Cupra as a marque has finally given us its first product that isn't a crossover or SUV of some type, in the form of the latest Leon. We've already driven it as a 245hp plug-in 'e-Hybrid' model, but what's it like with the range-topping 300 TSI turbocharged petrol engine fitted instead?
In the Metal:
After the Cupra Ateca and then the Formentor, the Leon is the third product from the fledgling Spanish high-performance brand, and the first one that's a car, rather than some form of SUV. Of course, it has more in common with the Ateca than the Formentor, because there's a SEAT analogue of the former - just as there is with the Leon - whereas you'll only ever find the latter with that weird Cupra logo on its snout and rump.
The Cupra Leon, based on the Mk4 version of the SEAT, is also the first 'full' Cupra with a proper lineage of hot Leons going right back to the Mk1 model, and it's a direct descendant of the excellent old Mk3 Leon Cupra (it's important to get the words 'Cupra' and 'Leon' the right way round these days, to determine which generation of fast Iberian hatchback you're talking about). It therefore needs to live up to its ancestors' performance, while taking on the leading lights of today in what has to be the most competitive and glittering era in hot-hatch history.
The Cupra Leon 300 TSI gets off to a good start before you've so much as fired its powerful four-cylinder engine into life. Our test car had a striking matte-effect paintjob but whatever finish the Cupra is in, the copper detailing, sporty body styling and quad exhausts sit beautifully well on the Leon Mk4's basic form.
It's a great-looking car as a result, an exterior aesthetic that isn't let down when you climb into the cabin. An over-reliance on the central touchscreen is the Volkswagen Group way in the 2020s but the Cupra's system is at least intuitive to use - more so, we'd say, than the one fitted to the Golf Mk8 - and everything else looks and feels superb. There's a classy digital instrument cluster, a lovely steering wheel with lots of sensibly laid-out buttons on it (including the Engine Start/Stop and Cupra mode selectors on larger switches hanging off the centre boss) and gorgeous, deep bucket seats too. These are fabric as standard but can be finished in swish leather, including a fantastic Petrol Blue option if you so desire. You should.
Cupra has absolutely nailed this Leon, right from the off. In our opinion, it immediately vaults to the forefront of its class for doing all the things a hot hatch should do, and doing them so very well indeed; in that, it's comfortable and practical when you want it to be, and yet it's genuinely thrilling and engaging should you demand that of it too.
Starting on the former score, we began a 300km test drive by cruising along motorways and dual carriageways, where the Cupra Leon's refinement came to the fore. It limits tyre roar brilliantly on almost all surfaces, the rubber's progress only becoming slightly noisier in the cabin if the asphalt becomes notably rough, while wind noise is reduced to a background rustling as it sneaks between the A-pillar and the Leon's shapely door mirrors.
It's the ride quality, though, that astounds. The Cupra Leon has four main drive mode settings, three 'fixed' programmes entitled Comfort, Sport and Cupra, and then a final Individual option where you can configure various parameters (suspension, steering, throttle response and so on) as you wish. In this last set-up, it's possible to cycle through 15 different levels of suspension softness/firmness on the DCC adaptive dampers, but we're here to tell you that this simply isn't necessary. Just put the Cupra into Comfort and then revel in a sumptuous, assured and cultured ride that would be the envy of many long-wheelbase executive saloons, never mind a 300-horsepower hot hatch. Anyone who tells you a Golf GTI is still more civilised than the Cupra Leon for day-to-day duties is clearly on the payroll at Wolfsburg.
Thankfully, the Leon hasn't sacrificed all its hard-won dynamism over the years at the altar of grown-up manners. When you cycle into Sport and Cupra, the suspension becomes noticeably tauter - to the point that Cupra mode is borderline for road use. However, that's as it should be; if you're going to offer adaptive damping, as the company does here with DCC, there needs to be light and shade between the extremes of the adjustable settings. Too many manufacturers make all of their suspension modes much of a muchness, but Cupra has not made the same mistake here.
Yet, despite the abrupt vertical movements to the shell in Cupra mode, the car always remains graceful in the way it covers ground, thanks to outstanding wheel control that keeps the contact patches (of optional 19s on this model) in touch with the ground for as much of the time as possible. Furthermore, with its electronic differential-equipped front axle, the Leon has no trouble corralling 300hp and 400Nm through the leading wheels alone, certainly in the dry at any rate, so there's precious little to report of either of the corrupting forces of torque- or understeer, and traction isn't an issue either.
It took one tight corner roughly 10km into our drive to work out that the Cupra Leon was going to be a little gem. Entering slightly too fast, a quick turn-in and lift saw the car quickly yet smoothly transition into a slide. This is classic lift-off oversteer, something that marks out the truly great front-wheel-drive hot hatchbacks from the merely very good, and the Leon was showing its colours almost immediately. That the trailing axle of the car then went on to play an active part in cornering proceedings only cemented the Cupra's place among the best fast five-doors on sale right now.
