Can this 4WD rapid wagon satisfy both the practically minded and the petrolhead?

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Seat may languish at the bottom of the profitability table of the Volkswagen Group’s major brands, but its recent spin-off is doing considerably better.

Cupra, the erstwhile sporting sub-brand of Seat, was founded in 1985 and at times found itself competing in top-tier rally and touring car racing, but it has recently reinvented itself as a stand-alone entity with bold branding, fresh designs and no shortage of performance.

With a more traditional set of silver-painted wheels, this would make an excellent sleeper. Only the keen-eyed would notice the four exhaust tips, and everything else about the car is actually pretty subtle.

After an inauspicious start with the immensely quick Cupra Ateca hamstrung by its overly firm ride, the marque has found its feet. The car that best demonstrates what it’s all about is probably the rakish Cupra Formentor crossover, in halo VZ5 trim, which brings an Audi-sourced 385bhp five-pot engine and the same rear torque splitter you’ll find in the new VW Golf R.

Alas, that particular model will never make it to the UK, but Cupra’s lesser versions of the Formentor, along with its take on the Cupra Leon hatchback, are nevertheless proving popular. And for those who find the VW ID 3 too bland, the upcoming electric Cupra Born, which is built on the same architecture but offers more visual clout, ought to appeal. In short, Cupra is swimming, not sinking.

The subject of today’s road test harks back to the olden days of Cupra. The Cupra Leon Estate is the kind of car you could buy when Cupra was still to Seat what GTI is to Volkswagen. And that’s no bad thing. Some of those cars were very well executed, with huge performance that belied incognito looks, and security underwheel paired with real accuracy from the helm. Of course, in estate-bodied Seat Leon Cupra ST form, there was plenty of utilitarian appeal.

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That recipe has now been reprised, with an elevated price, so how does the four-wheel-drive Cupra Leon Estate fare in 2021?

The Leon line-up at a glance

The Cupra Leon line-up consists of three trim levels – VZ1, VZ2 and VZ3. All three are generous in their specification and the only real visual difference is the design of the wheels (all are 19in in diameter).

In the UK, the choice of powertrain for the estate is also limited to just two options: you can have either the 242bhp plug-in hybrid, with its 30 or so miles of claimed electric driving range, or the 306bhp pure-petrol model tested here. Only the latter benefits from four-wheel drive, though, so if that’s important to you, you’ll need the range-topper.

If you want a Cupra Leon without hybrid assistance and without a big asking price, the regular hatch is available in 242bhp 2.0-litre front-drive form.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Cupra Leon


2 Cupra Leon Estate 2021 road test review hero side

The badge on this car’s comparatively demure grille may be new but the mechanical recipe for the quickest Cupra Leon Estate hasn’t changed much since the days when the model was still branded Seat.

The same VW Group MQB platform is used, albeit in updated MQB Evo form, and it’s what you’ll find underneath a host of related models, including the Volkswagen Golf R, Skoda Octavia vRS and Audi S3, as well as the Cupra Formentor. Given Cupra’s impressive past commitment to performance (in the past decade, it has released unapologetic and brilliant track-day versions of the Leon, and once held the lap record for estate cars at the Nürburgring Nordschleife), you might think this Cupra Leon Estate represents an early ticket to the VW Golf R Estate show.

All Cupra-badged Leons have an aggressive look about them, but the grille is refreshingly small and makes the car look more ‘normal’ in the right kind of way. The headlights are also neat, with full-LED tech as standard.

Certainly, there are plenty of similarities. Both cars share the same 2.0-litre EA888 Evo4 TSI turbo petrol engine, although at 306bhp our range-topping Cupra 4Drive 310 is 10bhp down on its VW cousin. Both cars benefit from the same 15-way adaptive dampers, although they’re standard on the Cupra and optional on the more expensive Golf R. Both tote the same-sized contact patch, with 235/35 tyres at each corner, but the Cupra favours Hankook Ventus to Bridgestone Potenzas.

