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In-depth reviews

Cupra Leon review – ride and handling

Less precise, yet more agile than a GTI Clubsport

Evo rating
  • More agile than a Mk8 Golf GTI Clubsport
  • Not as confidence-inspiring; forgettable looks

Jump in, hit the starter button and the Leon has a deeper and more resonant sound to the engine than you’ll find in rival VW Group models. Granted, it’s mostly augmented by the car’s speakers, but it’s at least an attempt to give it some distinction from GTIs and S3s. The seating position is good, if not as great as in the Civic or Hyundai, but the basics are solid – the seats are supportive and come with plenty of bolstering, while the firm steering wheel feels good in the hands.

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On the move, the default driver mode makes it as benign as any other Leon save for a brittle ride quality on the larger 19-inch wheels. Immediate throttle response is only OK, and the transmission very clearly has the life of its clutches in mind, with more than a small amount of slip when exiting a junction or taking off.

It’s an easy car to drive quickly, though, surfing a wave of torque that’s available right at the bottom end of the rev band. This is no different on a British B-road, where its mix of strong mechanical grip from the 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 never shines with feel. The ride is better than in many previous quick SEATs or Cupras, the dampers striking a useful balance between bump absorption and control, but those big 19-inch wheels can sometimes be caught out on rougher road sections, sending a shudder back through the steering wheel.

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Select CUPRA mode and everything goes up a notch again. The dampers become stiffer and sharper, but even less compromising in their ability to deal with rough road surfaces, so it’s best to forget this mode unless you’re driving across a snooker table or, indeed, a track.

> Honda Civic Type R review

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 tailpipes (which is great) plus the inevitable digitised crackles on overrun (which is not).

As intimated, the gearbox works nicely when up and running, with an immediacy of response to the paddles and subsequent shifts. 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.

Manage the weight through braking and cornering and you can get the tail to pivot around the front axle, but the balance is very much front-led and so comes without the delicious balance that defines a Hyundai i30 N. This lack of depth to the chassis is where the Leon begins to falter, and without any high-capability hardware around the brakes, tyres or damping, makes it feel bigger and heavier than its figures suggest. 

> 2022 hot hatchback battle: the middleweights

Much like the latest generation of Golf GTI, it feels like you have to coerce the Leon to drive quickly down a challenging road, rather than relish in its own enthusiasm. This is a talent that’s inherent in all the best hot hatchbacks, and something that’s missing in all contemporary Cupra Leons.

We know there’s potential in the MQB/EA888 combination, but the current model just doesn’t capitalise on it in the way previous-generation Leons did, and with a whole new brand to populate there’s surely plenty of scope for a more capable flagship Leon to return the Cupra badge back to the upper echelon of the hot hatchback class. Until then, the current Cupra Leon feels like a model of convenience, rather than passion.

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