IF I told you the new Seat Leon Cupra had lapped the Nurburgring faster than any other front-wheel-drive production car in history – 7 min 58.4sec for the 12.9-mile Nordschleife circuit – would your pulse quicken or would you swat me away with a mutter of “boy-racer nonsense”?
If your heart’s all a-flutter, I expect you’re about to beat a path to the door of your local Seat showroom to see what the fuss is about. I promise you’re in for a treat. If you’re in the latter camp, then cease your grumbling for a moment, because I think this most potent of production Leons might qualify as the hot hatch you’ve always secretly wanted but considered yourself too sensible for.
I’ll address your concerns in a moment. First, a wee bit about the Cupra. It’s based on the third-generation Leon, which is a fine-looking machine and, because Seat is owned by Volkswagen, it’s a close relative of the VW Golf, Audi A3 and Skoda Octavia. Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine which develops 262bhp or 276bhp depending on which Cupra you pick. The 262bhp Cupra SC is strictly a three-door hatch, so if you need five doors – or the option of a six-speed paddle-shift automatic gearbox instead of the standard six-speed manual – you’ll need to man up and go for the more powerful Cupra 280, which you can have with three or five doors.
There’s no shame in opting for the “lesser” car, though. It’s only a tenth of a second slower to 62mph – 5.9 seconds to the manual 280’s 5.8 (the slick-shifting auto will do it in 5.7, but you’ll pay an extra £1,285 for the privilege) and top speed is the same at 155mph. Having driven both, I defy you to detect the difference in point-to-point performance.
Only the subtlest visual clues give the game away from the outside, too. The faster car has 19-inch wheels and black wing mirrors, instead of 18s and body-coloured mirrors. Cupra prices begin at £25,695 for the 262bhp three-door SC. Most expensive is the Cupra 280 five-door auto at £28,530. All cars are generously equipped. Night-piercing LED headlamps are standard, as is dual-zone climate control, electric windows, cruise control, a leather steering wheel, front and rear parking sensors, tweakable chassis settings and a 5.8-inch colour touchscreen for the stereo. The 280 adds the bigger wheels and satnav.
I can sense you’re warming to the thought of it, but sensible you still needs some convincing, so let’s go through your niggles one by one.
A car built to do fast laps on a race track will be like a bed of nails on our rubbish roads, all granite springs and twitchy steering. Not with this one. Thanks to controls that let you fiddle with the firmness of the suspension, weight of the steering and throttle response, it’s as gentle as a pussycat if you want it to be, whether you opt for the “standard” 262bhp Cupra or even spicier 276bhp Cupra 280. The ride is firm but not jarring, the steering nicely weighted. It’s not until you press the Cupra button in the centre of the dashboard that the car starts to make a bit more noise and feel a bit stiffer, but it’s a nicely-measured shot of extra excitement, like riding shotgun with the Red Arrows rather than being strapped to the outside of the Space Shuttle.
I bet it drinks fuel faster than the Space Shuttle. Not really. We let the Cupra 280 stretch its legs on the highways and byways of Leicestershire and saw 36mpg on the trip computer at journey’s end. Drive it sedately and it’ll beat 40mpg. Even the cars tearing around Mallory Park race circuit on the Leon Cupra’s UK launch day were nudging 20mpg – that’s about 15 laps per gallon. Sounds like value for money to me.
Practicality plays second fiddle to performance. What’s true for trackday cars isn’t the case for family hatchbacks. There’s no roll-cage to wriggle past, three seats in the back instead of scaffolding, and the boot’s a generous 380 litres. Legroom in the back is adequate by class standards and the five-door model offers maximum convenience.
That’s too much power to be putting through the front wheels. Is Seat in league with tyre manufacturers? I’ll admit, I feared the Cupra would be all tyre smoke and no action before I drove it, but it soon won me over. It picks up speed from a standing start with minimal fuss and an electronically-operated mechanical differential helps keep the nose in line round corners by channelling power to the wheel with most grip. I should point out that my test drives were in the sunshine. We’ve yet to test the Cupra in the wet, so we’ll reserve judgment on its rainy-day performance for now.
It’s Spanish. It’ll eventually throw a tantrum. Now you’re just being silly. Like I said earlier, the Cupra shares a lot of what makes it tick with the Golf GTI, and they have a well-deserved reputation for being bombproof.
Why don’t I just buy a Golf GTI then? Because this costs less and it’ll leave the GTI trailing in its wake. Performance is on a par with the GTI-beating Golf R, and that costs £30,000.
So, all the performance you need, for nearly £3,000 less. Is that sensible enough for you?
ENGINE 2l, turbocharged petrol, 4cyl, 262 & 276bhp, 258 lb ft
PERFORMANCE Max speed 155mph; 0-62mph 5.7-5.9s
CO2 EMISSIONS 149-154g/km