SEAT's Leon Cupra is a force to be reckoned with. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Looking for something fast, practical and which won't send you to the wall financially? The mighty SEAT Leon Cupra could be the answer. There's a choice of hatch or estate, plus the option of 4WD. It can get to 62mph in well under 6 seconds, return around 45mpg, seat five and, thanks to recent price cuts, prices start from no more than about £30,000. As a one car solution, this one's got legs. Teeth too.
For about as long as many of us care to remember, a SEAT Leon Cupra was a cheaper way to get into a Golf GTI. Okay, so you had to put up with an interior that was notably less attractive but in the way it drove it was pretty much identical. Same engine and running gear, same great way it went up the road - you just paid less. These days, the Leon has stepped out from the long shadow cast by the Golf GTI and has got a bit Rafa Nadal on us. All bulging biceps and attitude, the Leon Cupra has us all in a bit of a spin.
The previous Leon Cupra 280 was an absolute belter of a car and makes a great used buy. This latest Cupra though, takes things a stage further - and gets four wheel drive if you order it in ST estate guise. It's got more torque from ts more powerful engine and an interior that no longer feels so ruthlessly built down to a price. But it needs it for there are some fierce rivals clustered around the £30,000 price point. This is the Leon upping its game. You're going to like it.
The Leon Cupra has some formline. There's never been a duff one and this latest Cupra gives SEAT's hatch real giant-killing ability. It comes in two guises; as a five-door hatch with front wheel drive and 290PS. Or in ST estate form with '4Drive' 4WD and 300PS. Either way, you get a DSG auto paddleshift 'box. In both cases, you're looking at a power output that will catapult this car to 62mph in around five and a half seconds. Top speed is limited to 155mph although it would be interesting to see how fast it would go before physics intervened. The uprated 380Nm maximum torque of both versions spreads from just 1,750 rpm all the way up to 5,300 rpm, guaranteeing impressive pulling power and overtaking flexibility.
The chassis has more tricks up its sleeve than David Blaine and features DCC dynamic chassis control, a front-axle differential lock and progressive steering all as standard, as well as a Cupra-specific, high-performance brake system, recognisable by its red callipers. The ESC handling system has been developed specifically for the Cupra and can be deactivated in two stages - the first stage deactivates the traction control and puts the ESC into sport mode, permitting greater yaw angles. The second stage deactivates the ESC completely. The Cupra Drive Profile allows the driver to set the car into one of three modes, 'Comfort', 'Sport' and 'Cupra'. This raciest setting gives you a hair trigger throttle response and most aggressive DSG shifts, while the sound actuator turns the volume up to eleven. The DCC dynamic chassis control, progressive steering and the front-axle differential lock are also dialled to their most focused settings.
Design and Build
Any Leon that wears a Cupra badge has to dose up the attitude a degree, but this Cupra looks really gym-toned, whether you order it as a five-door hatch or in the ST estate bodystyle. The front end features big air intakes and beady-eyed all-LED headlamps. There's a combined rear skirt and diffuser and twin oval tail pipes to ensure the powerful look continued by the rear skirt with its diffuser effect and two oval end pipes. The Cupra also gets unique 19-inch wheels with a titanium paint finish, plus the Aerodynamic Pack, which comprises a spoiler on the rear roof edge, Cupra lettering on the brake callipers and black exterior mirror housings.
Inside, you get trim elements finished in a gloss black and a smart Cupra sports steering wheel, complete with shifting paddles for the optional DSG transmission. The sports seats, in dark grey Alcantara finished with white stitching, are another interior highlight. Black full-leather upholstery, likewise with white stitching, is also available. The pedals and entry sills are made from aluminium to add a bit of eye candy to a fundamentally low-key cabin. There's a 380-litre luggage bay and the quality feels up to the mark, with a dashboard that no longer looks so obviously built down to a price.
Market and Model
Prices for the Leon Cupra start at just under £30,000. That's just as well because the nearer the £35,000 mark this Leon gets, the tougher its assignment gets in terms of available rivals. The 340PS BMW M140i and the 310PS all-wheel drive Audi S3 pose questions the Cupra just can't evade.
There's a choice of two bodystyles, the five-door hatch (with 290PS and 2WD) or for around £3,400 more the ST estate (with 300PS and 4Drive). Both offer DSG auto gearbox options and in each case, there's a plusher 'Lux' trim level for arounfd £1,100 more. Which variant you choose, you won't want for standard equipment. In the UK, this car gets full-LED headlights, a DAB digital radio, rain-sensing wipers and automatic headlights. That's on top of 19-inch alloy wheels, gloss black mirror caps, black exterior mouldings and frames, a black rear roof spoiler, red brake callipers with Cupra logos and black interior trim inserts. Satellite navigation is also fitted as standard.
Among its other features are driver assistance systems such as Traffic Jam Assist, Lane Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control and Pedestrian Protection, plus there's an Electric Parking Brake and KESSY (Keyless Entry and Start). The integrated Media System Plus infotainment system with its eight-inch screen is the highlight of this revised model. Plus for the very first time, the Leon Cupra has a Connectivity Hub that comprises a smartphone wireless charger and a GSM antenna amplifier for areas with low signal coverage.
Cost of Ownership
Not too long ago, around 300PS was the convergence point for some very serious performance cars. It marked the power limit of the Japanese 'gentleman's agreement' and cars like the Japanese domestic market Supra twin turbo, the Nissan Skyline GT-R and the Honda NSX all rolled out of the factories at this output. Roughly. Yet you had to put up with fuel economy in the very low twenties for that sort of power. These days, the Leon Cupra 300 manages nearly 45mpg on the combined cycle, although this dips somewhat if you choose the DSG transmission. Carbon dioxide emissions are also kept well in check. These models record figures at around the 150g/km mark, which isn't bad at all.
Otherwise, it's as you'd expect. The warranty is the usual Volkswagen Group three year or 60,000 mile affair, which is about the minimum manufacturers can get away with these days. Service intervals are every 20,000 miles. Do get an insurance quote before you commit to buy as premiums will vary widely.
SEAT has come good in recent years with the Leon, a car that many felt had peaked early in Cupra guise. The Cupra version is without doubt fast and exciting and thanks to the recent asking price reductions, it now looks like very good value too. Despite that, this hot hatch is very well equipped, with satellite navigation, 19-inch alloys, a smart media system and full-LED headlights, features which could easily tack on over £1,500 to the price of rival cars.
It's properly fierce too, with the ability to demolish the sprint to 60mph in a hair over five seconds - and it doesn't let up thereafter. Yes, some may find the cabin sound actuator a bit artificial but like most things, you grow to get used to it. If you felt that cars like the Volkswagen Golf R have had it too easy for too long, here's something that will certainly give it some pause for thought.