SEAT Leon Cupra hatchback
"The SEAT Leon Cupra is a sharp performance hatchback that's equally at home on a track or outside a supermarket"
- Comfortable, adjustable suspension
- Better value than VW Golf GTI
- Very fast
- Could be more exciting to drive
- Less desirable badge than the Golf
- Interior marginally less plush than Golf
It could be argued that the SEAT Leon Cupra has done more to drive the Spanish company’s image in the UK than any other model. The first version, based on the handsome teardrop-shaped Mk1 Leon, gave drivers a real alternative to the Volkswagen Golf GTI, and quickly established a following. Since then, enthusiastic drivers have looked forward to the Cupra version of every successive Leon – and the latest version is unlikely to disappoint.
Named Cupra 290 in full, it has 286bhp from its four-cylinder petrol engine, which is shared with the Volkswagen Golf and Audi S3. It’s now only available in five-door hatchback form, making it a genuinely family-friendly car, as well as lots of fun to drive, regardless of the exact spec and options you choose.
The car comes with a seven-speed DSG automatic as standard and is capable of 0-62mph time in six seconds. The DSG allows manual gearshifts to be made in an instant, without taking your hands from the wheel.
The Cupra is more powerful than its Golf GTI relative, and quicker against the clock. It’s also just as capable across country, with instinctive steering that makes it easy to place in fast corners. The ride is firm, but no more so than any other hot hatchback, and fuel economy of up to 39mpg is reasonable. It also handily undercuts the Volkswagen Golf R on price, despite nearly equalling its performance.
The most impressive version of the car is the Leon Cupra R, but with just 24 set aside for the UK (all of which were allocated buyers before they arrived here), it will prove a very difficult car to ever own. That’s a shame, because 306bhp, a modified chassis and upgraded brakes make it the best Leon yet to drive. You can easily spot a Cupra R, thanks to its copper accents and unique 19-inch alloys.
In all other respects, the Leon Cupra 290 shares the benefits of the underlying SEAT Leon hatchback. It’s one of our favourite family cars, with plenty of space inside and a boot more than capable of taking the pushchairs and shopping of everyday living. The Cupra will prove more expensive to run, but should otherwise fit into family life quite easily.
The Leon came 52nd out of 100 cars ranked by owners in our 2019 Driver Power survey, which isn't bad given its age. The Leon Cupra is a compelling choice if you’re looking for a fast family car that doesn’t sacrifice practicality for performance.
MPG, running costs & CO2
Central to the appeal of hot hatchbacks like the Leon Cupra is that they offer high performance without the impracticalities that sports-car ownership can entail. One disadvantage faced by many is high ownership costs, but although the Cupra uses more fuel than regular Leon, this sporty SEAT shouldn’t prove ruinous to run.
The Cupra can return up to 38.7mpg with CO2 emissions of 149g/km, so company-car drivers will face a Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) figure of 33%.
The extra power of the Cupra over its mechanical twin, the Volkswagen Golf GTI, means it can’t quite match the German car’s fuel economy.
Every Leon Cupra will cost owners £145 a year to tax.
Other running costs should also be affordable, thanks to most of the Cupra's non-performance parts being shared with the rest of the Leon range. With SEAT's reputation for reliable hot hatchbacks, the Cupra's go-faster additions should also prove to be very tough. Positive reviews and the sheer desirability of the Cupra should also keep demand high, improving values on the used-car market.
The biggest regular cost faced by Cupra 290 owners is likely to be car insurance – it’s rated in group 33, the same as the Golf GTI.
Engines, drive & performance
The Leon Cupra uses the same 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine found in the Golf GTI, but here it's been upgraded to produce 286bhp in the Cupra 290. It feels sensationally quick on the road and it hits 62mph from rest in six seconds, beating the 6.5 seconds of the Golf GTI.
Cornering and braking are no less impressive thanks to suspension that’s forgiving during day-to-day driving, but sharpens up to deliver sports-car responses when you want them. There's lots of technology working under the surface to maximise grip and keep the Cupra going exactly where you steer it, but these aids can also be turned off on track for maximum driver involvement.
The Cupra 290 is undoubtedly very fast, but it’s not quite as rewarding to drive as the Ford Focus RS, Honda Civic Type R or even the limited-edition Cupra R. We’d like the steering to be a little more direct and the brake pedal is rather lacking in feel, even if the power of the brakes aren’t in doubt. This latest version of the Cupra is more about the extra power than any vast improvements in dynamics.
With the same 306bhp as the Volkswagen Golf R, the Leon Cupra R is even quicker, hitting 62mph from a standstill in 5.8 seconds. In reality, the extra straight-line speed isn’t hugely noticable unless you hop straight into the Cupra R from a standard Cupra; it’s actually in corners where the differences really shine, thanks to suspension changes (the wheels are now slightly wider apart and angled at with a more aggressive angle), Brembo brakes and a new setting for the electronics.
