New hot hatch promises to outgun its rivals, including the Volkswagen Golf GTI

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Ever since there has been a Seat Leon, there has been a warm version, and this, the new Leon Cupra, is the warmest series-production variant of the Leon yet.

The Leon was the first C-segment hatchback the company produced under the stewardship of Volkswagen, which mooted the idea that the Spanish manufacturer would become the group’s youthful, dynamic brand.

The first-gen Leon Cupra produced 177bhp

It hasn’t always quite managed that (cough, Altea XL, Toledo, cough), but in the Cupra versions of the Leon, there’s little denying that Seat has provided admirably fiery flagships.

Seat started identifying its performance models with the Cupra badge in 1999. Hot Cupra versions of the original Leon and the second-gen Ibiza were introduced that year, the former with 177bhp.

The latest is available with either three doors – badged 'SC' – or five doors or in estate form and is only available in full-fat 290 form.

That puts the new Cupra very near the top of the front-wheel-drive hatchback pile, an area patrolled by the not inconsiderable muscle of the Ford Focus ST, Renault Mégane RS 265 and, most shove-worthy of all, the Vauxhall Astra VXR.

Today’s new Cupra enters the hot hatch fray with even more grunt than the last Cupra R (it had 261bhp), leaving room for a future Cupra R to go even bigger. But it’d need to have more power than the 306bhp Holland-only Leon Cupra 310 special edition of 2008 in order to be the hottest Leon ever.

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The job here is to see whether the Cupra will fit right in among its current competitors, or receive a thorough shoeing. Read on to find out.

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Seat Leon Cupra rear

It’s perhaps not unfair to suggest that the problem with the previous-generation Leon was that it made its debut after the Altea.

The Altea was a small MPV along the lines of the Renault Scenic, and the Seat Leon was a hatchback version that spoke a similar design language. Had the Leon come first, the Altea would have inherited the hatch’s style. Instead, the Leon ended up looking like a squished people carrier.

Both versiosn are good-looking cars and the interior quality is far better

This time around the Leon has conventional hatchback proportions mixed with distinctive, stylish details, and Seat has got it pretty well spot on.

Beneath the skin is the increasingly familiar VW Group MQB platform and EA888 turbocharged 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine. It originally produced 261bhp or 276bhp, but now it produces a heady 286bhp.

The 290 is particularly impressive, making its peak from 5350rpm right the way to the 6600rpm red line – unusual in itself for a turbo. Moreover, the 258lb ft torque peak appears from 1750rpm all the way to 5300rpm (as it did in the previous Cupras) – just beyond the point where power becomes the dominant performance factor.

All of this is driven as standard via a six-speed manual gearbox. However, the 290 is available with an optional DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox, albeit one that has six rather than seven speeds.

When the Volkswagen Group moved from six to seven-speed dual-clutch DSG (Direktschaltgetriebe) automatic gearboxes, it didn’t just add another ratio. It also switched from wet clutches, which use an oil bath to cool them, to dry clutches.

The clutches’ electronic controls mean they can operate without overheating, and thus they’re all a little less complicated and expensive. But there’s a limit to the torque loading the seven-speed units can manage – and that limit is 184lb ft, beyond which the dry clutches feel the strain, whereas the wet clutches do not.

If you look through the Leon range, you’ll note that where a car has a torque output of up to 184lb ft, it’ll come with a seven-speed DSG ’box (if one is offered). If the torque output is more than 184lb ft, it’ll get the six-speed DSG option.

Suspension is by MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link set-up at the rear, while drive goes through a locking differential. It’s not simply an extension of the ESP, but neither is it a conventional mechanical limited-slip diff.

Instead, it’s an electronically controlled, hydraulically actuated multi-plate differential. Whatever the set-up, the goal, as ever, is to transfer power to the more heavily loaded outside wheel when cornering. The diff can send up to 100 per cent of power to the wheel with most grip, without, Seat says, affecting steering feel. We’ll come to that.

Both outputs of Cupra come with Dynamic Chassis Control, which functions via variably valved dampers whose stiffness is continually adjusted and whose outer limits are set through a so-called Cupra Drive Profile.

It’s one of those functions that marketeers say makes everything ‘sportier’, letting the engine rev longer in each gear, decreasing steering assistance levels, sharpening throttle response, making the diff work harder and unleashing a sound symposer’s noise into the cabin.

The design alterations between the two cars are less significant. The 290 gets a rear spoiler and prettier 19-inch alloy wheels to distinguish it, with only the bigger air intakes and diffuser-effect rear skirt, threatens to blend into the crowd a little too well.