Because this 300hp Leon is a delight to drive on the right roads. It's faithful in its responses and tracks a solid line where you want it to go, barely being deflected by lumps and cambers in the road so that you feel confident in deploying the full hit of that 300hp/400Nm 'EA888' 2.0-litre unit. And it's a mighty hit when you do, bestowing mammoth pace on the Leon that makes the 4Drive-equipped Estate model with 310hp seem totally unnecessary.
Only off the line is the Cupra traction-limited, hence its good-but-not-searing on-paper 5.7-second 0-100km/h time, but once it is rolling this car feels every iota as fast as anything broadly comparable. About the only hatchback that would leave it behind is the Mercedes-AMG A 45 S and as you'll need around €80,000 for one of those things, you can see why we rate the Cupra Leon so highly.
It's in the corners, however, where the Leon utterly convinces you of its brilliance. An eager front axle and magnificent body control couple together with that stonking turbo-four engine to create a car that is phenomenally effective and outrageously fast across ground if you want it to be. It'll enact flick-flack direction changes at high speed with no drama at all, despite its lack of four-wheel drive, and yet it moves around in the middle of bends on the throttle if you ask it to. The Cupra Leon is a proper riot on quiet roads, and it feels more rounded, more polished and more downright brilliant in all departments than its predecessor, which was already one of our favourite C-segment hot rods anyway. The new Cupra Leon is an extraordinary effort from the marque.
But is it perfect? No, not quite. The steering, while consistent and quick to respond to inputs, could do with more detail in all settings and certainly more weight in Sport and Cupra - driven back-to-back with a Honda Civic Type R Limited Edition, the Leon's set-up felt relatively powder-puff compared to the Japanese car's helm and we'd definitely say that the Formentor 310 TSI has nicer steering than the Leon for the keenest enthusiasts.
Beyond this, the paddle shifts for the DSG, while not the worst of the stunted, plasticky items the Volkswagen Group has foisted upon us over the years, are nevertheless malnourished affairs in a model line where there is no manual gearbox option and the dual-clutch gearbox doesn't have a sequential side-gate because there's no 'big' lever, meaning the only way you can change gears yourself is on those modest silvery flaps behind the Cupra's wheel.
Not that this matters much, because even if you're in the most-focused Cupra mode, the DSG will always shift up at the redline for you; tut tut, guys. There's also occasional hesitance from both the gearbox and the turbocharged engine in Comfort mode if you ask for full acceleration, although in mitigation, by the time you've sounded the final 'n' of 'Come on!' as you shout in the car in mild frustration at its tardiness, it has already hooked up to its mighty midrange and shot off down the road like a startled cat.
Finally, there's perhaps a trace too much artificial augmentation of the engine's note in Sport and particularly Cupra modes, with a very faint five-cylinder air to the noise being piped into the cabin. This will probably annoy some people, but we'd say on balance we thought the Leon had a suitably racy and enjoyable voice, so we're only reporting it out of due diligence to potential Cupra customers.
Overall, though, the Cupra Leon is remarkably talented across almost all disciplines, so a few minor dynamic niggles are hardly enough to detract from what was a generally blinding driving experience. Give the car better steering and we'd probably have gone full marks for this section.
What you get for your Money:
The Cupra Leon 300 TSI is €8,035 more expensive to buy than the 245 e-Hybrid version and of course it will also be pricier to run in the long-term. It's also the same price, or thereabouts, as a non-45 edition of the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport (€53,440), which is essentially the same car underneath but with the cachet of the VW badges.
However, in its defence, we'd say the Cupra Leon looks smarter than a GTI Clubsport, it definitely has the superior interior and infotainment system, it's a little more playful in the corners and it's just as urbane for daily duties as its supposedly more illustrious cousin (hint: it's just better than the Clubsport).
Also, the Cupra comes well equipped for its asking price, including luxuries such as the 10.25-inch Digital Cockpit instrument cluster, the 10-inch touchscreen infotainment system, sports seats, three-zone climate control, at least 18-inch wheels (with 19s an option), a heated multifunction steering wheel and ambient wraparound lighting as standard, among more. It's a shame, though, that it misses out on dropping a motor tax band by the matter of 1g/km, which would save customers €180 per annum on the levy. Instead, the 300 TSI will set you back €600 each and every year.
The Cupra Leon takes everything that was brilliant about the old SEAT Leon Cupra and preserves such facets of the car, or even builds upon them in certain areas, and then it also polishes off the one or two rough edges that its ancestor was saddled with. This is a hot hatch that's highly civilised and marvellously appointed so that it will take all of the sting out of day-in, day-out commuting stuff and boring motorway schleps, and yet show it the right road and it comes alive with a potent drivetrain, a fabulous chassis and a stunning level of engagement that marks out the very finest drivers' cars of all. It's one or two tiny details away from being a class-leading contrivance, but we suspect a Cupra Leon R further down the line would probably deal with those matters, too...