Hot hatch fans have been waiting for what must seem like an eternity to witness the launch of a new Seat Leon Cupra model. The previous generation has served a good five-year stretch but now it is time for a more powerful, more mature version to grab hold of the performance hatch baton. AOL Cars made a beeline for the Castelloli race circuit just outside of Barcelona to test its mettle.
What is it?
The hottest version of the current generation Leon. Packing a menacing 276bhp in its most powerful guise, the new generation Cupra is quite simply one of the fieriest hot hatches on the market right now. In fact, only the Vauxhall Astra VXR competes on pure potency in this price bracket but conversely, the angry Leon has lost some of the hairy-chested styling of previous generations. Marketing bods will tell you it is to "broaden its appeal" but after a few brief glances at that fairly plain exterior, we can't help thinking it's lost some of the visual impact previous models possessed.
What's under the bonnet?
Just one engine is available for now (no word from Seat on performance diesels just yet) and it is a new 2.0-litre TSI that comes ready to rock in two states of tune: 263bhp or 276bhp. The latter is likely to be the most popular in the UK (it's only £1k more expensive than the base model, after all) where the appetite for feisty hatchbacks is far greater than the rest of Europe. The unit has been thoroughly re-worked to ensure it is lighter and more efficient than generations previous. Fuel efficiency in the most powerful Leon Cupra 280 model is on a par with the 218bhp Golf GTI (44.1 mpg) and it produces 40g/km CO2 less than the rival Astra VXR. In fact, Seat's engineers have worked some kind of small miracle by creating a car that is not only more powerful than its sister GTI but also cleaner and more efficient.
UK customers are treated to a car that packs pretty much every gadget and gizmo Seat currently offers. That means all Cupras come with striking automatic LED headlights, sports seats and rain sensing wipers. The Cupra 265 rides on 18-inch wheels, while customers opting for the 280 model get titanium finish 19-inch numbers, a navigation system and a smart roof spoiler. Refreshingly, paid-for optional extras are kept to a minimum and include leather upholstery, heated seats and an improved sound system. Two body styles are available, three doors in the SC or five in the standard Cupra, plus drivers can opt for the excellent DSG auto box found in other VW group products. Unfortunately, mad yellow paint jobs are out of the question as the Cupra comes in black, red, grey or, erm, three other shades of grey. Rather disappointing, really.
The humble hot hatch has made somewhat of a comeback in recent years so count the Ford Focus ST, RenaultSport Megane 265, Vauxhall Astra VXR and the mighty Golf GTI as keen competitors. The Focus is the bargain of the bunch here; costing just £25,495 in range-topping trim but it's down almost 30bhp against the Leon.
What's it like to drive?
It's certainly fast. The new Cupra weighs just 1300kg and boasts just shy of 280bhp, so expect it to dispatch the 0-60mph sprint in just 5.7 seconds and hit a limited top speed of 155mph. A clever limited slip differential and torque vectoring system also ensure speed isn't scrubbed through corners, with the electronic systems dragging the car through tight bends with ease. But as with much modern technology, it sanitises the experience somewhat. Nail the throttle off the line and the car barely squirms, pop it in Comfort mode and you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in a Golf. Don't get us wrong, this is by no means a bad car, it's just not as raw or visceral a driving experience as we hoped.
The AOL Cars verdict
Stack the new Leon Cupra up against the current competition and it makes a lot of sense: more powerful and cheaper than a Golf GTI, better equipped that an Astra VXR and much subtler than, say, a bright orange Ford Focus ST. But part of us pines after the madness of a proper hot hatch and it's the same part of us that wished the recent RenaultSport Clio 200 packed a larger set of cojones. Despite the latest Leon Cupra bettering the previous generation in almost every statistic on paper, it lacks that raw edge. This will likely prove a winner for the marque in terms of sales but it may rile some of the hardcore following. Only time will tell.
Model: Seat Leon SC Cupra 280 DSG
Engine: 2.0-litre TSI
Power: 276bhp, 350 Nm
Max speed: 155mph
0-62mph: 5.7 seconds
Emissions: 149g/km CO2