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What is Skoda vRS? History and best cars driven

To mark 20 years of Skoda’s vRS badge, we rounded up some of the performance cars from the past two decades that have worn the subtle green badge

When you’re a well-established car brand, you need a performance vehicle to act as that all-important ‘halo’ model to grab people’s attention and drag them into the dealership. Even Skoda, perhaps the most sensible of them all, observed this unwritten rule when it launched the vRS line-up back in 2001.

Attaching the Victory Rally Sport moniker to a Skoda might have raised eyebrows then, but vRS models have garnered a serious following over the past 20 years. There’s genuine motorsport heritage behind the name, and today one in five new Skodas wears the badge.

Skoda entered rallying in the sixties, building on a series of cars competing at a national level. The Skoda 130 RS took a class win at the 1977 Monte Carlo Rally, and since the introduction of vRS, Skoda has been a regular force in rallies across the globe.

In 2011, Skoda built a 700bhp Octavia to race at the legendary Bonneville Speed Week in Utah, US, making headlines around the world. A regular production model was stripped and rebuilt by a small team of Skoda UK technicians. Despite looking nigh-on identical to a standard car, it hit a record-breaking 227mph.

Sampling this unique car from the driver’s seat, is a raw, deafening experience. There’s precious little performance initially, but once the rev counter passes 5,000rpm all hell breaks loose. It feels more like a full-fat GT racer than a sensible hatchback. We don’t go near its 200mph-plus top speed, but I’ve new-found respect for those drivers who have taken it there.

It’s a thrilling model from vRS history, which on the way has tracked industry trends through petrol and diesel power to electrification. We joined Skoda to sample its highlights from the past two decades.

Skoda Octavia vRS Mk1

We begin with the original: the Mk1 Octavia vRS. Few people expected the arrival of a high-performance, motorsport-inspired Skoda in 2001, yet this was the brief for the brand’s first modern performance model.

Today, the Octavia vRS looks familiar – mundane, even – but with a purposeful edge unlike any of its forebears, which describes the driving experience to a tee. The cabin gives little indication of the car’s sporting pretence, aside from supportive front seats and a vRS gear knob. Otherwise it’s a masterclass in turn-of-the-century black and grey sobriety. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; there are no bright screens glaring back at you, and large buttons remain far easier to use than a touchscreen. Here, fewer features mean it’s easier to focus on the driving experience.

Wiggle the gearlever, note its springy action across the gate, and fire up the motor. It’s the same 180bhp, 1.8-litre turbocharged unit from the Mk4 VW Golf GTI, and it sounds particularly subdued here. The steering demands more effort than expected, but it exudes more tactility than you might think. It’s a pleasant blend of fun and usability, with a supple ride, decent refinement, communicative controls and compact dimensions. It’s an appealing package today, so no wonder it proved popular as a new car.

At the time, this was the fastest production Skoda ever, and happily, when you push harder, it still delivers. The engine is flexible with a strong mid-range providing a decent turn of speed. It’s not vocal, and there’s little use in chasing the 6,500rpm red line, but its undramatic delivery pairs well with the Octavia’s measured attitude.

The chassis shines brighter still. The steering lacks ultimate feedback, but there’s still plenty of it, and it’s fun, something the sub-1,400kg kerbweight contributes to.

Skoda Fabia vRS Mk1

The shift in character between the Octavia vRS and the original Fabia vRS, which landed two years later, is striking. Powered by a 1.9-litre diesel motor producing 130bhp, the VW Polo-based hot hatch typified an industry-wide move towards diesel during the early noughties, and aimed to carry the Octavia vRS’s ethos in a smaller, frugal package.

As with its larger, petrol-driven relative, the Fabia vRS looks humble, and certainly not one you’d expect to produce more torque than a contemporary Porsche Boxster. Drive it, however, and there’s no doubting the figures.

Whereas the Octavia required a few revs to tap into that mid-range, the Fabia can comfortably sit a gear higher, pulling strongly from down low with a healthy swell of torque. Instead of straining the engine, you sit back, hover over the throttle and make swift, effortless progress, while keeping that noise at a distance. Then you can concentrate on the feelsome steering, compliant chassis and the heightened agility afforded by a shorter wheelbase than the Octavia. The turn-in is blunted by the heavy diesel engine, but the Fabia is enjoyable to thread along, with controls that share the tactility of the Octavia’s.

