There’s cause for celebration whenever a carmaker takes a bona-fide, modern-day cult car and elevates itself to a new plateau of performance and goodness.
And given how critically acclaimed the ‘thinking petrolhead’s’ value-laden poster child, the Skoda Octavia RS, has been in more modest guises to date, the new amped-up flagship RS245 version looks the consummate winner before it turns a wheel in anger.
Is it good? You bet. As are many of motoring’s high-volume-selling nameplates. But being a cult favourite, by suggestion of definition, means affection is perhaps more critical than it is commercial.
As much as the performance RS versions underpin the Czech brand’s slow-growing groundswell of popularity in Australia, the quickest Octavia yet won’t cause a sudden stampede of undiscerning buyers into local showrooms.
Where’s the cult of the RS - wagon in particular - rooted? Volkswagen Australia (aka the Mothership) reckons it pushes particularly strong buttons with older buyers who “grow out” of VW Golf GTIs, the Octavia’s technical cousin under the skin.
That might well be the suggestion of the buyer demographic data. The critical, less commercial, attraction is that for the petrolhead trainspotters, number-crunchers, bench racers and over-thinkers who pore of spec sheets and tend to analyse details, the Octavia RS’s buck-busting blend of practicality and performance it very difficult to top. Especially if you consider hot Golfs too unimaginative or fast, small-sized Audis too pricey.
There is a counterpoint to all this positivity. Firstly, that goodness blend isn’t for everyone. Secondly, as much goodness as RSs deliver on wallet-friendly investment, they’re hardly super-heroic by outright performance car measure, despite what the Kool-Aid drinkers suggest.
The not-quite-as-rose-tinged view is that go-fast Octavias have long been spacious, practical, well-equipped, nicely tempered everyday propositions where performance and driving enjoyment credentials are a bit of a bonus.
It’s easy to forget that for around the $50k mark where the RS245 wagon with DSG sits, there are plenty of alternatives that compromise practicalities and niceties more, yet leverage performance and driving thrills harder.
So choosing an off-street test track on which to sample the RS245 sedans and wagons, as was the case at their local launch, wasn’t going to shine the most positive of light on the breed’s balance of goodness.
Price wise, the RS245 kicks off at $43,390 plus on-roads for the five-door liftback ‘sedan’ with a six-speed manual, which jumps to $45,890 if you opt for the DSG dual-clutch gearbox. That’s a $4500 hike over the base petrol RSs which, like the diesel versions (from $42,490), are still available in showrooms. Opting for the wagon body style adds $1500.
Remarkably, according to Skoda Australia, around 80 per cent of all RS buyers opt for both the Tech pack ($1500), which adds heated seating front and rear, blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping asssit, along with the Luxury pack ($2300), which brings active chassis control, parking assistance and high-end Canton 10-speaker audio among other bells and whistles.
Add metallic/pearl paint ($500), a sunroof ($1500 sedan, $1700 wagon) and a powered tailgate ($500 wagon only), and a full-fat Octavia RS245 sedan clocks in at $50,690 list, the wagon at $53,890 before on roads.
The DSG’s cog count also goes up from six in the regular RS to seven in ‘245’. Result? With the aid of a mechanical ‘Extended Diff Lock’, 0-100km/h times drop one-tenth of a second: call it 6.6 seconds for the flagship sedan and 6.7 seconds for the top-dog wagon.
Specific, power-adjustable sports seats, folding wing mirrors, unique ‘245’ spec 19-inch wheels, instrumentation, door inserts and blackened exhaust tips all signify you’ve opted for all the Octavia you can eat.
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: the jury is out on how the RS245 goes around town, on the highway or along a twisting backroad. En route to our test track, we did get to sample the dethroned king of the Octavias, the older RS230 version (in wagon form), a car that’s earned a handy wrap in review past for all-round depth and quality.
On the road, it’s an impressive device, and imagining that the RS245 is a markedly different holistic experience is perhaps a long bow to draw until we get the new boy into the CarAdvice garage.
Instead, we’re out to hard punt both the newcomer sedans and wagons around a 22-corner lap of a high-speed test facility that’s damn close to racetrack conditions. And while either version is quite fun and satisfying when grabbed by the scruff and given a thorough belting to, neither is really in its comfort zone, or terribly thrilling, once the red mist descends.
First up, the wagon with DSG. Activate the 'Sport' drive mode, give it the berries and progress and swift and assertive if shy of properly head-smacking.
