What is the Seat Leon Cupra?
Fasten your seat belts and hold on tight: this is the fastest and most powerful hot hatch ever to be built by Seat. The Spanish car maker is owned by Volkswagen and with this super-hot Leon it seems determined to outrun the Golf GTI. Can it?
In the past, the Leon Cupra was viewed as a poor man’s Golf GTI. Rightly or wrongly, drivers of a discerning nature viewed it as the student and the GTI as the master. Seat is trying hard to shake off that image, and the third-generation Leon Cupra looks sharp in the metal and seriously impressive on paper.
There are three and five-door versions (Seat calls the former the SC, or Sport Coupé) and each uses a 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder direct-injection petrol engine. However, pay attention, because this is where it gets complicated…
The SC is available in two states of tune: the Cupra, with 261bhp, and the Cupra 280, with 276bhp. The Cupra costs from £25,695, and the Cupra 280 from £26,945. If you prefer the added practicality of the five-door model, you can only have the Cupra 280 model, and it costs from £27,425. All models come with a six-speed manual transmission, while a dual-clutch automated manual is available only on Cupra 280 versions.
We can’t answer the one question many drivers will want to know: will the Cupra 280 hold its value better or worse than a Golf GTI fitted with the optional Performance Pack? Cap, the vehicle valuation company, has not yet determined the residual value for the Seat.
For an indication of just how quick this car is, may we draw your attention to a PR stunt carried out by Seat in March? It sent a Cupra around the Nürburgring in Germany and after the model posted a time of 7min 58.4sec, declared it to be the fastest front-wheel-drive production car ever to lap the circuit. However, a few days later, its thunder was stolen when Renault claimed a Megane RS 275 Trophy-R had beaten the Seat by four seconds. Handbags at dawn, anyone?
No matter, the Cupra 280, which Driving tested, is tyre-smokingly fast; an urgent, surging hatchback that can make light work of any winding road.
From a standing start, it will sprint from 0-62mph in 5.8 seconds. You’d need to buy a Golf R to go faster still; a GTI couldn’t keep up. And between 62mph and the Leon’s top speed of 155mph, the engine feels as strong as an ox. It sounds great, too, with a crisp growl that grows louder still in Sport or Cupra driving modes (more about those in a moment). Beyond 1,750rpm it surges along, enthusiastically revving to the red line at 6,000rpm like a child grabbing treats at a birthday party.
Here’s the thing, though. It may be as hot as hot hatches come, a vindaloo on the heat scale, but when the pressure’s off it can drive around with all the ease of a sensible diesel, pottering about below 2,000rpm. This is an impressively flexible engine.
What a shame, then, that the shift of the six-speed manual gearbox is distinctly average, with a soft, slightly vague action that’s out of character with a hot hatch like this. What’s more, the brake pedal has too much dead travel before the brakes will, ultimately, do a good job of reining in the Cupra 280’s speed.
There is all sorts of fine tuning the driver can make to the Leon Cupra, using a system Seat calls Seat Drive Profile. This is nothing new, and can be found throughout a range of cars from the Volkswagen group. However, it’s useful.
There are three default settings: Comfort, Sport and Cupra. But the driver can switch to Individual and see if they can come up with a better compromise than the factory settings. Again, there is the choice of three modes – Comfort, Sport and Cupra – for the Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC, which simply makes the dampers softer or firmer), weighting of the steering, response of the engine, front mechanical differential and even the air conditioning.
Is this useful? Well, yes. Imagine a wet day, on an unfamiliar road. You could soften off the dampers and lighten the steering, but still have the urgent response of the engine in Cupra mode.
There is a clever electronic differential lock to help the front tyres contain the engine’s 276bhp when the car is powering out of a bend. It does a good job, sending power to the front wheel with the most grip. This is a secure car that doesn’t suffer from any signs of torque steer, but if the steering had a touch more feedback then it would be even more impressive.
However, the sign of a good hot hatch is one that never loses its composure. Here, the Cupra is very impressive. The harder you push it through a bend, the more you can feel the clever technology at work, helping it cling on like a climber on a cliff face.
Before getting cosy inside the Cupra 280, let’s consider the outside. It’s a good looking car, no doubt about that, but not an instantly recognisable hot hatch in the way the Golf GTI is.
The sharp shapes of the body are echoed throughout the interior. The dashboard follows the shapes of the wing mirrors and headlamps, but the black colour scheme is slightly oppressive. Still, there’s a certain sense of occasion, thanks to the sports seats, alloy-effect pedals and white-on-grey colour dials that match the leather seat trim (a £755 option that includes a winter pack with heated seats and windscreen washers). The driving position feels just right, too.
Additional options buyers might want to consider include a sunroof (£695) and a space-saver spare wheel which, cheekily, is £95 (it takes the place of a tyre repair kit).
A touchscreen is standard but it’s on the small side, especially over a bumpy road when your finger is jumping around. Some of the plastics (below approximately elbow height) look and feel a little cheap. But there’s no shortage of standard equipment and the cabin is surprisingly spacious, even in the rear seats. Heck, you can even pop the boot, drop the back seats and sling in a mountain bike or two.
The one to buy
Seat Leon SC Cupra 280
Price: From £26,945 (correct at first publication)
Engine: 1984cc, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Power: 276bhp @ 5350rpm
Torque: 258 lb ft @ 1750rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 5.8sec
Top speed: 155mph
Fuel: 42.8mpg (combined)
Road tax band: G
Dimensions: L 4236mm, W 1810mm, H 1423mm
Seat Leon SC Cupra 280 rivals
- VW Golf GTI (click for used car prices on driving.co.uk)
- Ford Focus ST (click for used car prices on driving.co.uk)
- RenaultSport Mégane (click for used car prices on driving.co.uk)