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In-depth reviews

Cupra Leon review: high-spec hot hatch with something for everyone

Now covering a wide range of options offering tepid to hot performance, there’s something for everyone in the Cupra Leon range

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

Price
£33,655 to £48,035
  • Fun to drive
  • Value for money
  • Good levels of standard kit
  • Touch-sensitive heating controls
  • Infotainment could be easier to use
  • Fake engine sounds
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Quick verdict

The Cupra Leon was first launched as a seriously impressive hot hatchback, making fine use of the familiar 2.0-litre petrol TSI unit shared with the Volkswagen Golf GTI and high-performance Golf R. It’s always managed to outshine the iconic German hatch for driving fun, while still providing all the expected practicality, refinement and day-to-day usability that buyers expect. More recently, a less potent 1.5-litre four-pot has been added to the range, broadening the appeal of the model further.

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If you can see past the peculiar branding, you’ll find a very well-crafted performance car that offers great value for money. The availability of plug-in hybrid power and a versatile estate bodystyle just add to its breadth of appeal.

About the Cupra Leon

You may recognise the Cupra name as the performance moniker for various SEAT hot hatches over the past twenty years or so. What perhaps isn’t so widely known is that Cupra, since 2018, has been a standalone brand, creating its own bespoke models, such as the Formentor SUV. Alongside such models are a range of more powerful, sophisticated versions of current SEAT cars like the Cupra Ateca crossover.

The most recent entry in the range is the Cupra Leon hatchback, originally bred to compete with the iconic Volkswagen Golf GTI, the supremely talented Honda Civic Type R, and the fine-handling Ford Focus ST.

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The hottest power options for the Cupra Leon centre around the Volkswagen Group’s ubiquitous 2.0-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder TSI unit, in either 296bhp or 306bhp forms. There’s also a 242bhp 1.4-litre petrol plug-in hybrid version to offer an appealing combination of usable power, with potentially greater fuel economy and lower emissions. Driving purists may be disappointed that there is no manual gearbox option available for any of these derivatives, with the hybrid and more powerful pure petrol cars using six- and seven-speed DSG automatic transmissions, respectively.

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The range also includes a more affordable 148bhp 1.5-litre engine. Despite being the least performance-orientated version, it’s the only Cupra Leon available with a manual gearbox.

Generous levels of standard kit will catch the eye of buyers looking for a good deal. The entry V1 trim, which is only available with the 1.5-litre engine, includes 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, sports seats, sat-nav, wireless phone charging, a park assist function, and a rear view camera. Go for the slightly pricier V1 Design Edition for the Design Pack exterior with additional side skirts, a discrete rear spoiler extension, a panoramic glass roof, and extra copper trim details.

Moving up to VZ2 Design Edition specification brings 19-inch alloys, speed-sensitive power steering, and dynamic chassis control, including adaptive suspension. The top-of-the-range VZ3 Design Edition adds luxuries such as leather upholstery, heated front seats and steering wheel, Matrix LED headlights, plus some extra safety technology. 

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The cheapest Cupra Leon, the 1.5-litre V1, starts at around £31,500. This puts it in the ballpark of premium hatchbacks like the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series. If you’re after a genuinely hot Cupra Leon, then you’ll need to fork out at least £41,500 for the 2.0 TSI 300, which is considerably pricier than the Focus ST. In fact, it’s on par with the likes of the M135i version of the BMW 1 Series, which should provide food for thought when weighing up your hot hatch priorities. The more company car-friendly plug-in hybrid version starts at around £41,500, too.

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If you need more space, consider the Cupra Leon estate version. The wagon carries a slight price premium over the hatch, starting at a little over £33,000. Like the hatchback, there’s a 1.5-litre petrol engine and plug-in hybrid powertrain to choose from, but the estate comes exclusively with the most potent 306bhp version of the 2.0-litre TSI engine, which puts its additional power onto the road through a standard four-wheel drive system.

Engines, performance and drive

The faster Leon feels more focused than rivals, with no compromise in ride comfort, but lower-powered models aren’t that exciting

Cupra has done a fine job engineering a little individual character into the hotter Leons, particularly the 2.0 TSI 300 version. Yes, the Cupra Leon is closely related to the Volkswagen Golf GTI, with all riding on the VW Group’s latest MQB platform, but the Leon has a longer wheelbase, and the Spanish performance brand has spent time fettling the Leon’s suspension to create a particularly engaging hot hatchback. There’s also a larger Brembo Performance brake option on all VZ3 Design Edition models, although it is a rather pricey upgrade at over £2,000.

The light, variable-ratio steering, while not overly brimming with feedback, is very precise and loads up weight progressively in corners. When combined with the excellent grip levels, this means you’ll enjoy pushing the Leon through tight bends. Then there’s the straight-line speed - with next to no torque steer off the line, the 296bhp Leon is seriously quick and, overall, we found it to be a more complete car than its Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport rival - it’s that good.

