Seat Leon Cupra 290 Review: Why The Focus RS And Civic Type R Haven't Beaten It Yet

With Seat's storming hot hatch receiving a small update, we took a drive to see if it still cuts it with the new Civic Type R and Ford Focus RS breathing down its neck

Photos by Matt Robinson

Remind me later
Seat - Seat Leon Cupra 290 Review: Why The Focus RS And Civic Type R Haven't Beaten It Yet - Features

A slightly ‘sportier’ exhaust note, and a 10bhp boost. That’s it. That’s all that’s new about the Seat Leon Cupra - now called the Cupra 290 - save for some minor equipment alterations. Oh, and a new ‘290’ badge on the boot, of course. Can you tell the power difference? You’d have to get a 280 and a 290 back-to-back to be absolutely sure, but based on what we’ve seen so far in the test drive we’ve been on at the car’s launch in Barcelona, we’d have to say no. Nor is the broader torque range (you get the full 258lb ft from 1700-5800rpm, as opposed to the 1750-5300 spread in the old car) particularly perceptible.

The changes certainly aren’t as major as the ones found in the car’s Ibiza Cupra little brother, that’s for sure. So, saying anything more about this car is pointless, right? Not necessarily.

Seat - Seat Leon Cupra 290 Review: Why The Focus RS And Civic Type R Haven't Beaten It Yet - Features

While it might not quite be a unanimous verdict in the CT office, the Cupra 280 has been our de facto big hot hatch of choice for a while now, but two recent developments have called that stance into question: the Honda Civic Type R, and the Ford Focus RS. So, now’s actually a very good time to take a refresher drive in the hot Seat, and if it comes with more power - even if it’s a small bump - and a rortier exhaust note, we aren’t going to complain.

Happily, the local rozzers have kindly closed off a section of twisty road, so I’m in the best position possible to give the lightly tweaked Cupra a thorough kicking. And lordy, I’d forgotten just how quickly this thing gathers speed. Above 3000rpm the EA888 2.0-litre, twin-scroll turbocharged VW engine - now turned up to 286bhp (290hp) - is mightily strong, and very eager.

As the needle hits 5000rpm and the front wheels lose traction however, I’m treated to one of the Leon’s few week points via a violent bang-bang-bang-bang from the front axle. Yep, the Cupra exhibits quite possibly the most violent axle tramp I’ve yet to come across.

Seat - Seat Leon Cupra 290 Review: Why The Focus RS And Civic Type R Haven't Beaten It Yet - Features

The traction control icon flickers wildly before disappearing, and already the first corner is upon me. The 290 we’re in has the Performance Pack fitted, which includes a set of outrageously sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 Tyres, and beefier Brembo brake callipers. The latter are even more effective than I’d been expecting, meaning I’ve scrubbed off too much speed. No matter, as I can power out of the other side of the corner like a lunatic thanks to the Leon’s secret weapon - VW Group’s witchcraft-spec VAQ differential.

I’m sure you know by the amount of times we’ve gone on about it, that this clever bit of kit - best thought of as one half of a Haldex four-wheel drive system - is capable of putting up to 100 per cent of power to either front wheel if required, and it simply redefines what you think is possible from a front-wheel drive car. And the laws of physics.

Seat - Seat Leon Cupra 290 Review: Why The Focus RS And Civic Type R Haven't Beaten It Yet - Features

This is particularly apparently in the next corner: I feel like my entry speed is too high, and I’m washing wide. The natural thing to do here would be to back off, but the way you drive with this car is anything but natural. Instead, I hoof it even further, and as if by magic, my line has been tightened.

Seat’s tech people refer to it as a ‘helping hand’. I like that description: it is very much like a giant, invisible man is occasionally giving the front end a shove to push the car back onto the preferred line. It’s mega. And you know what? I am noticing a little more edginess to the exhaust note, and each time I back off the throttle with the revs still high, I’m getting a satisfying parp from the tailpipes that wasn’t there before.

There are other things to like too, such as the sweet and short-shifting gear change (even if it’s not the most mechanical feeling), the body control and the quick steering, although I wouldn’t mind if the latter was heavier and not so damn lifeless.

Things have come a long way since the original Leon Cupra...
Things have come a long way since the original Leon Cupra...

Easing off the throttle as the end of the closed road section appears, and I’m contemplating my original Leon/Civic/Focus conundrum. The Civic is an incredible bit of kit, is a little more involving than the Leon, has a more exciting interior (the Leon’s is plain dull) and is only slightly more expensive. But, the easier riding, less boosty Seat would be much easier to live with, and is a lot less discreet compared to the Honda with its bonkers aero package. So the Leon is very much a viable alternative to the Japanese, but what about the Ford?

"While the Focus is a better all round package and a drift hooligan, there's still a place for the Cupra"

That’s a trickier one. Firstly because out of Team CT only ed-in-chief Alex has driven the thing thus far, and secondly because the Blue Oval machine makes an even stronger case for itself than the Honda. A four-wheel drive monster for only £1500 or so more than the starting price for the base Cupra 280 (it’s £28,375 for the three-door, £28,675 for the five) is stonkingly good value for money, particularly when it’s much more powerful and - as far we we can see - the hot hatch to have.

Seat - Seat Leon Cupra 290 Review: Why The Focus RS And Civic Type R Haven't Beaten It Yet - Features

Then again, option it up with the same equipment as the base 290 and you widen the price gap further. And like the Civic, the Focus has an air of yobbishness about it that won’t be to everyone’s tastes. So while the Civic may be slightly more exciting and feelsome and the Focus a better all round package and a drift hooligan, there’s still a place for the Cupra. It’s genuinely astonishing what it’s capable of, and if you walked past the Honda and Ford showrooms to buy one, I’d totally get why.

Oh, and don’t forget, the Seat is available as a storming, Audi RS4-slaying ‘ST’ wagon. How’s that for a trump card?