It’s perhaps here, more than anywhere else, where the advances in technology are clearly felt. The 1.9-litre TDI sounds and feels agricultural by today’s standards, and the exhaust smell confirms just how clean modern diesels are.

There was logic in producing a diesel hot hatch back then; the promise of more than 50mpg and reduced CO2 meant it was cheap to run. But as a performance model, it was compromised. The chassis delivered a spritely drive, but the engine’s torque delivery meant there was little pleasure in wringing it out, as you might in any other landmark hot hatch. As a result, the Mk1 Fabia vRS is a pleasant road car, but stops short of being a memorable one.

Skoda Kodiaq vRS

How much vRS DNA can you inject into a seven-seat, diesel SUV? A fair bit, as it happens. The Kodiaq vRS taps into today’s trend of sporting SUVs, and while a 4x4 is an unlikely candidate for the vRS treatment, it’s effective: it’s the fastest seven-seater to lap the Nürburgring.

You’d be hard pressed to notice any vRS traits at normal speeds – a vRS hallmark. You sit high, and although this is a large SUV, the linear, accurate steering allows it to shrink around you more than expected. The ride is the plushest of all the models tested here, and the DSG gearbox is slick, limiting the noise from the 2.0-litre diesel engine.

The Kodiaq emits a synthetic warble through the speakers to mask the diesel clatter. Its 1,880kg is respectable for a seven-seat SUV, and the linear, pure combustion power is refreshing after the inconsistent response of the Octavia PHEV. Batting the paddles keeps the car in its sweet spot, at which point the Kodiaq moves at a decent, if not rapid, pace.

The real surprise is in the corners. It’s not super-sharp, but it remains composed and capable. The high-set chassis doesn’t communicate quite as well as the Octavia vRS iV’s, but the increased centre of gravity provides an extra layer to the dynamics. Where the Octavia will carve through difficult roads unflustered, the Kodiaq allows the driver to pitch the car in and use weight transfer to manipulate the balance. They’re subtle movements that don’t require correction, but they serve as a reminder that the car is near the edge. Unsurprisingly, the big Kodiaq is at its weakest on the brakes, but overall, this is a more gratifying car than the hybrid Octavia vRS on a challenging road – shock horror.

Skoda Octavia vRS iV PHEV

The lineage of accessible, usable performance cars under the vRS moniker has continued to the current age of electrification. The Octavia vRS iV is a plug-in hybrid performance hatch that borrows its chassis and running gear from the Mk8 Volkswagen Golf GTE, and looks to tie up pace, efficiency and fun in a single, practical package.

Having just climbed out of its near two-decade-old brethren, the iV feels opulent and well isolated, but with that brings a remoteness to its responses. The steering, although far more accurate and incisive, doesn’t load up with the same organic feel, and the brake regeneration system gives a springy feel to the brake pedal. In EV mode, the Octavia is eerily quiet and free of drama, which isn’t something from the established hot-hatch playbook.

Even when you’re up to speed, the Octavia vRS iV doesn’t quite hit the spot. Calling upon the 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine brings a sudden intrusion of noise, but not the kick of forward propulsion that you’d expect. Its 242bhp is a strong figure on paper, but the iV brings a near-200kg weight penalty over the standard vRS. The torque-fill of the electric motor masks turbo lag well, but it’s disappointing that the vRS iV never feels like an outright performance car.

Once you adjust to the synthetic controls, the Octavia vRS iV’s pure cornering ability impresses. The leap in chassis technology from the early noughties is evident; the Octavia is unflustered over mid-corner bumps that send shudders through the older cars, and the grip reserves are far higher. And where the Mk1 Octavia rewards spirited driving with a hint of slip from either axle, the vRS iV obeys the same commands in a neat, effective fashion. Pushing harder than that, on the road at least, feels inappropriate. Instead, you settle into a groove with the hybrid vRS, aiming it with accuracy between the white lines at a brisk pace. The Octavia vRS iV is an accomplished car, but we wish it was a little less Skoda, and a bit more vRS.

Perhaps the current Octavia vRS is closest to the original Fabia vRS in that regard, then. It’s a hot hatchback designed for the world around it. Diesel was king in the early noughties; today it’s electrification that rules the roost.

What is your favourite Skoda vRS car? Let us know in the comments section...

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