The million dollar question: A FWD Skoda or a RWD BMW?

The million dollar question: A FWD Skoda or a RWD BMW?

The BMW 330i and the Skoda Octavia vRS are closely matched in terms of technical specification and the major difference between these two cars is that the former sends all its horses to the rear wheels while the latter directs its power to the front wheels. The BMW cannot be compared to the Skoda due to the obvious reasons of difference in build, quality, equipment levels and luxury. What matters more is the ability to induce wide grins and deliver the ultimate bang for your buck. Buckle up and get ready for some RWD/FWD action.

BMW and the Thrill of Driving

I’ve always been a fan of BMWs. It’s probably down to me honing my power oversteer game in a series of BMWs but it’s a fondness that has held fast through successive generations, and progressively softening, of the Bavarian cars. And I clearly remember it starting with the first BMW to be officially launched in India, the E90 325i. Back then I’d yet to experience an engine like its in-line six motor and a chassis as involving as the E90’s. Stiff, fast, creamy, revvy and most of all involving; the 325i was an unshakable benchmark that was only eclipsed a few years later by the E90 330i. Those were the days when BMW’s model designations actually made sense and true to what it said on its butt, the 330i got the 255bhp 3-litre in-line six to make for one of the best drivers’ cars on the market. In a diesel-obsessed market it didn’t find too many buyers but a big engine in the small 3 Series set the benchmark for The Thrill of Driving.

“The BMW 330i comes alive, torque trying to overcome rear grip, throttle adjusting midcorner attitude, the helm only having to steer”

The BMW 330i you see on these pictures is its spiritual successor but these days model codes make no sense so the F30 330i makes do with a 2-litre 4-cylinder, a bigger turbo boosting power up to the levels of the seven-year-old 330i. Well, actually, at 248bhp the F30 is slightly down on the E90’s headline figure though torque has gone up significantly to 350Nm. And the 0-100kmph acceleration time is over two seconds quicker at 5.8 seconds. That’s the pace of progress.

The Skoda Octavia RS

Much in the same vein I’ve always been rather partial towards the Octavia RS. In fact that fondness precedes that of the BMW by many years and had even more of an impact on my formative years. The first RS that came to India was OMG in all caps. My then editor managed to snag a long-term test car that he proceeded to drive all the way to Ladakh, very graciously handing it to me for its last two months in the fleet. Oh how I loved it. You have to remember we hadn’t, ever, experienced performance like that. We had no inkling what a turbocharger could do to a petrol engine. We’d never experienced a factory-lowered-and-stiffened suspension that had to be gentle over speedbreakers (the ed’s Ladakh stories were filled with physically moving boulders so the RS could make it through) but could generate real g’s round corners. And the RS Combi (the estate) was inarguably the coolest car you could buy, back in the day.

And then Skoda killed all the RS goodwill with the Laura RS, a body kit job that had no RS where it mattered – under the hood. With the new Octavia vRS, Skoda has made amends and how. From the first time I drove it I loved it so much I used every trick in the book to borrow a series of RS’, so much so that I’ve now driven it in every colour. I drooled over it so much that I was asked, on Twitter, how the Skoda Octavia RS would compare with the BMW 330i. Gosh, I’d never thought of that! So here goes.

The Lap of Mutha

The road leading up to the Lavasa township on the outskirts of Pune is bereft of bikers this weekend. Turns out some crazies, treating this public road as their own private race track, created some mess with the locals and so no bikers are being allowed up on that final – and best! – section leading to Lavasa. At the Temghar dam every biker wearing a helmet and proper riding gear is being stopped by burly bouncer-types while three-up on a Splendor are merrily being waved past. As are our cars, despite the lurid-blue paintwork and red number plate being obvious giveaways that we aren’t going for a Sunday morning stroll.

The BMW 330i barely feels turbocharged

Gone are the days where you’d write about lag, the twin scroll turbocharger (as opposed to twin turbochargers, Twin Power on the cylinder head being rather confusing) making sure there’s no delay in response. These turbo-petrols really do have everything on tap, in an instant, and are so much easier to drive faster than naturally aspirated engines. Modern gearboxes too have become so much quicker and even though this gets a regular 8-speed and not a twin-clutch, there really isn’t much more you can ask of it in terms of shift speed.

Gently roll past the bouncer-types and as soon as we are out of ear shot I stick the gear lever in Sport, switch DSC off (BMW still allows you to switch it completely off) and we belt up the twisties. It is on roads like this that BMWs really come alive, torque trying to overcome rear-grip in tight corners, the throttle adjusting the attitude mid-corner, the helm only having to worry about steering the car. Roads and days like this have made me a BMW fan. As is the fact that BMWs like to wag their tail.

