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Click for pictures“The accomplished
  new Octavia vRS
  models — short for
  ‘victor Rally Sport’ —
  are the perfect thing for
  Skoda customers who
  want to get sporty.
  In fact, they’re so good
  they’re perfect for just
  about everyone”

THE FACT THAT SKODA attracted all-time UK record sales last year of nearly 38,000 cars an 8 per cent increase at a time when the market fell 5 per cent is exceedingly good news. More significant is the fact that 10 per cent of their total sales were for their more sporty vRS models.

Now — with the introduction from 23 January of their next vRS models, the Octavia Hatchback and Estate — Skoda will be adding another 3,000 sporty model sales to their 2006 total. Seventy per cent of Octavia vRS customers are expected to buy the Hatchback. The current Octavia range was introduced in 2004 and although they are technically classed in the same sector as similar versions of the VW Golf, Vauxhall Astra and Ford Focus, due to their better interior space they actually compete for sales against the larger Vauxhall Vectra and the latest generation of Volkswagen's Passat models.

The new high-specification, high-performance (149mph) Octavia five-door hatchback is priced at £17,500. The Estate costs £18,350. Skoda says these are the most powerful and fastest road-going models launched in their 100-year history and that their new vRS models offer 'more bangs per buck' than any other car in its sector. That includes the Golf GTI 5-door, on which the new Octavia vRS models are based. The Skoda versions extract 200bhp from the 2.0-litre FSI direct injection petrol engines — the Golf 'only' has 197bhp. Skoda says the Octavia is slightly longer as well, so the interior space is better for five passengers and their luggage.

Currently Skoda has lots to talk about. Record sales in the UK; nearly half a million sales worldwide in 2005; a string of awards for their three model lines (Fabia, Octavia and Superb); and the highest UK customer loyalty retention figures in the industry. Add to this that in 2005 they became the first manufacturer to achieve a top five position in the JD Power Customer satisfaction Survey for 10 consecutive years, and that is impressive!

Skoda Brand Director Chris Craft says: "Achieving these results in 2005 — our centenary year — and during the early stages of our new model programme underscores the fact that Skoda not only has a past, it clearly is a brand of the future."

Launching the new Octavia vRS models to the UK motoring media this week, Cathie Bell, head of Press and PR said, "We have added excitement to the brand with our vRS models. Customer feedback showed us we needed to offer more models with more performance and excitement but with value for money.

"Real people in real life want from their cars more value, more space and more performance, and we also want our customers to love being seen in our products."

Although private retail customers account for just over half of Skoda's UK new car sales, the sales in the company and business car sectors have also increased rapidly as the Czech brand has established a reputation for quality as well as reliable, well-priced products.

Skoda also confirmed that they will be adding a compact MPV model to their range and that a production version of the 'Yeti' concept car will also be launched. Globally, Skoda will start to build 30,000 cars annually in India, and in 2007 they will have established a production facility in China.

So forget the lame music hall jokes about Skoda. Under the parentage of VW and with a dedicated Czechoslovakian workforce producing quality, reliable and value-for-money products, Skoda is very seriously on the up.

Skoda UK let us loose in Spain with their latest 'hot' Octavia. At this time of year Spanish roads are, fortuitously, pretty quiet. The FSI petrol engine is already available for both Hatchback and Estate models with even a 4x4 version of the Estate offered for sale, so we know it well. However, Skoda say there will be no 4x4 versions of the vRS models or for that matter none with the DSG paddle-shift semi-auto sports gearbox because they would make the cars just too expensive.

The vRS models are all about refinement, good looks, performance and comfort but without the drawbacks of an unrefined, harsh ride and poor front-wheel drive grip normally associated with sporting versions of standard production cars.

Although based on the Golf 5-door Hatchback, the Octavia Saloon offers much more room due to the marginally longer wheelbase. So in real life it's a class size above the Golf and will no doubt appeal as a family car. The Hatchback's load space is excellent, with 560 litres of luggage room, while the Estate has a cavernous maximum load capacity of 1,620 litres.

vRS stands for 'victory Rally Sport', a nod to their rallying heritage. Inside and out, the two new Octavia vRS models demonstrate all the styling hints of a 'sports' model, with equipment levels and sports style seats clearly in keeping with a sporting image.

The three particular areas that the Octavia vRS scores in are price (which gives excellent value for money), the combination of a firm and compliant ride and a superb engine. The price versus specification levels and really smart good looks speak for themselves…

Skoda's design engineers have done a really good job tuning and upgrading the performance of the suspension by applying motorsport experience when deciding on the different damper settings and larger diameter anti-roll bars. Most impressive is the taut handling, the responsive steering and seemingly unlimited road grip combined with a comfort of ride that is not harsh in the slightest. This really is a family car with sports performance.

The engine, as we know from other Skoda and VW models, is superb. It is a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged, FSI direct injection petrol unit producing 200bhp and 206lb ft of torque. What makes it such an excellent choice is that maximum torque is available all the way from 1,800 through to 5,000rpm, meaning it's as flexible as a diesel to drive. It is also remarkably responsive, so whether you're driving in town, enjoying the scenery or really getting your foot down for fast driving, progress is seamless. Even better, the engine is ideally suited to the six-speed manual transmission to which Skoda has mated it.

Bare figures speak for themselves: 149mph top speed and 0-62mph acceleration in 7.3 seconds, with an average fuel consumption of 35.8mpg. And the low emissions — 190g/km — are also tax friendly.

These new Skoda models shame many more expensive cars for the quality of their fit, finish and refined performance. Add to that good looks, a 4-star Euro NCAP rating, the really useful size, the remarkable engine performance with superb roadholding and ride comfort and it's patently clear that Skoda have a real winner on their hands. If all of that isn't enough to have customers clamouring for the Octavia vRS, well then — I'll eat my hat. — David Miles

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Skoda Octavia vRS Hatchback | £17,500
Maximum speed: 149mph | 0-62mph: 7.3 seconds
Test MPG: 35.8mpg | Power: 200bhp | Torque: 206lb ft

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-------------------------------------------------------------- Skoda Octavia vRS