Originally, I wanted to borrow an Octavia RS as the ultimate example of the “nice things you Americans can’t have”. But then I decided not to. I had three reasons. First, the RS, unlike “ordinary” Skodas, isn’t readily available in any shade of brown. Second, I had already tested a diesel, manual wagon recently. And third, the diesel wagon really isn’t the Octavia RS you really want. It’s a compromise, something you choose as a company car, because gasoline engines are verbotten by your company’s policy and you need the space for hauling stuff to your vacation home each weekend.
Instead, I opted for the closest thing Skoda has to a sportscar; the Octavia RS with the 2.0 TSI/220hp engine, 6-speed manual transmission, and a liftback body. The choice of the engine was kind of obvious – if you want “sporty”, you don’t want diesel. No matter what diesel fans will tell you, diesels are always rattly, reluctant to rev and heavy, compared to the gasoline counterparts. They may be miracles compared to their predecessors from two decades ago, but if you want a fun to drive car, you want it to burn the right fuel.
And the body? Wagons are cool, and they will, one day, make their way back to America, because they just make sense. But here in Europe, we have one more body style, which is even cooler than wagon. So cool that not even Jalopnik readers know about it. It’s called a liftback. From the outside, it looks much like a modern sedan, with a really short trunk. But when you open the trunk – voilá! – the whole rear hatch opens.
You say it’s like wagon, just less practical? Well, not really. For one, it doesn’t look like a wagon, which is apparently important to some people – even in Europe. And for a second, it’s not really that impractical. In some ways, it’s maybe even more practical.
While the liftback offers a bit less space than a wagon (and is a bit worse in case you want to transport really high items or stack stuff up to the roof), it has this HUGE trunk opening. Wagons, even fairly large ones, require you to push stuff inside them. Which can be a bit of pain with stuff like bicycles. A Liftback allows you to just place the thing inside from above – or reach over the sides, if you, for example, need to move the bicycle to the inside of the car, so you can close the trunk. In other words, liftbacks rock!
So, what do we have here? Basically, the Octavia is Europe’s take on Jetta (yes, the real Jetta is sold here as well, but no one really buys it). Unlike the Jetta, it is based on current generation of Golf and not the previous one, so it uses the new MQB modular system, basically the same engine line-up as Golf, it has a nearly identical suspension and the same electronic architecture. The radio/satellite navigation line-up to the fancy modern gizmos like adaptive cruise, lane assist and automatic parking can be had in Octavia. The RS, then, can be viewed as a slightly larger Golf GTI, with a huge trunk.
But when you look at it, the word “Volkswagen” doesn’t really pop up in your mind. The word that does, though, is “Audi”. The stance, the edgy lines, even the bright blue paint really does make it look like a junior S4. While the GTI is still kind of youthful car that doesn’t try to hide it’s relatively humble origins, the Octavia RS seems to be aimed at people who aspire to own this very car. Especially here, in its home market, the $30k (with tax) Octavia RS is sort of a mild luxury.
The only difference is that in Czech Republic, the RS gets more attention on the street than an Audi. Or even than the Town Car I drive. Or than just about anything else, short of supercars, American classics or a hot rodded New York cab (I daily drove that, for some time). With Skoda being the only domestic car maker,with just over 30 percent market share, the Octavia itself is fairly ubiquitous. But the RS is still quite new, and since it’s the top version of a car everyone has, did have, thinks about having or aspires to, it really gets people’s interest. It’s the Czech equivalent of a pony car or a fancy truck.
But I digress. Let’s stop looking, and take the thing for a drive. Once you sit inside, the “junior Audi” idea re-establishes itself. Similar design, similar materials, similar take on quality – just less of everything. My special bonus points are awarded for the fact that the seats, while sporty, are flat enough to comfortably get in and out of, and that the steering wheel is round. My super special bonus points are awarded to the MQB modular system for the low window line and relatively narrow A-pillars. Compared to the Astra I tested previously, this makes the Octavia pleasantly easy to see out of.
At start-up, the engine doesn’t make much of a fuss, but throwing the sweet shifter into first reveals gobs of torque from low down, making it almost impossible to stall. What made me more anxious was the ride. The “sporty” VW products, including Audis, which this car tries to mimic, tend to be on the harsh side. And with 18” wheels (which are, by the way, extremely pretty, and also very prone to scratching) on a relatively small car, this is a reason to worry. But the RS surprises here. While it’s definitely not a plushy, comfy ride, it perfectly bearable even on the broken city surfaces I usually drive on. While it looks much more aggressive than last month’s Astra, it’s got enough ground clearance to not scratch under any normal circumstances. Nice, liveable and rational. Just as a Skoda should be.
