Good: fast, great to drive, practical, comfortable, high quality
Not so good: not keen on the new lights, starting to get pricey
It did occur to me, bumbling along the motorway in the updated Skoda Octavia RS 245, that it's all getting a bit ridiculous. Not only are the boundaries between premium and everyday motoring really starting to become very blurry, but that a few years ago, you just couldn't have had a car like this for anything like the money.
Which is not to say that I think hot hatches are suddenly a new thing. Of course they're not, and the idea of having a fast-but-practical car has been around for longer than I've been alive. But I do think, or at least am starting to, that there's something seriously impressive about the fact that Skoda can wrap up so many different talents, so many different aspects of motoring, and plop them into one car.
Not that it's cheap, especially. It's well-priced compared to what you'd pay to get the same powertrain in a Golf, but €42k still does feel a bit stiff for something with a Skoda badge, even if, in terms of performance, cabin quality and comfort, and solidity of build, it's good enough to give more than a few BMWs a good kicking. And I'm still not keen on those headlights, split into 'quad' units for the facelift of the Octavia, and meant to represent famously high-quality Czech crystal-ware. I still think they look a bit gawky.
The rest of the Octavia RS? Well, it's almost annoyingly close to perfect...
You could of course spend less and get the 2.0-litre TSI petrol engine with 230hp, but then why would you? Not only would you be missing out on 15hp (which to be fair, doesn't make all that much difference - 0.1 seconds off the 0-100km/h run), but this is an engine that just feels... right. It has all the top-end power that you could reasonably want (since when was nigh-on 250hp not enough in a family-sized car?) and when you accelerate hard, it does so with an appealingly gruff growl. And then, when you're done with driving like a teenager, it's quiet, smooth, has lots of the sort of low-down torque that makes most journeys totally effortless and it's even quite economical. Skoda quotes 6.6 litres per 100km, we got 8.0 litres/100km; not bad for something with potent performance.
By going for the 245hp version, you also get a special front differential. The standard 230hp model gets an electronic faux-diff, that uses the brakes to try and replicate the way a proper limited slip differential parcels out the power, but the 245hp RS gets the real thing, and it makes a huge difference. It livens up the steering, for a start, which feels much more responsive and talkative, and it really makes a difference to front-end grip and traction when you're cornering. In fact, I'd say it's a safety device, so good is the RS 245 at sniffing out extra friction on a wet and slippery road. For a keen driver, it's just brilliant, giving you more options in a corner, and more control over the car.
Of course, you can get all of that in a Golf GTI, and a more desirable badge with it. So why by the Skoda? Well, I guess there's something of an inverse snobbery in having the Skoda badge, and the styling is no bad thing either - in spite of the boot spoiler and body kit, the Octavia RS still looks subtle enough to pass unhindered through a Garda checkpoint. I'm not sure I'd want the 19-inch alloys, though. They look good, but they're vulnerable to kerbing, and they don't do anything for the ride quality, which feels too stiff and a bit brittle around town.
That aside, the Octavia's trump card is its practicality. The boot, at 590 litres, is actually 10 litres bigger than that of the Maserati Levante we tested last week. The rear seats are roomy, with lots of legroom. The front seats - gorgeous, high-backed 'tombstone' buckets - are wonderfully comfy. The dash, a little plain as it is in all Octavias, is enlivened by the massive 9.2-inch 'Columbus' touchscreen, but if we're being really picky, we'd go for the smaller eight-inch screen. Why? This one doesn't have a physical volume button, which is irritating when you just want to lean across and knock the radio off. Aside from that, though, it's a masterclass in in-car infotainment with gorgeous graphics, a simple menu system, useful live info on the satnav and phone connectivity including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
So, it's fun to drive - in fact, really, really good fun when you're pressing on - but sensible and practical, and even reasonably frugal. A Golf GTI is all of that, but you can't fit a wardrobe in the back of the Golf. The Skoda badge has its own anti-snob appeal, and really all the Octavia RS 245 needs to reach perfection is a slightly smoother ride quality, and nicer-looking headlights.