Hot hatch fans have never had it so good, with almost every manufacturer offering a fun and feisty pocket rocket. So a car that takes the honours in this category has to be extremely special indeed – and the SEAT Leon Cupra fits the bill perfectly.
What makes the sleek Spanish flyer such a hot hatch hit? For starters it’s fast, with a muscular 276bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre engine firing it from 0-62mph in just five seconds and on to a top speed of 155mph. A clever sound generator delivers a rorty exhaust note to match.
But it’s the Cupra’s class in corners that really stands out. The steering is quick and well weighted, the standard adaptive dampers provide iron-fisted body control and there’s limpet-like grip. Further boosting the car’s agility is a clever electronically controlled limited-slip differential which helps neutralise understeer in fast bends and boost traction out of tight turns.
The dazzling dynamics are further enhanced by upgraded brakes that serve up eye-popping stopping power, as well as the slick and precise six-speed manual box included as standard. SEAT offers a rapid-fire DSG twin-clutch transmission as an optional extra.
Just as importantly, the Cupra is equally accomplished as a versatile family car, because underneath the racy looks and blistering performance is a standard Leon. That means a choice of rakish three-door SC and practical five-door bodystyles, plenty of equipment and excellent refinement. On top of all that, the standard adaptive dampers can deliver a supple and relaxing ride at the touch of a button.
But as with all the best pocket rockets, the Cupra delivers these thrills without emptying your wallet. Not only does it undercut less potent rivals on price, it won’t cost the earth to run, either, thanks to 149g/km emissions and 44.1mpg claimed economy. Fast, fun, frugal and family friendly, it’s a real hit.
You can get the 280 in three or five-door form, but the sleek SC better suits the car’s sporty character. And we’d stick with the slick six-speed manual box, as the optional DSG is a little clunky.
If driving thrills were all that counted here, last year’s champ would still top the class. With its razor-sharp handling and go-kart-like agility, the Ford Fiesta ST is unrivalled fun on a twisting back road, while its firecracker 1.6-litre turbo dishes up plenty of performance, even without the great-value Mountune upgrade. The only fly in the ointment is the relentlessly firm ride.
The brilliant Golf GTI is a hot hatch for grown-ups. Forty years after setting the fast family car template, the VW has matured into a classy and composed performer. It’s not the fastest or sharpest choice, but it does everything with unflappable poise and is backed up by a desirable, premium image. The downside is that it has a price to match.