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Can the pure-petrol hot hatch claim bragging rights over its Golf GTI stablemate?

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While we’re still waiting for a credible electric contender, the traditional hot hatch segment has changed beyond all recognition. A lot of the big players of old have abandoned it completely: Renault, Peugeot and Vauxhall have decided they can’t make the sums work, so they’re concentrating on SUVs and hybrids.

In their place have come manufacturers that only 10 years ago you would never have associated with hot hatchbacks: Hyundai has emerged as the defender of the performance hatch, BMW wants us to forget all of that advertising about front-wheel drive being wrong, and Cupra is its own brand now.

The petrol 245 version receives these simple round exhaust pipes, while more powerful versions get quad pipes. They can be slightly boomy in town and on the motorway. The hybrid is marked out by chintzy copper-coloured fake trims.

We’re still unsure what to make of Cupra. In many ways it seems to be usurping Seat, as it can sell cars for a higher price and therefore more profit; it’s trying to be a luxury brand. But then it’s also still functioning as the performance arm of Seat.

Whatever the Cupra’s more recent direction with the Cupra Born and the Cupra Formentor, the Cupra Leon is very much a classic Cupra – a hot Seat. In many ways it’s a very traditional hot hatch: take one family hatchback, add a more powerful engine, a bodykit, sports seats and a more focused suspension set-up. Done.

At the same time, the Cupra Leon is trying to have a finger in every performance car pie. You can have one as a hatchback or an estate, with front- or four-wheel drive and as a pure petrol or as a plug-in hybrid.

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We’ve previously road tested the 306bhp four-wheel-drive estate and found it to be fiercely quick but lacking some involvement, while the hybrid’s 1.4 doesn’t really feel at home in a performance derivative.

We have driven the petrol hatch before: the Cupra Leon 300 version featured in the 2021 Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car competition, but it was somewhat overshadowed by the more exciting junior hot hatches.

As an all-round proposition, though, it might do rather better. So since Cupra has finally started deliveries of the entry-level 245 version, it’s a good opportunity to put the petrol hatchback through the full road test.

Range at a glance

The hatchback is always front-wheel drive and is powered by a four-cylinder engine, either a 2.0-litre with 241bhp or 296bhp, or a 1.4-litre plug-in hybrid. The estate comes with either the front-wheel-drive hybrid or an even more powerful tune of the 2.0-litre with four-wheel drive. A DSG automatic is the only gearbox option. There are three trim levels – VZ1, VZ2 and VZ3 – but not all engine and trim combinations are possible.

EnginesPowerFrom
Cupra Leon 245 TSI VZ1*241bhp£33,100
Cupra Leon 245 eHybrid VZ2241bhp£36,710
Cupra Leon 300 TSI VZ2296bhp£37,130
Cupra Leon 245 eHybrid VZ2 Estate241bhp£37,890
Cupra Leon 310 TSI VZ2 Estate306bhp£40,705

*Model tested (VZ2 trim)

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Seat Leon

DESIGN & STYLING

02 Cupra Leon 245 Hatchback RT 2022 side pan

The current Seat Leon has been around for just over two years now, while the Cupra Leon version followed about a year later after its launch, so there are no big surprises with this particular car.

The Leon is a remarkably restrained design, whether in Seat or Cupra guise. Compared with the Seat’s, the Cupra's front bumper is only slightly more aggressive, while at the rear there is a relatively subtle diffuser flanked by twin exhausts in this 245 version, or quad pipes in the faster ones.

The Cupra Leon gains minimal sporty addenda compared with a Seat. Normally, you would expect some aggressive side skirts, but the sills are left quite rounded. Some might want more to mark out their hot hatch; others will appreciate the incognito style.

There are plans to differentiate the Cupra from the Seat, though. A facelifted Cupra Leon, due next year, has already been teased and will lose the Seat grille and gain a more distinctive front bumper, but is unlikely to sprout a showy bodykit.

Mechanically, the Leon is composed of familiar MQB platform elements, though Cupra limits itself to the more powerful powertrains from the Volkswagen Group parts warehouse.

The 245 TSI version tested here is the entry-level Cupra and uses a 241bhp version of the well-proven EA888 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine. The Cupra Leon 300 version is boosted to 296bhp but remains front-wheel drive only. In the UK, these powertrains are only available in the hatchback body, though other markets can also get it in the estate.

