Curbside Classic: 2002 Škoda Octavia RS – No Joke

The world can be divided into two camps: those who Škoda and those who Škodon’t. There were many markets where this long-lived Czech marque has no presence, or has been absent for decades, though that list has been diminishing in recent years. Remaining Škodon’t countries include the United States, where the marque did import a few cars back in the Eisenhower administration, as well as South Korea and Japan. As far as I know, Škoda have never had a Japanese importer or distributor. Which is why when I saw this one, I did a double take.

This just goes to show the relativity of mundaneness. Had I been on a French or British town and encountered this sliver Octavia, I don’t think I would have even bothered to take a photo. I might not even have even noticed it: these are so familiar (in the European context) as to turn into visual background noise. But finding one out of its natural habitat forced me to take a minute to gather my thoughts and a modicum of photographic evidence.

This is the first Škoda I’ve seen in this country, but it’s the second Octavia I found in the wilds of Asia (not a traditional stomping ground for Czech cars), The Octavia I caught about five years ago in Rangoon was a different beast though, as it was a COMECON-era RWD wagon, and a highly modded one at that. This one isn’t totally stock either (that rear spoiler, for starters), but much closer to how it came off the Mlada Boleslav assembly line than the Burmese Combi was.

Which makes sense, as this Octavia is a striking illustration of its maker’s revival, thanks to VW taking control in 1991. It didn’t happen overnight – I remember a time when Škodas were the butt of bad jokes in Western Europe. But by the time the Octavia was launched in 1996, most people had stopped mentioning VAG’s Czech branch in the same breath as the dreaded Lada. In fact, compared to its Audi-, SEAT- or VW-badged equivalents, the Octavia looks more substantial, with its chromed nose and chunky notchback profile.

Under the skin, the Octavia is identical to the German-made Bora (Jetta)/Golf Mk4, the Audi A3 and the Spanish-built SEAT Toledo/León, down to the wheelbase. The Škoda’s added value, aside from its superb VAG technology, was its styling, its bigger boot and its rock-bottom price, compared to its VW, SEAT and Audi sisters. I vividly recall thinking at the time that the Octavia being 10-15% cheaper, yet equal in all technical respects to the A3, the Bora and the Toledo, would take the world by storm. And it did, despite the Škoda jokes.

The first new Škoda devised in the VAG era was the Felicia (1994-2001), which used a mix of legacy Škoda and VW power plants. The Octavia was aimed at a higher segment and Škoda’s biggest car engine was a 1.3, so all the engines available on the Octavia (1.4, 1.6, 1.8 and 2-litre petrol 4-cyl., plus a 1.9 litre Diesel) were strictly VAG. Similarly, the interior does not look very Eastern European – just plain Germanic, more like. That’s probably a good thing, given that this higher-trim Octavia, though affordable, was still the most expensive Škoda ever attempted up to that point. That would be topped by the Superb from 2001; those are very nice too, but I doubt I’ll run into one in Tokyo.

The saloon (top left) made its European debut for MY 1997. In 1998, the Octavia wagon (top right; known as the Combi, just like it was back in the ‘60s) joined the range and RHD versions started to be sold in the UK, one of Škoda’s key European markets. The Octavia was given a mild facelift for MY 2001 and sales of the performance-oriented RS model, be it in saloon (bottom right) or Combi form (bottom left) started then, lasting until 2005. At that point, the second generation Octavia was launched, but the old one stuck around in many markets until 2010-11.

Our feature car is one of these RS models (or VRS, as the badge seems to imply?), so this is the Octavia you want to get if you’re in a hurry. These Škodas never got access to the crazy 6-cyl. powerplants seen on certain Mk4 Golfs, but the Octavia RS did have a slightly toned down version (178hp) of the 1.8 litre 20-valve 4-cyl. used in the Audi S3.

The Felicia was the first Škoda of the modern era, but this Octavia was the one that VAG used to crack open a bunch of new markets for their Czech branch. These were built in Poland, Bosnia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and India, the last market being a particularly tough one to survive in. Yet Škoda are still in India today, thanks in no small part to the Octavia’s good first impression.

Škoda has conquered dozens of new markets since the ‘90s, being one of the few East European automotive success stories of the last 20 years, along with Dacia. Still, Škoda have yet to try to enter the JDM, so this Octavia RS must have been imported and licensed here privately (and doubtless at great expense) by someone who has a serious Czech car fetish. No, it wasn’t me!