When SEAT invited us to drive a Leon Cupra at the Nurburgring, in the same 'Performance Pack' spec that recently broke the front-wheel drive lap record, it clearly expected to still be the holder. But just hours before the event Renault dropped a bomb - announcing that its Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy-R had gone four seconds faster.
But don't dismiss SEAT's achievement just yet; its time was set with a near-standard five-seater hatchback after all, while the Trophy R is a far more specialised machine. There's a roll cage where the back seats should be and other extreme weight-saving measures such as a lithium-ion battery and composite front springs. Also, only 30 examples of the Trophy-R will sold in the UK (250 globally) while there's no limit on the number of Leons.
SEAT says the Performance Pack (PP) is aimed at customers who take their car on track days regularly and are searching for some extra grip and better braking performance. So the PP adds massive 370mm Brembo brake discs (30mm larger than standard) clamped by four-piston callipers - the exact same setup you'll find on the Audi TT RS. In terms of outright stopping power there's not a lot between this and the standard system, but the lack of fade is unquestionable. We completed two consecutive 12.9-mile laps and at the end they felt as strong as the first corner.
To accommodate the new discs lighter 19-inch alloys have been designed (there wasn't space behind the standard 19-inch wheel), while a set of more dynamic side skirts have been plucked from the parts catalogue and bolted on. The standard tyre is an all-weather Bridgestone Potenza, while semi-slick Michelin Pilot Sport 2 are roughly an extra £500 over and above the PP's circa £2,000 asking price.
We were the only title to drive both the Renaultsport Megane Trophy 275 and the Leon Cupra SC 280 Performance Pack back to back on the Nurburgring, and while both are blisteringly fast they go about their business in very different ways. For starters the Cupra's 5bhp advantage feels more significant than than the numbers suggest out on the track. There's an immediacy to the throttle response and a more free-revving feel to the engine, plus the manual gearshift to is much slicker allowing you to flick the lever around its gate rather than ramming it home in the Megane. The exhaust note doesn't come with flurries of pops and bangs like you get in the Megane, but there's still a hard edge to the exhaust note that encourages you to take it to the limiter.
In terms of steering feel the Megane has the Leon licked. Whereas the Renault's wheel is beautifully weighted and requires more force as you load up the front tyres, the Cupra's variable ratio system feels overly light all the time. The Megane edges it for overall stability, too, staying perfectly neutral unless specifically provoked with a lift if the throttle or bung with the steering wheel, the Cupra tends to squirm a little under firm braking, and move around a bit more mid-corner.
It's the Cupra that puts its power down better on the exit of corners though. The combination of sticky Michelin tyres and the VAQ electronically-controlled limited slip differential (which can send up to 100 per cent of the power to the outside front wheel) creates phenomenol traction that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about this Cupra is we know when you dial the adjustable dampers to comfort on public roads, the supple suspension is perfectly suited to everyday use - far more so than the Megane.