It’s late on a Friday evening and I’m walking. Not because I’ve suddenly decided to recant my love for cars, nor because I’ve decided that every day is leg day, but because I’m on my way to Editor Alex’s house to pick up a Seat hatchback for the weekend.
He meets me outside on the pavement, keys in hand. “I think your weekend is about to get a whole lot better”, he muses with a grin. I quip back, “It’s a front-wheel drive Seat trying to rub shoulders with the Golf GTi…how special can it be?” Alex hands over the keys and seems to snigger as he trudges back into his warm abode. I unlock the car, click my seatbelt into position and drive away undeterred into the darkness.
To be clear, I’m fully aware of the Leon Cupra. First badged by Seat in 1999, it packed a 177bhp punch with the intention of gatecrashing the hot hatch party MC’d by the Volkswagen Golf GTi. These days, there are a few more competitors to rub shoulders with, namely the Renaultsport Megane and Ford Focus ST (the latter of which made for an exciting long-term test car). But behind VAG doors, Seat has been quietly upping its game with the Ibiza ACT FR and Leon TDI, both proving to be well-designed, cost effective cars with the added bonus of being fantastic cars to drive.
This new Leon Cupra is no different. As I join the usually-heaving A40 which snakes its way from Central London to the M40 and beyond, I start to adjust to the cabin.
Like most VAG cars, everything’s where you expect it. This top-spec Leon Cupra 280 comes with an in-built navigation unit as standard and it’s an absolute breeze to use (unlike the similarly-priced and powered Peugeot RCZ R).
Other treats include a flat-bottomed Cupra steering wheel with media controls, a ‘Tiredness Recognition System’ (for someone who can’t stand coffee, this might come in handy) and adaptive cruise control.
Other than a button with a race flag icon on it - more on that later - and a couple of Cupra logos, there’s not much in the way of sportiness to get you salivating. And for £31,540 fully-optioned up, that’s a shame.
There are two flavours of Cupra to choose from and both are powered by Volkswagen Group’s 2.0-litre TSI turbo petrol unit. The first packs a 261bhp punch via a six-speed manual gearbox only. This runs the 0-62mph sprint in a brisk 5.9sec. The second Cupra flavour is 15bhp up and 0.1sec quicker to 62mph with the same manual ‘box. With the six-speed DSG-auto ‘box (as tested here) and 276bhp, the fastest Cupra in the line-up will hit 62mph in just 5.7sec. To put that into perspective, that’s 0.7sec faster than the Mk7 Golf GTi.
After a few miles tootling along on the A40, restricted to 50mph, narrow lanes and copious numbers of Prii, I spot my chance. The big black line all UK petrolheads will recognise as the ‘national fun sign’ comes into view as the carriageway turns into the M40.
I know what to do. My left hand reaches for the button with the flag on it and within a few seconds, I’m in ‘Cupra’ mode. Then, I floor it.
Whereas before the six-speed DSG was quite content shifting below 3000rpm, in Cupra mode I take each gear to redline. There’s 258lb ft of torque from a relatively low 1750rpm and if you’re not careful, you’ll be hitting license-losing speeds in seconds. There’s little drama, very little torque steer and, disappointingly, little in the way of an addictive exhaust note as a synthetic sound symposer provides a digital soundtrack instead.
Now nearing my M40 exit, I prepare myself for the twisty B-roads that will guide me home; only then will I get to truly experience the full force of ‘Cupra’ mode.
There’s one particular winding country lane I use to test cars. It’s a short, 1.5-mile stretch with straights, tight hairpins, camber changes and elevation variation, and it’s particularly good at exposing flaws commonly found in front-wheel drive hatches which love to understeer.
“I find myself first applying some throttle, then more throttle, then all the throttle as I start to lean heavily on the trick diff and its ability to suck the car through bends. It’s addictive.”
Not so with this Leon, however. Forced hard into a corner, the car grips hard, thanks to a clever front-axle differential lock which uses a hydraulically-actuated multi-plate package. Onboard computers measure wheel speed, vehicle speed, lateral acceleration and steering wheel angle to give the maximum amount of torque to the wheel with the most grip. It’s so effective, in fact, that the Leon Cupra is able to send 100 per cent of its power to the fully-loaded outside wheel during cornering.
Techno-babble aside, driving the Cupra is like being on a rollercoaster as it whooshes through a tight right-hander. I find myself first applying some throttle, then more throttle, then all the throttle as I start to lean heavily on the trick diff and its ability to suck the car through bends. It’s addictive and while I’m still not sure I’ll ever use the DSG’s paddles outside of a track, the whole Cupra USP becomes much clearer and easier to grasp.
And so I arrive home, exhausted but impressed. As I turn off the ignition, step out of the Leon and listen to the car tick as it cools down, it dawns on me that what I’ve just driven is no ordinary hatchback.
Sure, the Seat badge might still be no match for the might of Volkswagen for some, but what I like about the Leon Cupra is that it goes about its manner in an understated way. It doesn’t have the historical prestige that the GTi has, nor is it much more affordable to buy. But its wolf-like proclivity lies just a touch of a race flag icon away, and that’s the kind of extraordinary, special power I’d happily pay for.