The Leon Cupra 290 is the most powerful SEAT ever made. The Spaniards have squeezed a further 10hp from their performance flagship, taking total output to – you guessed it – 290hp. The latest Leon also offers a broader spread of torque (pulling power) across the rev range and a lighter, louder exhaust.
Incremental improvements, then, but the old Cupra 280 was already a potent package. As we’ll see, this car’s biggest challenge comes from its increasingly formidable range of rivals…
What are its rivals?
For many, the 1980s were the halcyon days of the hot hatch. But we are currently in a second golden era for what CAR magazine used to call ‘rocket shoppers’. Cars like the Ford Focus RS, Honda Civic Type R, Peugeot 308 GTI and Volkswagen Golf R offer power to the people like never before.
The Focus RS is the new benchmark in this class. With 350hp, it’s more powerful than the Leon Cupra – and it has four-wheel drive. It is also, however, more expensive. The Civic Type R offers fast-and-furious styling and frenetic performance, while the 308 GTI is more comfort-oriented but still very quick. Lastly, the 4WD Golf R is simply a brilliant all-rounder.
Which engines does it use?
The new Cupra packs a turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine that produces 290hp at 5,900rpm. An additional 10hp is perhaps a token gesture, but the 290’s fatter torque curve (now 258lb ft from 1,700rpm to 5,800rpm) is more significant. The new exhaust system weighs 5.8kg less and has been tuned for a ‘sportier’ sound.
A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, or – for an extra £1,100 or so – buyers can opt for a six-speed DSG semi-automatic. The 0-62mph sprint takes between 5.6 seconds for the three-door hatch with DSG, up to 6.0 seconds for the ST estate with a manual ’box.
What’s it like to drive?
We first sampled the Leon on a closed-road ‘special stage’ in the mountains near Barcelona. With the Drive Profile switch set to ‘Cupra’ mode, the steering and throttle response are razor-sharp, and the car dives into a series of sharp corners like an eager puppy.
Sending all that power through the front wheels could be a recipe for wayward torque steer, but the Leon’s mechanical front differential does a good job of taming those wild horses. There’s no shortage of cornering grip, and it takes serious commitment to make the front end push wide. Ultimately though, there isn’t the four-wheel-drive traction of a Golf R – or the delicious rear-wheel-drive attitude of a Focus RS.
Can you detect the extra 10hp? Perhaps, but you’d need a more finely-calibrated road-test sense than mine. The added exhaust noise, however, is immediately and delightfully apparent. And unlike some cars, such as the Ford Focus ST with its ‘sound symposer’, it doesn’t sound artificial.
Fuel economy and running costs
Hot hatches aren’t merely weekend playthings, so sensible running costs are arguably just as important as straight-line speed. Official fuel economy for the lairiest Leon ranges from 41.5 to 43.5mpg depending on the body-style and gearbox combo. That’s reasonably good for a car of this type, although don’t forget the 290’s preference for pricier 98-octane super unleaded fuel.
Opt for the three-door Leon SC with a DSG gearbox and exhaust CO2 emissions of 149g/km mean you’ll pay car tax of £145 a year. All other versions are in a higher VED band, at £180 a year.
Is it practical?
SEAT offers the Leon Cupra in three body-styles: three-door hatchback (Sport Coupe, or SC), five-door hatchback and estate (Sport Tourer, or ST). As you’d expect, the SC is the best-looking but least practical of the bunch, with a high window-line that makes the rear seats feel a little claustrophobic. The five-door hatch should suit most needs, and offers a 380-litre boot – expanding to 1,210 litres with the seats folded. For comparison, a Ford Focus holds from 316 to 1,215 litres.
However, the ST is the obvious choice if you need space for baby buggies, dogs or flat-pack furniture. Its 587-litre boot swells to a very-useful-indeed 1,470 litres when required. Just don’t engage Cupra mode with the labrador in the back…
What about safety?
Euro NCAP awarded the Leon a full five stars in its industry-standard crash tests. The 290 comes with most of the safety equipment you’d expect, including curtain airbags, a driver’s knee airbag and traction control. The only notable omission is automatic emergency braking, which costs £515 when bundled with active cruise control.
A special mention goes to the uprated brakes: 340mm discs at the front and 310mm at the rear. It’s easy to forget that, while hot hatches are good at going fast, they usually stop more quickly, too.
Which version should I go for?
Cupra 290 prices start at £28,375 for the manual SC, rising to £32,780 for a DSG-equipped ST. Choosing between the body types is really a question of what suits your needs. We’re suckers for a fast estate car, and the ST costs a modest £800 more than the five-door hatch. However, it does feel marginally less agile on the road.
Most of the optional extras are cosmetic. How about £505 for fluorescent ‘Orange-Line’ alloys and door mirrors? Perhaps not. The Sub8 Performance pack, however, is more serious. Named after the Leon’s record-breaking Nurburgring lap time, the £2,000 option includes uprated brakes with Brembo four-pot calipers. For a further £500, you can add super-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. Although both are probably overkill for normal road use.
Should I buy one?
If we had written this review a couple of years ago, the answer would have been an emphatic ‘yes’. The Leon Cupra is great to drive and eminently practical – like a Golf GTI with added speed, style and, er, Spanishness.
Unfortunately for SEAT, the hot hatch game has moved on in the past couple of years. And the 290 simply isn’t as fast, or as much fun, as the Ford Focus RS. Admittedly, the Ford costs around £1,300 more than the equivalent Leon five-door, you can’t buy an RS estate, and there’s a waiting list. But those quibbles aside, the Ford gets our vote as the most exciting car in this class. Indeed, it’s one of the greatest hot hatches of all time.
If you want something more subtle and civilised, the Volkswagen Golf R is certainly worth a look, too. Again, it’s more expensive than the Leon, but better residual (resale) values mean it actually works out cheaper with some monthly finance deals.
The Leon Cupra is still a very capable hot hatch. But an extra 10hp sadly isn’t enough to propel it to the top of the class.
The Cupra badge is 20 years old this year. It all started with the 1996 Ibiza Cupra, which burst into public consciousness by winning the 2.0-litre World Rally Championship that same year.
The larger Leon Cupra followed in 2000, initially with a V6 engine (not sold in the UK) – then later with a four-cylinder turbo.