Pirellis limit the Seat on track; 308’s Michelins prefer a dry surface
The Leon Cupra feels detached from the road when pushing on
The Leon’s cabin remains wedded to its everyday roots
It takes time to get used to the 308’s small steering wheel
Rampant axle tramp, slack body control, an engine that wilts at the top end and seats that give no meaningful support.
Lots of today’s hot hatches are so well executed they feel more like upright sports cars than repurposed hatchbacks, but – evidently – not all of them.
The Seat Leon Cupra 300 and Peugeot 308 GTi 270 both play supporting roles in the hot hatch sector, while the likes of the Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type R hog all the limelight. The Cupra brand is now well established in its own right, though, and the recently rejuvenated Peugeot Sport sub- division has been given licence to build focused, high-specification performance cars rather than the lazily engineered warm hatchbacks that the French marque had found itself producing.
No matter how many times you’ve driven the 308 GTi in the past, it always takes time to adapt to its unusually small steering wheel. That’s a shame, because it means the first impression is a less than positive one. You drive it as you would any other front-driven hot hatch at first, but the tiny helm makes the car feel nervous and unsettled. Soon, though, you learn to calm your steering inputs and it doesn’t seem like such a hindrance any more.
The Peugeot’s engine is about as good as four-cylinder turbo units get. Response is decent, power throughout the mid-range is very strong and the top end is lively and energetic. The differential, meanwhile, can be a little grabby, but it gets the power to the road effectively and tightens your line in bends. The body is tautly controlled and the natural chassis balance is actually quite pointy, which means the GTi has a tenacious front end and lots of adjustability.
Down at road level the Peugeot feels very good indeed, but it’s let down by a handful of things that should be simpler to get right. For example, the gearshift is rubbery, the steering is a little vague and the seats don’t hold you in position, all of which means you have to work unnaturally hard in order to tap into the brilliance of the engine and chassis.
The hot hatch formula used to be a simple one: drop in a potent engine and fit stiffer springs. Today that approach just doesn’t cut it and most modern hot hatches feel as though they’ve had care and expertise heaped upon them. The Leon Cupra sits somewhere in the middle. It isn’t necessarily a half-baked hot hatch, but it never transcends its humdrum roots to feel like a brilliantly well- executed performance car.
The way the front axle leaps up and down under load is perhaps the surest sign that the Seat isn’t a world-class hot hatch. By way of contrast, the Peugeot gets its power down much more cleanly. And whereas really effective hot hatchbacks seem to hunker down onto the road when driven quickly, the Cupra always floats above it.
On a dry track, the Leon is so limited by its Pirelli P Zeroes that you simply don’t feel inclined to continue for lap after lap. All that happens is the car pushes into understeer on turn-in, then scrabbles for traction at the exit. The 308’s Michelin Pilot Super Sports feel much better on a circuit – although they are compromised on a damp surface.
The Peugeot gets the nod over the Seat, then, but allowing it to progress into the final shootout, where it’ll go up against the very best hot hatches currently on sale, feels like throwing a lamb to the lions.
Second opinion - Matt Saunders
This was the first time I’ve driven a 308 GTi in anger on a track, and I was pleased to find a few hidden depths. The way the soft-ish suspension rides kerbs is to be admired, and there’s much better handling agility and adjustability than the muted steering leads to you expect.
Fine chassis and engine let down by poor steering and seats
Price £29,405 4
Engine 4cyls, 1598cc, turbocharged, petrol
Power 266bhp at 6000rpm
Torque 243lb ft at 1900rpm
Gearbox 6-spd manual
Kerb weight 1205kg
0-62mph 6.0sec (claimed)
Top speed 155mph
Economy 47.0mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band 139g/km, 26%
Fast, but much less satisfying at the limit than the competition
Price £29,840 4
Engine 4cyls, 1984cc, turbocharged, petrol
Power 296bhp at 5500-6200rpm
Torque 258lb ft at 1800-5500
Gearbox 6-spd manual
Kerb weight 1395kg
0-62mph 5.8sec (claimed)
Top speed 155mph
Economy 40.9mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band 158g/km, 28%