What is it?
Many of us quietly (and some less quietly) class ourselves as driving enthusiasts, people whose passion for performance cars and driving prowess deserves to be rewarded with a suitably sporty set of wheels. However, our talents extend beyond the driver’s seat and, as a result, some of us have to consider carting around our offspring. Dilemma.
Hot hatches have found popularity as a result of such conundrums. They - often - offer brilliant handling, strong performance, five seats and a decent boot. The formula is so successful, in fact, that hot hatches have branched out into hot hatch estates, and there’s a new one in town - well, an updated one at the very least.
It’s the Seat Leon ST Cupra 290 Black and it replaces the ST Cupra 280. The ST stands for Sports Tourer, or estate in the real world, and the Cupra badge means that Seat’s performance division has had its wicked way it. Finally, the Black means you get special 19in multi-spoke alloy wheels, bucket seats and black detailing.
The new model gains a 10bhp boost in power, taking the overall output to 286bhp, as well as a swathe of performance-enhancing technology, including dynamic chassis control, a locking front differential and progressive steering.
What's it like?
Firstly, don’t worry that Seat has overdone the sporting credentials of the ST Cupra 290 by giving it a spine-breaking, head-pounding, rock hard ride, because it hasn't. Leave the car in Normal mode in the Seat Cupra Drive Profile and the Leon has a firm but supple ride, exhibits little body roll and is quiet and refined.
However, select Sport mode and the suspension firms up, there’s a change to the exhaust note and the throttle response is more urgent.
Should the mood fit, then full-stealth Cupra mode takes you to DEFCON 2 – Fast Pace. The exhaust note deepens to baritone, the DSG automatic gearbox instinctively downshifts a gear, the steering sharpens further and the ST hunkers down, ready for action.
The progressive steering works well. At low speed, it’s usefully light, but at higher speeds through bends, the steering firms up substantially and allows you to position the car precisely while taking the corner with less input.
The 290 will never leave you wanting for power. It dispatches 0-62mph in 5.9sec and its torque band has been widened to give its full 258lb ft effort from 1700rpm to 5800rpm. With peak torque being so accessible, the ST Cupra 290 feels like it pulls almost instantly. Suddenly, almost every stretch of road becomes long enough to overtake whatever’s holding you up.
To keep all this muscle in check is a new front differential, which can send all the power to a single wheel if required. In truth, even with the diff, the front wheels can easily be overwhelmed when pulling away. Also, if the Cupra doesn't hold straight and true when accelerating hard, the front wheels will scrabble for grip and the steering wheel will start to dance with torque steer.
We’ve long been fans of the dual-clutch DSG gearbox and it's business as usual in the Cupra 290. A flick of one of the chrome-effect steering wheel-mounted paddles swaps cogs with impressive speed. However, the ’box will settle into the background when you’re on a motorway, or whenever else you're not pushing on, with seamless shifts. Some hesitation away from standstill is the only bugbear.
Little has changed on the inside since the previous model. There’s plenty of room in the front, with numerous storage areas for all your bit and bobs, and Cupra badges are scattered throughout. The flat-bottomed steering wheel is well sized and good to hold.
You get full-fat Alcantara sports seats, which are very supportive, if a little firm. Visibility out is excellent, although the dipping bonnet can keep you wondering where the front bumper is. Rear passengers lose a little knee room over the standard Leon ST due to the deeper seats but otherwise there’s plenty of room.
The boot is accessed by tilting the Seat badge on the rear, which opens to reveal a large, square and flat floor. Usefully, the floor is also adjustable and can be lowered to add more depth, and the boot lip is very low, which helps loading. There are also two levers that drop the rear seats. Although there’s no transition between the boot floor and the extended floor, the final result isn’t level.
Should I buy one?
You probably won’t regret it. The Leon ST Cupra 290 is a competent, quick and entertaining hot hatch estate and feels more grown-up than its hatchback sibling. In spite of its abilities, though, it does lack some driver involvement.
A Volkswagen Golf R Estate will require an extra £1670 from you but you get a premium badge, an improved interior and all-wheel traction so doesn’t seem much to ask. Alternatively, a Ford Focus ST-2 with the 2.0-litre Ecoboost 250 will save you more than £7000 (if you don't mind a manual gearbox). Ultimately, it'd be the Golf we'd go for first.
Seat Leon ST Cupra 290 Black DSG
Location Worcestershire; On sale Now; Price £32,785; Engine 1984cc, 4 cyls, turbo, petrol; Power 286bhp; Torque 258lb ft; Gearbox 6-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1466kg; 0-62mph 5.9sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 42.8mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 154g/km, 27%