Cupra Leon hatchback review
"The Cupra Leon is a stylish, high-performance take on the standard hatch that's a desirable alternative to mainstream rivals"
- Great fun to drive
- Value for money
- Arresting styling
- Thirsty mid-range petrol engine
- Confusing trim levels
- No manual gearbox
Cupra used to be a performance badge adorning fast SEAT's, but is now a standalone brand in its own right, sitting alongside Volkswagen, Skoda, SEAT and Audi. The Cupra Leon, then, is closely linked to SEAT's family hatchback, but with sportier looks inside and out and more powerful engines.
Its nose gets considerably bigger for air intakes, while a rear diffuser adds to the Cupra Leon's ground-hugging stance. Like the Cupra Ateca and Cupra Formentor SUV's, the Leon also gets eye-catching exterior trim painted copper giving it a distinctive look. Seven colours are offered, and the matt-finish Graphene Grey works particularly well, helping the Cupra Leon stand out in a similar way to the powder blue finish adorning the Hyundai I30 N. In mid-2021, Cupra added Magnetic Tech and Asphalt Blue matte paint finishes to the list for a more unique look.
The interior continues the theme, with copper trim punctuating the air vents and steering wheel for a unique look. It's an edgy design, and round steering wheel buttons for starting the engine and changing driving modes add a motorsport feel. Technology impresses, with every version getting digital instruments and a 10-inch infotainment screen. The latter offers gesture and voice control and plentiful connectivity, including Android Auto and wireless Apple CarPlay.
Enthusiasts will be most excited by the Cupra Leon 300, because not only is it fitted with the same 296bhp engine as the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport, but it also undercuts it on price. We also found it even more exciting to drive, with a rousing soundtrack and superbly judged suspension. Not only does the Leon 300 handle precisely on track, but it's also planted and comfortable enough along twisting stretches of tarmac.
If 37mpg fuel economy isn't very appealing, the lower-powered Leon 245 doesn't offer much of an advantage, because it's 2.0-litre turbo petrol is essentially a detuned version of the same engine. Company-car drivers will instead need to seek out the Cupra Leon e-Hybrid, which shares its plug-in hybrid powertrain with the Volkswagen Golf GTE and Skoda Octavia vRS iV. Its ability to drive for around 30 miles without using any petrol cuts its CO2 emissions to 30g/km, for a low Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) band.
While the lower-powered Cupra Leon's appeal is limited, the Leon 300 becomes one of the most compelling cars in its class, being more fun and better value than the Golf GTI Clubsport.
MPG, running costs & CO2
Getting 296bhp out of a 2.0-litre engine actually requires it to be highly efficient, so if you can resist the temptation to floor the throttle, the Cupra Leon 300 can be pretty affordable to run. Its official combined fuel economy figure is 37.2mpg, which stacks up well against the 34.4mpg of the less powerful Ford Focus ST, and isn't far off the 38.2mpg of the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
While similar to rivals, its CO2 emissions from 171g/km are a bit on the high side, putting the Cupra Leon 300 firmly in the highest BiK band for company-car drivers. They'll be better served by the plug-in Cupra Leon e-Hybrid with emissions of 30g/km, which is far greener, but sadly not as fun to drive. During the same official tests, the e-Hybrid can return up to 217.3mpg, thanks to its electric range of up to 32 miles. According to Cupra, recharging the e-Hybrid’s 13kWh battery takes around three and a half hours when connected to a 3.6kW wallbox, or around six hours from a standard three-pin plug. From June 2021, the e-Hybrid also came with a charging cable at no extra cost.
Sitting in the middle ground, the Leon 245 can return up to 39.2mpg and emits from 162g/km, so apart from its lower price, there aren't any major cost savings over the 300 version.
Other costs for the Leon 300 are also competitive with the rest of the hot hatch crowd, with standard rate VED (road tax) and a group 34 (out of 50) insurance band. It's possible to extend the warranty to 5 years/90,000 miles for under £500, although it's worth noting that the Hyundai i30 N comes with a five-year warranty as standard.
Engines, drive & performance
The Cupra Leon 300 shares its engine with the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport, and its 2.0-litre is also closely related to the Golf R engine. Its 296bhp can get it from 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds and on to a top speed of 155mph, despite it being front-wheel drive only. It might be augmented by the speakers, but the engine sound inside the Leon 300 impresses, and its throttle response seems sharper than in the Volkswagen.
Its chassis has been tuned expertly to provide an even better balance between handling precision and road comfort than the GTI Clubsport. It's better value too, with adaptive suspension dampers fitted as standard, instead of being an expensive optional extra. Overall, it feels like its engineers have spent even more time honing its responses to deliver the best experience, and even the gearshifts from the seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox feel sharper.
If you don't fancy the hot hatch experience, or the Leon 300 is out of your price range, there's also a detuned Leon 245, costing around £2,000 less. This uses the same 242bhp petrol engine as the regular Golf GTI, and comes with a DSG gearbox getting it from 0-62mph in 6.4 seconds.
Meanwhile, the Leon e-Hybrid gets a 1.4-litre petrol engine, electric motor and battery for an altogether different driving experience. It also gets a combined 242bhp, but it's the heaviest of the three, and takes 6.7 seconds to cover the same benchmark.
Interior & comfort
Cupra is the most youthful brand in the Volkswagen Group stable, and that's reflected inside, where the dashboard's angular surfaces and vents make us wonder if this is what a Lamborghini hatchback would look like. The steering wheel even features two buttons for starting the engine and changing driver modes, like you'll find in many supercars. In every version equipped with shift paddles, a heated steering wheel is also standard.
Bronze highlights may be a bit much for some tastes, but they certainly make the Leon more flamboyant than the Golf. Surprisingly, it's also more intuitive, with a physical button to switch off driver aids instead of a multitude of on-screen menus. The only real negative is the presence of some cheap trim if you look for it.
There are several trim levels available, called VZ1, VZ3 and VZ3. Even the VZ1 grade gets 18-inch alloy wheels, privacy glass, folding door mirrors and LED lighting. Inside, there's a set of digital dials and a 10-inch infotainment display with navigation, along with ambient lighting, a rear-view camera and four driving modes.
Practicality & boot space
The Cupra Leon has no size differences to the SEAT Leon it's based on, so four adults can travel in comfort, while its boot is competitive without being class-leading. The Leon grew for the latest generation, with a 50mm increase in wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels) that provided an improvement in rear knee room. There's plenty of headroom too, although a central transmission tunnel means the middle rear seat isn't as comfortable.
The Cupra Leon 245 and 300 both have a 380 litre boot, that's on a par with the Golf and slightly bigger than the Ford Focus ST's luggage compartment. If you need more space, there's the Honda Civic Type R with its 420-litre boot, or the Skoda Octavia vRS which boasts 600 litres of storage. Choose the e-Hybrid and the boot shrinks to 270 litres because of the extra hardware necessary for its hybrid powertrain. The Cupra Leon is also available as an estate, increasing its boot capacity to 620 litres.
Reliability & safety
Despite being a new generation of car, the latest Cupra Leon is a thorough evolution of the outgoing model, so it would be a surprise if its reliability is much different. Owners told us the last Leon was just about average for build quality and reliability, scoring it 36th out of the top 75 models in our 2020 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey. Just over 17% of owners reported a fault within the first 12 months.
The Leon is also fitted with an abundance of safety kit, helping it land a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating. Following crash tests, it scored an impressive 92% and 88% respectively for adult and child occupant protection. It also has blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist and traffic jam assist as standard, along with adaptive cruise control to take the strain out of driving long distances.