Cupra Leon 300 2021 review – VW’s GTI Clubsport usurped from within?
One of the sharpest hot hatchbacks money can buy right now, despite weird branding and a very long name (which we’ve simplified for you).
Whether you understand the Leon 300’s branding, or its positioning within the VW Group or not is one thing, but what’s not in much doubt is how solid this car’s underpinnings are. Or, without wishing to give the plot away too soon, just how damn good it is at being a hot hatch, full stop.
For beneath its 19-inch copper-highlighted alloys and its arresting but optional matt Graphene paint, the Leon 300 is essentially a Golf GTI Clubsport wearing a more audacious set of Latino clothes. Except in reality it’s more than that, because Cupra’s engineers have taken the oily bits from a GTI Clubsport and crafted them into something rather more bespoke than that.
The result is a hot hatch that has real flair to its dynamics, not to mention a serious turn of speed, be that on road or track. And at £35,660 it also boasts a near-unbeatable amount of kit for the money and is as practical, well, as five-door Volkswagen Golf.
Engine, gearbox and 0-60 time
The engine and gearbox of the Leon 300 are familiar VW Group items: the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo unit having been mapped here to produce the exact same 296bhp and 295lb ft as in the GTI Clubsport. The gearbox is also the same excellent seven-speed dual-clutch automatic with paddles.
Yet in both cases Cupra’s engineers have had free rein to do whatever they like regards the fine tuning of the components, even though the headline figures have had to remain constant in order to toe the corporate line. As such, the throttle response has an extra zip to it across the rev range that’s never quite there in the GTI Clubsport. It just feels that little bit crisper underfoot, even though the claimed 0-62mph time is a tenth behind the Clubsport’s at 5.7sec versus 5.6sec. Thank the extra 29kg the TSI carries beside the VW for that.
Same thing applies to the gearbox, which simply has more snap to its response, especially when the drive programme is set to ‘CUPRA’ mode. This is purely down to the fine tuning of the software, we must presume, which means Cupra’s keyboard operators would appear to have spent more time and done a better job working out the algorithms, having been given a slightly different brief in the first place.
The best thing about the TSi 300 is its chassis, and although the oily bits would appear to be near enough identical to those of a GTI Clubsport – namely struts at the front, multi-link at the back with a multi-adjustable electronic damping system to take care of the detail – in reality it feels quite different from behind the wheel, which we’ll come to in a moment.
Braking is by a large Brembo steel ventilated discs front and rear; there is no option (or need) for carbon ceramics. The electronic power steering system is fundamentally the same as in the GTI too, but in practice it feels both lighter and, once again, sharper due to the more aggressive way in which the front suspension has been set up. And the rear has clearly been tuned to offer as much turn-in assistance as possible without ever going into full-on 205 GTi lift-off oversteer mode.
The electronic damping system has more than 10 different settings, which really is as unnecessary as it sounds. Three would do fine, four would be luxurious but 16 is 12 too many. What does work a treat though is the system that allows you to disable both the TC and ESC systems at the (admittedly quite long) press of just one single button.
True, it’s only when you visit a track that this really matters, but the point is it takes five times longer to achieve the same result in any of the quicker Golfs in 2021, to a point where you get the distinct impression that they really don’t want you to switch these systems off any more. Whereas in the Cupra it’s one press and you’re away.
What’s it like to drive?
In a way, the above serves as a decent metaphor for the differences between the way a Cupra is set up nowadays compared with a hot VW, for although the Leon 300 is still digital in much of its componentry, it still feels refreshingly analogue in character. Never more so than on a decent b-road, where its mix of strong mechanical grip from a quartet of trick 235/35 Bridgestone S005 tyres, plus a sizeable dose of electronic wizardry from its limited-slip diff, combine to make it quite a weapon.
Select the right drive mode – there are four to choose from, Sport being the best option for fast road use – and the steering stays surprisingly light, but it still percolates with feel. The ride is also much better than many previous quick SEAT or Cupras, the dampers striking a useful balance between bump absorption and control.
Select ‘CUPRA’ mode, everything goes up a notch again. The dampers become stiffer and sharper, but less compromising in their ability to deal with less smooth road surfaces, so it’s best to forget this mode unless you’re driving across a snooker table or, indeed, a track.
The mapping for the throttle and gearbox also become more aggressive in ‘CUPRA’ mode, mostly in a good way although the gearbox does hold on to the lower ratios for too long sometimes. Even the valving for the exhaust gets fruitier, with a nice rasp from the tail pipes (which is great) plus the inevitable digitised crackles on overrun (which is not). Best thing is, though, you can swap quickly between the modes by pressing just one simple button on the steering wheel.
As intimated, the gearbox works nicely, too, with an immediacy of response to the paddles and subsequent shifts that’s never quite replicated in a DSG VW. The brakes also have as much feel and power as you’ll find in any of the more serious hot hatchbacks, with an extra delicacy to the pedal’s response if you tickle them on the way into a corner.
Do so and the tail pivots around the front axle beautifully, without ever feeling like it wants to let go. And it’s this extra depth of chassis finesse, right up near the limit, that distinguishes the Leon 300 as something just a little bit special. The old GTI Clubsport S had it, the new GTI Clubsport does not, and that’s a crucial distinction to make at this level.
Admittedly you need to be driving quite hard on a track to even notice whether it’s there or not, but when you do, there’s no turning back – because when all is said and done this is one of the key differences between a truly great hot hatch and a merely very good one, and the Leon 300 knows exactly where the keys are to this most secret of doors. Which is what makes it such a cracking good hot hatch to drive.
Price and rivals
The Leon 300 undercuts its closest rival within the VW empire, the Golf GTI Clubsport, by more than £1500. Given that it comes with more kit, arguably more style, just as much practicality and is more engaging to drive where it counts, the Cupra makes a pretty compelling case for itself, with or without its optional military-spec paint scheme.
It’s biggest hitting rival is the Honda Civic Type R GT, which costs a touch less at £34,820, has more power with 316bhp and is a fraction roomier in the rear seats. But so sharp is the Leon 300 that we’d need to conduct a proper twin test before being drawn into answering the key question about who makes the best hot hatch right now. Truly, the new Cupra Leon 300 is that good.