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You might think that all this performance comes at the expense of a comfortable ride, but not so with the Leon. Go for either the VZ2 or VZ3 Design Edition trims, and you’ll get Dynamic Chassis Control, which includes adaptive suspension with up to 15 available damper settings, graded from the more forgiving Comfort, through to Sport and then the stiffer Cupra mode. We found adjusting the suspension nearer to Comfort meant that the Leon was no firmer riding than a standard SEAT model, while even cranking it up to the harshest position didn’t feel too jarring.

The lowest-powered models are—perhaps unsurprisingly—much less exciting to drive and don’t come with the fancier adaptive suspension of the high-spec models. That means these versions ride more firmly than some rivals, so we’d recommend you compare the Cupra to a standard SEAT Leon before committing, just to make sure you can live with its firmer suspension.

0-62mph acceleration and top speed 

The new entry-level 1.5-litre Leon offers brisk rather than swift acceleration, with its 148bhp output making for a 0-62mph time of 9.2 seconds when paired with a manual gearbox (8.9sec for the slightly more expensive dual-clutch automatic).

From here, the range gets much spicier. Even the 1.4-litre 242bhp plug-in e-Hybrid posts a 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds.

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The pace increases dramatically with the 296bhp 2.0-litre, trimming the 0-62mph sprint time to 5.7 seconds and a 155mph maximum. Those opting for the estate not only benefit from the extra power (306bhp), but also the additional traction of four-wheel drive, all of which helps drop the 0-62mph dash to just 4.9 seconds.

MPG, CO2 and running costs

If you’re looking for lower running costs, then the Cupra Leon e-Hybrid is an efficient option

The Leon range includes a 1.4-litre 242bhp plug-in petrol hybrid version that, depending on usage and charging frequency, offers potentially greater fuel efficiency and lower CO2 emissions than the other derivatives. Cupra claims the e-Hybrid will provide an all-electric range of 37 miles from a single charge, while overall economy on the combined cycle stands at 217.3mpg. Business users paying Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) tax will be particularly attracted by the e-Hybrid’s low CO2 figure of 29g/km.

The most efficient non-PHEV Cupra Leon is the 1.5-litre TSI, which has a claimed 47.1mpg and emissions of 135g/km.

If you can afford the extra power of the 296bhp version, then you won’t find it too expensive to run. It delivers 37.2mpg, with CO2 emissions of 173g/km, while the more powerful 306bhp four-wheel drive estate with the additional weight of its estate body style and four-wheel drive system drop fuel efficiency to 34mpg, and emissions go up to 188g/km.

Tax

The entry-level 1.5-litre petrol and plug-in hybrid 245bhp 1.4 e-Hybrid models will cost the least to tax in the Cupra Leon range. The plug-in hybrid will avoid the first year’s road fund license fee, while the 1.5-litre petrol will cost significantly less than either version of the 2.0-litre Leon due to the smaller engine having lower emissions.

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Unfortunately, only the 1.5 V1 and V1 Design Edition models will avoid the £40,000 surcharge. All VZ2 Design Edition models breach this threshold, meaning you’ll need to pay an additional £410 on top of the second-year road tax rate (presently £180 for alternative fuelled vehicles like plug-in hybrids, and £190 for all petrol and diesel models.). The additional charge applies for five years, starting from the second time the car is taxed (from years two to six).

Insurance groups

The entry-level car sits in group 20 (or 12 when equipped with a DSG), which is about what we’d expect for a family hatchback.

Otherwise, insurance costs will be comparable with hot hatch rivals, with the Leon 242bhp plug-in versions sitting in group 28 - the same rating as the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The more powerful 296bhp variant is in group 30, while the VW GTI Clubsport (with the same power output) is in group 29. The 306bhp 2.0-litre 300 TSI is in group 33, which is significantly less than the 315bhp Honda Civic Type R, which is in group 38.

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Depreciation

Residual values for the Cupra Leon look to be okay, but aren’t exceptional in the class. The 1.5-litre V1 Leon Estate holds onto the most of its original value with around 50 per cent retained after a typical three-year/36,000-mile ownership period, while the PHEV estate in the high-end VZ3 Design Edition trim suffers the most, maintaining only 44 per cent of its original value over the same period. For comparison, the Honda Civic Type R will be worth 57 per cent after three years.

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Interior, design and technology

Cupra has designed a good-looking hot hatch, with generous levels of standard equipment

While buyers can choose more extravagant hot hatchbacks, such as the Honda Civic Type R with its huge rear wing and aggressive aero kit, the Cupra Leon offers a more subtle proposition. It features a bigger rear spoiler, a sportier bumper design over the regular SEAT Leon, and a set of quad tailpipes on some versions, giving the Cupra a purposeful but still understated look. V1 Design Edition models and above feature more aggressive side skirts, a small rear spoiler extension, and more exterior cooper trim details.

The Cupra brand has adopted copper-coloured detailing across all its models in an attempt to create an air of individuality, and it generally works quite well - particularly as an accent to the darker Magnetic or Graphene Grey paint colours. Other metallic exterior hues include Desire Red, Urban Silver, Midnight Black and Nevada White.

