Seat Leon Cupra 280, motoring review: Volkswagen has much to fear
Price: From £26,940 (range spans £25,690-£28,525). On sale now
Engine: 1,984cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbo, 280bhp at 5,350-6,600rpm, 258lb ft at 1,750-5,300rpm
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 155mph, 0-62 in 5.8 seconds, 42.8mpg official average, CO2 154g/km
Cars are becoming ever more like each other to drive, which makes reporting on them ever harder. As major unseen components become more standardised, it now seems the only thing you are buying is the brand. The Volkswagen Group has a particularly fragile position here given the underskin similarity of its popular cars. The Golf, the Audi A3, the Skoda Octavia and the Seat Leon are versions of the same basic idea, not that all those smug Audi owners necessarily want to know it. The Golf, though, is the lodestone of this particular grouping, the ubiquitous family hatchback that has also spawned a series of mostly excellent sporting versions over the years.
The Golf GTI has no identity trouble. So it should have little to fear, you would think, from this new, racy version of the third-generation Seat Leon.
Racy Seats bear a Cupra tag, suggestive in their native Spanish of winning cups after successful forays into motor sport. This new Leon Cupra, intended to be the most fun of all the cars made by the VW Group's Spanish brand, dares to upstage the Golf by extracting either 265 or 280bhp from its 2.0-litre, turbo-charged engine compared with the GTI's 220bhp. The choice of Cupra power outputs exists to offer a lower starting point for the price list but, the 265 comes only with a three-door Sports Coupé body whereas the 280 comes with three or five doors. You would think the lower-powered version would come with a family-friendly door count, but no.
This is a good-looking car; it looks racy and ready for a rousing drive. It has high-technology LED headlights and hefty wheels with wide tyres, prompting fears (unfounded) that it might prove harsh over bumps. The interior has the tactile quality and coherence of design typical of a VW Group car, and like the exterior it looks subtle and restrained.
An then you drive it, and discover that this Leon Cupra is without a doubt the most engaging and most entertaining of all the Group's sportified mid-size hatchbacks, as well as the fastest. (Apart, perhaps, from the rare, 300bhp Golf R, which costs almost £30,000.)
How so? Whichever of the two engine outputs you opt for, there's a crisp, clean surge of thrust from a crawl right up to a top speed all but unusable on real roads. There is barely any delay in the response to the accelerator pedal, an impressive feat when a relatively small engine produces a very large amount of power with the help of a hefty turbocharger, and it's hard to detect any difference between the enthusiasm of the two engines.
You have a choice of six-speed gearboxes, a manual or a double-clutch automatic with shift-paddles on the steering wheel for manual control. What really makes this Seat satisfying for the keen driver is the way it powers precisely through twists and turns, always responsive.
Many fast, front-wheel-drive cars have clever electronics which use the brakes to stop wheelspin, but the Seat uses a proper, mechanical, limited-slip differential like a competition car's. That's why it feels natural. I haven't enjoyed a hot hatchback as much as this for quite a while, yet it's also smooth and civilised when you want it to be. A Seat which is better than its Volkswagen Golf equivalent: they won't like that in Germany.
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