Good: sharper to drive than standard, great looking, excellent seats, practicality, value
Not so good: a little bulkier and heavier than a Golf GTI, noisy at speed
I have often surveyed the massed ranks of expensive cars on the streets of Dublin, Cork and elsewhere and thought 'why?' Why, even in the face of a Lotto win, would you really need to spend all that money on one car? Why, even if high performance and peerless quality were your wishes, would you look anywhere else but to the gene pool of the hot hatch?
I mean it - hot hatches have always been the best cars around. Hot hatches have always, since their creation, been the best expression of the auto maker's art. They have the straight-line performance of a prestige saloon, the handling balance and steering clarity of a sports car (well, some of them do anyway) and yet come with the sensible(ish) price tag and roomy bodies of a family car. Therefore, they have performance yet practicality, making them a creation far greater than any Ferrari or Lamborghini, which will be sentenced to spend most of its life trundling around at barely ten per cent of its potential performance. Feel free to write in and tell me why I'm wrong...
Whether I'm right or not matters little though, as I think I've just found the best hot hatch around. Well, the best one for me at any rate. You see, I'm a practical man. My wardrobe is full of labels that read 'Levis' and 'Barbour', not 'Gucci' nor 'Prada.' I like things that are designed for a working life - watches made of hard-wearing stainless steel, not gold for instance. Jackets of leather or waxed cotton rather than silk or cashmere.
And that's why I've long liked Skodas, and especially Skoda's RS models. Call it a hangover from my rural upbringing, but cars should be able to work hard for a living, even the fast ones, so a fast Skoda has always made rather wonderful sense to me.
The existing 220hp Octavia RS (never vRS - that's a UK-only designation...) has therefore long been one of my favourite cars. Quick, sure-footed and yet still solidly sensible, I've long kept a space open for one in my fictional Lotto garage (any day now...). This RS 230 edition ramps things up just a little in the performance and handling stakes, but in a very familiar way. Familiar because the upgrade to RS 230 status basically involves the same tweaks applied to the Performance Pack versions of the Volkswagen Golf GTI. In the Golf, the PP changes the character of the car to such an extent that you should simply not consider buying a GTI without ticking the appropriate options box. I'd say that the Skoda benefits similarly.
The big change is an electronically controlled differential nestling between the front output shafts. Now, the regular RS grips well, has plenty of traction and turns into corners keenly. With the diff though, it's all on another level. The differential can sniff out more grip, more traction even - especially - on roads with a poor or slippery surface, so you can better point, squirt and go. That's helped by steering that has a weightier, meatier feel, giving you the confidence to lean on what the diff is doing and really commit to a corner.
The diff also gives you more options. It's throttle adjustable, but in the opposite way to a 'passive' car. Here, if you want to nudge the nose tighter into a corner, you add power. To run a little wide, you lift off the gas a little and the Skoda's nose obliges. It's not quite the rear-wheel drive effect that you get on the Ford Focus RS, but then we are talking about a car that costs nearly €20k less...
Ah yes, the value question. Skoda asks €35,995 for this car, which is almost €3k less than a five-door Golf GTI PP. When you add in the fact that you get, for that cash, a big touch-screen infotainment setup with Apple CarPlay, a leather interior, 19-inch black-finish alloys, parking sensors and a more muscular body kit, you can really start dragging out the old bargain clichés.
Of course, it retains the practicality that you find in any Octavia. The back seats are roomy for both legs and heads, and the boot is big, deep and useful at 590 litres. Tempting to go for the Combi estate actually, and get an extra 15 litres of space...
Up front you also get the RS seats - high backed and tombstone-shaped, they're wonderfully comfortable and I'm glad to see that Skoda now has the confidence in its own brand to proudly stitch the RS logo into the headrests. Heraldically classy.
Are there flaws? Of course there are. It's almost 70kg heavier than an equivalent Golf GTI, and that weight does show in a slight sense of greater body roll. The Golf is slightly more of a precision tool, certainly, although I think I'd be prepared to sacrifice that for the Skoda's extra space. There's a lot of noise at a cruise too - mostly from the tyres - and it can get quite cacophonous on the motorway. That seems to be endemic to all cars using Volkswagen's MQB chassis, but it's not as bad here as in the related Audi S3.
It's also a touch thirsty. Skoda says you'll get 44mpg, and you can if you drive very, very gently, but who wants to drive a car like this gently? At least it doesn't give into traditional fast-car harshness - the suspension, although firm, remains supple at all times.
As you may have guessed by now, I want one. I can't think of a car that better combines performance with practicality. You can have your bigger Mercs, your BMWs, even your Ferraris and Lamborghinis. I've found my Lotto car. Now, where's my winning ticket..?