SEAT Leon Cupra review
Breathtaking pace and everyday practicality make the SEAT Leon Cupra a formidable, if low-key, hot hatch
Like before, the SEAT Leon Cupra punches above its price tag and comes with equipment you have to pay extra for on rivals like 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 you'll find the VW Group's brilliant lightweight MQB architecture that underpins cars from the Mk7 VW Golf to the Skoda Octavia. As a result, the hot Leon uses the same 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol as the Golf R but sends power only to the front wheels in hatchback guise.
This means the standard Leon Cupra packs a massive 286bhp under its bonnet, or 296bhp if you go for the ST estate version that does have four-wheel-drive. Both models come in either standard or Lux versions, while sitting atop the model range is the SEAT Leon Cupra ST R; a harder, faster estate with copper trim and extra kit.
Despite costing less than the Golf, model for model, the SEAT Leon Cupra comes with a front limited slip differential as standard and three-stage adaptive dampers. Lowered suspension and variable-ratio steering ensure it's quick in the corners, but soften off the suspension and the Cupra is happy to waft around like a standard Leon.
Leon Cupra models come with 19-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and running lights, Alcantara upholstery and the Cupra Drive Profile selective drive mode system. The Leon Cupra also offers a touchscreen nav system, Adaptive Cruise Control, Emergency Brake Assist and Lane Assist.
Car group tests
The R gets some unique features to set it apart from the regular Leon Cupra ST: new front suspension uprights increase camber by two degrees, while rear camber is revised, too – both are changes learned from developing the Nurburgring record-breaking Leon Sub8 performance pack. Adaptive dampers are fitted all round, suspending a set of 19-inch wheels wrapped in grippy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. The front brakes are by Brembo.
If you need a little more speed from the limited-run ST R, then the warranty-approved Abt tuning package is well worth considering. Power increases from 296bhp to 365bhp, and four tenths are chopped from the 0-62mph time. At just £500, it’s a very tempting upgrade.
The SEAT Leon Cupra is a great hot hatch that combines effortless pace with sharp handling, plus a good level of everyday practicality. It’s an aging car and the game has moved on in recent times with rivals like the Honda Civic Type R and Hyundai i30 N taking the front-wheel-drive hot hatchback class to new levels – but as a cut-price Golf GTI or R alternative, there’s lots to like about the SEAT.
The go-faster Leon is still a hugely desirable high performance machine that also happens to offer room for the entire family and some luggage.
That’s particularly true in the ST version, which is our top choice as it’s quick, practical and easy to live with. There are other alternatives, but these don’t quite offer the same level of performance.
Engines, performance and drive
The VW Group's familiar 2.0-litre turbo engine has been turned up to a healthy 286bhp in the standard Leon Cupra hatch, making it 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 per cent 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 still manages to find grip even in slippery conditions. The steering is well 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. 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 the car is stable during stopping tests.
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. 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.
Despite the added 270mm and extra 45kg thanks to the longer tail, the ST estate loses none of the hatchback’s tenacity and appetite for fast corners. Dive into a bend with what you think might be too much speed and the sticky Cup 2 tyres cling on gamely on turn in, while the four-wheel drive system delivers phenomenal traction on corner exit. There’s a playful adjustment to the chassis which, if anything, makes it more fun to drive than a Golf R Estate.
The ST and its limited-run R version each boast a launch control-assisted 0-62mph time of 4.9 seconds and a limited top speed of 155mph, thanks to their four-wheel drive and extra 10bhp over the hatchback. Confidence-inspiring Brembo brakes can stop late and hard time after time.
The SEAT Leon Cupra hatchback is powered by the Volkswagen Group’s tried and tested EA888 2.0-litre TSI turbo petrol engine. Tuned to 286bhp in the hatchback or 296bhp in ST models, the engine is so smooth and pulls hard from low down.
The 0-62mph sprint takes six seconds in the hatchback, or 4.9 seconds in the ST, while all Cupra models are electronically limited to 155mph. Opt for the optional tuning pack on the R model and power increases to 365bhp; 0-62mph drops to 4.5 seconds in that case. It’s a great performance engine matched to the tried-and-tested VW Group seven-speed DSG gearbox; the engine pins you into the seat under hard acceleration and sounds great, too.
MPG, CO2 and Running Costs
Considering the performance, the Leon Cupra’s economy is fairly reasonable. Based on the more stringent WLTP testing criteria, the Cupra hatchback returns 35.8mpg, while the Cupra ST returns 33.6mpg. By contrast the Honda Civic Type R returns 33.2mpg on average, the Golf R hatch does 32.8mpg and the Golf R estate mangages 32.9mpg.
CO2 emissions, based on NEDC-corrected figures, stand at 149g/km for the hatchback and 164g/km for the ST estate. That places it into the 36 percent Benefit in Kind rating for 2019/20 and 37 percent for ‘20/21. Private buyers will pay £530 upfront for Vehicle Excise Duty, which drops to £145 in each subsequent year.
Insurance groups for the SEAT Leon Cupra are pegged at 32 to 35. The SEAT won’t be cheap to insure as a result and other sporty hatchbacks will probably look more competitive in this regard.