What’s a bit less rational is the driving style this car invokes. In this country, Octavia RS drivers are known as one of the biggest jerks on the road – up there with Audi drivers. It’s easy to see why. The car works like it was designed for you to drive like a total asshole. While 220hp doesn’t sound like much, the ever present torque really helps, and the RS has a way of disguising speed that makes you drive like a total lunatic and not even think about it. You’re just leaving the traffic lights like a normal, sane person, when the little devil inside the car just whispers to you “See that gap between the slow car in the left lane and another slow car in the right lane? You can totally fit in there!”. And before you know it, you’re weaving in and out of traffic at twice the posted speed limit. It takes some restraint to start driving like a normal person again.
And this theme continues when you leave the city limits. Most of all, the RS is super easy to drive fast. The combination of torque, the traction provided by the XDS (a fake electronic LSD in the front), the grip and the stability lets you cover the ground at huge rates of speed, without the car asking anything back. Between the XDS and the unkillable ESP, it’s a car that your grandmother could drive stupidly fast. A 100+ mph run on backroads? No problem. And no drama.
It’s even quite easy on gas. You can get over 35mpg in real life, it you’re driving sanely (e.g. in a way that won’t put you in jail), around 20mpg during “slightly spirited” city driving, and maybe 15-16mpg on the backroads, driving in the manner that would definitely put you in jail Stateside.
Which sounds totally great. But it also reveals a great problem for some of us. That the Octavia RS is not even a little bit like homemade mayonnaise, and that it doesn’t resemble an automatic watch in the slightest.
What I’m blabbing about? Let me explain.
The “petrolheads”, or driving enthusiasts, are like any other enthusiasts in the world. They want two things. They want to stand out of the crowd by earning things, and they want things not to be fake. Like foodies, who will spend their lives perfecting their perfect recipie for artisanal Sriracha mayonnaise, instead of just going out and buying bottled, mass produced stuff. They do it because the homemade stuff is better, but also because they like the challenge, and they like the notion that they are just better than those ordinary folks who don’t know any better than going to the supermarket. Or you can compare them to watch enthusiasts, who will spend unbelievable amounts of money on watches that, in the end, do their job significantly worse than a $20 Casio. They will despise anything with “Quartz” written on it, because it’s not real watch. And they put high value on the manufacturer making its own movements, because using someone else’s, not matter how nice watch you put them into, is just “not right”.
And this is where the problems with Octavia RS come to light.
You have your electronics to help you stay on the road, and fake electronic LSD, helping you get loads of traction, but also disrupting already artificial (or, ahem, fake) steering feel. In hard cornering, the steering wheel sometimes gets heavy when you would expect it to be light. You can get used to it, but it’s not really the connection with the car you really want. At least the quick engine responses make it quite easy to do non-fake heel and toe throttle blips, although the pedals are not well positioned to do that, with the accelerator being too far below and to the right.
And then there’s the sound. In the “sport” mode, something called a “performance sound generator” is active, emitting deep, fake engine sounds from the speaker somewhere on the firewall. Not only is it fake – it even sounds worse than the natural, raspy engine sound in the “normal” mode. Luckily, this feature is optional and you can avoid it. In fact, I would be willing to pay for it not to be there.
The “fake” theme continues with the design as well. There are fake exhaust tips, fake grilles and fake inlets in the front bumper.
If you’re looking for honesty, driving enjoyment and tactile experience, you will be better off in a much slower and cheaper Skoda Rapid. The Octavia RS is not the car for petrolheads. It is not a car for people who spend all the time thinking about cars and driving.
It is, though, a perfect car for someone who likes fast cars, would like to have a car that is fast, and likes other people to see that he has a fast car, but is not willing to sacrifice anything to the idea. For the same price, a Renault Clio RS (at least the previous generation), a used M3 or a Miata will get you much, much more reward from getting your driving right. The Octavia RS will be a perfect choice for a family guy, who wants to soothe his mid-life crisis, but isn’t in position to buy a dedicated sportscar. With this, he can have a bright-coloured, lightning fast machine, and a reasonable family car – all in one reasonably priced package.
@VojtaDobes is motoring journalist from Czech Republic, who previously worked for local editions of Autocar and TopGear magazines. Today, he runs his own website, www.Autickar.cz and serves as editor-in-chief at www.USmotors.cz. After a failed adventure with importing classic American cars to Europe, he is utterly broke, so he drives a borrowed Lincoln Town Car. His previous cars included a 1988 Caprice in NYC Taxi livery, a hot-rodded Opel Diplomat, two Dodge Coronets, a Simca, a Fiat 600 and Austin Maestro. He has never owned a diesel, manual wagon.