This lowest-powered Cupra was propelled by the VW Group’s 177bhp 1.8-litre 20-valve four-cylinder engine, breathing through a Garrett K03 turbocharger and driving the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox. It was fun (0-62mph in 7.7sec) and understated but what really got people talking was the 207bhp Cupra R that arrived in 2002.
It trimmed half a second off the Cupra’s 0-62mph time courtesy of twin intercoolers and a larger K04 turbo. Just as important, it gained more powerful four-pot Brembo front calipers, a set of 18in wheels, quicker steering and stiffer suspension. It looked the part, too, with its humpgrazing front splitter. Rare is the R whose splitter isn’t splattered.
People flocked to it – only for Seat to reward their enthusiasm one year later by replacing it with a 221bhp version capable of 0-62mph in, some reports said, 6.5sec. Still, if any Seat owners were miffed, VW and Audi owners must have felt worse since, priced at £17,000, this more powerful Cupra R cost the same as the distinctly unimpressive 148bhp Golf GTI and £7000 less than the S3.
It wasn’t as though they could draw any comfort from driving better-made cars. True, the Leon’s poorer-quality door seals have come home to roost in the shape of water ingress that can cause musty smells and floor corrosion, and maybe the trim is a less well anchored, but that’s it. Assuming proper servicing (oil changes at 10,000 miles, cambelt and water pump at 60,000 miles, engine hoses replaced around 100,000 miles) and careful driving (allowing the turbo to warm up gently and then cool down before switching off the engine) the Cupra R and standard Cupra have proved to be resilient.
Back in the early noughties, Seat’s interiors lagged behind the brand’s sunny image of itself. The Cupra’s is no exception. It’s a dowdy affair but at least there are sports seats and air conditioning (climate control on R versions). Not a lot, granted, but buy a good Cupra or Cupra R and you’ll be enjoying yourself too much to care.
How does it drive? Click here for our Past Masters review of the Seat Leon Cupra R Mk1
HOW TO GET ONE IN YOUR GARAGE
An expert’s view...
PETE EVANS, TC GARAGE
“I really rate the Cupra. As a cheap hot hatch, I’d buy one over any other rival. That said, water ingress is a major issue. It comes in via the door seals, which are made of a low-quality foam. Seat should have used silicone instead of foam. A damp musty smell spells trouble, as does a thin line of water on the plastic step. The trouble is, damp rises and it can affect the dashboard as well as rot the kick panel near the foot pedals. You have to take the doors apart to fix it but there is a ‘secret’ cure we know that will stop it for good…”