Naturally, four-wheel drive is part of the package, but this is where the two cars diverge. With its dual-clutched, torque-splitting rear axle, the Golf R is treated to the latest technology in the VW Group stable, but the Cupra continues to use a version of the Haldex system found on the previous generation. As the ESC senses wheel slip at the front, a clutch at the rear end of the propshaft engages and up to half of the engine’s total torque output is fed into the rear axle and through an open differential.

These latest Haldex systems work appreciably quicker than the early set-ups but still lack the torque-vectoring functionality of the Golf R. So while we doubt it’s a deal-breaker, there’s no Drift mode for the Cupra Leon Estate.

The Cupra does at least come with the VAQ front differential lock, the unit for which is mounted on the right-hand driveshaft and increases hydraulic pressure to engage a multi-plate clutch and effectively lock the front axle, limiting slip under hard cornering. Also fitted as standard is a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT).


11 Cupra Leon Estate 2021 road test review cabin

Cupra’s approach to interior design suits this estate version of the car better than the hatchback. While the seats are heavily bolstered and the flat-bottomed steering wheel is swathed in racy perforated leather, there’s a softness and plushness that chimes better with the idea of a long-legged, all-weather performance family car than with something you would enjoy putting down a tight B-road, palms all sweaty.

Pleated leather, trapezoidal air vents and copper-mimicking trim will help sell the Cupra Leon Estate to an audience who see it as an Audi RS4-lite, but others may wonder whether it’s a bit chintzy. Certainly, the cabin is more divisive than those of many rivals.

Cupra puts the ESC button front and centre of the minimalist new transmission tunnel. That’s some statement of intent, but not always one made good on.

But it’s also well equipped and, with the move to a shallow centre console with only a small stub of a gear selector, feels pleasingly airy. Even in entry-level VZ1 trim, the Leon Estate comes with a digital cockpit, ambient lighting, four USB ports and the full array of Cupra design cues, down to the aluminium-look sports pedals.

Our top-spec VZ3 test car had leather upholstery as standard (cloth is standard on other trims) as well as a wireless phone charger and heated front seats, the driver’s perch also being power-adjustable and with adjustable lumbar support. The driving position is good overall, with generous scope for reach and rake in the steering column and the ability to set yourself fairly low. However, though well aligned, a Ford Focus ST Estate sets the driver lower and gives a greater sense of connection with the car and feeling of security when pressing on.

The Cupra Leon Estate is predictably spacious, too. Second-row passengers enjoy greater leg room than they would in any Volkswagen Golf because the Leon’s wheelbase is marginally longer, and 620 litres of boot space leads the class, beating even the Octavia vRS Estate. However, note that plug-in hybrid versions lack a split-level boot floor, on account of the drive battery that sits in that space.

Infotainment and sat-nav

The Cupra Leon’s infotainment system uses the VW Group’s shared MIB touchscreen hardware, but the layout and software execution of the system present some bigger usability problems than we’ve found in any of the car’s MQB-platform relations.

The absence of physical switchgear makes simple commands, such as adjusting the air-con temperature, difficult to execute quickly and easily, and latency plagues the software. Familiarity with the touch-sensitive pads and menu items helps, but it’s possible that you’ll never manage to do anything without taking your eyes firmly off the road ahead, if only for a moment or two.

The 10.0in screen itself provides good clarity, though, and so does the digital cockpit display, which adds an element of sophistication to this cabin. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto mirroring are also included as standard and integrate with the hardware neatly, ultimately being easier to use than Cupra’s own software for tasks such as navigation and music streaming.


With hot hatches (and their estate derivatives), traction – not power – is what now determines how quickly they can get going and sprint to 60mph. To have any hope of reaching 60mph in less than five seconds, you need a driven rear axle, and this car duly delivers, with a time of 4.9sec on the Mile Straight at Millbrook.

