Seat Leon Cupra

Seat Leon Cupra
The new Seat Leon Cupra is fitter, faster and just plain nicer than before

It was rather easy to harbour a soft spot for the previous Seat Leon Cupra R. Sophisticated it wasn’t. Or pretty. Or pleasant inside. Such niceties were left to the Volkswagen Golf GTI or Scirocco R. The Spaniard was just candidly quick and comparatively cheap. And with five doors only, practical, too.The new version is something different. For a start, the ‘R’ is held over for a 300bhp-plus, all-wheel-drive model that’s coming later. The inflated standard Cupra range now includes a three-door model alongside the familiar five-door, both powered by the Volkswagen Group’s latest turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine in a choice of 261bhp and 276bhp guises – the latter making it the most powerful series-production car that Seat has (yet) built.It’s a likely candidate for the most sophisticated model that the brand has ever built, too. For the first time, every Cupra comes with a mechanical front differential lock to make sense of 258lb ft of torque from 1750rpm. The electrically powered steering rack is now variably toothed for progressively sharper reactions, while the fully independent, lowered suspension (no torsion bar here) comes equipped with adjustable dampers and there’s the option of a six-speed DSG to go with the standard six-speed manual gearbox. Seat has even gone to the bother of adding a Cupra setting to the car’s selectable drive profiles.The design alterations are less significant. The ‘280’ variant (the 276bhp model) gets a rear spoiler and prettier 19-inch alloy wheels to distinguish it, but the ‘265’, with only the bigger air intakes and diffuser-effect rear skirt, threatens to blend into the crowd a little too well.Both are good looking, though – a handy inherited trait of the current Leon from which the previous Cupra did not benefit. That quality is even more noticeable inside, where Seat has only really had to lever in sports seats (optional buckets come later), splash aluminium on the pedals and fatten the steering wheel for suitable effect.The grown-up appeal oozing from the cabin is part of the reason why memories of the previous car – stiff-backed, hollow-sounding prospect that it was – dissipate in moments. Instead, it’s the Mk7 Golf GTI, its more expensive half-brother, that’s brought to mind – and all too often humbled by the Latin upstart.It’s not just on the power front, either, although with plenty more of it and a claimed kerb weight of 1300kg, the Cupra is unquestionably faster than the GTI. Using a further evolution of the EA888 engine also found in the Golf R, its hard-edged, flat but phat delivery is typical of the series. Accessible and exploitable, if not electrifying, it comfortably sees the Leon in the upper echelons of the hot hatch mainstream.That much could be gathered from the spec sheet. What certainly could not is how the car rides in its entry-level format. On 18-inch wheels and ContiSportContact 5s, the 265 flows along with considerably more elan than the Golf.In fact, on the admittedly accommodating Spanish autoroutes, the 265 variant positively glides, managing the trick of feeling immovably stable on lowered springs while ensuring that the rebound is considerately damped for better comfort – a characteristic that it retains even in the sterner settings available via the DCC system.Cantankerous British surfacing may yet foil its high comfort levels, but south of Montserrat, the Leon is in Ford Focus ST territory. Or the 265 is, at any rate. The 19-inch wheels of the 280 do nibble away at the superlatives – not ruining it by any means but certainly peeling away the top layer of compliance and replacing it with a bit more of a drone.Fortunately, with wider Bridgestone Potenza RE050As at each corner, there’s an obvious pay-off. With a reduced profile and better stickiness, the 280 enters, exits and transits between the two with more hard-bodied hustle than the 265. A to B on a plaster-smooth Spanish mountainside, bankrolled by the spry action of the six-speed manual (forget the outdated six-speed DSG), the 280 is unquestionably quicker on the limit.Back in the real world, though, atop Blighty’s varicose veins, there’s every chance that you’d feel more comfortable going quicker in the more pliant 265. Especially given the conspicuous interaction of the new diff where traction is concerned.Borrowed from the Performance Pack-equipped Golf but retuned for the Cupra to deliver a much more industrious front end, it scrabbles to involve itself in pulling the nose around where the Golf GTI would settle for a slack dose of straight-ahead. Better still, it has all but eliminated any obvious torque steer.Like everything else fused to the MQB platform, though, the Leon’s chassis is short on gloss. Not accuracy, poise or punch, but there’s too little to savour beyond its impassive and predictable grip. Beyond simply forcing more torque through the diff, genuine adjustability is in short supply.Certainly, the Leon is keen for you to tuck it in and press emphatically on, but it assumes that a weight-shifting mid-corner step off the throttle is a wet-booted mistake rather than a deliberate request for deeper collaboration. The tame tuck of the rear end is a familiar characteristic – understandable and utterly dependable – but also the reason why the Focus ST and Renault Mégane RS 265 are rewarding in a way that the Leon Cupra can never be.Such a shortcoming is easy to put into perspective, though. With this car’s suppleness, Seat is hardly courting the hardcore hatch enthusiast. What it’s interested in – helped by 40mpg-plus claimed economy and sub-160g/km emissions – is the young-at-heart buyer who is chasing a bit of affordable all-round talent. In that respect, it has played something of a blinder.Or it would have done if the manufacturer had opted to import the five-door version of the 265, the car that best combines the Cupra’s suppleness, pace and practicality – but it hasn’t.If British buyers want five doors, they’ll have to go for the more powerful but slightly less comfortable Cupra 280. Seat is betting that a greater proportion of buyers will opt for that version, and we wouldn’t dissuade them necessarily, but at just over £27k the Leon is getting on for serious money – and for all of its added maturity, the Cupra feels once again like a car best bought cheaply.At under £26k, the 265 is less expensive than a basic three-door Golf GTI, making its Q-car looks, satisfying rapidity and contented ride something of a no-brainer for the right-minded connoisseur.

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