Regular readers will know I have a soft spot for SEAT: my favourite car of 2012 was the Ibiza 1.2 TSI with the DSG gearbox and my favourite car of 2014 (so far) has been the Leon ST 2.0 TDI. Both impressed me enormously with their sweet engines, fluid chassis, and unbeatable finesse – all of which is available for less than the equivalent models from Volkswagenand Audi.
Customers are increasingly recognising the Spanish companys appeal, too. Sales have risen from 30,000 cars in 2009 to 45,000 in 2013 – and 2014 looks like its going to be another bumper year.
So when the invitation to drive the Leon Cupra 265 and 280 around Mallory Park in Leicestershire dropped through my door (literally, SEAT understands the pleasure of having something arrive in the post to read over a post-breakfast coffee), I was never going to say no, was I?…
You know the Leon; trapezoidal and sharp-edged, it still manages to look affable and mature even when coated in the matt orange wrap of our test car.
Sporting cues (aside from the colour, which costs an extra 695) are subtle and most obvious on the full-fat 280PS model: black door mirrors, a roof spoiler and 19-inch alloys (the 265PS model makes do with just 18-inch alloy wheels) and both cars gets discreet Cupra badging front and rear. The imitation rear diffuser is a dull note but otherwise it looks terrific.
The Leon Cupra (Cup and Racer, get it?) is available as the three-door SC as well as a family oriented five-door hatchback.
The interior is standard Leon, in the main. This is good because its a lovely place to be. Premium materials and fine design conspire to give VW-levels of quality and these things matter, as they are the bits youll see and handle every single time you drive the car.
Sports seats trimmed with leatherette and Alcantara (real leather is a 755 option) and a leather steering wheel set the sporting tone, as do the lovely alloy flappy paddles if you choose the DSG box. Sat-nav is a 525 option on the 265 but standard on the 280, helping narrow the price differential between the two.
The Cupra 280, in standard showroom trim, has just set a new lap record for front-wheel-drive cars at the Nurburgring with a time of 7:58:44, edging out the previous titleholder, the Renaultsport Megane 265. So its fast. Very fast.
But the appeal lies in the fact that it isnt just fast. I find the Megane 265 is too much about the engine and not enough about the chassis; this isnt a trap that SEAT has fallen into. The Leon Cupra is supple and fluid when you want it to be and taut and poised when you need it to be.
Changes are made using the Cupra button, which alters the suspension, steering, and throttle response. The results are sensational, helped by an electrically controlled mechanical limited slip differential (LSD) that allows up to 100 percent of the power to go to whichever front wheel has the grip and the standard-fit Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) system, that actively manages the suspension damping.
In fast road driving the Leon was faithful and controlled along the twisty, pot-holed roads of rural Leicestershire with none of the tiresome torque steer of some of (no, most of) its rivals. It is also comfortable and quiet, two traits that are vastly underrated and should never be ignored in a car that will be a daily driver for most buyers.
On the track power could be applied far earlier than you would have thought possible. The Cupra is also very satisfying to steer on the throttle with relatively small inputs yielding impressive changes. Braking was consistent and powerful, even after several hard laps of hard use.
Our lap times were decently impressive but it would be fair to say that the Cupra has far more talent than most of us who drove it around Mallory Park on the launch…
Two versions of the 2.0-litre turbo-charged petrol engine are available: the 265PS and the 280PS, both of which produce 258 lb/ft of torque. That means that the performance available is remarkably similar across the range: 62mph comes up in 5.7-5.9 seconds depending on the power available, gearbox fitted, and the number of doors it has. In reality you wont be able to tell the difference. The top speed for both cars is 155mph.
What you should do is to decide which gearbox you want, and take it from there. I love the DSG gearbox but felt that the manual gearbox suits the car better if you are a hard-charging driver.
If you feel the same then youve got the choice of either engine power but if you want the DSG youll have to pick the 280PS. (If it helps, SEAT say the 280PS is the most popular model, with sales split evenly between the two gearboxes.)
Fuel consumption is claimed to be as low as 44.1mpg. You might get that once. If you try really hard. You should get 35-40mpg in everyday use though, which is still good given the available performance.
Value for Money
You can buy a basic Cupra 265 three-door for 25,695 and a five-door 280 DSG for 28,530. Id be happy with the basic car but would understand if you felt the need for a 280 with standard-fit sat-nav. Either way, the performance-per-pound is remarkable.
Buying on a Personal Contract Plan (PCP) costs from 265 per month, including a 1,000 contribution to the deposit from SEAT. Or, pay 50% down and get interest-free finance if that suits your finances better. The Benefit in Kind (BIK) figure for the 280 manual is 24 percent, lower than any of its adversaries. Residuals are predicted to be firm.
The SEAT Leon Cupra faces strong competition: the Ford Focus ST is a wild ride and enormously quick but rules itself out of consideration for me due its intrusive understeer.
The Renault Megane 265 is quicker still but feels unbalanced and yobbish, a trait that had, I thought, been eradicated in the 90s. The Astra VXR is almost uniquely unsatisfying (these are not golden years for Vauxhall, it must be said) leaving the Leon Cupra as the pick of the bunch for me.
Head over to our full review of the SEAT Leon for more expert reviews, user reviews, photos, videos and stats.