The standard kit is generous, with the V1 trim including 18-inch alloys, LED lights, sports seats, a digital driver display and a 12-inch touchscreen infotainment system with wireless Apple CarPlay and wired Android Auto functionality. Bigger wheels, leather upholstery and heated seats are available as you upgrade through the VZ2 and VZ3 Design Editions, along with enhanced active safety systems on the latter (and VZ2 Design Edition Estate models fitted with the 2.0 TSI 310 engine).

Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment

With the Cupra Leon so closely related to the SEAT family, it’s not a surprise to discover that the layout of the infotainment system is familiar VW group fare, with screen response and loading times largely similar to that in a Golf. We prefer the Leon’s arrangement, though. In particular, the home screen is smartly laid out; there are three large, customisable tiles that are easy to select on the move.

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However, the Leon suffers from poorly placed touch-sensitive heating controls below the main display, but does compensate for this with more prominent on-screen shortcuts for both the climate functions and other menu keys. 

Some improvements have been made since this car first arrived, such as all cars now coming with the handy drive mode shortcut button on the steering wheel that was previously reserved for the priciest 310 Estate model. All versions also come with wireless phone charging, saving you from having to trail charging cables all over the interior.

Practicality, comfort and boot space

Buyers seeking added practicality may be interested in the flexibility of the Cupra Leon estate

The Cupra Leon is available as a five-door hatchback or in a more practical estate bodystyle, which means there is enough flexibility to carry passengers in good comfort, along with any luggage.

The entry V1 trim includes useful kit that makes ownership that bit easier - front and rear parking sensors are standard, along with a rear camera, power-folding mirrors and auto headlights. Inside, there are two large cup holders, and big door bins for oddment storage.

All Cupra Leons come with sports seats in the front with larger side bolsters than the regular SEAT Leon, and there’s driver and passenger manual seat height and lumbar adjustment. If you upgrade to the VZ3 Design Edition specification, you’ll benefit from an electrically adjustable driver’s seat with memory settings. This range-topping model also gets Matrix LED headlights that can alter the brightest main beam pattern at night to provide maximum illumination at night without dazzling oncoming vehicles.

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An electrically deployable towing hook and a space-saver spare wheel are options for the estate model.

Size

The Leon hatchback is 4,398mm in length, 1,799mm across (excluding mirrors) and stands 1,467mm tall, which makes it 111mm longer and 10mm wider than a Volkswagen Golf, although the Leon sits 26mm lower, which adds to its sporty, more muscular appearance.

Of course, the estate is longer at 4,657mm, just as wide, but oddly a little lower at 1,439mm.

Leg room, head room & passenger space

The space upfront is good, and the headroom is on par with the Volkswagen Golf. Rear legroom is better than you’ll find in the Golf, and taller passengers should have no problem getting comfortable behind the front two, with plenty of space under the front seats for your feet.

Parents will be pleased to find two ISOFIX child seat anchor points on the outer positions of the rear seats. The securing rings are located behind some easy to remove plastic tabs.

Boot space

With a 380-litre boot the Leon is just one litre down on the VW Golf’s load capacity, although it does trump the Ford Focus by five litres. The rear bench offers a 60/40 split and includes a ski hatch for carrying longer items, although there isn’t a variable height boot floor, so there is an awkward lip to negotiate when loading.

Towing

Only the most powerful four-wheel drive 2.0-litre TSI 310 gets a towing rating. However, its 1,900kg braked towing rate is plenty for towing a caravan.

Reliability and safety

Safety kit for the Cupra Leon is good, but some active systems are only available on pricier versions

​Cupra is too new of a brand to have been featured in our 2023 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, although parent company SEAT was. Its 23rd place out of 32 manufacturers shows there’s plenty of room for improvement.

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​​The SEAT Leon achieved a full five-star Euro NCAP rating for safety, with reassuring scores of 92 per cent for adult occupant safety and 88 per cent for child protection.

Standard safety equipment is good and includes an autonomous emergency braking function, Lane Assist, traffic sign recognition, and a tiredness recognition system. There’s also adaptive cruise control to keep you a safe distance from the car in front when travelling along the motorway, plus automatic lights and rain-sensing wipers. 

It’s a shame that the Safety and Driving Pack XL is only reserved for the pricier 2.0-litre TSI 310 version, which adds blind spot monitoring to let you know of vehicles alongside you when you go to change lanes. It also gets an exit assist system, which provides a warning to prevent you from opening your car door into the path of approaching traffic.

Warranty

Cupra offers an increased five-year/90,000-mile manufacturer’s warranty as standard, which is an improvement upon most of its rivals – including sibling brand Volkswagen, which only offers a run-of-the-mill three-year/60,000-mile policy.

The battery warranty for the plug-in hybrid model is a little stingy, though, at only five years or 100,000 miles, whereas many rivals will provide up to eight years of cover.

Servicing

Customers can take advantage of Cupra’s fixed-price servicing plans which allow you to pay for scheduled maintenance in monthly installments.

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Executive editor

Paul was employed across automotive agency and manufacturer-side sectors before joining Auto Express in 2020 as our online reviews editor. After a brief sojourn at a national UK newspaper, Paul returned as executive editor where he now works closely with our commercial partners.

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