Clever plug-in hybrid powertrain in a hot Leon hatch sounds more uniquely appealing than it turns out to be

This is the revised Cupra Leon, now wearing bronze badges and with no Seat branding, following on from the bespoke Cupra Formentor model that really hits a mark. Not sure whether this does, though.

This test car is a performance plug-in hybrid (PHEV) variant, with 242bhp and 295lb ft, featuring a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol mated to an electric motor. With a 12.8kWh battery, it has a pure electric range of 31 miles, and you can set the minimum level it’ll discharge to, in case you want to save some juice for a zero-emissions zone. The drive units both sit under the bonnet and it’s front-wheel drive

Also front drive, incidentally, will be 242bhp and 296bhp 2.0-litre turbo pure-petrol units. And then the 2.0-litre 306bhp engine and four-wheel drive system as tested in the Formentor will also be available in the Cupra Leon Estate.

The Cupra Leon sits 25mm lower at the front and 20mm lower at the rear than the regular Seat Leon, for a lower centre of gravity. There are struts at the front and a multi-link set-up at the rear, and big 370mm brake discs behind 19in rims and 235/35 R19 Goodyear Eagle F1s. All quite sporty.

I’m not sure yet whether it's down to this car’s powertrain, or whether the wider Cupra Leon line-up will share this car’s characteristics, but it’s curiously unsatisfying. I can’t remember the last time I drove a car and struggled to work it out as much as I have this one.

Let’s start with the good bits. The Leon steers rather nicely, with smoothness and linearity, good accuracy and the kind of natural response that’s easy to warm to. There is a bit of torque steer but it’s slight and that’s not surprising, considering the instant energy of the motor, whose soundtrack – given the engine is sometimes off – is augmented with a gruff electro backbeat played over whatever the actual drivetrain is making, depending on the drive mode. Sometimes that’s not unappealing. To imagine it, think of a Fiat 500 TwinAir mixed with some digital overlay and amplified. I imagine it could get wearing.

From that point onwards, it’s all more baffling still. The ride is sometimes compliant, rounding off the worst edges with only the occasional thump, but it also feels heavy and wooden, with a curious diagonal pitch on motorway curves.

It’s not engaging like you might imagine a hot hatch should be, and it seems to feel every ounce and more of its 1596kg kerb weight. The claimed weight distribution is only 56% to the front, which is reasonable, given how much is up there.

The interior is pretty good, though, if you don’t mind bronzing. It feels well assembled, and although as usual there’s too much for the touchscreen to do, it’s well appointed and the seats and driving position are particularly good.

I'm not totally convinced. I’m not entirely sure what the Cupra Leon is trying to be. If it’s a hot hatchback, then it’s not engaging or agile enough, and if it’s just a quick PHEV, then it’s closer to the mark but still dynamically unsettled to the point that it’s not relaxed enough in daily driving.

Perhaps an internally combusted Leon will be better and, if so, that’s a shame: it’s time we had an affordable ‘hot’ PHEV that was fun to drive.

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With its own distinct model elsewhere in the shape of the Formentor, Cupra has now arrived as a brand. But I’m still not entirely sure what it is.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Seat Leon


Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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