Seat Leon Cupra interior

We won’t dwell too long here, because if you’re at all familiar with the way the VW Group does things, you’ll know what to expect. The Seat Leon is sensibly laid out inside, with logically and clearly arranged switchgear.

Accommodation is good in the front; access is a little restricted to the rear, but that’s understandable because the SC Cupra comes with two excellent, supportive and widely adjustable sports front seats.

If you're looking for something that offers all-round talent, the Leon Cupra's a good option

They’re part of a sporting highlight package that runs much as you’d expect. Aluminium pedals and kick plates feature, while there’s some gloss black dashboard trim (exclusive to the 290, because nothing says ‘fast’ like shiny plastic), the obligatory flat-bottomed steering wheel and a different colour to the dials – grey, in this case.

Overall, though, it’s a cabin that feels as purposeful as any in the class, with a driving position to match, thanks to its widely adjustable steering column. The Leon Cupra also has a boot. And folding rear seats. They’re all fine.

When you specify the DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox, you get steering wheel paddles as standard, as well as the opportunity to shift up and down via the centrally mounted lever.

On the media front, as standard, the Leon comes with dual-zone climate, tinted rear glass, front and rear parking sensors, Bluetooth, USB, SD card and aux-in capability. Also featured is the Media System Plus, which means it gets wired links – including an iPod connector – in the glovebox. The Bluetooth phone connection is as we’d expect from the VW Group: easy to set up, convenient and invariably faultless. While those opting for the Cupra 290 Black will add even more gloss black trim inside and out and bucket seats.

Without ticking boxes, the Plus system will feed sound to eight speakers, with the sources including a standard DAB tuner. You can opt for a Seat Sound System, which includes a 135W, six-channel amplifier, 10 speakers and a boot-mounted subwoofer for a small outlay.

In keeping with its range-topping status, the 290 model gets sat-nav as standard. The 6.5in touchscreen and voice activation make the system as easy to use as any other in the VW Group portfolio. Route guidance is also displayed on the smaller colour screen in the instrument cluster.


2.0-litre TSI Seat Leon Cupra engine

Seat should be celebrating a perfect five out of five in this section. It’s not often we see a front-drive hot hatchback dip under the 6.0sec mark from 0-60mph.

Only one or two have managed it in recent memory: the 2009 Ford Focus RS and the super-grippy Renault Mégane R26R. Rarefied company indeed for the Leon Cupra to find itself in.

The Cupra is unquestionably a quick car

The Leon 290’s 5.9sec two-way average to 60mph certainly puts clear air between its performance level and what’s possible in its current crop of competitors – Golf GTI, Focus ST and Astra VXR included. Seat quotes 5.8sec from 0-62mph for the manuals and 5.7sec for the DSG, so its real-world performance isn't far off the suggested pace.

For the better part of the hot hatch fraternity, that will be a big attraction – and credit to Seat for producing it. The annoyance here is that, if it had a half-decent launch control system, a better slip regulation system or a dual-clutch gearbox that made it easier to manage the loss of traction at those driven front wheels, the Leon would have gone even quicker.

Activated in Cupra mode, the launch system holds engine revs at just about 3000rpm before brutally dumping the clutch as you lift off the brake pedal. It’s awful. ‘Tyre smoke mode’ would be a better name for it.

The fastest way to get the car off the line is actually to prevent the front wheels from spinning at all in first and second gears with the stability control system switched completely off. But the gearbox doesn’t make that easy to do.

Fired from a standstill and settled into full stride, the Leon Cupra feels quick throughout the rev range. The engine is superbly flexible and pulls much more rabidly above 5000rpm than many turbocharged fours. Its soundtrack is augmented by a rather synthetic sound symposer, whose effect we could live without. But overall, the powertrain is a genuine stormer.

Despite being mated to the naturally slower shifting six-speed manual by default, the older models are very nearly as quick as the 290, even on paper - Seat quoting 5.9 seconds for its 265 Cupra 0-62mph time. In the real world, the solitary tenth of a second dividing the stablemates feels appropriately minor; anyone claiming to notice even a modest difference in the 15bhp gap is most likely guilty of wishful thinking. 

Distinguishing between gearboxes is much easier. Beyond hardcore starts the DSG is a typically well-mannered transmission, but it serves up none of the manual's interactive qualities. Easy to manage, direct and with a quick throw, the cheaper option is a rewarding companion whether you're flat out or mired in traffic. There are undeniable advantages to choosing the auto 'box - as well as being quicker, it's slightly more economical - but you need to be deeply concerned by such things to ignore the manual's entertainment factor. 


