I’m a huge fan of hot hatches, but I admit that I’m often left frustrated by the various compromises of front-wheel drive; the Ford Focus ST is the perfect example, as its 247bhp frenetically tugs and strains as you plant your foot. It makes for an exciting weekend drive, but is overly keen when you just want to chill.
When CT Editor Alex went to Barcelona’s Castelli circuit in February to drive the new Seat Leon Cupra 280, I wanted to test his reports of the magic and witchcraft that went into making a front differential lock that helped dispense with dreaded torque steer and understeer. Thanks to an invite to spend a day with the Cupra at the Mallory Park circuit in northern England, I’d be able to see, first hand, what all the fuss was about.
Honestly? I approached the car with low expectations. Having driven a number of its competitors, I was cynical about a car with 276bhp being so capable. Sure, acceleration would be rapid, but just how much difference could a clever diff make? Loads, as it turns out.
But before all that, a quick recap of the vital stats: based on Volkswagen Group’s MQB platform, the Leon shares its platform with the VW Golf, Skoda Octavia and Audi A3. Power comes from a 2.0-litre TSI with 276bhp and 258lb ft torque, which gives the Cupra a 0-62mph time of just 5.7sec with the DSG auto ‘box (+0.1sec for the manual).
Beckoned through an open gate, I find myself at the exit of Mallory Park’s tight hairpin section and engage ‘Cupra’ mode. This sharpens up the steering, differential, throttle and suspension, making the 280 as ready as it’ll ever be for whatever this quick circuit has to offer.
Even in Cupra mode, accelerating hard down into the main straight lacks theatre, but a quick check of the speedo reveals it’s a rapid machine. Through the first sweeping right hander, a light steady throttle keeps the car tracking true, with the Dynamic Chassis Control constantly adjusting to help keep the car from washing wide. It’s hard on the brakes for the second corner, a sharp right, which is tough to nail with the car’s momentum still pulling you in the opposite direction (the only time the Cupra’s road car alter-ego plays against it).
A hard right into the chicane requires a confident, early throttle, and switching through the gears is an effortless task with the DSG; while it felt a bit OTT for the road (where you’re never really pushing hard enough to see the benefits), the rewards on track are massive.
But the Leon Cupra’s pièce de résistance is that front-axle differential lock, and it’s the aforementioned hairpin where it truly shines. My first time accelerating around the corner is fairly uneventful - with a tentative 80 per cent throttle in second gear I’m expecting some perfectly understandable pull against my steering input. Nope. Nothing. Into the Bus Stop and I accelerate out hard with no fight. Mildly perplexed I grow bolder and bolder, trying lower gears and earlier throttle-mashing…the Cupra 280 handles everything with aplomb.
The electronically-controlled front-axle differential lock is a mighty impressive thing, using a hydraulically-actuated multi-plate package. Simply put, the car constantly measures the wheel speed, vehicle speed, lateral acceleration and steering wheel angle to get the maximum amount of torque to the wheel with the most grip. It can transfer 100 per cent of the power to a single wheel, so you’ve always got maximum power available. Driven hard, you can feel the diff working away through the wheel. It never tugs or pulls at you, merely giving light nudges that let you know the car is working away underneath you.
As a trackday weapon, I was expecting the Seat Leon Cupra 280 to be merely good for a front-wheel drive. Instead, I came away with my perceptions changed about what sort of power a car can actually handle through the front wheels, and since the Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy-R just stole back the Leon’s FWD ‘Ring record, I can’t wait to find out just how it could be better. The hot hatch game just entered a new era.