The launch control programme works effectively, dialling up around 3500rpm then slipping the DCT’s first clutch just the right amount before engaging fully and unloading onto the tyres everything this potent engine can muster. There’s remarkably little squat given all the metal above the back axle, and though ultimately 0.5sec adrift of the lighter Golf R hatch, the Cupra Leon Estate proved comfortably quicker than BMW’s 330d Touring, as well as any front-driven alternative you care to mention. It’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting more in terms of performance from this kind of car.

Interesting that Cupra hasn’t fitted the Leon Estate with the rear torque splitter found on the fruitiest Formentor. It would have given this car an extra dynamic dimension but would also have stolen some thunder from the upcoming Golf R Estate

Part of the Cupra’s straight-line speed against the clock is down to its gearshifts, which execute either automatically up to the 6600rpm redline or with a pull (or should that be tap?) of the apologetic paddles mounted to the steering wheel. As we’ve come to expect with these VW Group DSG gearboxes, upshifts are utterly clinical and barely interrupt the flow of power, if at all. This buoyant and pleasingly rev-hungry engine can therefore get to work unhindered, gorging on gear after gear.

Our only real criticism would be that Cupra mode – your go-to when the road ahead looks enticing, initiated by pressing a steering-wheel button – makes it behave a little frenetically. With 295lb ft available from only 2000rpm, this powertrain doesn’t need to madly downshift and nail 5500rpm at every opportunity. Our in-gear telemetry confirmed as much, showing that 40-60mph is dispatched in only 3.4sec even using the comparatively conservative fourth gear.

As we’ll come to shortly, the suspension and steering tune in Cupra is nicely judged for UK roads, so gearing mapping in this setting stands for its lack of suitability.


25 Cupra Leon Estate 2021 road test review cornering

On the move, the Cupra Leon Estate is characterised by two attributes: traction and body control. Both are so great that they can actually impinge on the ability of this chassis to express itself, and so what you’re left with is an immensely capable car that often struggles to engage you in the driving process. And perhaps that’s a deliberate trade-off on the part of the people who made it, but the bottom line is that this car never comes closer to emulating the satisfying fluidity of the Focus ST Estate.

Even so, there is plenty to admire. This new Cupra Leon may not have quite the pin-sharp turn-in response of the fruitier front-drive specials of old, and the feel of the electromechanical rack is synthetic even by the standards of modern hot hatchbacks, but for a 1640kg estate it summons an enjoyable degree of agility, particularly when the damping rate is increased and excess slack abruptly taken out of the suspension travel.

Rapid Cupra Leon Estate attacks corners in a highly composed manner and responds faithfully to the driver’s inputs but doesn’t entertain as much as some rivals can

Without the Volkswagen Golf R’s torque-splitting rear axle, this chassis can’t artificially get around its faint but natural understeer cornering balance, but it responds keenly and faithfully to the steering. Grip and traction are also here in abundance, and so purely for fast and secure family duties, few if any cars at this price point do it better.

Underpinning everything is real composure. In its sportier modes, the Cupra has fine wheel control, the suspension absorbing inputs with mogul-skier finesse but then rebounding feeling neither harsh nor floaty, and so the car can comfortably be pushed harder than you might have thought possible on truly tricky stretches of road. That gives the driver confidence, though if that confidence provokes you to push harder, those efforts will of course come without much reward. Accuracy and control are what the Cupra does, and it does them well, but there doesn’t seem to have been much intention to go beyond those elements.

You would probably never discover this trait on the road, but disabling all the electronic chassis aids and tackling the Hill Route at Millbrook Proving Ground showed that, with the right approach, the Leon is happy to take some slip angle and hold it under power.

Admittedly, the circumstances in which you can provoke this kind of behaviour are rare. You need to make a quick entry into the corner under trailing brakes, pause just a moment while the weight in the tail comes into effect and then open the throttle wide. However, the result is surprisingly balletic for a big car, and is in no small part enabled by the Cupra’s excellent body control.

Elsewhere on the Hill Route, the Cupra was unfazed. Its typical attitude is characterised by gentle understeer, but there’s so much traction on offer that you can typically drive through it, unless you’re being totally ham-fisted. The car does always feel somewhat aloof, though.