Our experts suggest that the SEAT Leon Cupra will hold on to around 45% to 48% of its value come trade-in time after three years and 36,000 miles. These figures are actually slightly better than those predicted for the similar Volkswagen Golf R, which should retain around 42% to 46% of its value over the same period. The Leon Cupra fares best in five-door hatch guise, while the Golf R Estate does marginally better than its hatchback equivalent.
Interior, design and technology
The standard SEAT Leon has a sharp nose, well-defined creases in the bodywork and a tidy rear – all of which gives it a sporty appearance – while the flagship SEAT Leon Cupra model gets a few more visual enhancements.
The LED headlights are standard on the Cupra, while Larger air intakes and gloss black trim have been added. A bigger roof spoiler, twin oval exhausts and Cupra lettering across the tailgate complete the look. The changes are subtle, but the reality is that only diehard hot hatch fans will be able to recognise a Cupra model over a lower-spec Leon FR.
Limited-edition Cupra R models are more distinctive, though UK buyers are spared the lairly matt grey paint. Copper accents help the car stand out, alongside the unique alloy wheels, beefier body kit and carbon trinkets. The full run of 24 five-door hatchback R models is sold out, but the ST R version is still available.
Compared to some rivals, the standard Leon Cupra 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. The 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.
The ST comes with all of the trimmings to help distinguish it from the rest of the Leon range. It sits 10mm lower to the ground than the already sporty FR model and 25mm lower than a basic SE spec Leon. Huge 19-inch alloy wheels come as standard, with a subtle body kit and gaping air intakes giving you some idea as to the performance on offer. At the rear dual oval exhausts are housed beneath the rear diffuser, while a faint roof-mounted spoiler has also been added.
R models take things a step further. Tweaks to the carbon fibre front splitter and rear diffuser, in addition to the extended rear wing, work together to produce a modest level of downforce.
The main change to the interior of the exclusive R models is the gorgeous alcantara-wrapped steering wheel. Sitting behind it is SEAT’s digital cockpit display, which can be customised to show a variety of driving, infotainment and performance readouts. The copper coloured trim pieces surrounding the air vents match the exterior pieces, but the the carbon-effect material on the doors won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The SEAT Leon Cupra benefits from an updated Full Link infotainment system that adds useful features such as sat-nav and a MirrorLink functions for smartphones. This includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for particularly intuitive integration. Some standard Leons have a five-inch touchscreen sat-nav, but Cupra models get an upgraded 6.5-inch system offering live traffic updates, 3D mapping and other functionality. An eight-inch setup is optional.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
As well as being comfortable to ride in and spacious, the Seat Leon has a practical cabin design, even if it’s not quite able to match the premium feel of the VW Golf. There are plenty of cubbyholes dotted around including in the centre console, the glove box and door bins. Driver aids like a reversing camera and steering wheel controls for the audio system, make living with the Cupra easier too.
The five-door Leon Cupra measures in at 4,271mm while the ST estate version comes in at 4,543mm nose to tail.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
The practicality of your SEAT Leon Cupra depends on which model you go for. It’s clear that the SEAT Leon has been designed from the outset not only to look good, but also to be used as a family car. Wide door openings, enough rear head and legroom for adults and spacious front seats make it perfect for long journeys.
Unsurprisingly, the party piece of the Cupra ST estate is its versatility. There’s a whopping 55 per cent more boot space in the ST version over the hatch at 587 litres. Fold the seats flat and that rises to 1,470 litres. That isn’t as spacious as the Skoda Octavia vRS estate but the SEAT does come with a handy split-level boot floor.
Although 270mm longer than the five-door hatch, the ST has the same wheelbase so it’s just as spacious inside. The slightly sloping roofline can make access for taller adults a little tricky but most will have no trouble at all.
Fold down the rear seats in the SEAT Leon Cupra hatch 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. Hooks for your shopping bags and a lower load lip are useful additions.
For buyers who want the ultimate is pace and space, the ST estate is the best option. 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 Skoda Octavia vRS Estate 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 it’s not in use. Also included are handy levers to lower the seats in one movement.
Reliability and Safety
Although you get a considerable amount of added performance with the Cupra, the same running gear and mechanical setup as other models in the range means a Euro NCAP five-star safety rating is carried over, too.
SEAT’s dealership scores have improved in recent years, but its performance in the 2018 Auto Express Driver Power satisfaction survey resulted in middling 14th place finish. That’s much lower than VW group cousins Volkswagen (5th) and Skoda (6th).
The Leon shows some rivals the way in the airbag count too, offering seven in total. What's more, LED headlights, a clever diff and an enhanced stability control system help it feel even more secure on the road. The roster of advanced safety kit now includes such features as Adaptive Cruise Control, Emergency Brake Assist, as well as Lane Departure Assist. There’s even a driver alertness function, which will prompt you to take a break if your driving style suggests tiredness.
SEAT vehicles come with a standard three-year, 60,000-mile warranty, which isn’t particularly impressive these days. However, if you’re a private owner and want to keep the car beyond three years, you can pay extra to extend the warranty to four years and 75,000 miles or five years and 90,000 miles.
Service intervals are pegged at 20,000 miles for the Leon Cupra, and the costs should be reasonably competitive. Two-year or three-year fixed price servicing plans are available from the SEAT dealer network to make budgeting for routine maintenance simple.