But it’s not all hunky dory with the BMW 330i

Remember everybody cursing the ride quality of the 3 Series? Well, BMW responded by softening the F30 and on our favourite driving road, the 330i just doesn’t have the body control or the planted stance that made us fall in love in the first place. There is just too much body roll and it doesn’t stay flat over the bumps and undulations. It actually is a handful driven to its limit. And because the motor doesn’t rev like the naturally aspirated forebear, there aren’t big skids to be had either, just a wag of the tail before you have to upshift by which time the tyres regain grip and keep the car neat and tidy.And through it all the Octavia vRS stays resolute in my rear view mirror.

The funny thing here is that these two cars are quite closely matched

Both have 2-litre turbo-fours and an identical 350Nm of torque. The BMW trumps the Octavia vRS’ 227bhp but is heavier by 180kg. And the figures are close with the Octavia RS, just one second slower to 100kmph. But there’s one crucial difference, the Octavia RS is front-wheel drive. How is it keeping pace with the 330i?

Right off the bat the Skoda Octavia vRS feels firmer than the BMW 330i

Not uncomfortably but there’s an inescapable firmness to the damping that clearly communicates the fact that this is no garden-variety Octavia. The motor is unique and exclusive to the RS and isn’t shared with any other Skoda or even Volkswagen sold in India though the gearbox is the tried-and-tested 6-speed DSG. The cabin has these beautiful (to look at and sit in) Alcantara-finished one-piece buckets. The steering wheel is flat-bottomed and nicely dimpled. The exhausts fart on the upshift. And the subtle exterior details – bigger wheels, aggressive bumper, discreet boot spoiler, distinctive colours (Nardo Grey is the best if you ask me) – all mark the Octavia vRS as something special.

“The front end bite is terrific as is the keen resistance to understeer. The brakes are much sharper and immediate compared to the BMW”

What truly makes the Skoda Octavia RS stand out though is the handling

Sure the motor is real quick, very responsive, and rather entertaining, but enthusiast cars are all about their ability to dance round the twisties and on that front the Octavia RS is a revelation. I must reiterate that this is front-driven and unless you yank that handbrake there is no oversteer to be had. But that’s okay. Sideways is slower. The Octavia RS is all about precision and that’s where the rewards are to be had. The steering is rather more communicative than the numb helms of today and lets you position the Octavia RS with accuracy. The front end bite is terrific as is the keen resistance to understeer. The brakes are much sharper and immediate compared to the BMW. And the suspension stays flat over the bumps and gentle undulations of the Lap of Mutha. You can really lean on the front, push it hard, and yet it holds its line. And then the electronically controlled differential does a good impression of an LSD by curbing inside wheel spin and sending more torque to the outside wheel that has grip. It lets you carry more speed through corners, power out of it harder without having ESP intervene (the in-between Sport mode on the DCC works rather well letting the tyres chirrup merrily), and enjoy the loud(ish) fart on the upshift. It’s a precision tool that rewards with its sheer turn of pace: the joy is in carrying serious corner speeds, revelling in the quick change of direction and soaking in the feedback from the chassis. It gives you the confidence to push hard. Its appetite for speed is as big as its cavernous boot.

FWD vs RWD

This story started as a comparison but it is impossible to choose RWD over FWD. The 330i might be way softer than we expected but there still are fewer sensations as rewarding as a tail squirming and wagging in response to the twitching of your right foot. And we aren’t mad to compare the BMW to a Skoda – the build, quality, equipment and luxury of the former cannot be compared to the latter.

But, at half the price, the Skoda Octavia RS is as thrilling, as grin inducing

What works for the Octavia RS is its focus. Unlike the BMW that is a 3 Series with a bigger turbo the Octavia RS is focused on sporty performance. So while retaining all of the attributes that make the Octavia such a great car (space, boot, comfort, practicality) the Octavia RS adds a stonking motor and a grippy chassis. Not to mention all the visual addenda that makes the new quad-headlamp nose finally work for me. If you’re an enthusiast with a 30 lakh rupee budget you’d be mad not to buy an Octavia RS, even though Skoda has displayed impeccable product planning in not expecting and thus not catering to the very strong demand for the RS. (The RS sold out two months ago and the next shipment only comes in Feb!). The Octavia RS is the most fun car you can have this side of an… erm… 330i. It is #AllTheCarYouWillEverNeed.

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