Clichés should be avoided at all costs, but they exist for a reason. And while it may be a cliché to say so, the Skoda Octavia vRS is a car you can buy with your head as well as your heart.
The vRS Challenge model arguably ups the ‘heart’ aspect that drives so many hot hatch purchases; as well as the standard model’s 242bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine (no diesel Challenge is offered, though you can have an Estate), electronic limited-slip differential and vRS bodykit, you get adaptive dampers, a sports exhaust, Alcantara seats, and 19-inch alloy wheels.
And the head bit? Well, that’s still taken care of by the Octavia’s vast 590-litre boot, the copious rear legroom and the reassurance of Skoda’s fifth-place showing in our 2019 Driver Power survey. What’s more, Skoda claims the options added to the Challenge represent a £2,430 saving over a standard vRS (which is £2,460 cheaper) with the same boxes ticked.
The styling tweaks may be so subtle as to include black vRS badging and exhaust tips, but, in combination with the ‘Xtreme’ alloy wheels, they lend the vRS a pleasingly subtle sense of menace that’s in keeping with the hot Octavia’s character.
Another feature the Challenge gets over the standard car is a set of power-operated Alcantara seats. These are rather lovely, having a decent balance of support and comfort, and adding a light sense of occasion to the otherwise conservative cabin.
Factor in the digital dials (a reasonable £450 option) and the well-judged ‘Supersport’ steering wheel of the standard vRS, and this is a Skoda that comes pretty close to feeling like a car from one of the established premium manufacturers.
One small niggle: the Challenge may be well-equipped, but the lack of a reversing camera seems odd. True, you get all-round parking sensors on the standard kit list, and you can add a camera for £380 if you wish, but its omission from a £30,000-plus Skoda seems strange nonetheless.
The Challenge is no different to drive from the standard Octavia vRS, so you get handling that errs on the safe rather than the scintillating side of the hot hatch scale, with steering that ultimately lacks feel but weights up pleasingly in Sport mode. The six-speed manual feels positive enough, though it lacks the delicacy of, say, a Civic Type R’s gearbox. The £1,000 or so Skoda asks for a DSG dual-clutch auto is an easy expense to justify, then, not least because this is a natural fit for the engine’s smooth power delivery.
That linear acceleration and Octavia’s planted nature mean it’s still a rewarding car when pressing on; get it in second, third or fourth and you’ll gather pace with pleasing pace. Grip is impressive, bolstered by the electronic limited-slip diff that pulls you tight to the apex on low-grip surfaces.
The Challenge gets Dynamic Chassis Control as standard (it’s an £870 option normally), and this is a welcome addition. Keeping the dampers in Comfort results in a ride quality that’s perfectly acceptable for day-to-day driving – though perhaps ‘comfort’ might be stretching things a bit. Switching to Sport firms things up sufficiently, making the Challenge feels taut and sporting.
The ubiquitous 2.0-litre EA888 engine fitted to vRS Challenge (as well as the Volkswagen Golf R and GTI, SEAT Leon Cupra, and Audi S3) has many qualities, but a scintillating exhaust note is not among them. To compensate, the vRS Challenge gets a “sports sound” exhaust, which pipes synthesised noise into the cabin when Sport mode is selected. The resulting note is certainly sporty enough, and a nice trick to offer, but at times it sounds closer to boxer-engine warble than an in-line four-cylinder, further detracting from its authenticity.
None of this dents the inherent appeal of the Challenge, however, which makes the most of the Octavia vRS’s many talents, adding some choice options and a sprinkling of aesthetic tweaks. Yes, at the vRS Challenge is pricier than more powerful, more exciting hot hatches like the Hyundai i30 N and Renault Megane RS, but those cars are less forgiving, less practical, and likely to be far harder to justify for family buyers.