SEAT Leon Cupra review
Breathtaking pace and everyday practicality make the SEAT Leon Cupra a formidable, if low-key, hot hatch
We named the SEAT Leon Cupra as our Hot Hatch of the Year in both our 2014 and 2015 New Car Awards. Blending blistering performance and sharp handling with good looks and great value, the go faster Leon is a hugely desirable high performance machine that also happens to have room for the family.
However, SEAT has made the best even better with the launch of the Cupra 290. Featuring a 10bhp power boost over the old car, plus a host of small trim revisions, it’s more desirable than ever. Were it not for the arrival of the blisteringly quick 345bhp Ford Focus RS, the Leon Cupra would have been a contender for our 2016 hot hatch gong too.
Like before, the Leon Cupra punches above its price tag and comes with equipment you have to pay extra for on the Volkswagen Golf GTI. But it’s not all about searing pace and sharp looks; the SEAT Leon Cupra also has a softer side for when you want to take things easy.
Peel back the skin of the SEAT Leon Cupra and most of what you’ll find is identical to the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Both cars sit on Volkswagen's lightweight MQB architecture, both use a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine and both send power through the front wheels. But while the Golf is available with either 217bhp or 227bhp with the Performance Pack fitted, the Leon Cupra packs a massive 286bhp under its bonnet.
Despite only costing a fraction more than the Golf, model for model, the SEAT Leon Cupra comes with a front limited slip differential as standard and three-stage adaptive dampers. Lowered suspension and variable-ratio steering ensure its quick in the corners, but soften off the suspension and the Cupra is happy to waft around like a standard Leon.
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You can choose between a five-door and a shorter-wheelbase three-door model called the SC Cupra, plus there’s even a versatile ST Cupra estate. All three derivatives are available in standard or Black trim. Standard Leon Cupra models come with 19-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and running lights, Alcantara upholstery and the Cupra Drive Profile selective drive mode system. The Leon Cupra also offers a touchscreen nav system, Adaptive Cruise Control, Emergency Brake Assist and Lane Assist. The Black upgrade doesn’t increase performance, but does feature special 19-inch multi-spoke alloys, plus deep bucket seats and distinctive Black Line trim features. If you’re looking for a really hard-core experience you can pay £4,250 for the Sub8 Performance Pack, which brings black or orange coloured alloy wheels, uprated brakes and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. In classic ‘less is more’ style, it also shaves a few kilos by removing the aircon and some of the sound system speakers.
Engines, performance and drive
The 2.0-litre turbo engine has been turned up to a healthy 286bhp, making the Leon Cupra one of the most potent hot hatchbacks on the road. Previously, that would have plagued the front-wheel-drive SEAT Leon with masses of torque steer, but the addition of a limited-slip diff and SEAT’s clever XDS electronics mean it’s hugely capable in corners. The former shuffles power across the front axle and can send up to 100 percent of the engine's torque to an individual wheel to make the most of the available grip, while the later tweaks the brakes to help keep the Leon's nose locked on your chosen line.
Turn in at high speed, and the SEAT Leon Cupra simply tucks its nose into the bend and sticks to its line, as the electronically controlled differential suppresses understeer and boosts traction. It's not as effective as the VW Golf R's four-wheel drive transmission, but it still manages to find grip even in slippery conditions. The steering is wheel weighted and direct, yet it's also perfectly progressive, allowing you to place the car smoothly and accurately.
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Standard adaptive dampers also play their part in the Cupra's impressive agility. In the stiffest Cupra setting there's rock solid body control with barely any roll through corners. Yet there's enough softness to allow the car to effectively smother mid-corner bumps.
Unlike lower-spec cars in the SEAT Leon range, you can fully disengage the stability control on the Cupra, which allows you to explore the limits of its ability on the track. Still, you’ll be travelling at quite a rate before it breaks loose. The Cupra’s hi-tech approach to going quickly extends to its suspension thanks to adaptive dampers. You can choose between Comfort, Normal, and Cupra (sport) modes to control the firmness of the dampers (plus the throttle response and steering weight), but even in the stiffest setting the Leon isn’t unbearable. There’s a huge amount of cornering grip on offer, and the car is huge fun to thread through a series of bends.
The steering is light but precise, and means the SEAT’s front end feels pointy. Quick direction changes are easy thanks to great body control, and the car is stable during stopping tests.