The Cupra R comes alive in corners, generating huge amounts of grip, while its limited-slip differential allows it to fire out of bends, making you question if you'd ever really need four-wheel drive. The Bremo brakes are very impressive, offering lots of power and feel. The R feels more responsive, sharper and a better all-round performance car than the Cupra 300 - the downside is that there are only 24 in the UK and they already had buyers before they arrived on our shores.
Interior & comfort
The SEAT Leon Cupra 290 is now only available as a five-door, meaning you have the extra headroom the old three-door SC version lacked. The five-door's shorter front doors also make it easier to get in and out if you find yourself in a narrow parking space.
Every Cupra also has adjustable suspension – selecting the softest setting improves comfort, while stiffer settings are best left for track days.
The most extreme model, the Cupra R, feels very firm in its Cupra drive select mode but it's possible to get a mix of specific settings in the Individual mode so that you have the hot hatch elements of the car along with a more compliant ride when you want it. And when you just want to cruise along on the motorway, the Comfort setting makes the Cupra R as pleasant on long trips as any other Leon.
Inside, the quality gap between the Leon and Golf has narrowed and there are just enough high-quality materials on display for a car of this price. The sat-nav screen has also been moved – it's now almost level with the instruments, making it far easier to read at a glance. All of the dashboard controls are logically laid-out and the sports seats are figure-hugging, without being too uncomfortable for longer trips.
The main issue we have with the Leon Cupra's interior is that it's all a bit bland. While it's solid and well put-together, it doesn't have any visual pizzazz over a standard Leon, not only to match up to its sharp exterior, but also its exhilarating driving experience.
That’s unless you’re one of the lucky 24 Brits to get hold of a Leon Cupra R. While it’s true that the polarising copper trim might not suit everyone, it certainly helps give the hottest Leon a unique identity. The same is true for the Alcantara covering for the gearlever, steering wheel and bucket seats, all of which give the interior a motorsport feel.
Practicality & boot space
Even though it has lots of extra performance, most of the Cupra's extra kit is hidden under the bonnet, leaving the interior as spacious as models lower down in the range. The hatchback makes loading and unloading easy and the three and five-door both have a 380-litre boot, beating the 316-litre capacity of the Focus ST and matching the Golf GTI's. Unfortunately, only a tyre repair kit is standard, so we'd recommend paying extra for an optional space-saving spare wheel for added peace of mind.
The Cupra can seat four adults in comfort, while five can squeeze in for shorter journeys. The rear seats split 60:40, but don't fold completely flat when pushed forwards.
The Leon was designed from the outset to suit families, and even won Best Family Car back at Carbuyer's 2014 Car of the Year awards. The doors open very wide for easy access, head and legroom are good, its seats are comfortable and storage spaces have been well thought-out.
Reliability & safety
The SEAT Leon was rated highly for reliability in our 2019 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey. Of the owners who responded, 15.6% reported experiencing a problem with their car at least once.
Leon owners are extremely happy with the way their cars ride and handle, and equally like the powerful engines and slick gearboxes. They’re also happy with the Leon’s infotainment and connectivity technology.
Those looking for a family car will be pleased that owners are impressed by the space and practicality of their Leons, and running costs impress, too. Reliability and build quality are both enviable, too.
The lowest rating Leon owners gave was for its safety features, but Euro NCAP crash-testing returned a solid five-star rating when it was put through its paces, with excellent impact protection afforded to adults and children alike.
Price, value for money & options
While the Leon Cupra 290 is expensive for a hatchback, the performance and standard kit on offer go a long way to justifying its price. For similar money, the Golf GTI is slower, and the Cupra is almost as fast as the Golf R. The Ford Focus ST is less expensive, and many will feel it a more entertaining drive.
All Cupra models get LED headlights, 19-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, a DAB digital radio, front and rear parking sensors, an eight-inch touchscreen with Bluetooth, USB and MP3 player connectivity as standard. Also thrown in are red brake calipers and sat nav.
Full leather upholstery is optional, while there's also a Winter Pack with heated front seats, heated washer jets and headlight washers, which sounds appealing for the colder months. You can also opt for black bucket seats. A beefed-up stereo system is available, too, and it’s worth considering adaptive cruise control to make motorway trips more relaxing.
The Leon Cupra R’s £35,000 price tag is largely academic since only 24 were made for the UK and all were sold. In the UK, the car was available to order in black or grey, with a part-Alcantara and carbon fibre interior, sculpted sport seats and copper coloured 19-inch alloy wheels all coming as standard on top of the equipment listed above.
Under scrutiny, the Cupra R does look a bit pricey, especially considering the Honda Civic Type R gets more power and kit like Brembo brakes as standard for a few grand less. Buyers are, of course, paying a premium for the exclusivity; if the Cupra R had been a standard production car, we'd imagine it may have cost less.