Back in 1999 with the introduction of the Euro, Napster and SpongeBob SquarePants, the Seat Leon was born. Of the variants offered, it was the Cupra model that caught the imagination of petrolheads thanks to its 1.8-litre DOHC turbocharged 20V engine. Power totalled 177bhp before the first Cupra R upped that figure to 207bhp in '03. Three years later, this number climbed to 221bhp, which gave the VAG hot hatch a 0-62mph time of 6.9sec and a 142mph top speed.Fifteen years and a bloated-looking second generation Leon have been and gone, leading us nicely into the sharp new third-gen car you see here. It is, in essence, a Mk7 Golf in drag, sharing the brilliant MQB platform with the VW (also used by the new Audi A3 and Skoda Octavia). Which should make the new Cupra model quite good... Thanks to a race track in Barcelona (Castellolí; 11 turns and 4.14km long), I was able to find out just how good it was by exploring the 2.0 TSI's full force and ability to keep all 280 horses and 258lb/ft of torque on the straight and narrow. It didn't disappoint. First off, acceleration: from both a standing start and in-gear, the Cupra is a very good tool to cover ground quickly; 0-62mph in the hottest 280 version (there's also a 265 model for the three-door) takes 5.7sec with the six-speed DSG gearbox and 5.8sec with the six-speed manual. It's not the kind of slap-in-the-face acceleration you might be expecting, rather a refined surge of power, which, when you look down at the speedo, will tell you you're well into triple figures; despite the short straight, I was clocking 125mph, which was impressive. As was the Cupra's ability to hammer its way through corners with just a fraction of the understeer you might have expected. The reason for the Cupra's compliance is its new trick limited slip differential, hydraulically actuated and electronically controlled. It can send 100 per cent of the engine's power to just one wheel, which not only pushes the wheels back in line, it also laughs in the face of torque steer, something you won't experience a great deal from behind the wheel. The progressive steering is tight and offers quick changes in direction, especially when you've got your right foot planted in every gear. If you do start to wash wide of the mark, a simple easing of the accelerator cuts the front-end back in line. Behind the Cupra's 19-inch wheels sit meaty stoppers, which scrub off speed well; granted, the Cupra only weighs 1300kg (pretty light by today's standards), but they coped with abuse surprisingly well and look the part. While the driving experience itself impresses, the interior might disappoint. Sure, it's comfortable and equipped to the nines, but the dash is a little bland, samey and not quite special enough to carry the Cupra badge. Cars like the Focus ST and Audi S3 feel more sporty inside, but the addition of bucket seats (coming to the Cupra soon) should give the car the kick in the back it needs. Overall, the Leon Cupra's a success story; fast, comfortable, good looking and fun (especially with the favourable manual 'box). With prices for a top spec five-door 280 weighing in at £28,525, it's certainly not cheap to buy, but if you think of it as the 'thinking man's' Golf GTi, you'll be onto a winner.
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