SKODA could potentially have it both ways from around this time next year.
It is hard to believe that the Octavia RS has been mixing affordable performance with amazing practicality for almost a decade now, which is a level of consistency virtually no medium-sized rival can match. It all now culminates in this facelifted, largest and most powerful range yet.
While the market moves towards SUV models with automatic transmissions, this sporty Skoda has among the highest take-up rates for wagon over liftback or sedan, and manual over auto, compared with any rival. In short, it has capitalised on a niche recipe and brought a loyal crew along with, while it will soon have Karoq complementing Kodiaq in the mainstream SUV market.
The question is, can this sporty medium-sized liftback and wagon range convert a few SUV buyers along the way, or will it be soon be forgotten in the wake of high-riding models both from inside and outside? Quite possibly, perhaps, the Czech Republic car-maker could have it both ways…
As far as facelifts go, the mid-life update for the three-year-old, second-generation Octavia RS is a minor one.
Fresh four-eyed front styling is a questionable change, and although LED headlights are welcome even the alloy wheels are unchanged. There is a new, larger touchscreen and extra equipment, plus a fraction extra power and torque and a new automatic direct shift gearbox (DSG) with seven speeds.
The bigger news concerns the sized-up line-up with greater choice than before, and in particular making the former limited edition RS230 a permanent part of the line-up, and with auto availability for the first time. It now becomes the RS245 (denoting a power upgrade from 230hp to 245hp), while the pre-facelift entry RS162 becomes the RS169 as a nod to a bump from 162kW to 169kW.
But why the mix of imperial and metric systems, so to speak, Skoda?
In any case there is no shortage of choice in the 10-tier Octavia RS line-up that runs from $38,890 to $47,390 plus on-road costs between base liftback manual and RS245 wagon automatic, plus a simple selection of options that adds a maximum of $6000 in the case of the top model. By then a wagon buyer has leather, electric seats with heating front and rear, panoramic sunroof, electric tailgate, lane-keep assistance, blind-spot monitor, as well as standard adaptive cruise control.
Call it upper-middle-tier medium SUV territory, mixed with Golf GTI-to-R hot hatchback brew.
Only with some elements inside does the Octavia start to betray the fact it starts life in the low-$20,000 region. Space and smarts are prioritised over slick and savvy materials, so some of the hard door trims and scratchy lower plastics, as well as plasticky air vents, have become a bit past it.
On the flipside the perforated leather steering wheel is a treat, all seats are comfortable and supportive, there is proper medium-sized legroom that will not trouble large cars, and a huge boot in either liftback (568 litres) or wagon (588L) guise. Again, it holds a mirror to most medium SUVs.
Conversely, the only other area in which the RS could be seen as little cheap is in terms of road noise and – to a much lesser degree – ride quality.
Ultimately there is a bit too much coarse-chip roar, while comfort on 18- or 19-inch wheels will feel firm for some passengers.
The limited edition RS230 delivered superb suspension compliance and control on its standard dampers, and it remains standard on both RS169 and RS245. However, all vehicles tested came with optional three-mode adaptive suspension that do not really progress things along.
Comfort mode is a tad bouncy, while Normal delivers about the same compliance as the RS230 and Sport provides roughly the same control as the standard suspension.
Thankfully, though, that same balance between ride and handling is still brilliant. Leave the dampers in Normal and there is a beautifully rounded compliance without incessant jiggling, while body motions remain tightly resolved. It is absolutely Volkswagen Golf GTI-rivalling.
The steering is beautifully mid-weighted, direct and concise in all situations, and the combination of six-speed DSG and gorgeous 2.0-litre turbo engine in a relatively light 1346kg-plus kerb weight gel together brilliantly. Most all-wheel drive medium SUV models are 1500kg-plus, with less power.
A special nod goes to the RS169’s DSG, which proved more fluent than the unit tested recently in the Golf GTI (and RS245 which was track-tested only). Creep in traffic and it fails to stutter, or brake for a corner and it rolls nicely into a lower gear. The Sport mode could still be more assertive, though there is a manual function with paddleshifters as a snappy alternative.
Overtaking performance is terrific, making every medium SUV feel slow, while cornering performance simply makes even the best of the latter breed feel tardy and bulky.
We tested the RS245 manual and auto only on a private racetrack – only the slow-selling RS135 was missing from the line-up – and it delivered a stellar performance. Despite riding well around town, being roomy, well-equipped and affordable, it handled with near-hot hatchback sharpness.
The RS245 replaces 18-inch Bridgestone Potenza tyres with 19-inch Pirelli P Zero rubber, as well as adding an electrically actuated mechanical limited-slip differential (LSD) from the auto-only Golf GTI Performance, and together they help elevate handling to a higher plane.
The manual wagon was especially a delight. Late and deep braking on turn-in to a corner helped shuffle its plump booty around slightly and delicately to help the nose point towards the exit, at which point careful application of the throttle helps tee-off to the next bend thanks to the LSD.
While the auto liftback felt just as quick, the involvement of the manual teamed with the body movement of the wagon made it the driver’s pick.
However, the 2.0-litre’s upgrade from 169kW/350Nm in the LSD-equipped RS230, to this 180kW/370Nm RS245, only further teases out wheelspin in this front-wheel-drive model. Even with the liberal Sport electronic stability control (ESC) engaged, patience is required on corner exit.
A better move would have been to add an even firmer suspension setting for the adaptive chassis, because even in Sport the front-end can feel soft. A Golf R’s Race mode would be ideal.
Yet this is all like criticising the prime athlete who is also intelligent, great to chat with, humble, and a real family man with plenty of time for the kids on the weekend. The fact is, for this price, nothing better blends sports handling, performance, space and equipment, all with such an honest character.
The new Octavia RS might not look supermodel-sexy, but it is an all-round superstar.