2021 Cupra Leon VZ3 vs Skoda Octavia vRS

It's battle of the family wagons. Fancy betting your furry best friend on the outcome?

By Nic Cackett / Monday, August 30, 2021 / Loading comments

Earlier this month, I went on holiday in a Volkswagen Tiguan R. For two days, I hated it. Not because it was woefully bad by any means, it was just so crushingly dull. Admittedly it is difficult for any car to truly shine on the slog from Surrey to Devon in peak season, yet the whole point of paying extra to have the R badge on your boot lid is to access fleeting moments of throttle-based levity at the drop of a hat. Instead it mostly felt like the car had been dropped in a river, so disinclined was it to make progress in a spirited fashion.

Then, as the week went on, it started to grow on me a bit. The convenience of a slightly higher hip point. The inflated sense of presence. The illusion of more space. The go-anywhere-ness of its additional ground clearance. The impression that small children are being better accommodated in the back. Compact SUVs work their charm insidiously, like National Trust cafe menus: it’s all so bloody persuasive and comforting that before you know it, you’ve blown a score on cream teas which would’ve been better spent in the pub.

As we all know, the fizzy antidote to this problem is a fast estate built from the same hatchback underpinnings; lower, leaner, cheaper and endowed with superior practicality by design. In time there will be a Golf R version to work its quintessential charm on the buying public. Or you could buy the new Cupra Leon, a car with 310hp, all-wheel drive, a seven-speed DSG and a 4.9-second 0-62mph time. It starts at £39,065 – which is significantly less than the £46,220 the lowest spec Tiguan R will cost you.

Or you could go with tradition. For what seems like a millennia, when someone sensible wanted something vaguely fast, wagon-shaped and halfway affordable, they bought an Octavia vRS. There were three generations of Skoda’s family car before the one launched late last year, and they all professed to do much the same thing: move you and yours about briskly and with the minimum amount of fuss. The latest version is probably the most style conscious yet, but when it starts at just £32,925 with a manual ‘box – only marginally more than a high-spec diesel Golf Estate – you know the sales pitch is much the same as it ever was.

Question is, should you make your peace with 245hp, front-wheel drive and a 0-62mph closer to seven seconds than five? Or pay the premium for the punchier new kid on the block? Well, if your eyeballs are anything like mine, it’ll be 1-0 to the Octavia should you see them drawn alongside each other in a car park. Neither model is heading for the fast wagon hall of fame on the styling front, but where the Leon tries a little too hard to please with its Transformer-face rear end, Skoda sticks to mostly familiar design cues and is all the better for it.

By and large, the advantage continues inside. Shared use of modular VW Group architecture means the cars are similar, if not quite the same. The Octavia features clever use of Alcantara (or at least something which feels like Alcantara) on the dash, and, mercifully, retains some physical switchgear. The Leon forgoes these almost altogether – except on its steering wheel – and is the worse for it. Nevertheless, it does make better use of its marginally wider centre console, and offers the drive mode shortcut button its stablemate sees fit to leave out.

Both, it must be said, fumble the infotainment ball. We won’t get bogged down in the minutia because at the end of the day, they work well enough, and you’d eventually get used to their idiosyncrasies, but even Hikaru Sulu would surely fail to see the point of trying to show 18 separate functions at once, as the Cupra does. Presented with the myriad opportunities a tweaked VW UI affords, both brands are guilty of trying to do too much. People expect intuitive, elegant interfaces from their touchscreens. The Octavia and Leon provide neither.

There’s no separating them on practicality, either. If the Skoda offers slightly more capacity from the Octavia’s boot, it is because it does without the Leon’s raised boot floor. Otherwise the loadspace dimensions are shared, and certainly ample enough for C-segment wagons. Both feature automatic boot lids, both will accommodate four adults in respectable comfort and neither would give a medium-sized dog anything to complain about.

Drivers might differ. Both cars are inclined to violently obey their lane departure warning systems, to the extent that even potential frontal impact with obstacles is apparently considered preferable to allowing you to momentarily stray beyond the white line. Mercifully, neither requires you to hunt for the function in the infotainment system, so extinguishing it is simple enough – which is good, because you’re probably going to choose to do it at the start of each and every journey.

