What is it?
Spot the flaw in this press release: ‘The new Seat Leon Cupra 300 is the most powerful road car in the brand’s history.’ Err, hang on chaps; back in 2008 there was the Leon 310 special edition – fair enough, only 100 were made and all for the Dutch market, but 306bhp definitely trumps 296bhp in our book.
Pedantry aside, compared with the outgoing 290, the new Cupra 300 does come with a slice of extra power (10bhp) and an added wedge of torque (22lb ft) – although the latter is available across a marginally narrower rev range.
Can the Leon handle all that, though? The old car was already a little unruly compared to the most gifted hot hatches out there. Effective, yes - as its brief Nürburgring hatchback lap record, in 280 guise, proved - but in the manner of a slightly wayward tomahawk. To guide it with any degree of accuracy needed an awfully judicious touch on the throttle to avoid the differential spinning away all its power in a haze of tyre smoke and thundering axle tramp.
However, one could argue that the Cupra’s USP was always the bang for your buck rather than the last word in handling. But now the price, even for the basic manual version we’re driving, has crept ever nearer to esteemed rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf R, Ford Focus RS and BMW M140i. So, is it still worthy of consideration?
What's it like?
With no mechanical changes beyond the extra oomph, it’s the same old Leon Cupra underneath. You’d need a back-to-back comparison to discern that extra pace, but having tried the 300 on the road, as well as on the superbly technical Parcmotor Castellolí circuit near Barcelona, it is definitely mightily quick – providing you focus hard, and employ the kind of delicate touch on the throttle befitting of a Jedi master. The engine picks up smartly from not much over idle, and keeps surging forward at a heady rate all the way to its redline.
However, you’ll still bemoan the variable steering rack’s slightly mute feel and inconsistency, which leaves you thinking about where you’re placing the car, rather than sweeping it intuitively from apex to apex. The brake pedal is too spiky at the top of its travel, while the Haldex differential still struggles to contain the forces acting through it.
The fact is, the Leon Cupra's key rivals all feel like they’ve had a fair chunk of extra cash thrown at their engineering budgets, and when you are really trying to motor on over a tricky stretch of road, it still feels a little crude.
But that’s only to see one side of its armoury. While on occasion the ride is a little brusque, for a performance hatchback it’s actually further towards the comfort end of the spectrum than most. And when you decide to take things at more leisurely pace, slacken off its drive modes, and neuter everything from the adaptive dampers, throttle response to the slightly contrived induction roar, its waywardness recedes and a potent but genuinely sensible everyday hack emerges.
Should I buy one?
It’s this duality of purpose that keeps the Leon Cupra relevant, and it’s worth bearing in mind that four-wheel drive is now available for the first time, albeit on only the ST estate with a dual-clutch gearbox. This negates much of the Leon Cupra’s traction issues, and pushes the performance envelope and usability ever closer to its illustrious Golf R cousin - for a price.
But even in its cheapest guise, don’t discount this car, at least not until you’ve experienced it. It's only then that you’ll be able to decide for yourself whether its breadth of ability as a reasonably priced, quick, all-round family car, makes up for what it lacks to other slightly pricier performance models in outright finesse.
Seat Leon Cupra 300
Location Spain; On sale Now; Price £29,840; Engine 4 cyls inline, 1984cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 296bhp at 5500-6200rpm; Torque 258lb ft at 1800-5500; Kerb weight 1395kg; Gearbox 6-spd manual; 0-62mph 5.8sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 40.9mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 158g/km, 28%; Rivals VW Golf R, Ford Focus RS