The highest performing versions of the SEAT Leon are now sold exclusively as Cupra-badged models. There's a modest range of powertrains available, and even a Cupra Leon Sportstourer estate to consider. Our first taste of the new car is in e-Hybrid format, a 245hp plug-in hybrid, swelling the ranks of hybrid hot hatches offered by the Volkswagen Group.
In the Metal:
The Cupra Leon builds on the attractive style of its SEAT Leon sibling to create a more extroverted hatchback. It retains the 'coast-to-coast' rear light bar that gives the Leon a distinctive look at night and the headlights and grille are the same shape, too.
That grille, however, features a Cupra-specific mesh and, of course, the copper-coloured Cupra badge in the middle. Below that is a unique bumper.
Around the side, there are various designs of 19-inch alloy wheel to choose from and, for the full effect, optional Cupra side skirts (at €356).
At the back, there's another Cupra badge for opening the hatch, this time featuring what looks and feels like open-weave carbon fibre. Below that, the Cupra name is spelled out in large lettering, while the bumper has also been redesigned. It features a more obvious aerodynamic diffuser and stylised copper-coloured inserts that, at first, appear to be exhaust outlets. They're not.
To get the full Cupra effect inside, you need to shell out a little more for the Supersports steering wheel (at €711), but the standard item is more than adequate. It's a little flat-bottomed, but not so much that it gets in the way, while the rim isn't too thick, either. There's perforated and stitched leather, sculpting at the 'ten to two' locations and a copper-coloured Cupra badge on the carbon-fibre-effect boss. It features heating and controls for the infotainment, cruise control and instrumentation, without looking overburdened with buttons.
The digital instruments are clear and easy to use, as well, with different selectable views and even a G-force meter that records the highest value achieved under braking, accelerating and cornering (we managed nearly 1.0g under braking and 1.2g cornering, for the record).
Complementing all that is a 10-inch touchscreen mounted high up in the middle of the dashboard. Though it's the only way to operate the three-zone climate control, there are temperature sliders at its base, along with another for the volume. These work moderately well, and the display looks great, but we had some issues with the software during our time with the car. Hopefully, these will be eradicated in short order.
The centre console looks slender and simple due to fitment of the new Volkswagen Group gearbox 'nub' shifter. It's quite tactile to use, too. Ahead of that is a space that can accommodate smartphones and two USB-C ports, though no wireless charger as standard.
Bucket seats are included in the price, though upholstered in cloth. Our test car featured the leather alternative (€1,525) with one-piece backrests and the Cupra logo embossed into the headrests. These look great and are comfortable, too.
The same style is carried through to the rear of the Leon, where you'll find a fraction more legroom than in the Volkswagen Golf, along with air vents, temperature controls and USB-C charging ports.
Boot space in the e-Hybrid versions of the Cupra Leon is reduced considerably, from 380 litres to just 270 litres.
Everything about the Cupra Leon says 'hot hatch' to begin with. You clock the 19-inch wheels with Goodyear F1 tyres painted onto them, the low stance, the flat-bottomed steering wheel and bucket seats. Drop into the driver's and you'll find loads of adjustment for it and that steering wheel. The latter feels good, too, well-proportioned and trimmed in high-quality leather.
Press the engine-start button and, well, nothing happens. You see, this latest generation of plug-in hybrids from the Volkswagen Group defaults to using electric power first and foremost, so, even in the overtly sporty looking Cupra Leon e-Hybrid, you pull away from rest silently, and it can travel over 60 kilometres in this guise, officially. Closer to 40km is a realistic target for most people, though obviously that depends on how and where you drive.
It isn't quiet for long, though. Those low-profile tyres raise a good deal of road noise at higher speeds, even if the powertrain is in electric mode. Still, even in this guise the direct steering is noticeable and the Leon feels interesting.
There are Sport and Cupra driving modes that augment the rather meek sound the turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol engine makes on its own with a more guttural synthesised noise piped through the car's speakers. Those settings also alter the throttle response, power steering, the six-speed DSG transmission and the adaptive damping system.
The latter, impressively, is standard-fit, and it does a good job of making the Cupra Leon suitable for a variety of conditions and driver preferences. Delve into the customisable Individual mode settings and you'll discover that the damping can be adjusted through 15 discrete levels, the softest being lower than the default Comfort mode and the firmest even firmer than that used when you select Cupra. There's a discernible difference, too, even if 15 levels seem a little over the top.
Still, it works, and though the firmer damper modes reduce comfort levels on anything other than a perfect surface, they also noticeably enhance body control, so it's great to have the option to choose the setting that suits. It should be noted that, thanks to those high-performance tyres and big wheels, this car is never limo-like in its bump absorption, but it's perfectly civilised for everyday driving.
On the right road, this car's chassis really shines. There's feedback through the steering worth having, the brake pedal is well-modulated (though you can sense the brake energy regeneration happening at times) and it changes direction under power particularly well. It's dependable too, as the rear end isn't unsettled by sudden weight transfer. Some will want a more mobile back axle, but Cupra has played it safe on that score.
It's a shame then that, powerful as the hybrid system is, its delivery is, well, uninteresting, as the rest of the package is so involving, from a driver's perspective. Perhaps Cupra has done too good a job on the powertrain, as there's rarely a need to override it by using the gearchange paddles behind the wheel, for example. It delivers loads of almost seamless torque whenever you ask for forward motion.
And reading that back, it sounds like we're criticising it for being well-engineered. It is that, but in all its polish, it's lacking in character, something that is essential to the appeal of a hot hatch.
What you get for your Money:
Including the SEAI grant of €5,000, the Cupra Leon e-Hybrid 245hp costs from €41,210. That's about €2,000 more than the Octavia RS iV hatch and about €2,000 less than the new Golf GTE. It's a lot of money, for sure, though the Cupra Leon is noticeably well-equipped. Saying that, the SEAI grant for plug-in hybrids is due to be cut in half from July of this year, so bear that in mind when doing your sums.
Along with the items mentioned earlier, there's adaptive cruise control, electrically folding and heated door mirrors, rear parking sensors, keyless entry and start, auto lights and wipers, LED headlights and smartphone mirroring in the forms of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay all included in the base price.
Some of the standard active safety systems include a lane-keeping function, driver alertness monitoring and automatic emergency braking.
At the time of writing, there's 2.9 per cent PCP finance available on a new Cupra Leon, along with a Cupra Care Pack, effectively a three-year service plan that includes complimentary Cupra courtesy car, complimentary collection and delivery, where possible, and a complimentary clean. Go to the Cupra Ireland website for the latest official offers.
With the full SEAI grant for plug-in hybrids, the Cupra Leon e-Hybrid makes a strong case for itself. It's usefully cheaper than non-hybrid hot hatchbacks of the same size and its on-paper stats are impressive. Nevertheless, while the hybrid Leon has a good chassis and is undoubtedly fast, it's lacking a little in the excitement department when compared with conventional petrol-powered performance hatches. Admittedly, that won't matter to all buyers, and there's no doubt that the Cupra Leon e-Hybrid is a conversation starter that's sure to grab attention for this fledgling brand.