Comfort and Isolation

Given its plush innards, the Cupra Leon is a touch louder at a cruise than we would like. Perhaps that’s down to the Hankook tyres, or the chunky 19in aerodynamic wheel design VZ3 models tout, or any manner of suspension- or bodyshell-related reasons, but it was an observation backed up by our microphones. For a senior performance hatch, 69dBA at a 70mph cruise is relatively loud.

The wheels also seem to impart a general pitter-patter that on occasion develops into a crash when the road surface deteriorates, which is a shame because in its softest damper mode, the suspension otherwise allows the car to waft along motorways and larger A-roads almost like something devised in Saint-Ouen-sur-Seine half a century ago.

The ride can feel almost too soft, which isn’t something we say often about modern hot hatches. Indeed, in front-drive form, the new Cupra Leon exhibits a level of pliancy that seems to have been chased out of the latest Volkswagen Golf GTI, much to its detriment as an everyday proposition. This four-wheel drive version is similar, and is mostly very easy-going, secondary ride qualms aside.

As for general comfort, we have no substantial complaints. Forward visibility is fine and, when reversing, the standard-fit rear-view camera is useful. The driving position isn’t as involving as some in this class, but it holds up very well during hours-long drives. The ultra-light steering weight in Comfort mode – anathema to the kind of driving Cupra made its name by facilitating – will also be welcomed by many who will need to drive this car in built-up areas and in multi-storey car parks. However, there will be others who find it unnervingly detached in its action.


1 Cupra Leon Estate 2021 road test review hero front

Business users will want to investigate the eHybrid version of the Cupra Leon Estate, which with 242bhp but only 31g/km of CO2 is kinder than our 306bhp test car in terms of benefit-in-kind tax. However, we’ve never warmed to Cupra’s hottish plug-in hybrid, not least because it is conspicuously heavy and its 1.4-litre engine lacks character.

As for the full-bore 2.0-litre TSI Cupra tested here, in terms of efficiency you can expect much the same as from the other VW Group wares that carry this engine. We recorded an average test economy of just under 30.0mpg, which with the 55-litre tank should allow for around 340 miles between fill-ups. For touring duties, expect nearer 40mpg and a range closer to 500 miles.

The Cupra is no residuals disaster but won’t hold its value as well as many rivals, including Focus ST and CLA 35.

Of more concern to prospective owners will be the price of this car, which in VZ3 trim with two options added (the panoramic roof and metallic paint) cost £42,325. It’s not an outrageous sum given this car’s breadth of ability, and an equivalent Golf R Estate will cost more, but like-for-like, both the Octavia vRS Estate and Focus ST Estate fulfil the same role for less. Note also that BMW’s 330i M Sport Touring costs just under £42,000 and comes reasonably well equipped as standard, albeit with now only four cylinders rather than six. The point being that the hottest Leon wagon is no longer the performance bargain it once was.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Cupra Leon


27 Cupra Leon Estate 2021 road test review static

We suspected the rebranded Cupra Leon would fare well in long-bodied form, and so it has turned out to be. Its no-nonsense handling and subtle styling suit the more utilitarian estate car brief, and in the right suspension setting there’s a softness to its character that suits daily duties.

The fastest Leon on sale backs it all up with outstanding levels of traction and composure when you do find yourself on an interesting road or in inclement weather – or both.

One job for the facelift should be to fit larger and more tactile paddle shifters: it’s an easy win, surely?

It’s that duality that appeals. This car is searingly quick but easily well mannered enough for long-distance drives, and more spacious than the class norm, both in the second row of seating and in the boot. With a more hospitable cabin than those of Cupra-badged Leons of old, this latest offering really does seem to take inspiration from the Audi school of fast estate cars.

Where it falls down concerns involvement – or lack thereof. We don’t expect this car to handle like a Focus ST, but more detail feel in the steering and more joy in the way it corners would elevate the package considerably. Ultimately, it’s good but not great.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Cupra Leon

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering.