After a decade of incredible advances, it feels like progress is stalling in the hot hatch world. For the latest batch of potent C-segment contenders, power increases are modest, and a lot of them need to use sound-sapping petrol particulate filters their predecessors did without. With many, there’s a feeling of the new car merely picking up where the old one left off.
One that seems to fit this bill is the Cupra Leon. The last one, known as the Seat Leon Cupra (we’ll get to the name change shortly), was a huge leap forward from the old car. Throughout its time on sale, the Leon Cupra was one of the best, most exciting hot hatches money could buy. But the new one? It all seems very familiar.
Once again we have an EA888 inline-four turbo engine, which produces 296bhp - 10bhp up on the outgoing Cupra 290, and an identical output to the short-lived Cupra 300. As before, power goes to the front wheels via a ‘VAQ’ electronically-controlled locking differential, or if preferred, a front-biased all-wheel drive system.
So far, so familiar, but in some ways, there have been some backwards steps. You can no longer have a manual gearbox, for instance - if you don’t want a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, that’s tough luck. Plus, there’s the branding to consider. This isn’t a Seat, it’s a ‘Cupra’. We’re still in two minds about the whole concept, and not everyone is keen on the badging.
That’s why a left-hand drive Cupra Leon finds itself here today next to the previous-generation Cupra R. That might seem unfair since we’re comparing the standard version of the new one to the ultimate expression of the old, but hear me out. If the latest Cupra’d Leon has moved the game on, it should still be roughly on par with the old R.
Sliding behind the wheel of the senior of the two, I’m presented with a cabin that’s already starting to feel dated despite being used in cars that have only very recently gone off sale. It’s far more useable than the newer interior though, featuring gasps physical buttons and dials for important functions. They haven’t been stuck in not very good touchscreen like the new Leon, the new Skoda Octavia and the new VW Golf.
You could originally spec the Cupra R with a dual-clutch automatic gearbox, although doing so meant the power dropped to 296bhp. Thankfully, Seat UK decided its press car, which was kept and added to its press fleet, needed to be a manual. Hello 306bhp and an extra layer of mechanical engagement.
There are better shifts out there, but having driven all sorts of new MQB+EA888 things over the last eight or so months with automatic gearboxes, it’s a joy to use. The throw is reasonably short, each ratio engages neatly, and best of all, if you leave the shift too late you get a ‘BABABABABA!’ sort of noise as the engine smashes into its hard rev limiter.
The steering’s light, but it does give a vague hint of feedback through the wheel. It’d feel better still if it was wearing the optional Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, and the front end would be noticeably stickier. On some less focused Pirelli P Zeros, there are times when you’re left wanting for a touch more traction.
It’s easy enough to tailor your own driving profile, which ideally involves turning everything up to the angriest setting bar the suspension. The adaptive dampers are best left as soft as possible, leaving them still fairly firm yet nicely resistant to body roll. Beyond that, the Cupra R just gets too uncomfortable.
The new Cupra Leon feels, as you’d expect, a lot more modern inside. The dashboard has a neat, minimal design, which I’d trade in a heartbeat to get those missing knobs and switches back. The screen is fiddly and takes an age to load anything, but hey, at least you get proper buttons on the steering wheel and not those awful haptic pads VW is putting in its cars nowadays. The wheel-mounted engine start and Cupra buttons are a nice touch, too, like the Leon is channelling its inner R8.
Straight away, though, the decrease in internally combusted fanfare is noticeable. The Cupra R constantly pops and bangs when you lift off the throttle, but in the Leon Cupra, you only get the occasional crackle. This isn’t the newer car’s fault - like the outgoing Cupra 290, it has a particulate filter (GPF). The R was lucky enough to escape that fate, launching a year before Seat was forced to fit GPFs for the incoming WLTP regime.
Instead, you get this fantastic ‘woosh’ in the cabin as exhaust gasses rush through the pipes underneath you, at a volume I’ve not experienced since I drove a Renault Megane R26R 18 months ago. Some sound augmentation makes the inline-four sound nice and grumbly, too, and yes, the Cupra does feel jolly quick. Launch cleanly enough off the line, and 0-62mph is possible in 5.7 seconds. Want to slow down? The brakes are mighty, and there’s a decent amount of pedal progression to enjoy.
You don’t quite get that feeling of near-infinite traction that you do with the decidedly more serious Honda Civic Type R, but the front end does seem to have a little more bite in it than the R. The sliding scale for the adaptive dampers is a neat feature, too - a few notches above ‘comfort’ gives a superb balance between ride comfort and composure.
Overall, it’s the more stable-feeling, unflappable car of the pair. But the most fun? Not quite. The livelier nature of the R makes it more entertaining, and when switching back to the Cupra Leon, you do miss that manual ‘box. The DSG unit isn’t a bad transmission, but there are snappier, more dramatic-feeling dual-clutchers out there. The fact that it shifts up for you at the top end even when in ‘manual’ mode irks, too.
For the most part, though, the Cupra Leon does enough to ward off an assault by the best version of its predecessor, which feels like an achievement. It’s also ever so slightly sweeter to drive than the VW Golf GTI Clubsport, which has the same 296bhp I4/VAQ combo.
The caveat is it still feels like there’s room for something spicier. So, dear Cupra, how about a new R? Preferably one with a manual gearbox, too. Thanks in advance.