If you’re fond of an underdog, it’s rather hard not to hold a candle for Skoda’s vRS brand. By rights, and in the grand scheme of the Volkswagen Group’s thinking, it ought not really to exist at all. Seat is supposed to deal with the low-priced sporty stuff, while Volkswagen peddles the more prestigious GTI and R badges. The Czech division is for practicality, good sense and affordable functionality. The vRS version of the Fabia was spiked long ago, and the Superb variant never even arrived, ending up an unseen stillborn of cancelled development. And yet the Octavia vRS soldiers on.
It does so because, like the current stock model on which it’s based, the car does rather fill a void. Its curious size – virtually reaching D – segment proportions while still gamely clinging to its C-segment status – means that it serves a clientele that values spaciousness and utility almost as much as it does pace and hot hatch-style desirability. It is this niche and impressively loyal customer base that have kept the vRS going despite the odds, encouraging Skoda not only to update the model as part of the Octavia’s broader facelift but also to build the most powerful version it has yet put on sale: the 245.
Fittingly, even this seems a little counter-intuitive. While the vRS may surreptitiously flaunt its relationship with the VW Golf GTI underneath, the car’s volume is founded on the diesel model – a patron of the same powertrain used by the Golf GTD. So furnishing an Octavia with the VW Group’s criminally underused 237bhp bi-turbo diesel engine might have produced a more likely headliner. Instead, the 245 gets the same 242bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine used by the Performance edition of the GTI (the now ‘standard’ vRS gets the 228bhp variant) and is available as either a hatch or an estate.
If the format doesn’t completely make sense, it does at least inspire some hope in the end result. That’s because although the vRS has proven likeable in its own offbeat way, none of the preceding versions has ever managed to stake an authentic claim to its own USP, each being less a large Golf GTI and more a moderately fast Octavia. Armed now with not only its sibling’s higher output but also the electromechanical front differential to properly modulate it, the vRS might at last make the move from fringe omega to real-world alpha.
DESIGN AND ENGINEERING
For better or worse, the 245 adopts the same quad-light design that was rolled out to the rest of the Octavia range earlier this year. Possibly the kindest thing you could say about it is that it’s more distinctive than its predecessor’s look and is probably kindest to look at when plastered to the somewhat meaner arrangement of grille and bumper that distinguishes the vRS models. In the 245’s case, it is obliged further still by a standard black pack that includes the mirrors, exhaust tailpipes and the front grille. It is this modest collection of coloured ancillaries – a long with 19in Xtreme gloss alloy wheels – that marks the range-topper out from its stablemates.
Underneath, the alterations are more significant. The EA888 2.0-litre engine’s upgraded 242bhp output is new to the Octavia although already made familiar by its earlier introduction to the Golf. The 14bhp advantage over its vRS sibling is replayed in the GTI line-up as well, as is the slightly higher engine speeds at which it’s produced (5000-6700rpm compared with 4700-6200rpm for the 230). The 245 also develops 15lb ft of additional peak twist, albeit over a slightly shorter rev range (1600-4300rpm versus 1500-4600rpm).
The engine drives the front wheels exclusively – four-wheel drive remaining the prerogative of the Golf R and a single variant of the Seat Leon Cupra – and is supplied by default with a manual six-speed gearbox, although the latest seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic is a cost option (and exclusive to the 245 because the lowlier vRS has to make do with the older six-speed unit). In between the wheels and the transmission is the 245’s other defining characteristic: the splendidly named ‘Vorderachsquersperre’ differential – or, less memorably, the VAQ system. The electronically controlled arrangement, centred on a multi-plate clutch, is more a chopped-up Haldex system than a traditional limited-slip diff, but it serves the same purpose and can deploy 100% of available torque to one wheel, if necessary.This, too, migrates from the Performance edition of the Golf GTI. Otherwise, mechanically speaking, the 245 has the same lowered passive suspension as the basic vRS (front MacPherson struts and a rear multi-link) albeit with a stability-enhancing 30mm of extra track width at the back.
Anyone expecting a marked change in engine-bay personality compared with the regular vRS hasn’t spent much time with the EA888 engine before. The VW Group’s go-to 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol unit doesn’t significantly alter its character between applications or outputs. It simply becomes more or less expedient at what it does. Thus, as the modest climb from 227bhp to 242bhp suggests, the latest model is very subtly better – quicker and keener – at propelling you forward in much the same gruff, linear and tractable way as it always has. Skoda quotes a 0.3sec improvement in the sprint to 62mph for the estate, although in a straight line, with the 19in alloy wheels no broader than the 18 in rims they replace, it’s no easier to get the extra power onto the road through the Octavia’s single driven axle. We recorded 6.9sec from standstill to 60mph, two-up.
Once rolling, though, the surfeit of torque constitutes the 245’s most prominent advantage: in its mid-range high-yield pomp, the car feels that bit more industrious than its standard sibling – an impression cheerfully embellished by the background rasp being conjured in Sport mode. A sever, the really likeable aspect of the EA888’s gusto is that it seems to occur without apparent strain. Partly this is a factor of its refinement – the four-pot possesses no more sharp edges than the wonderfully unctuous manual gearbox that swaps its cogs – and partly it is the robust, linear delivery that resists tapering until remarkably close to the 6700rpm zenith of its raised rev limit. The only genuine lull is located below 2000rpm, where the turbocharger’s blades inevitably idle. Between there and the soft limiter, the 245’s motor is easily awoken, easily administered and very easy to like.