Overall rating: 4/5
The combination of a potent engine and clever front differential means the Leon Cupra lives up to its illustrious badge - and some.
In the Metal:
SEAT could have gone over the top when it came to styling what is now the most powerful car in the range, yet the Leon Cupra, even on the 19-inch wheels (unique to the more powerful 280 version), still carries a relatively understated look. That's not to say that it doesn't look the part - far from it. The uniquely-styled front bumper's huge intake apertures tell the trained eye that under that sculpted bonnet lives something a little bit special.
Aside from the front-end details there are only subtle cues to distinguish the Cupra from the sporty looking Leon FR. Buyers can choose between matching body-coloured door mirrors or contrasting black items - the latter do add a little something extra to the overall appearance. Lightly tinted glass hints at a more premium car while around the rear observers get a further reminder that this is no ordinary SEAT Leon. Two exhausts give some additional symmetry to the rear view although are not centrally mounted like previous models - a feature that may disappoint fans of fast SEATs. A rear spoiler helps to complete the look along with a Cupra badge, which also carries the '280' designation to further differentiate it from the 'standard' 265hp Leon Cupra, in case you needed reminding.
Inside, it is a familiar enough affair and one that serves to remind where some of those savings in relation to the pricier Volkswagen Golf GTI come from. That's not to say that the interior of the SEAT is in anyway inadequate, but it does lack some of the 'specialness' that some other rivals enjoy. That said, the substantial amount of money that you're saving should easily allay any disappointment. The car's standard half leather and half Alcantara seats are quite supportive while still feeling soft enough for someone to use as a daily driver. Buyers can upgrade to full leather versions and later on in the year SEAT will offer some full-on bucket seats as an option. The flat-bottomed steering wheel has been made thicker than that found in the Leon FR models.
Looking at the performance stats of this car tends to bring the word 'lairy' to mind. And you wouldn't be too far wrong, at times. Indeed, putting 280hp through the front wheels is a brave move and one that SEAT needed to successfully pull off in order to avoid being given a reputation for poor handling and massive torque steer, as many have. Thankfully, with the aid of a rather trick differential, the Cupra manages to lay down all that power with minimal fuss.
Much of the Cupra's success rests on that electronically controlled limited slip front differential, which works by monitoring the front wheels' rotation and then, via a hydraulically actuated multi-plate package, shifting drive away from the wheel that is losing grip. In extreme cases it can put 100 per cent of the power to one wheel if needed. The result is a front end that has virtually no torque steer at lower speeds and feels planted even through high speed cornering on a race circuit.
In comparison to the standard car, the Cupra sits 25mm lower on springs that are 130 per cent stiffer than those the conventional model rides on. The result is a surefooted car that will certainly instil a feeling of confidence in those that drive it. Adding to this is a steering rack that is weighted just enough to give a clear indication of what the front end is doing. Both the steering assistance and damping can be altered and, if required, softened simply by changing the driving mode on the car's DCC (Dynamic Chassis Control) system.
But the real star of the show here is the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, which, when pushed, delivers a raucous experience. Roll on the power, even at higher speeds, and you'll think that it has more than the quoted 350Nm at your disposal. Where some hot hatches are starting to run out of puff after 150km/h the Leon continues to pull strongly. As much as I like the slickness of the DSG automatic gearbox it does feel a little unrefined in this setup. Stab the throttle at speed and that wilder streak becomes apparent. Some will like it, and even though it has a significant power advantage over some of its rivals, it still feels a little unrefined. That said, I challenge anyone not to have a huge grin after driving this car.
What you get for your Money:
As you would expect from a halo car, the Leon Cupra comes quite well equipped. Items such as LED front and rear lights and a 5.8-inch touchscreen infotainment system all help to add to the sense of value. The more powerful version also benefits from unique 19-inch alloy wheels. That said, it does also command a €1,515 premium, which, for what is essentially a set of wheels and 15hp more, may seem a little steep for some. Opting for the DSG automatic gearbox will add a further €2,070 to the cost. On the upside, running the Leon Cupra shouldn't prove too scary given the quoted fuel economy figure of over 40mpg while reasonably low CO2 emissions mean that it will cost just €390 per year to tax - a far cry from the kind of road tax you once had to pay for similar performance.
Unless you plan on doing a lot of track driving, the Leon Cupra 265 will deliver virtually the same, fun drive and at a cheaper price. Personally, no matter what engine you decided to go for, sampling the six-speed manual gearbox is a must and in my opinion delivers a more enjoyable driving experience overall.
Quite how the people at SEAT got the Leon Cupra to market without the powers that be in Wolfsburg interfering is a feat that is almost as impressive as the car itself. It occupies an interesting area in the segment, offering a substantial jump in power when compared to the Golf GTI (the car that is not just a benchmark but one that it will most likely be compared to) and for a lower price. So much power in fact that it could almost be compared to the 300hp four-wheel drive Golf R - a car that commands a €15,000 premium. However, as good as the Leon Cupra is, it doesn't quite have the finely-tuned chassis and handling that, say, the Renault Mégane RS does, although in everyday driving on public roads this becomes less of an issue. What was once somewhat of a cult icon, the Leon Cupra is now a car that genuinely deserves its time in the limelight.