Seat Leon Cupra review: Simmering rather than on-the-boil hot hatch

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Seat launched the first-generation Leon in 1998. Sportier than the VW Golf, and cheaper than the Audi A3 (with which it shared much), it married the best qualities of both and the car reached its zenith as the range-topping Cupra R performance model.

That car used the 221bhp, high-output version of a 1.8-litre turbo petrol engine, which was otherwise reserved for the Audi TT – giving it a distinct sales point over the then contemporary and somewhat lackadaisical Golf Mk IV GTI. As Seat might say, it had a certain level of “auto emocion” (the firm’s tag line).

Fast-forward to 2016 and the Leon continues to share its underpinnings with the contemporary Golf, A3 and Skoda Octavia. But in 2016, what is its selling point?

The Leon Cupra we’re testing here comes with 286bhp (290 in rounded, European PS) – and that figure will shortly be upgraded to 300bhp. In 2016, the internal competition is slightly different though. You can get a Golf that out-powers the Seat, in the form of the 300 PS R model. So why buy a Leon Cupra?

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Price, for a start. Comparing to Volkswagen, for the £28,380 a 5-door Cupra costs, you’ll only be able to afford a Golf GTI – which, even in its new 265bhp Clubsport format, has less horsepower than the Leon. Want to get into an equivalent horsepower Golf, and you’ll need £32,340 for that 5-door Golf R.

Sure, the Golf R comes with a few more horsepower and four-wheel drive – but the Leon Cupra counters with standard-fit variable rate dampers, which many critics say you need to fit to the Golf to make it come alive.

So has Seat saved the money and skimped compared to its in-house VW rival? If there’s anywhere you’ll notice the difference in the Leon before turning the key, it’s in the cabin.

This isn’t an unpleasant interior – and the big, figure-hugging Seats in contrast white and grey Alcantara certainly lift the gloom – but the doors and dashboard are a 50-shades-of-grey colour scheme and rather cliff-like in design.

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And it’s not just in the look or feel: the Seat’s interior is slightly de-contented, so where for instance the door pockets in a Golf or Octavia are flock-lined, in the Leon they’re just hard plastic, leaving your keys to rattle and move around.

On the positive side, the driver’s seat goes low, the steering wheel is small and covered in nice-to-hold perforated leather, and there are a few flashes of sportyness in the Cupra flag that adorns the steering wheel, gear stick and rev counter. Oh and the door handles are cool – they pivot around their centre axis – meaning that as you pull them at one end the other disappears.

The Leon is pretty average space-wise for this type of car – your kids won’t complain in the back, the boot’s not as small as a Ford Focus nor as big as an Octavia – but is generally comfortable, including an adjustable driving position to suit most body shapes and sizes.

Which is kind of the point of hot hatches like this: you get all the performance of a sports car, with none of the compromises. You can bring the family along for fun.

And fun you will have. Twist the key – the Leon still has an old-fashioned ignition slot, all the better for it – and the 2.0 TSi engine chunters into life with a brief flare and rasp from the exhaust.

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The gearshift of the 6-speed manual box in our test car was precise, a little notchy when cold but soon gets slicker. The Cupra is available with Seat’s DSG auto box and if you’re going to do a lot of town driving or are the sort of person who likes playing racing driver with steering wheel paddles, we’d recommend it. It’s very smooth on up- and down-shifts once off the line and would make the Cupra very easy to drive when you’re commuting or on long runs. The 6-speed box is no hardship though, and gives this car a nice, old-school analogue feel.

The Leon Cupra also comes as standard with a mechanical, limited-slip differential. This helps the front end of the car feel much more keyed into the tarmac than a Golf GTi, which only has an electronic differential. It works when you turn into a corner, apply the power and then it balances power to the wheel with most grip and literally drags you round the bend.

It feels fantastic – a little un-nerving to the un-initiated, because the wheel at times tugs in your hands – but get used to it. As a result the Cupra will cover ground at a devastating pace…

Well, it will most of the time. Where you’ll notice the difference between the Leon and more expensive Golf R, is when the weather is wet or cold. In a British winter, the Golf’s all-wheel drive system comes into its own for getting what’s ultimately a lot of power down onto the road. It feels less frenetic and more secure.