Slightly confusingly, there is another Cupra Leon 245, but that is a plug-in hybrid powered by the familiar combo of a 148bhp 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine and a 114bhp electric motor and is available as a hatchback or an estate. The most expensive Cupra Leon is the estate with the 306bhp four-wheel drivetrain we road tested last year.

INTERIOR

10 Cupra Leon 245 Hatchback RT 2022 dash

Apart from the badge and the sportier seats, you might not even notice you’re in the sporty one, because it’s mostly standard Seat Leon inside the Cupra Leon. In most respects, that’s not a bad thing.

So long as you stay away from the plug-in hybrids, whose battery packs rob an annoyingly large amount of boot volume, the Leon is a particularly roomy hatchback, offering 380 litres of boot space, and almost as much rear leg and head room as the most spacious rivals. The boot is a slightly awkward shape, though, and could really do with a variable floor.

The road gets twisty; you want a bit of fun. Press on the car icon to go to the settings. Press on the Lane Assist button to turn it off, open the ESC drop-down menu and select ESC off. Confirm you want to do this. Press the drive mode switch and choose Sport mode. Pull a paddle to put the ’box into manual. You’re ready to enjoy the Leon’s handling balance. The road has straightened out again.

In the front of the Cupra are two sports seats with just enough lateral support to keep you in place during hard cornering, but whose bolsters aren’t too extreme for daily use. In lower-spec VZ1 and VZ2 Leons like our test car, they are adjusted manually and lack the pull-out thigh support and cushion angle adjustment of more expensive versions, but lumbar support is standard.

Even the lower-spec models keep up a reasonably convincing air of luxury. The materials are generally a cut above those in a Volkswagen Golf and the imitation leather on the seat bolsters does a decent enough impression of the real stuff.

Special mention needs to be made of the steering wheel, which is almost round and avoids the thick rim so pervasive in modern performance cars. Instead, it’s thin and firm, upholstered in pleasingly smooth leather and with a flat edge at the front that your thumbs naturally find. We wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of Cupra’s interior designers have 1980s Porsches in their private garages. And the spokes house real buttons, rather than touch panels.

Sadly, the Cupra Leon’s interior hasn’t entirely eluded the VW Group’s corporate penny-pinching department. In the faster versions, the button to turn off the stability control takes pride of place in the centre console, a neat statement of intent. In this more affordable version, the centre console button remains, but it now starts the engine, while the driving mode and stability control are run through the screen.

To change the heating and ventilation, you will also need the screen and the unlit touch bar, as is typical for recent VW Group products. Familiarity with the menu layouts helps, but it’s all still suboptimal.

Multimedia

14 Cupra leon 245 hatchback rt 2022 infotainment

We’ve experienced Seat’s and Cupra’s infotainment many times before (including in the Cupra Born we road tested a few weeks back). Familiarity helps, no doubt, but it still isn’t a great experience.

In this car, we encountered no bugs and the screen responded reasonably promptly. The steering-wheel buttons are physical items, too, so that’s a couple of annoyances avoided. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto work wirelessly, though a wireless charger is fitted on only the VZ3 trim level.

Still, switching between smartphone mirroring and the built-in nav is clunky, some settings are hidden deep in a sub-menu and changing the volume using the touch bar is an exercise in frustration even if you’re the passenger.

You’ll need the screen to tweak the climate control too, and those menus are a maze in themselves. Voice control is never an adequate substitute for buttons, but even so, the Cupra system could be cleverer.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

20 Cupra Leon 245 Hatchback RT 2022 engine

Despite a power deficit compared with the Ford Focus ST and Hyundai i30 N, the entry-level Cupra Leon powered to 60mph a few tenths quicker than both, though it is helped in this respect by a quick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, whereas its rivals had traditional six-speed manuals. However, it’s still no match for the now-discontinued Honda Civic Type R, and it’s fair to assume the same will be true of the new one, due later this year.

Holding your left foot on the brake while flooring the accelerator triggers a launch control mode that primes the e-diff, but if you turn the traction control off, you’ll still have to manage the wheelspin yourself, because once the engine hits its stride around 5000rpm, the car will happily spin its power away in first gear.

