With a stronger version of the engine from the VW Golf GTI, the SEAT Leon Curpa is a great hot hatchback, but the Skoda Octavia vRS is bigger and cheaper.
The SEAT Leon Cupra is the high-performance version of the company’s small hatchback. It has a more powerful engine and more equipment than the car on which it’s based on – the VW Golf GTI. That makes it an alternative to the Ford Focus ST and Honda Civic Type R. You might also consider the Skoda Octavia vRS, which is a bit larger, but offers similar performance and even better value for money.
There’s no mistaking the Leon Cupra from the outside, with its big alloy wheels and chunky body kit. And, inside, it feels truly premium when compared to the alternatives in this price bracket, especially with the eight-inch infotainment screen that was introduced as part of an update in 2017. Meanwhile, the dials are reminiscent of what Audi would put in its cars, and the controls are logically laid out and easy to navigate.
There’s also a little more flair than you would find in more basic versions of the car – but only a little. Stitched leather upholstery and sporty dial faces lift the cabin, but apart from that and some clever LED mood lighting in the doors that changes colour depending on the driving mode, the Cupra’s interior is still quite restrained, especially if you compare it to the one in the Honda Civic Type R.
In terms of space, the Cupra is identical to the standard car. That means plenty of space in the front and back – even three across the rear seat isn’t too much of a squeeze – while the boot takes 380 litres. That’s more than in the Focus ST, although less than the Civic Type R and Octavia vRS, and the only criticism of the otherwise decent boot is a high loading lip.
Under the skin, the Leon Cupra is essentially a Golf GTI and it gets the same 2.0-litre engine, but with quite a bit more power. In fact, it makes the Leon one of the most powerful cars in its class, proving responsive and pulling strongly from low speeds. It’s enough to result in a very impressive 0-62mph time of just 5.6 seconds.
Buyers can choose between a very good six-speed manual gearbox and the even better six-speed DSG automatic gearbox. The auto can never match the level of engagement and control that the cheaper manual offers, but it makes the Leon Cupra faster and more fuel-efficient.
I look at this car, with its powerful engine, great looks and enjoyable handling and have just one question: why would anyone buy a Golf GTI?
Like the Golf GTI, the Cupra is confident and capable when driven fast, but can also settle down and cruise quietly and comfortably on the motorway. The lowered suspension and variable-ratio steering are best appreciated on a twisty road, but the Cupra never feels too nervous or firm in the way that some of the alternatives do.
In part, that’s thanks to a standard limited-slip front differential and a clever traction control system. Most high-performance front-wheel-drive cars tend to push the front end wide when cornering quickly (called understeer), but there is no sign of that in the Cupra. You simply point the front end the way you need to go and the whole car follows.
Another welcome feature is the adaptive dampers. They can change the suspension set-up depending on the mood of the driver, switching between Comfort, Normal, Cupra and Individual modes. In the most aggressive Cupra mode, the ride firms up, the steering gets heavier and the throttle response becomes more immediate. Despite the added firmness, the Cupra is never too firm to be uncomfortable and, in Comfort mode, it settles down on the motorway nicely.
The system is optional on the Golf GTI, but is just another part of the extensive standard equipment on the Cupra. That includes rear parking sensors, sat-nav, climate control, tinted rear glass, Bluetooth phone connection and a 10-speaker multimedia system with DAB digital radio, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring systems.
Overall, then, the SEAT Leon Cupra gets really close to being the perfect package. Not only is it practical, it has a very capable engine and accelerates faster than most of its rivals. It’s also hugely capable on a race track, yet wouldn’t look out of place in a supermarket car park. However, canny buyers will note that the Skoda Octavia vRS costs less money, but is more practical and nearly as fast.