New SEAT Leon ST Cupra 290 estate 2016 review

Hottest SEAT Leon Cupra estate yet provides space, pace and smiles by the shedload

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

You’re spoilt for choice if you’re in the market for a hot estate. The Leon ST Cupra combines space and pace to produce a winning formula. There are more spacious hot estates on the market, but few deliver the same grin-inducing thrills at a similar price point. We’d recommend sticking with the cheaper manual version, but if your pockets are deep enough, the Volkswagen Golf R Estate is an exceedingly tempting alternative.

There's hardly a lack of choice in the hot hatch market at the moment, with incredible cars like the Ford Focus RS, Honda Civic Type R and VW Golf R all competing for attention. The SEAT Leon Cupra is fighting that battle as well with the latest 290 versions. The hatchback is the mainstream choice but there's this crucial ST estate version as well.

There's no estate version of the Focus RS or Civic Type R, so the Leon's main rivals are the slower Ford Focus ST Estate and the four-wheel drive VW Golf R Estate. It's a tough place to be for the SEAT, as the Focus is cheaper and more fun to drive, and the Golf has more power and boot space. Of course, depending on your perspective, the Leon ST could be the perfect compromise between the two.

With 587 litres of room in the boot, there is a little less space than in the Golf's 605-litre luggage area, but that's still plenty - and the load space is flat and easy to use. There's a ski hatch in the back seats for long items, and those seats fold down flat to create a useful 1,470-litre maximum capacity. 

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This will be the ST's big draw over the hatchback model: despite an extra 270mm of bodywork at the rear, running costs remain largely the same, with 42.8mpg economy and CO2 emissions of 154g/km. We reckon the ST looks better too, with the longer body and roof rails giving it a cool utilitarian style.

This new 290 version gets 286bhp, 10bhp more than before, so nobody could tell you it's lacking for pace. The 0-62mph sprint takes just 5.9 seconds, but the frantic power delivery from the turbocharged engine means that in the real world it feels even faster than it looks on paper. The engine isn't particularly characterful, but you could level the same complaint at the units fitted to the Cupra’s rivals. 

SEAT's DSG automatic is great when you're accelerating in a straight line, and but in a hot hatch we'd prefer the involvement of a manual gearbox. With the car set to comfort mode, the gearbox is quick to change up, but with it set to sport or Cupra it's a bit too keen to hold on to gears. A setting somewhere in between would be ideal, but it's sadly not available. 

Best fast family cars

The steering is light in comfort mode, but in the sportier driving modes it's well weighted and that helps you to enjoy the car's great cornering ability - especially with the limited-slip differential letting you really power out of corners. The Leon Cupra ST is very composed and grippy, with little body roll. It's superb for a practical estate car, if not quite as good to drive as the Focus RS or Civic Type R.

You get a great balance between ride and handling too, as even on the large alloy wheels fitted to our test car the SEAT is a comfortable cruiser. The sports seats and driving position are a big help with that and compared to the stiff suspension set-ups of many hot hatches the Leon ST Cupra’s is impressively smooth.

Inside, the SEAT has an odd mix of premium and cheap-feeling materials. The seats are top-notch, and the leather steering wheel looks and feels great too. The centre console is made of scratchy plastic, however, and some of the switchgear feels a bit flimsy for a car that costs nearly £30,000. 

One of SEAT's strong points is usually the infotainment system, and it's the same story in the Curpa. The screen is clear and easy to use, and features MirrorLink, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay - so everyone's smartphone should be compatible. DAB radio and climate control are standard too. However, the bucket seats on our car cost £1,250, and if you want the Sub8 Performance Pack, which adds larger brakes and special 19-inch alloy wheels, you'll have to stump up £2,050.

It's starting to sound expensive, but the SEAT Leon ST Cupra undoubtedly offers an incredible all-round package. It's very fast, looks great, is fun to drive without losing out on comfort, and has loads of space for family trips or runs to the dump.

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