The digital gauge cluster has a wealth of different display modes and customisable screens. Those with mechanical sympathy will appreciate that one of the options includes an oil temperature display.

Keep it in ESC Sport mode, however, and the systems will manage everything for you, though not quite as neatly as the most sophisticated systems. It’s effective enough, mind, as it produced nigh-on the same time as when we were feathering the throttle ourselves.

From there on, the engine’s hunger for revs means the Cupra enthusiastically romps through the gears. That said, the Focus ST’s in-gear figures still have a slight edge.

While its DSG no doubt helps the Cupra achieve its acceleration figures, it is a pity that a manual isn’t even offered. The ’box shifts quickly and responds well to the (disappointingly small and plasticky) paddles, and while it will upshift automatically at the redline, it leaves it late enough for it to rarely be an issue. Apart from some slight hesitancy during hurried three-point turns, it is impeccably behaved on the daily grind, too.

The 296bhp Leon theoretically shaves 0.7sec off the 245’s 0-62mph time, and pulls even more violently in gear. That can feel like too much performance for the road, though, whereas in 241bhp tune there is enough grunt to give the chassis a workout, without being a prod of the throttle away from losing your licence. The power delivery is strong throughout but still gives a reason to visit the upper end of the rev range.

Even in ‘Cupra’ mode, there is no piped-in engine noise, just a slight burble from the twin round exhaust pipes. The EA888 isn’t the most tuneful unit, and at higher revs the intake noise and valve thrash take over. In some applications this engine can sound like the timing chain might make a break for freedom, but in the Leon it’s more subdued.

The brakes deserve praise as well. The Leon needed slightly less distance or time to come to a stop than any of its rivals, and the pedal is perfectly progressive on the road too.

RIDE & HANDLING

22 Cupra Leon 245 Hatchback RT 2022 front corner

The no-nonsense feeling of the Cupra Leon continues when you find some corners. There’s no contrived sportiness here, no needlessly heavy steering, unyielding suspension or complicated four-wheel drive system.

The bottom trim, VZ1, gets 18in wheels with 225-section tyres and passive dampers. We suspect this set-up would harmonise well with the rest of the car’s character. Our VZ2 test car, with its 19in wheels, 10mm-wider tyres and adaptive dampers, will be more representative of how people spec their cars, though.

VZ2 and VZ3 cars ride on 19in wheels with 235-section tyres, while VZ1 has 18s and 225-section rubber. We would happily lose that little bit of mechanical grip for slightly taller and more absorptive tyre sidewalls.

The dampers are adjustable through no fewer than 12 settings. That sort of granularity is overkill, no doubt, but with a bit of experimentation, there is a good compromise in there.

We found that the standard Sport preset soaks up big bumps very adroitly while taming the worst of the body roll. It allows some movement, but in the absence of any real feedback from the steering, that’s quite helpful in gauging what the chassis is doing. Moving the slider further to the right ramps up the control, but also introduces brittleness, so the firmer settings are better left for a smooth track.

On a road with some medium sweepers, the chassis shows itself to be sweetly balanced. The stability control can be turned off, and a well-timed lift of the throttle will make the rear end edge ever so slightly wide. The Leon is no hooligan like a Ford Focus ST and is never going to catch a driver unawares but offers just enough throttle adjustability to make it feel agile and playful.

Pure-petrol Cupra Leons benefit from a VAQ system on the front axle, which uses a clutch pack on the right driveshaft to mimic a limited-slip differential. On the trickiest roads it’s possible to occasionally detect some slip from the inside front wheel, but mostly it drags the Leon out of corners decisively with no fuss.

If only the steering would give a little more back. At two turns lock to lock, it’s pretty quick but never feels nervous. It’s also perfectly accurate and it’s possible to vary the weight in the driving mode settings. It’s not plagued by unnatural weighting or the elasticated feeling found in fast Fords, so the lack of feedback is never an impediment to fast road driving, but a touch more communication would complete the dynamic picture.

Comfort and isolation

23 Cupra leon 245 hatchback rt 2022 rear corner

Despite 19in wheels and 35-aspect tyre sidewalls, on its adaptive dampers this hot hatch rides more comfortably than the vast majority of cooking family cars. Put the suspension in its softest mode and the Leon lopes along, flattening most bumps in the road. It’s well controlled too, so never becomes a floaty barge.

