touchscreen with sat-nav and Bluetooth, fabric/leather RS sports seats, parking sensors front and rear, dual-zone climate, and rain-sensing wipers. And kudos to Skoda Australia for equipping the Octavia will the full nine airbags as standard, where some markets such as the UK make rear side airbags optional.
A reverse-view camera is one notable safety omission, however, a result of the feature not being available on the model in Europe for now. It will form part of an optional Tech Pack due mid year, though, which will also include adaptive cruise control, semi automatic parking system, keyless entry start and unlocking/locking, and a Canton audio system with 10 speakers. There’s a chance the camera will become standard further down the track.
Consider a sharp starting price of $36,490 that sits $5000 below the entry for a Golf GTI, then throw in the fact it’s even more practical than the famous hatch and the RS plays a strong hand.
Skoda admits it’s still working hard on raising brand awareness in Australia. So let’s help spread the word: for those looking for a great blend of performance and pragmatism, the Skoda Octavia RS should be given serious consideration.