The twin test we present to you here involves one car you can buy, and one you, erm, can’t. Not easily, anyway - all examples of the Seat Leon Cupra R have long since been sold, and with only 24 brought to the UK, good luck finding one on the used market. The i30 N on the other hand is something you can easily wander into your local Hyundai dealer and purchase, and for £7000 less, I hasten to add.
But that’s not to say getting these two cars together is pointless. The purpose of this test isn’t to tell you which one you should buy - rather, it’s the acid test for the i30 N. In isolation it’s an incredible thing to drive, but to properly assess the job Hyundai has done on its first proper performance car, the Leon Cupra R makes for one hell of a benchmark.
Compared to the standard Cupra, we have a 20mm wider track, an extra degree of negative camber, plus software tweaks to the adaptive damper system and the electric power steering. The brakes are beefier, and the bodywork has been overhauled to increase downforce by 12 per cent while adding a suitable dash of badassery. It’s a weapons-grade thing, this.
Our first drive of the car at the launch last year was skewed by all the test cars having super-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 semi-slicks fitted (they felt awesome, but of course they did), but thankfully the R we were lent in the UK sat on Pirelli P Zeros. So, it no longer has a seemingly endless supply of grip and traction, but you really have to be trying particularly hard to unstick the front end.
"It’s not a night and day transformation relative to the normal Cupra, it’s just a little sweeter and a little more satisfying"
The VAQ electronic-locking differential does an incredible job of deploying the R’s 306bhp on the road, and there’s a beautiful compliancy to the suspension when you’re giving it what for on your favourite back-road. The caveat is if you slap it in full-bore ‘Cupra’ mode, the adaptive dampers do become slightly too stiff.
It’s not a night and day transformation relative to the boggo Cupra, it’s just a little sweeter and a little more satisfying, building on what’s already a damn fine hot hatch. The ‘EA888’ inline-four is as peachy as ever too, with the pleasant, slightly muted growling noise it makes and a surprisingly linear power delivery. Team that up with the usual slick - if not particularly hefty - VW MQB manual gear-shift, and I’m left wondering how the hell the plucky upstart from Hyundai can possibly have an answer to the mightiest of Cupras.
By about the third corner in the i30 N though, the newbie smacked down the Cupra R with a demonstration of ludicrous capability. Listen carefully, because what I’m about to say is a very big deal: the Hyundai’s front end is better than the Seat’s. Yes, the car that’s the best-ever version of an already very good performance car, which comes from a company that’s been building awesome hot hatches for years, isn’t quite as good as something built by a firm which not so long ago was churning out generic dross like the Accent. How the hell has this happened?
Putting the right people in the right positions - like ex-BMW M Division man and now Hyundai N boss Albert Bierman - is a big factor, but even so, it’s astonishing that this newcomer can best something like the Cupra R. And it’s not just the stickiness of the front axle: the steering’s much more aggressive off-centre and offers up more feedback, it sounds more exciting with all its silly pops and bangs, and thanks to its inline-four’s more boosty attitude it feels more potent, even if the 271bhp power figure is a decent chunk down on the Seat’s.
It is perhaps a little scrappier to drive in some respects. The i30 N likes to torque steer under some conditions, and its own electronically-controlled diff isn’t as effective as VW’s in the wet. It really struggles to put down the power once conditions becoming a little moist, in fact. Finally the shift action of the six-speed manual gearbox isn’t quite as accurate as the Cupra R’s, and the pedals are a little springy. But these are small issues that don’t detract from our verdict: the Hyundai is the better driver’s car, and by a decent margin.
So then: case closed, the Hyundai is a triumph and an utter bargain, making the Seat look much too expensive and a bit silly. Right? Well, no, actually. The real trick with the Seat is when you calm down, it’s a fantastic cruiser. It seems quieter inside. The ride is better. The infotainment system is in another league. The interior build quality is better, and thanks to nice copper and Alcantara details, the cabin’s generally a much more special place to sit in. And finally, the engine is much smoother when you just want to pootle about town.
The i30 N may be better to drive fast, but the Seat is better at pretty much everything else. It’s the same with the standard Cupra too, and more sedate rivals like the VW Golf GTI. When going for an early-morning airport run the other week, I rued having to leave the R behind - due to be collected later that day - and take the less refined i30 N.
It all comes down to how much you’re willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of owning the best-driving hot hatch possible for the cash. I’m not suggesting the i30 N has the uncompromising attitude of a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, it’s just that there are cars out there that are very nearly good to drive but nicer to live with. Since I’m getting on a bit (but crucially, not as much as Alex…) I might be swayed by the latter option. But to look at it another way, up against the other hot hatch in this segment with a one-track mind - the Honda Civic Type R - there’d be no question: the i30 N is the one to have.
We feel another showdown coming on…