That compliance makes it all the more obvious when the suspension does run out of ideas. The lack of tyre sidewall can only be camouflaged so much, and the nastiest potholes will elicit a noticeable bang as the 19in wheel smacks through it. On the rare occasion that you encounter a pothole when the front suspension is already at the top of its stroke, it feels like the strut may come through the bonnet.

On long journeys, the Cupra Leon is about as easy to live with as a hot hatch gets. At a 70mph cruise, our noise meter showed 70dBA, the same as the Ford Focus ST and Hyundai i30 N. The exhaust is a tad boomy at town and motorway speeds but is easily drowned out by the stereo.

The seats are comfortable and supportive, and even VZ1-spec cars get manually adjustable lumbar support. Aspiring touring car drivers may wish for a slightly lower driving position and a bit more angle on the seat base would have made the driving position perfect, but it’s not far off, anyway.

Track notes

Cupra leon track notes

Less sporty cars and SUVs in particular can tie themselves in knots over the crests and through the compressions at Millbrook, but the Cupra Leon feels right at home.

Its 241bhp has absolutely no problem powering the relatively light hatchback up the hills and the brakes make light work of scrubbing off the speed when coming down.

On the relatively even surface, the VAQ differential is indistinguishable from a more traditional unit and drags the car out of corners with little drama. The limit of grip is high, and on a dry track it is made quite clear when it is approaching.

The ESC Sport mode cleverly manages traction and oversteer so that less experienced drivers can start exploring the limit without the car spitting them off. Turn everything off and the Leon behaves much like it does on the road. Some gentle lift-off oversteer is easily induced, and just as easily gathered up.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

01 Cupra Leon 245 Hatchback RT 2022 Lead

With a starting price of £33,100 for the Cupra Leon 245 TSI VZ1, it is currently the least expensive of the C-segment hot hatches, being nearly £1000 cheaper than a manual Hyundai i30 N and more than £3000 less than a manual Volkswagen Golf GTI, with automatic versions of those cars being even pricier.

VZ2, our test car’s trim, raises the price to £34,415 and adds adaptive dampers and larger wheels but still misses out on things you might expect like heated seats, a wireless phone charger and adaptive cruise control. VZ3 adds some of those, but is currently unavailable due to the chip shortage. There aren’t many optional extras – just premium paint options, driver assistance features and a glass sunroof.

Spec advice? Although the adaptive dampers work well, we’d be tempted to save some money and stick with the entry-level VZ1, as it doesn’t lose out on any other equipment.

Our test car came with the Safety and Driving Pack M, which adds high beam assist, adaptive cruise control and traffic sign recognition. The advanced driver aids are much improved from earlier Volkswagen Group systems and the lane keeping assistance is relatively easy to turn off, but some usability issues remain. At one point, the traffic sign recognition indicated a 90mph speed limit and we had a few false warnings from the collision avoidance system.

As is typical for a relatively heavily boosted engine, fuel economy varies greatly depending on driving style, which explains the wide spread in our test figures. But high 30s are easily achievable during gentle motoring.

VERDICT

24 Cupra Leon 245 Hatchback RT 2022 static

Not all Cupra Leons are equal, it appears. Any Leon is a practical and mostly well-designed hatchback that’s hampered somewhat by its aversion to buttons. The Cupra Leon hybrid can’t live up to its performance branding and the all-wheel drive Cupra Leon estate is rapid but a bit uninvolving. This pure-petrol hatchback, however, has impressed us with its sweetly balanced yet surprisingly comfortable chassis and strong but usable performance.

The 300 version left a slightly lukewarm impression during the 2021 Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car competition because, judged purely as a driver’s car, the Leon was not quite as exciting as the Hyundai i20 N or a Ford Puma ST. For the occasional B-road blast, the Ford Focus ST also just edges it.

However, viewed as an all-round proposition, its practicality and comfort propel the Cupra Leon to the top of its class, even though we can’t help wishing for a manual gearbox. And the 245 loses very little compared with the 300 other than several thousand pounds off the price. We suspected it before and this test confirms it: a plain Cupra Leon is an improved and better-value Volkswagen Golf GTI.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

Cupra Leon First drives