SEAT Leon Cupra R 2003 review

It's pretty sunny in Barcelona at this time of year, but it's not only the weather that's getting warmer.

The extra power has made the Leon Cupra R usefully faster in the mid-range, and it still offers drivers an excellent balance between handling and refinement. It's not as quick as a Ford Focus RS, but is a better compromise for most buyers. SEAT has yet to give a clue about price, but if it stays close to the outgoing model's £17,000, the hot Leon will remain a sporting bargain.

It's pretty sunny in Barcelona at this time of year, but it's not only the weather that's getting warmer. Spain's top hot hatch, the SEAT Leon Cupra R, is turning up the heat, too.

The current Cupra R has already picked up a cult following in the UK thanks to its reasonable price and impressive 210bhp engine, which makes it a quick and very capable performance machine. But the guys at SEAT Sport obviously felt this was not enough and have given the Cupra R a 15bhp boost to create a model which outdoes its key rivals - including the highly sought-after Ford Focus RS.

Using the faithful 1.8-litre turbo-charged unit that features throughout the VW Group, the technicians have raised the power to match that of the similarly engined Audi S3 and TT. The newcomer may be the fastest production SEAT to date, but - unlike Audi models with the same output - the Cupra R places all of it on the road through the front wheels only.

So could this be a recipe for tyre-munching disaster? Hundreds of Cupra owners in the UK have already had their cars 'chipped' up to 250bhp or more and experienced few problems, and it's a testament to the strength and durability of the current Cupra R that engineers felt the only technical change needed was to upgrade the wheel bearings. The outgoing model made the top 20 list of our greatest drivers' cars, and this hotter version is even better. With 225bhp going through the front wheels, a slight squirming can be felt under hard acceleration but it's still a very easy car to drive quickly. On dry roads, the standard traction control system isn't even worked too hard, thanks to the handsome gunmetal-grey 18-inch alloys and Pirelli P-Zero tyres, which are sticky enough to cope with the power hike.

The Cupra R retains its fine balance of ride and body control, being compliant enough not to send shocks into the cabin on rough surfaces and having sufficient rigidity to stifle roll through corners. Although the five-door bodyshell might not be the most stylish ever, it does ensure family car practicality.

While top speed and performance have increased, the engine retains the same characteristics as its predecessor. From being somewhat flat below 2,000rpm, it picks up as the turbo comes in and is super-smooth right up to the 7,000rpm red line. This makes overtaking a breeze, with a surge of power in the mid-range just when you need it. And thanks to the six-speed manual gearbox, it's easy to keep the engine on the boil, too.

The one drawback is that the exterior styling is unchanged, and there are only minor improvements inside.

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