SEAT Leon Cupra 290 2016 review

Can the new SEAT Leon Cupra 290 take the hot hatchback fight to the Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type R?

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

A few months ago, the Leon Cupra wore the hot hatch crown, but things move fast in this market, and models like the Ford Focus RS have arrived with a bang – sending shockwaves through the industry. There’s not a lot wrong with the 290: it’s fast, desirable and easy to live with, plus it packs plenty of punch and makes you smile every time you get behind the wheel. While you’ll never regret buying one, you may wonder whether the fast Ford would have been a more accomplished all-rounder.

SEAT’s Leon Cupra was crowned Best Hot Hatch at our 2015 New Car Awards, pipping the Ford Fiesta ST and VW Golf GTI to the top prize. But since then, the game has moved on, with the new Honda Civic Type R and Ford Focus RS upping the stakes. To stay on the pace, SEAT has added more power, a sports exhaust and subtle styling tweaks to the feisty Leon Cupra.

Now with 286bhp, the Leon is within 20bhp of the Type R, which currently sits at the top of the front-wheel-drive hot hatch tree. It’s not actually any faster than it was before, yet there’s enough power to propel the five-door manual SEAT from 0-62mph in 5.9 seconds and hit 155mph flat out. The three-door DSG is even quicker, covering the trademark sprint in 5.6 seconds.

• Best hot hatchbacks to buy right now

It still feels suitably quick, even against newer rivals that offer four-wheel drive and more power. The standard differential helps the Cupra in corners, but in a straight line, you’ll be left fighting the steering wheel as it struggles to put its power down through the huge 19-inch front wheels. Floor the throttle, though, and it’ll send you forward at a serious rate of knots. It’s hugely entertaining and has all the ingredients to put a smile on your face on the right road. 

Ride quality is good, adding a degree of sophistication compared to lairier rivals like the Civic or Renaultsport Megane RS. It has the ability to shake and stir you in Cupra mode, yet it’s easy to live with in comfort.

An Individual button allows you to select your ideal compromise of engine, suspension, steering and differential settings. We found the best set-up was to have the dampers and weighty steering in Comfort, but with the throttle response dialled into the sharper Cupra mode. It’s still an extremely responsive hatch that can put shame to some sports cars with its pin-sharp responses and fine chassis.

The six-speed manual gearbox is slick and easy to use, while the clutch has a nice weight to it. Both add an element of involvement that are absent in the slightly faster DSG auto – so we’d save some cash (£1,355) and stick with the manual.

The sports exhaust gives off a rorty note without feeling obtrusive on the motorway. Many modern-day hot hatches have been criticised for their muted soundtracks, but the Leon strikes a really nice balance between character and usability. 

In our eyes, it’s still one of the best- looking, most desirable hot hatchbacks on the market – and it’s only made better by the Black Pack added to the car in our pictures. This brings flashier wheels, gloss-black door mirrors and front grille surround and bucket seats. It also switches the usual silver badges for black ones. 

At £1,755, the pack certainly isn’t cheap, but it definitely adds some aggression. Elsewhere, the 290 is the only model in the Leon range that offers MirrorLink as standard. This allows users to transfer smartphone content on to the dash screen and use it as they would their mobile. It adds a modern touch to the well crafted if otherwise dull cabin. It’s an option on all other Leons and is well worth the extra cash if you’re looking at a standard model. 

Our car also had the upgraded nav system, which includes dynamic route guidance and voice control. Practicality is unchanged, and only adds to theLeon’s appeal as an accomplished all-rounder. The 380-litre boot is significantly smaller than you’ll find in a Civic Type R, but it trumps a Golf R’s, which suffers due to its bulky 4WD system.

If you need more room, SEAT offers all the 290 changes on the ST estate, too. Space in the back is good, and access via the pair of rear doors aids versatility. Fuel economy is impressive given the performance on tap, but lesser-powered alternatives still offer a decent turn of pace without breaking the bank every time you fill up. The Leon Cupra 290 claims 42.8mpg economy, while a Peugeot 308 GTi by Peugeot Sport promises 47.1mpg. If you’re prepared to go diesel, VW says its Golf GTD returns 64.2mpg and can still cover 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds.

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