We drive the new, more grown up hot hatch from Seat and discover that, despite its less conspicuous exterior the Leon Cupra 280 has some serious bite
AS GAUNTLET-tossing goes, this new Leon Cupra 280 will take some beating. This is the fastest and most powerful road-going Seat ever made, and the company is hinting that it may even have established a lap record around the Nürburgring for front-wheel-drive production cars. That’s the famous 13-mile German circuit where virtually every car maker in the world goes to indulge in a bit of “we’re faster than you” grandstanding. And by God, the numbers are impressive.
The 2-litre turbo in the range-topping Cupra 280 (as in PS) develops 276bhp. That’s good for a 0-62mph run in just 5.7 seconds and a top speed limited to 155mph. That is swifter than hot competitors such as the Renaultsport Megane 265 (6sec) and Ford Focus ST (6.5sec). This is also the best-looking Cupra hatch ever launched, particularly in three-door guise (there’s a five-door version, too). In profile, the three-door looks like something straight out of the Audi stable. It’s helped by the fact that Seat has decided to tone down the visual impact of the new Cupra. Previous models bordered on the yobbish with garish colour schemes that required the driver to wear a backwards-facing baseball cap. Launch colours for the new Cupra are quite muted (the off-white finish, in particular, actually looks sensational).
So the new car is less shouty than before, while the clues to its monumental performance are more subtle. That said, there’s a large air intake at the front and dual exhausts at the rear. The top model has 19in alloys that look great, if eminently kerb-able. The Cupra feels much more grown up, more junior Audi than the product of a budget brand with delusions of “prestige”. Which shouldn’t be that much of a surprise since the entry-level SC Cupra 265 three-door wears a £25,690 ticket, while the top-of-the-range Cupra 280 DSG tops out at £28,525. Not cheap, in other words.
Inside, the Cupra cues include a motorsport style flat-bottomed steering wheel, heavily bolstered sport seats and pedals, and door sills finished in aluminium. As with the exterior, it’s not at all over the top and, as with the regular Leon, the cockpit is very well laid out with a quality look and feel.
But the whole point of this Cupra is about the drive and that’s where Seat has made the really serious effort. There is, for example, a mechanical, limited-slip differential designed to rein in torque steer, which is always a potential issue with this much power going through the front wheels. (Torque steer is when the steering wheel squirms in your hands, like a cat wishing to be elsewhere.) There are also adaptive dampers with three different modes. Comfort does what it says on the tin, sport is a more aggressively stiff suspension setting and Cupra is an even more extreme setting meant for track work (or general hooning about).
As you work up through the modes, the exhaust note gets more feral, the throttle more reactive and the steering weightier (in a good way). A six-speed manual is standard fit and the Cupra 280 is also available with a DSG dual-clutch automatic with flappy paddles. It’s rather good. The engine’s power is hugely accessible thanks, in large part, to that limited-slip differential. It means you can deploy all 280 horses without fearing histrionics from the front wheels. Torque steer is nearly non-existent, and understeer is very well controlled.
Cupra mode is funny as hell. The exhaust note hardens to a really quite inspiring yowl and if you’re in a DSG-equipped car you’ll have near instant shifts, with parps and rumbles between gears, which feels proper old-school, sports car. The steering feedback is, likewise, very reassuring; you really know just how much grip you have left. Which is usually quite a lot. Another amusing feature is the traction and stability control system, which can be turned off in two stages. Stage one turns off the traction control and stage two disables stability control. It’s intended for track use and for mega-smoky burnouts (I couldn’t possibly comment).
The performance, especially with that DSG ’box, makes the Seat Cupra 280 one of the very fastest front-drive hatches on the planet. The entry-level £25,690 SC Cupra 265 (261bhp) has less power, but the performance difference is impossible to discern from behind the wheel. It’s just as hilarious as its more powerful sibling, not to mention £1,250 cheaper.
Fortunately, when your trousers aren’t on fire, the Leon Cupra is quite easy to live with. Dial it back to comfort mode and the exhaust note becomes a mild thrum, the suspension relaxes and the Cupra is happy to lope along at a sedate cruise. And with the five-door, which is the most popular choice in the UK, it makes a good fist at family-friendly motoring, too.
One of the world’s fastest hot hatches, without being too shouty about it.
2014 Seat Leon Cupra 280 DSG 5dr specifications
- Release date:
- On sale now
- 1984cc, four-cylinder turbo
- 276bhp @ 5350-6600rpm
- 258 lb ft @ 1750-5300rpm
- Six-speed DSG semi-auto
- 0-62mph in 5.7sec
- Top speed:
- 42.8mpg combined
- Road tax band:
- G (£175 in first year, £175 thereafter)
- L 4271mm, W 1816mm, H 1434mm
Seat Leon Cupra 280 rivals
- Ford Focus ST-3 2.0T 250 5dr, £25,495
For Very well equipped and dynamically at the top of its game Against Unlike the SEAT, doesn’t have clever limited slip-differential, so torque steer more of an issue.
- Volkswagen Golf GTI 2.0 TSI DSG 5dr, £28,195
For Still the default choice for an ultra-competent all-rounder hot hatch Against Those evolutionary Golf looks are becoming a bit boring.