CJ Hubbard | February 2014
SEAT is growing up, and although keen to retain its young and funky-fresh image, no longer wants to be quite so commonly associated with fast-food drive-thru types. Which is why the new Leon Cupra isn’t necessarily the easiest hot hatch to spot.
Following Audi’s proven ‘how to win sales and influence people’ approach, the new Cupra gets only mildly more aggressive bumpers, bigger wheels, a boot spoiler, red brake calipers and a pair of modest oval tail pipes.
The traditional Cupra set of five slot-shaped holes just below the upper grille is a neat detail, though, as is the ‘Cupra 280’ badge on the back of the more powerful model. This version also gets gloss black trimmings, including the door mirrors.
At a glance, you might miss it. See this Leon at speed, however, and you’ll be left with no doubts whatsoever that you’re in the presence of greatness. For the irony of SEAT’s new softly, softly subtle approach is that it disguises what is surely the most potent front-wheel drive hot hatch currently on sale.
The new SEAT Leon Cupra is a rocket.
What is the 2014 SEAT Leon Cupra like to drive?
Power is provided by the now familiar VW Group favourite: a 2.0-litre TSI turbo petrol engine. What’s extraordinary here is not so much the amount of it – there are Audi and VW models boasting more – but that SEAT sets the whole lot loose via only the front wheels. Four-wheel drive is for the weak willed, obviously.
The basic Leon Cupra has 265hp, but 90% of UK buyers are expected to purchase a full-whack 280hp model instead – the cost difference is minimal and includes not just extra power but extra kit. The 265 is also only available with a manual gearbox and as a three-door SC variant; the 280 can be had with paddleshift DSG and as a more practical five-door as well. No need to take the kids to Alton Towers if you choose one of these.
Regardless, 0-62mph takes between 5.7 and 5.9 seconds – faster than any other current front-driving hot hatch rival – and you’ll have to really be hauling to make much on-road difference out of that extra 15hp, as both engine types have the exact same regimented 258lb ft. That this torque is offered all the way from 1,750rpm to 5,300rpm will give you some idea of how urgently the Cupra accelerates in the mid-range, before peak power comes in at 5,350rpm and reinforces the attack.
What the on-paper figures can’t prepare you for is the SEAT’s utter disregard for corners. Equipped with a “VAQ” electronically controlled limited-slip differential and Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) adaptive dampers as standard, the loopy Leon has so much grip it practically scorches dust.
The super-trick diff – borrowed from the Golf GTI Performance Pack – annihilates understeer in the dry even at the most outrageous road speeds, barely breaking sweat in the face of all that engine performance. To the point where you begin to get more and more ambitious about bringing the power back in. It’s not quite brake hard, turn in, stamp straight back on throttle – but it’s ridiculously close.
So does the Leon Cupra mean it’s game over for the Golf GTI?
That SEAT has achieved this cornering attitude without resorting to retina detachingly-stiff suspension is credit to the DCC – which can be switched through Comfort and Sport through to the unique ‘Cupra’ setting, retaining a more than acceptable degree of compliance all the way.
This despite lower, stiffer springs, an uprated front anti-roll bar and, in the case of the Cupra 280, 19-inch alloy wheels. Finally carmakers seem to have gotten the message: a rock-hard ride rarely makes a car fast in the real world. Doesn’t seem to have slowed the Leon down round the Nürburgring, either, as SEAT is heavily hinting it’s already set a new front-wheel drive lap record time.
Perhaps more impressive still is that the Leon remains ‘fun’, rather than morphing into a cold, calculating supercar killer that puts pace above driver involvement. Possibly the empty Spanish roads of the test route helped, yet the positive steering and ultra-puppy eagerness of the engine seem buoyant beyond reproach. Stick to the six-speed manual if you want to maximise this enjoyment; the DSG auto is fine but a little too Playstation, and occasionally reticent with the downshifts.
The practical upshot of all this – and yes, let’s be practical, this is a hatchback – is that the Cupra is an enormously wide-reaching all-rounder. Comfortable when required, utterly batshit bonkers when let off the leash, it seems to very much be eyeing the Golf GTI’s customer set with hungry ambition. The SEAT offers as much as 60hp more than the Volkswagen, cost less, has much more standard equipment and is fundamentally the same car underneath. Look out Germany.
Only the interior – that usual SEAT proviso – and the Golf’s stronger image should give GTI buyers any pause for thought. For whatever reason, well built though it is, the Leon just doesn’t offer the same level of quality ambience as the Golf. A few aftermarket looking trim strips in the Cupra aren’t going to help. Given the lateral g-forces it can generate, a better pair of front seats also wouldn’t go amiss; these join the options list in June.
MR VERDICT: 2014 SEAT Leon Cupra
This is an immensely strong effort from SEAT. The new Leon Cupra is not just ravishingly rapid – though, heavens, is it most definitely that – but also gives every impression of being easy to live with. That’s its genius.
Sure, it’s going to cost quite a bit in fuel if you use all of the performance all of the time. And the on the road pricing doesn’t immediately shout ‘cheap’. Properly consider the performance and the generous amount of standard kit, however, and the Leon Cupra offers excellent value for money.
This is a stupidly fast car for sensible grown-ups. New SEAT in a nutshell, then.
Rivals 2014 SEAT Leon Cupra
- Ford Focus ST
- Renault Megane Renaultsport 265
- Skoda Octavia vRS
- Vauxhall Astra VXR
- Volkswagen Golf GTI
Specification 2014 SEAT Leon Cupra
Engine 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
Drivetrain six-speed manual, front-wheel drive (six-speed DSG auto optional)
Prices from £25,690
Power 265/280hp @ 5,350-6,600rpm
Torque 258lb ft @ 1,750-5,300rpm
0-62mph 5.7-5.9 seconds
Top speed 155mph (electronically limited)