I had the opportunity for an interesting comparison drive recently: SEAT Leon Cupra 280, which is similar to my long-term Skoda Octavia vRS and not just in its lurid colour scheme.
The SEAT, of course, is based on the VW Group MQB platform; with a 2.0-litre turbo engine, DSG gearbox and sporty-tune suspension, it was only the choice of fuel that really split the two on paper; of course, they’d feel like night and day in action, right?
First 5 minutes: different, yet the same?
Well, not at first. I sat up pretty high – higher than the Skoda? – atop seats that, visually, weren’t a patch on the Skoda’s high-backed buckets. The controls looked and felt, well, more family hatch than hot hatch and, once underway, the steering seemed to have the same on-centre fluffy zone as the Skoda (speeding up similarly sharply on lock to capitalise on a sharp front end).
The ride could jitter but not really much more so than the Skoda, and the DSG felt its age in the same way the Skoda does at times. Even the build quality, ergonomic excellence and general integrity felt like from the same draw.
Obvious, really. Jump from one car based on one platform to another based on the same platform and there will be similarities. I just wasn’t expecting them to be so obvious in the first few minutes.
Discovering the differences
Luckily, Volkswagen Group has plentiful experience here. Had I done this test a decade ago, that would have been that: a MkI SEAT Leon does feel like a MkIV Golf, for example. But a SEAT Leon Cupra does not feel like a fast Skoda Octavia vRS, anymore. Its springs are firmer, its damping more fluid, its engine an absolute gem of free-revving spirit. The way it put its power down out of corners was very satisfying too; compared to the Skoda, it shows more purpose and positivity here that makes for an extremely capable hot hatch thrash.
More notably, the minutiae is different. Once you’ve got over the similarities, the interior differences make it feel like a completely different car. The surprise and delight touches vary between them. Even the fundamental architecture of the dashboard means you use different muscles and motor movements to operate the Leon: you don’t see the dash of one if you mirror the other one over it.
Did I get back and felt like I’d just driven an Octavia vRS petrol? Nope, I felt like I’d driven a very well sorted Leon Cupra. A different car; one with similarities but ones that, on reflection, are not the worst areas to be similar in. Besides, CJ later told me, SEAT’s got a solution for the seats – Cupra-spec buckets are on the way, they just haven’t made it to production yet.
Could it just be that I was looking for the similarities in the first 5 minutes? Probably. Because they don’t dominate, despite the shared DNA. They simply ensure both cars have the same high standards and baseline ability built in. And there’s really nothing wrong with that.