Sheer speed is not enough for a car to make it onto the fleets of the UK's men in blue. Their cars take an absolute hammering, so the Skoda Octavia vRS is also extremely well built and reliable.
Road Test: Skoda Octavia is good enough for the police
If you want to know what makes a decent car, you could do worse than take a look at what certain police forces use in their fleets. In the UK, where I hail from, cop cars range from the Ford Focus (usually for the urban jungle) to 3 and 5 Series BMWs, Audis and the occasional Subaru Imprezza for high-speed pursuits. Volvo V70 T5 estates feature heavily, too, because they're tough, very quick and there's plenty of room in the cavernous boot for all manner of highway law enforcement essentials.
The various UK police forces have an unlikely stealth weapon in their arsenals, however: the Skoda Octavia vRS. Unmarked, they're subtle enough to go unnoticed by other road users, thousands of whom have been caught unawares while travelling at illegal speeds. A journalist I know in the UK was driving a 911 GT3 a few years ago, doing about 240kph on a deserted stretch of motorway. His illicit fun was brought to an abrupt end when suddenly he noticed a Skoda looming in his rear-view mirror with its blue lights flashing behind the radiator grille. I can't repeat the words he uttered, but suffice to say he was gobsmacked that an Octavia could drive so fast. No wonder the police love them.
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But sheer speed is not enough for a car to make it onto the fleets of the boys in blue. Their cars take an absolute hammering, so they need to be extremely well built and reliable. So the Octavia vRS must be quite a car, and recently it was time for me to find out, right here in the UAE, whether it's as good as I've been led to believe.
You have to feel for Skoda (pronounced Shkoda). It's been building cars for a hundred years, but for decades the company has fought a gruelling war against prejudice and misinformation. What's in a name? Evidently quite a lot, because it wasn't until VW completely took over in 2001 that the cars became a viable purchase for motorists with a total aversion to anything built in the Czech Republic. The butt of jokes and derision from the school playground to the boardroom, Skoda had its work cut out, but persistence eventually paid off, and now the company is selling 650,000 cars a year and is directly responsible for a colossal 25 per cent of VW Group's annual profits.
The Octavia was the first model engineered under VW's direct influence. Based on the Mk5 Golf platform, it's a mid-size saloon (or estate) and, although its technology is lagging behind the current Golf, a styling refresh in 2009 has kept it looking smart. In the three days I had the car it certainly drew plenty of admiring glances from pedestrians and curious onlookers, who probably didn't know what it was they were looking at. The Skoda badge is unfamiliar, but ignore that and you could be looking at a beefy Passat. LED daytime running lights and a shapely bonnet cut a modern dash, but the rest of the Octavia is identikit Germania - not that there's anything wrong with that.
Inside it's the same story. High-quality trim and a dash that's much more attractive than the current Passat make it a pleasing environment. There's still the occasional piece of scratchy plastic, but in general there's nothing to complain about. And it has an old-fashioned hand-brake. And a key for the ignition - remember those? It's nice to know there's an actual mechanical interaction going on sometimes.
And it's the mechanical interaction between the vRS's engine and its front wheels that makes this such a bargain of a car (it comes packed to the gunnels with kit for Dh89,500). Twist the key (you don't even need a foot on the brake pedal) and the engine quickly settles down to a purposeful, meaty thrum. It's a turbocharged two-litre straight four, mated to VW's much-lauded six-speed DSG transmission. Incidentally, the engine is straight out of a Mk5 GTI. So far, so good.
It's docile through the maze of Abu Dhabi's city streets, yet when a sudden burst of acceleration is called for to avoid an unwanted Octavia/taxi interface the power comes on tap in a seamless instant. Hitting the open roads to both Al Ain and Dubai, the vRS proved comfortable, refined and plenty quick enough. The suspension is just the right side of firm if you manage to find a road with any corners, and body roll is minimal. On a quiet enough stretch, select sport on the gear shifter and floor the throttle. Even with all the electronic nannies working overtime, the Octavia threatens to liquidise its front tyres as they lose purchase and loudly chirrup before traction and composure are regained.
It's this dual nature that's at the very heart of the Octavia vRS's appeal. It doesn't shout its presence, it simply goes like a hot hatch that's been well screwed together. Viewing it as a cut-price VW makes a lot of sense. After all, the days of judging a car by the country it's assembled in have long since vanished (did you know that Audi builds the TT in Hungary?), so Skoda's communist past is irrelevant. In the UAE, the Octavia vRS is, however, very relevant. Forget the name, forget the badge and enjoy it for what it really is: a brilliant car that's good enough for the police.