It’s a decent version of the EA888 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, as used in the high-spec Volkswagen Golf GTi Performance Edition 1, if a little blunted by 1500kg-odd of kerb weight. There's a good head of steam and it maintains a decent charge as speed rises above triple figures, though it only takes a couple of corners of the track to realise that power isn’t the RS245’s hot-lapping limitation.
The nose points well and the chassis tracks the desired line through a succession of shallow sweepers, but there’s some noticeable body roll and it doesn’t exactly ‘sit’ with taut, flat confidence.
There’s not the kind of assertive bite from those narrow 225mm Pirellis that’d allow you to make a decent correction if you haven’t quite chosen the right trajectory beyond the middle of the corner.
Braking hard and tipping into the first of a succession of tight corners, the amount of lateral inertia across the front end, and the less-than-surly tyre grip, demands patience from the driver with steering and throttle input. Lose your cool and predictable, progressive understeer arrives without much provocation in entry and throughout the mid-corner.
Burying the right foot exiting tighter corners buzzes the engine to redline as the lightened, inside wheel spins excessively and traction control light flickers away in the dash: if the mechanical LSD up front is modulating torque across the front axle, it does take a long moment for the effect to kick in.
You quickly realize that 370Nm is just about the right amount of torque for this package, and that any more would simply create more wheelspin attempting to scamper through the corner exit.
Next up, a series of medium-radius curves, and big throttle lift-offs to swing the tail and point the nose beyond the apex are moderately successful. It’s not a terribly playful chassis and, without a huge amount of tyre bite, it takes quite aggressive input to make the handling package dance around and play ball.
It’s not that the RS245 lacks poise or balance, it’s just that there’s not quite the agility at play to impart a lithe and lively character.
From the precision in the steering to how those bucket seats grip your torso, there’s nothing thoroughly assertive about the RS245’s dynamic experience. Good? Yes. Sporting? To a fair degree. Laugh-out-loud Hootsville? It’s warm if far from fiery.
What lets the team down the most around a circuit is the dual-clutch transmission. Despite the extra cog, it’s not a short-ratio gear set: the engine speed fluctuates around 1600rpm or so between second and third and fourth gears.
I’ve sampled the same transmission on-road, where it presents few foibles, but around many of our test track’s corners the RS245 is left wanting for the right gear, its engine either over-revved or caught off the boil through an apex.
The sedan version, which is 33-kilos lighter, feels fractionally more lively, responsive and cooperative than ‘the other five-door’. But we are talking shades here. And while it’s equally capable of some heady velocity, like the wagon, it’s more satisfying than thrilling.
Neither version, with their narrow rubber and modest braking hardware, offer track-hardened durability, and any more than a handful of flying laps start to overheat the tyres – especially the hard-working fronts – and get the anchors smoking up a storm once the car returns to the pits.
Parked up, the RS245 instantly impresses more. Those seats are comfy, the rear room is generous, the cargo area - 588L to a whopping 1718L with the rear seats stowed - is cavernous.
Without the distraction of white knuckled lapping, you notice LED ambient lighting (with a choice of 10 colours), the slick, smartphone-connective 9.2-inch touchscreen infotainment, the configurable ‘smart key’, the flocked door bins, ski port, remote seat latches, grocery hooks, dual rear USB ports, and a myriad of other features truly premium in a car without prestigious badging or pricing. Yes, you even get an umbrella in its own strap holster.
And if the return trip home in the slightly-tamer RS230 is any indicator, it’s quiet, comfortable, rides with impressive compliance, and the adaptive cruise control and active lane-keep conspire to a semi-autonomous driving mode – or 20 seconds or so at a time at least – that’s as reassuringly on par with prestige German car wanting for many times the Skoda’s price.
Before the Skoda Appreciation Society comes at me with lit torches and pitchforks over my above appraisal, consider this discloser. I come from a family of Skoda sympathisers.
My family owned three Octavia wagons at once and two of them were RSs. I’ve reviewed them umpteenth times over the years of their local release, and I think I’ve got half a (positive) handle on why they’re bona-fide cult cars.
In holistic terms, I’ve long found the RS breed to be impressive…until the moment you chuck one around a track with vigour, when they really start tripping over their Pirellis.
I suspect that once we get the RS245 through the CarAdvice garage - through the filter of balanced and real-world driving disciplines most owners will likely live with – there might be more positivity in review.
But that’s just crystal-balling. We’ll have to wait and see.
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