Once that niggle is dismissed and you’re permitted the opportunity to steer for yourself, the first thing you will likely notice is that the Octavia makes a better fist of the process. Cupra, for reasons best known to itself, has opted for the sort of anaesthetised steering feel that Audi favoured not so long ago. The Skoda is no paragon of feelsome virtue, but its rate of response and gently progressive resistance are neatly judged. The Leon seems to want you to marvel at how quickly it is changing direction, no matter how limited your rapport with the front wheels.

To make matters worse, Cupra has lumbered the Leon with much the same fuel-sipping throttle map that makes the Tiguan R seem needlessly slow-witted in the otherwise desirable ‘Comfort’ mode. You might think that 295lb ft from 2,000rpm would make the four-wheel-drive wagon keenly responsive and meaningfully superior to the front-drive, 273lb ft Octavia, but thanks to an invisible quagmire of its own making, even middling pedal inputs don’t reveal it. What it does do of course is keep the Leon’s economy respectable in everyday driving – although if that’s an overriding concern, the Octavia is comfortably the better choice regardless.

It’s probably the better choice in most other ways, too. With both cars on adaptive dampers and 19-inch wheels, there isn’t a significant difference in ride quality, but the Skoda is handily lighter on its feet (though perhaps not by as much as iit claims on paper) and therefore generally better able to go with the road’s flow. The fact that the roads remained resolutely dry for the duration of our test was obviously to the Octavia’s benefit as well; the vRS’s front axle is sorted enough these days that it’s seldom you ponder the absence of power at the back, even when pushing on a bit.

Make a measured attitude the limit of your ambition and it’s unlikely that you’d be moved to shell out yet more hard earned for the Cupra way. The Leon’s bragging rights require you to go looking for them – first, on the touchscreen. While that steering wheel-mounted Cupra button lets you cycle through its more aggressive drive modes easily enough, it’s unlikely you’ll settle on either of them because the piped-in engine noise is so cringingly synthesised that it sounds like Larvell Jones from Police Academy is sitting in the back.

Better to look away from the road for, oh, an hour or so, and figure out how to fettle ‘Individual’ mode to your liking. Naturally this is where it gets a little subjective – but with the engine and gearbox in ‘Cupra’ (shorn of its silly soundtrack) and the dampers wound back to wantonly soft, the Leon is a pleasingly different kettle of fish. Granted, there’s no way to resuscitate the lifeless steering, but now at least the car gets up a road in a manner befitting a wagon with very nearly the same output as an Audi RS2.

Finally encouraged to make your way round to 6,500rpm, it’s plain enough that there’s 65hp advantage waiting to greet you. Exploit this superiority around corners, and you’ll hardly fail to notice that some of the available power is being cannily shuffled rearward, making the Cupra seem not just quicker, but also better balanced than the inevitably nose-bias Octavia. While Leon doesn’t get VW’s more sophisticated Performance Torque Vectoring for genuine side-to-side adaptability, there’s no question that the all-wheel-drive system is delivering a level of performance – and dynamic cohesion, really – that is ultimately beyond the front-drive Skoda.

Unsurprisingly, once you’ve unlocked this additional dimension, the Leon does rather grow on you. Its chief virtue, after all, is the payout for choosing a C-segment wagon over a taller, heavier compact SUV with the same engine. Throw in the substantial list-price saving, and I’d take it over the Tiguan R, no doubt. But not, ultimately, over the Skoda. Call me a bluff traditionalist, but the straightforward appeal that Skoda has nurtured in the Octavia vRS since time immemorial (or 1996 anyway) still resonates – especially versus a car that does not eclipse it practically, or visually, or financially, or even to drive, away from the limit. Which makes it the fast wagon of choice for anyone who actually needs a wagon. Or until the new Mk8 Golf R Estate turns up anyway.

  • 2021 Skoda Octavia vRS manual | PH Review
  • 2021 Cupra Leon | PH Review

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