What is it?
Until the yet to be confirmed but strongly rumoured Leon Cupra R arrives, the fastest car SEAT makes, and one of the swiftest and most powerful hot hatches you can buy thanks to a turbocharged 2.0-litre TFSI engine developing 276bhp.
That engine is essentially the same as the one that powers the all-wheel drive Golf R and Audi S3, but driving to the front wheels via a six-speed manual ‘box or optional dual-clutch DSG semi-auto with steering wheel paddles. SEAT has drafted in a VAQ Haldex-based active locking differential from the Performance Pack Golf GTI to help the driver do the steering rather than the engine’s 258lb ft of torque, claiming that traction is improved to the extent that it can direct up to 100 per cent of the turbocharged engine’s output to one wheel if you really lean on it in a tight bend.
Sitting lower than the less powerful Leon FR by 10mm at the front and 5mm at the rear, the Cupra 280 has the same MacPherson strut/multi-link suspension layout but with three-way adjustable dampers (so-called DCC) including a ‘Cupra’ mode that sets everything to firm. As well as weighing some 55 kilos less than the previous Cupra R, the combination of the new car’s variable-ratio steering (dubbed ‘progressive’ by SEAT) and the mechanical diff is said to have knocked chunks off lap times round any circuit, not least, inevitably, the Nurburgring. Expect an announcement about the lap time just before the Geneva motor show in March.
What’s it like to drive?
Pretty damn quick. Specified with the optional six-speed dual clutch DSG transmission, SEAT says the Cupra 280 will hit 62mph from rest in 5.7sec (5.8sec if you opt for the six-speed manual). Either way, it’s the quickest and most powerful road-going car the company has ever made. Even the slightly less potent three-door only Cupra SC, with 261bhp – the same as the previous generation Cupra R, SEAT’s previous power champ – dips under 6.0sec by a tenth and that’s without DSG, which isn’t offered as an option.
Despite its power, the 280 is anything but a garrulous show-off – much more the shy guy who's handy in a fight. Superfast DSG paddle-actuated gearshifts suit the engine beautifully but, on balance, the snickety precision of six-speed manual is more satisfying still.
Maybe the Cupra 280 doesn’t feel quite as quick as the stats suggest (up to around 100mph, the base 261bhp Cupra doesn’t give an inch) but it never seems less than effortlessly rapid, whatever the road. Perhaps the impression that it’s never having to try that hard saps some of the enjoyment. Initially, at least. Where the similarly powerful Vauxhall Astra VRX does its thing in block capitals with a liberal sprinkling of exclamation marks, the SEAT’s approach is more chilled and measured and, as an ownership proposition, probably more satisfying. If less playful, it feels a lighter, lither car than the Focus ST, grippier and more agile.
Partly, it comes down to the pace it can carry into and out of bends. The brakes are so good you can tailor an entry speed to perfection, using the extra feel of the new variable-ratio assisted steering - which gains weight as the front wheels' workload increases in a much more progressive way than the the old Cupra’s - to nail the turn in without washing wide, then use the active diff to slingshot out the other side. Just jump on the power early: it hooks up and goes. Attack the next corner with more heat and commitment, get to the point where you think you've pitched it in just about as hard as it wants to go and, even if the corner starts to tighten, instead of backing off you keep the throttle wide open and turn the wheel a few degrees more. Again the Cupra drags itself through with seemingly no lost momentum. The diff is working miracles yet you hardly notice it's there. There's mild torque steer, but with it some genuine feel. It’s a fair trade off.
How does it compare?
Putting the £27,540 VW Golf GTI to one side, the Cupra 280’s hottest competition comes from Ford, Renault and Vauxhall. And the hottest of those is undoubtedly the Vauxhall Astra VXR. It costs £320 more than the SEAT but matches its power and feels more ferocious to drive, although its claimed acceleration stats are fractionally slower. The Astra can feel ragged, though. It doesn’t have the Cupra’s precision or composure near the limit. The Focus ST is much harder to dismiss. Even in plush ST-3 guise, it undercuts the Cupra 280 by £1445, though it is giving away 30bhp and trails by 0.7sec in the sprint to 62mph. Arguably it bests the Cupra as an entertaining steer, possessing a chassis balance that can be modulated more readily with the throttle. Current king of the hot hatch hill, however, is the estimable, and recently facelifted, Renaultsport Megane 265. Slightly down on power, slightly slower to 62mph, the Megane remains the most focused and rewarding hot hatch of all and, at £26,745, costs a little less than the SEAT.
Anything else I need to know?
Unique to the 280 is a tailgate lip spoiler, black door mirror caps, titanium-hued 19- rather than 18-inch wheels and red brake calipers. Inside, the ‘edgy’ theme continues with perhaps a little too much that is framed with bright trim and a slight disappointment that that tactile quality, while better than you’d find in a rival Ford, Renault or Vauxhall, isn’t quite as solid and finely textured as a Golf’s. But then no one calibrates build and finish between its brands as meticulously as the VW Group.