Seat Leon Cupra cornering

Seat has recently made a lot of noise about the fact that the Leon Cupra 290 (albeit fitted with an optional Performance Pack that you can’t specify here at the moment) is the quickest hot hatch ever around the Nürburgring.

Such feats can lead to chassis tuning that is damnably uncomfortable when you’re not properly on it. Thankfully, the Cupra’s isn’t; the lap time seems to have been a by-product rather than the objective itself.

Don’t misunderstand us, though: the 290 is firm enough, all right, with less compliance than there is in a Golf GTI or a Focus ST, but more, say, than in a Renaultsport-fettled Mégane. The 265, benefitting from smaller wheels, tips the balance back the other way, although with cheaper rubber fitted as standard, it does tend to lose traction a fraction earlier. 

The Leon features the same variable-ratio steering rack as the Golf GTI – which means it’s slower at the straight-ahead and speeds up as you wind on lock – but it doesn’t work quite as well here, feeling less natural and offering less feel than the Volkswagen version.

That the wheel is quite light doesn’t always do it a favour, either. It means there’s no effort in flicking through a direction change from one side to the other, but if at the same time you’re looking for signals about what’s happening, you’ll have to look hard.

Push the Cupra Drive Profile button and you’ll have to look hard to spot any extra enjoyment, too. Things do get a bit more lively and the ride firms up, but the character is largely the same.

That’s no bad thing, though. Direction changes are something this car manages with great ability and while giving no little pleasure. Body control is good and it’s responsive, too, albeit mostly governed by its front end.

That’s an area where its key dynamic rivals score an advantage in driver engagement. No matter which driving mode you select, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the Leon Cupra’s handling isn’t quite as intuitive as that of the Mégane 265 or the Focus ST, falling short of their levels of agility and involvement.

High grip levels, good cornering balance and a fully switchable ESP system combine to make the Leon Cupra a fast and compelling drive on track. A sensible balance of power against tyre size prevents the Seat from overworking its front contact patches straight away and means that – unlike in a Vauxhall Astra VXR or more so in a Ford Focus ST – you can drive to the full potential of the car for longer without feeling a deterioration in handling or braking.

Seat’s decision to make the ESP system fully switchable makes a telling difference to the fun factor (it’s always on in the related Golf GTI). You feel able to wring the maximum out of the Leon without intrusion, and that makes circuit driving more satisfying.

More’s the pity that the Leon’s mechanical limited-slip differential doesn’t come to the fore when you do push at the limits – either in the wet or dry. Adding almost nothing to your control of the car’s cornering attitude, the diff is one of those you wouldn’t guess was there at all.


Seat Leon Cupra

If you look at the prices of this car and its rivals in the Top Five section at the end of this test, you’ll note that Seat has not been shy about the pricing of the Leon Cupra.

Counting in its favour, though, is the generous allotment of power the car offers and the distinguishing pace for the money that our performance figures show. Seat is also keen to point out that, for the money, the Leon comes with plenty of equipment.

Those seeking the most pliant model should probably opt for the 265

Our depreciation experts suggest the Leon Cupra won’t match the residual value of a Golf GTI, whose broader market appeal will see it retain much more, but against the Astra VXR the Seat should prove impressive.

Other costs are par for the course, including, in our experience, fuel economy. The 290, driven hard during its time with us, returned 28mpg. Mid-30s on a cruise will be typical.

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Seat Leon Cupra rear quarter

There is no shortage of excellent hot hatchbacks hitting the market right now, and even though Seat has been making quick Leons for more than a decade, it’s up against manufacturers who have been doing it for even longer.

Credit where it’s due, then, that the Seat Leon can mix it at the top end of the class. In terms of sheer speed, it has nothing to fear from any rival. Ideally, though, we’d want that pace mixed with more involvement.

The 280's a better choice than a GTI thanks to its more purposeful manners and outright pace

Opting for the manual gearbox addresses some of that shortfall, but a more feelsome steering system and some competition-spec dampers would make a more telling contribution still.

Let’s hope those additions are in the pipeline for the Cupra R. For now, there’s much to like about the Cupra, not least a great deal of old-fashioned bang for your buck of the kind that hot hatchback devotees ought to respond to very positively indeed.

For now, however, the likes of the Renault Mégane RS 265 and Ford Focus ST are still more suited to those seeking maximum involvement.

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Seat Leon Cupra 2014-2020 First drives