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

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

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

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

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

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?



Propably the best car in this price range. Better looking than a Golf R and way cheaper. Drove it last year. Its such a blast ! Definitely want one some day;)

02/26/2016 - 22:01 |
32 | 2

Me too! I have owned a Leon 5F Style 5 door with just 122HP but it was such a good car it got me hooked and a Leon 5F Cupra ST is now my (somewhat affordable) dream car to own as a family car in about 5 years time. The 2014 RS6 Avant would be a very nice car too but way to expensive, even used.

02/26/2016 - 22:43 |
2 | 2

Trump card approved

02/26/2016 - 22:07 |
20 | 6
Filip Ulemek

The Cupra 290… For those who didn’t realize you could chip-tune a Cupra 280 lol.

02/26/2016 - 22:22 |
12 | 0

and lose your warranty?

02/27/2016 - 00:06 |
10 | 6

A Skoda 290, for those who want a wider torque band, without losing their warranty and having the trouble of someone removing their ECU and playing about with it!

02/27/2016 - 14:34 |
0 | 0

Hey Matt! Did you drive the car around the circuit in the pictures? This is an old 1920’s circuit located in Sitges, Catalonia, and it was the third ever fixed circuit for car racing made in Europe, just after Monza and Brooklands!

02/26/2016 - 22:33 |
0 | 0

I drove the old V6 Leon Cupra around the track, and was driven around it in the pictured car with Jordi Gene behind the wheel. He was doing over 100mph on the banking, which on that surface was pretty manic!

It’s a fascinating place, so I’ll be doing a feature on it soon.

02/26/2016 - 22:46 |
6 | 0
San Man

Can someone explain Seat to an American? Lol I’m not the most thorough euro car enthusiast, but I do love Skoda and I’m more than glad Renault and Vauxhall doesn’t exist here in the states, but can someone explain them? Roots, history, market, reliability etc.

I feel like Seat is to europe what Buick or Eagle was to America.

02/26/2016 - 22:46 |
6 | 0

Well basically Seat is a spanish car maker that started to build models based on Fiats and eventually was bought by VW. I would say that nowadays it’s goal is to offer a sportier, affordable alternative to VW cars, because all of their cars have VW platforms and share engines and all sorts of components

02/26/2016 - 23:04 |
14 | 0

As DoriftoMan said, it’s supposed to offer sportier or more emotive/stylish cars than VW and Škoda. However, Seat shares platforms, engines etc. with them, prices are also similar and some Seats are even just rebadged Volkswagens or Škodas.
Recently, Seat was in troubles because it was quite unsuccessful and didn’t make any profit.

02/27/2016 - 00:26 |
4 | 0

What the others said. Essentially, VW/Audi/Skoda/Seat are very similar platforms and engines. The Seat is the slightly sportier VW platform. The Audi is the slightly more ‘premium’ VW. The Skoda is the entry-level VW (though this is often unfair). And the VW is the flagship brand of the group, and usually is the slightly better equipped than Skoda and Seat, slightly better interiors, and where they share almost identical specs, slightly more responsive tuning - in short, very small tweaks to protect VW’s own branding as meriting higher prices than Seat and Skoda, whilst being as accessible to all buyers as possible.

Some may think that all of it creates competition for each other, but remember that the VW Group also owns Porsche (think Boxster, Cayman, 911 variants), and the fine-tuning of how each brand/model relates within the group is probably deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize.

02/27/2016 - 00:53 |
12 | 0
Simon Anderson

In reply to by San Man

Well, Technically you do get Vauxhall/Opel over in the States, they are literally just a rebadged as Buick.
If Renault went to the States and brought their RenaultSport models, i’d say you Yanks would love them more than most of the Hot Hatches you get.

But, SEAT has always had a slightly more Sporty orientated chassis or suspension setup compared to the VW Counterparts, and usually are cheaper and better equipped

02/27/2016 - 11:07 |
2 | 0

mmmmm… Nice pics taken in Terramar´s Autodrome, first spanish race circuit. I went there long time ago to see it inside, but the owner hadn’t let me…

02/26/2016 - 22:53 |
0 | 0
Griffin Mackenzie

Civic couldn’t beat it because vtec hasn’t kicked in
Just be patient

02/26/2016 - 23:28 |
0 | 2

So they put an open diff that inverts what wheel that power goes to in there?
that’s pretty damn badass

02/26/2016 - 23:48 |
2 | 0

Gotta love that a spanish blooded car gets love from the petrolheads

02/27/2016 - 01:30 |
0 | 0

I still prever the Mégane rs

02/27/2016 - 06:02 |
6 | 2



Sponsored Posts