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.
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. You can choose between a five-door or a shorter-wheelbase three-door model, plus there’s even a versatile ST estate model. 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.
Our choice: SEAT Leon Cupra 290 5dr
Engines, performance and drive
The SEAT Leon Cupra is powered by the Volkswagen Group’s tried and tested EA888 2.0-litre TSI turbo petrol engine, although its power 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 stil 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.
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.
Tuned to 286bhp, the 2.0-litre turbo 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 even greater mid-range muscle that allows for lazy overtakes so you don’t have to always be changing gears, and 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. 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 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.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
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. What's more, LED headlights, a clever diff and an enhanced stability control system help it feel even more secure on the road.
SEAT dealers came bottom in our Driver Power 2013 satisfaction survey, so you may not receive the best service from them if you do decide to take the plunge with the Cupra. However, in light of these results, the brand is likely to make changes that will help to improve the customer experience.
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. There’s also an updated Full Link infotainment system that adds useful features such as sat-nav and a MirrorLink functions for smartphones.
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.
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.
Practicality, comfort and boot 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. However, SEAT has managed to maintain the exact same boot space for both models but 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.
It’s clear that the SEAT Leon has been designed from the outset not only to look good, but to be used as a family car. Wide door openings, enough rear head and leg room for adults – even in the SC – and spacious front seats make it perfect for long journeys. There are plenty of cubby holes dotted around, too, in the centre console, glove box and door bins.
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 its 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 middling reliability and poor dealer service (its network finished bottom of 32 manufacturers in our most recent dealer poll) tarnish the Cupra’s image.
The Leon should be reliable, though, and was voted the fourth best car to live with in Driver Power 2015, so this performance variant should be no different. It leads the way in the airbag count, offering seven in total, plus with LED headlights and the option of lane assist, it gets a full five-star Euro NCAP safety rating.