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The Leon, on the other hand, with almost the same power, but only the front wheels driving, will still spin its wheels with surprising regularity when it’s wet or slimy on the road surface.

This means you have to more actively manage the way you drive than in the all-wheel-drive VW. In the Golf, you just belt the accelerator to get away from the line and off it goes. In the Leon, if it’s wet you’ll need to modulate your input until you’ve hooked second gear more often than not. Whether you consider this a bad thing is open to debate. The Leon’s less brain-out, and arguably harder work – but that means it can feel more involving than the Golf, too.

When the weather’s dry, the Leon is a hoot and will keep up with almost anything on a twisty road. One key advantage the Seat has are those special dampers we mentioned. These can vary how firm (soft) the damping is and means that even on rough roads the firm ride is calm and controlled. It doesn’t ever get crashy despite the 19-inch alloy wheels of our test car.

All the while, the engine never fails to deliver. It feels good for every one of its 290 horsepower. Bury the throttle anywhere in the rev range and it goes like a train.

The Seat is much less peaky than, say, the Peugeot 308 GTi and makes a better noise too – that exhaust rasp dialling up when you select the Cupra option in the drive mode selector. It’ll also return mid-to-late 30s for miles per gallon on the motorway, where the Leon is quite and refined – the exhaust settles down so it doesn’t become tedious like a Ford Focus RS’s might on a long trip.

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It just lacks that last 10 per cent of real excitement. The Leon was never anything other than fast and reasonable fun, but it didn’t have us grinning from ear to ear like a Focus RS does.

And in a British winter we felt the Golf R would be a better companion for covering ground quickly and securely. There may be an answer to this issue lurking in the extensions to the Cupra range though: Seat has until recently offered Cupra Black and Cupra Sub-8 model packs, which add bucket Seats, different tyres and are generally designed to sharpen up the drive. The Sub-8 model refers to the Cupra’s class-leading, sub-8-minute Nürburgring lap record.

However, at the time of publication Seat is in the midst of issuing a small update to the Leon range, so we’ll have to wait and see if these packs are continued in the updated model or not. If they are, and you want maximum Leon fun, we’d suggest giving them a try.

In the equipment stakes, the Leon gives you easy-to-use sat nav as standard, running through a standard 5.8-inch touchscreen display, which you can upgrade to an 8-inch unit at extra cost.

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The display is mounted high-up in the dashboard and is easy to see. It works just like the (exact same) system in the VW and Skoda sister models. It can take a minute to boot up, but the hard shortcut buttons down the side mean it’s easy to jump between radio, navigation, media and car info and you can fiddle with the drive modes (throttle response, damper settings, steering weight, exhaust noise) via a button on the console or via this touchscreen.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto also come as standard through the Seat Appconnect system, or you can Mirrorlink your Android phone. The fact Seat offers this as standard might sway your towards the Leon over some of the equivalent VW, Audi and Skoda products in which you’re made to pay extra.

Overall, we find the tech on-board easy to get on with. It’s representative of the easy-to-live-with Leon approach.

Verdict

In a world where there is a multitude of choice in the hot hatch world, it can be easy to overlook the Leon Cupra. But its underpinnings are close to best-in-class, its pedigree is strong and it’s good value for money.

As a no-nonsense, non-offensive kind of car that won’t irritate you or the family it’s easy to recommend. But it’s for perhaps this reason that when the Leon left us after its week, it didn’t live in the memory. On reflection, it lacks the certain “auto emocion” that cars like the Renault Megane RS, BMW M140i and even Peugeot 308 GTi have. They each have their qualities that irritate too, but at times truly come alive.

So whether the Leon Cupra is ultimately for you will depend on how you want, or like, your hot hatchbacks. It’s a very good car – fun to drive and a decent all-rounder – just one without a selling point quite as clear as it once was. As a result the Cupra doesn’t excite to quite the same levels as some of the competition.

(pocket-lint.com, https://goo.gl/5Rcpcn)

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