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Skoda Octavia vRS hatch

I like to think of the Skoda Octavia VRS hatch as a jar of marmite. No, I’m not going for the love it or hate it analogy here, although can I safely say I’m strongly in the ‘love it’ camp.

Here’s why. There it is, sitting on my shelf in a pretty unexciting jar and when I open it the contents don’t look all that great either. But spread it on my toast and plain old hot bread and butter is instantly transformed to something of substance, a shock of wonderfully strong flavour, and my taste buds love it.

So why does the Octavia vRS remind me of marmite? It's not black and doesn’t contain yeast, but get behind the wheel of the understated performance hatchback and you’ll soon learn that it stands out from the crowd, simply by blending in.

Let’s not underplay over how this hatchback looks. With its 18in alloys, door sill trims with the vRS logo, Supersport 3-spoke leather multi-function steering wheel with vRS logo and gearshift paddles for DSG models, vRS bumpers and spoiler and sport seats, it seems strange to call it understated. I suppose it simply has that ‘if you know, you know’ vibe - there to be respected by fellow car nerds, but potentially overlooked by those with a lack of enthusiasm.

It has a surprising amount of standard kit too, including everything just mentioned as well as adaptive cruise control, driver fatigue sensor, ambient lighting in the doors, lane assist and telescopic headlight washers. It also saved my hair when it rained by providing me with an umbrella under the passenger seat, and for that I’m forever thankful.

As Skoda is part of the VW Group, the Octavia shares parts with the Volkswagen Golf, so the vRS could be described as a more practical, less expensive Golf GTI or GTD if you go for the diesel option. And although it’s bigger and heavier than the Golf and its other rival the SEAT Leon, it feels just as responsive and fun to drive, especially if you’re brave enough to hit the vRS button, which sharpens throttle response and adds a little weight to the steering for a more involved experience. The suspension, throttle and even the exhaust all become sharper, turning the Octavia into a true enthusiast's car. Not that that’s entirely necessary, as the car boasts precise steering and very little body lean in corners, with the wide tyres ensuring there’s lots of grip.

Without getting too technical, the car has a front differential device that sends more power to the wheel with the most grip to improve acceleration out of right corners, and stability control which is on all models improves handling on tight bends under acceleration. Impressive stuff.

The steering isn't quite as communicative as the Peugeot 308, and the extra length in the Octavia’s wheelbase compared with the Golf GTI and the fast-steering of the Peugeot 308 GTi mean the Skoda unfortunately isn’t as agile as either of its main rivals. But don't underestimate the levels of performance and composure this car has for a family hatchback of its size.

On paper, the Skoda offers a similar level of performance to the Golf GTI, and the shared 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol is punchy but smooth. This 242bhp engine is not only the most potent Skoda Octavia ever, but also the most exciting to drive, while at the same time being one of the post practical hot hatches on the market. And with prices starting from just over £25,500, the Octavia vRS is better value than most of its hot hatch rivals.

The vRS also has the best rear space of any hot hatch, borrowing its practical features from the normal Octavia. Although the sports seats marginally restrict the rear legroom, it's still big enough for three adults to sit pretty comfortably on a long journey. The boot is a big selling point too, telling the Seat Leon where to go with 200 litres more room within it.

While other hot hatches are perhaps more engaging to drive, the vRS offers composed pace while remaining practical, solid and giving you a whole load of bang for your buck. We know which one we'd choose.