To show off the Cupra's immense performance, SEAT set a new Nurburgring front-wheel drive lap record of 7 minutes 58 seconds (although Renault has since stolen it back with the Megane RS 275 Trophy-R). That car was fitted with a Sub 8 pack, which is now available to customers. It adds bigger Brembo brakes, semi-slick Michelin tyres, lightweight 19-inch wheels and chunkier side sills. For customers that plan on attending track days regularly, the Sub 8 pack is a must.
The SEAT Leon Cupra is powered by the Volkswagen Group’s tried and tested EA888 2.0-litre TSI turbo petrol engine. Tuned to 286bhp, the engine is so smooth and pulls hard from low down. The 350Nm torque peak now occurs over a wider rev-range (1,700rpm to 5,800rpm), so there’s even greater mid-range muscle that allows for lazy overtakes. You don’t have to always be changing gears, and there’s a wild top end with a ferocious rush to the rev limiter.
SEAT claims the six-speed manual car will cover the 0-62mph sprint in a scorching 5.8 seconds, while the launch controlled-equipped DSG version shaves a tenth of a second off this time. All Cupra 290 models are electronically limited to 155mph. It’s a great performance engine matched to a light but sweet six-speed manual gearbox that involves you in the experience more than the dual-clutch alternative.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
In spite of its riotous performance, the Leon Cupra should be a reasonably painless car to own from a financial perspective. Pick the three-door Leon Cupra SC with the DSG auto gearbox, and you’re into potential 43.5mpg territory on the official combined cycle. As long as you can learn to moderate that right foot, that is. You’ll go a lot less far on every gallon if you drive everywhere bouncing off the rev-limiter, as you’d expect.
CO2 emissions aren’t bad, and fall between 149g/km and 156g/km depending on your gearbox choice. That means road tax should cost between £145 and £180. The Ford Focus ST is less powerful and drinks more fuel, while closer to home the VW Golf GTI does a little better on both counts – but that’s down on grunt compared to the Leon Cupra too. Maintenance costs shouldn’t be outrageous either.
Insurance groups for the SEAT Leon Cupra are pegged at 35 across all three bodystyles and specifications, a factor of the performance being virtually identical across the line-up. So they won’t be cheap to insure, and other sporty hatchbacks will look more competitive in this regard – but most don’t have the Leon Cupra’s level of performance, either.
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The continual good reviews and reputation for reliability, not to mention the outstanding performance, all add up to reasonable demand for the Leon Cupra on the used market. Residual values are not outstanding, but they’re par for the course for a fast expensive car that more sober motorists would run a mile from. Used value experts CAP reckon you should be able to retain 40 per cent of the Leon Cupra’s new cost when it reaches three years and 36,000 miles. The three door models being less practical are less in demand, and so might drop and additional percentage or two.
Interior, design and technology
The SEAT Leon uses the Volkswagen Group’s MQB platform, so it shares its running gear with the Volkswagen Golf, Audi A3 and Skoda Octavia. However, it’s arguable that the SEAT Leon is better looking, especially in three-door SC guise.
The standard SEAT Leon has a sharp nose, well-defined creases in the bodywork and a tidy rear - all of which give it a sporty appearance - while the flagship SEAT Leon Cupra model gets a few more enhancements. The biggest change is the addition of large 19-inch polished alloys on Cupra 290 models and bright red brake calipers.
The bright LED headlights found on the SEAT Leon Cupra are standard and there’s a subtle chequered flag badge on the grille, while larger air intakes and gloss black trim have been added behind the number plate. SEAT also gives the Leon Cupra a bigger roof spoiler, twin oval exhausts at the back and Cupra lettering across the tailgate, but the reality is that only diehard hot hatch fans will be able to recognise a Cupra model over a lower-spec Leon FR.
Compared to some rivals, the Leon has a premium feel inside. The stylised dials are still clear, with a well balanced mix between the analogue gauges and the central driver information screen.
The SEAT’s defined lines outside are reflected on the inside, with intersecting angles making up the dashboard and centre console layout. The interior design is highlighted by LED lighting on the doors, which changes colour from white to red depending on the driving mode selected.
You can spec a £1,055 Cupra leather pack, which adds electric heated leather seats. There's also the option of the £1,265 high-backed Cupra bucket seats, although they aren’t full buckets and don’t support you quite as well as those in the likes of the Honda Civic Type R or Renaultsport Megane, but they’re much more comfortable on long journeys and still hold you in place well enough.
