Slapping the letter ‘R’ after the word ‘Cupra’ on the bootlid of a Seat used to be quite a big deal. You see, the regular Leon Cupras were always a little more on the sedate side of things. These hot-ish hatchbacks usually had the same guts as whichever VW Golf GTI was doing the rounds at the time, but the Cupra R? That was a much more serious thing, with a Porsche-bothering power output sent through the front wheels exclusively.
For the most recent Leon Cupra however, Seat dispensed with that ethos - just one model called Cupra, with a crap-load of power. Well, there was a slightly less powerful version initially, but both still make the Mk7 VW Golf GTI look a little limp. So now the Leon Cupra R name is back, what the hell does it all mean?
It certainly doesn’t mean a massive hike in power: this new R has - wait for it 10bhp (!) more than the standard Cupra 300, bringing the total output to 306bhp. But don’t fret - you get much more than a token power bump from the 2.0-litre TSI engine and a want-for-nothing standard spec for the £34,995 asking price. Yep, there’s some delightfully nerdy engineering going on here.
The track is 2cm wider, while at the front there’s around an extra degree of negative camber. The standard-fit adaptive suspension has received a software tweak, as has the steering, making it more direct. Beefier Brembo brake calipers squeeze thicker and wider discs, and finally, the R gets its own bodykit with unique bumpers, side skirts and a boot spoiler, giving a 12 per cent increase in downforce. To finish, there’s a sprinkling of copper accents, inside and out. Lovely.
All of this comes together to make….something which can’t really be described as a night and day transformation, it must be said. But it is comfortably the best driving Leon Cupra I’ve ever slid behind the wheel of, and it’s not like the standard car was ever a duffer when it came to moderate hoonage. The R felt great during a one day test near Barcelona - less battering ram-like than a Honda Civic Type R, and without the very artificial rear axle shenanigans you get in the Focus RS. It’s a properly sorted, ruthlessly quick performance car.
There’s not much more life in the steering than there was before, but the more direct tune for the electric power steering is definitely noticeable. It’s easy to aggressively chuck it into a corner, after which you’ll find plenty of stability in the middle of the bend, very little roll, and amazing traction out the other side as the ‘VAQ’ locking differential does its thing. The brakes are mighty too, once you get used to the oddly bitey initial bit of pedal travel.
The extra 10bhp is predictably difficult to perceive (although the different torque curve might feel different in a back-to-back test), but hey - we’ll take it, along with the throatier exhaust note that comes with the R’s new pipework. Yes, it does make plenty of silly pops and bangs. Not quite as many as the Hyundai I30 N, but that’s probably a good thing. Especially for your neighbours.
So it feels more lively, sounds angrier, and has some incredible front-end grip. The optional Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres fitted to our test car - yours for £800 - are certainly a huge factor for that last bit, and it’s a shame we didn’t have access to a car on standard rubber to properly asses the chassis fiddling. But still, the way they compliment the R’s changes mean they might just be worth considering, if you’re happy with the £800 option box you have to tick, and are OK with a narrower operating window plus all of the wheelspin in wet conditions.
Even with the boots, the Cupra R isn’t a revelation for the hot hatch world. It’s certainly not as dramatic a transformation as the Clubsport S was for the related VW Golf GTI, for instance. What is though, is a satisfying, exquisite slice of hot hatchery. Seat has done enough to make it feel special and different, and given the equipment and engineering changes on offer, not to mention the guaranteed exclusivity of only 799 being made, it seems like a 306bhp no-brainer. A 306bhp no-brainer that’s partially hand-built by Seat Sport, at that - much of the R’s modifications would be impossible to integrate into the current production line without huge investment, we’re told.
Just don’t expect it to be easy to get hold of one in the UK. For reasons we haven’t been able to ascertain, just 24 of those 799 will be made in right-hand drive and sent to this nation of hot hatch lovers. For comparison, Germany is having 300.
On the evidence of our first drive, that seems like a damn shame, but hey - each and every one of those 24 owners are going to be ecstatic about what they’ve driven home from the dealership.