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However, while the SEAT's interior is smartly styled, solidly built and comfortable, it lacks the racy touches of some rivals. There's a smattering of Cupra logos, some white stitching for the steering wheel and a metal finish for the pedals, but other than that it's standard Leon. For many buyers this sensible approach will be a big draw, but it's a shame that a car as special as the Cupra doesn't feel very exciting on the inside.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The SEAT Leon Cupra benefits from an updated Full Link infotainment system that adds useful features such as sat-nav and a MirrorLink functions for smartphones. The standard Leon has a 5-inch touchscreen satnav, but Cupra models get an upgraded 6.5-inch system offering live traffic updates and 3D mapping and other functionality. Bluetooth functionality is standard too.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
As well as being comfortable to ride in and spacious, the Seat Leon has a practical cabin design, even if it’s not quite able to match the premium feel of the VW Golf. There are plenty of cubbyholes dotted around, in the centre console, glove box and door bins. Driver aids like a reversing camera and steering wheel controls for the audio system, make living with the Cupra easier too.
The three-door Leon Cupra SC measures up at 4,236mm long, 1,820mm wide and 1,423mm tall. The five-door is a little longer at 4,271mm while the ST estate version comes in at 4,543mm nose to tail.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
The practicality of your SEAT Leon Cupra depends on which model you go for. The three-door Leon SC model has a wheelbase that's 52mm shorter than the five-door Cupra, which chops down rear legroom slightly, and the more sloping roof also means there’s a few mm less headroom.
It’s clear that the SEAT Leon has been designed from the outset not only to look good, but also to be used as a family car. Wide door openings, enough rear head and legroom for adults – even in the SC – and spacious front seats make it perfect for long journeys.
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However, SEAT has managed to maintain the exact same boot space for both models at 380-litres, although that’s still 25-litres down on the Renault Megane.
Fold down the rear seats in the SEAT Leon Cupra and its boot space increases to a substantial 1,210-litres - however, a step in the floor of every SEAT Leon stops you sliding heavy objects all the way in. Nevertheless, hooks for your shopping bags and a lower load lip are useful additions.
For buyers who want the ultimate is pace and space, then there's the ST estate version. Like the standard model it gets a healthy 587-litres of carrying capacity, which stretches to 1,470-litres with the 60/40 split/fold rear bench lowered. Compact estate rivals such as the Peugeot 308 SW and Skoda Octavia offer more room, but the Leon delivers a number of useful additions. For instance, there's a split-level boot floor with an area to store the load cover when it’s not in use. Also included are handy levers to lower the seats in one movement.
Reliability and Safety
SEAT made a big overall improvement in our Driver Power 2015 survey, climbing nine places to 15th, yet it dropped back a couple of places to 17th overall in 2016. When the manufacturer ratings are broken down by category, SEAT scored 16th for reliability
The Leon should be reliable, though. It was voted the fourth best car to live with in Driver Power 2015, and while that dropped to 23rd in the 2016 survey, that's still a very strong result in a field of 150 different cars. It was also comfortably in the top 50 per cent of individual cars on the reliability measure, so you shouldn’t have to expect any unpleasant surprises.
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You can put that down in part to the fact that even though the Cupra is the flagship of the Leon line, it still uses the same running gear as the rest of the Leon range, albeit in upgraded form. Fortunately, this also means the SEAT Leon Cupra has the same five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating. The Leon shows some rivals the way in the airbag count too, offering seven in total. What's more, LED headlights, a clever diff and an enhanced stability control system help it feel even more secure on the road. The roster of advanced safety kit now includes such features as Adaptive Cruise Control, Emergency Brake Assist, as well as Lane Departure Assist. There’s even a driver alertness function too, which will prompt you to take a break if your driving style suggests tiredness.
SEAT vehicles come with a standard three-year, 60,000-mile warranty, which isn’t particularly impressive these days. However, if you’re a private owner and want to keep the car beyond three years, you can pay extra to extend the warranty to four years and 75,000 miles or five years and 90,000 miles.
Service intervals are pegged at 20,000 miles for the Leon Cupra, and the costs should be reasonably competitive. Two-year or three-year fixed price servicing plans are available from the SEAT dealer network to make budgeting for routine maintenance simple.