SEAT Leon Cupra 300 2017 review - power boost for SEAT's Golf GTI rival

Faster than ever, the Leon Cupra still fails to really engage in a way that marks out the best hot hatches

Evo rating
Price
from £29,840
  • Pace, grip, equipment levels
  • Should be more engaging to drive

This is the latest version of SEAT’s top of the range hot hatch, based on the recently face-lifted Leon; a car that began life with either 261bhp and 276bhp, then moved to just one power level of 286bhp, and now, as the name implies, boasts 296bhp (300PS). 

Technical highlights

The spec sheet will tell you this is a very minor tweak of the engine’s electronic calibration and nothing more, bringing the 2-litre TSI engine in line with the one in the VW Golf R. Or it would have, in theory, if VW hadn’t just announced the revised Golf R with 306bhp. Unsurprisingly, there’s more torque now as well, the revised engine producing 280lb-ft (+22lb ft) from 1,800-5,500rpm).

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Once again the car is offered in three-door ‘SC’ form as well as the regular five-door hatch, and there’s also the ‘ST’ wagon version that is now available in four-wheel drive/DSG configuration, effectively Seat’s own Golf R Estate.

The ‘Performance Pack’ (with either black or orange highlights) remains a (costly) option, adding larger Brembo brake discs, side skirts and lighter (19”) Wheels, and Michelin’s superb Cup 2 tyre is a further cost option within those packs. The Cupra’s also get the kind of tech that’s spreading out across the VW empire, such as LED headlights, and a raft of driver assistance systems.

> Volkswagen Golf GTI review

Nevertheless, when pushed Seat admit there are some detail changes to the Leon’s chassis settings by Seat Sport engineers “often working at the ‘Ring”, and that the shift time in the DSG gearbox has also been reduced. The revised engine calibration has also encompassed a more theatrical soundtrack both in the cabin and from the exhaust.

Performance 

“The Leon Cupra needs more power”, said nobody, ever, about the outgoing car. Despite having an unfashionable power output that still began with the number ‘2’, the Cupra has always channelled its relatively light construction and the effectiveness of the TSI engine into a package that feels as rapid as just about anything in the class.

It’s no surprise that this new car is all of that and a little bit more. It’s 0-60mph marker drops to 5.6-seconds in a DSG-equipped SC, rising to six seconds flat for a manual five-door hatch. The top speed is limited to 155mph. Potent numbers.

What's it like to drive?

If you liked the old Leon Cupra you’ll like the new one. It’s frantically fast in a straight line, and handles in a clean, efficient manner that makes it a formidably quick hot hatch across country, with amazing levels of front-end grip generated by the electronically controlled differential, even in torrential rain. 

The variable dampers, engine calibration, steering and even the diff can all be adjusted as before. Any chassis changes over the outgoing car would take a back-to-back drive to detect, but the engine’s raucous note and exhaust ‘pop’ in Cupra mode is more obvious.

> SEAT Leon Cupra R buying guide

Sadly, it’s the little details that would have benefitted from improvement – those that turn a good performance car into a really special one. Niggles include a disappointingly notchy manual gearshift (on our test car at least), exacerbated by a delayed clutch pedal action and a soft brake pedal – even with the optional Brembos - that makes it almost impossible to heel and toe downchanges.

So from a driving perspective the Cupras are best sampled in DSG form, but given the firm is keen to leverage its Seat Sport racing activities against its fastest cars, the involvement does ring hollow; did those engineers really think arranging the up/down shift of the DSG gear lever counter intuitively in manual mode was a good idea, or having an automatic upshift in manual mode was helpful? 

The lighter SC has a small but notable agility advantage over the five-door, but for now the Cupra Leons are still more ‘impressively capable’ than they are fun. 

Price and rivals

155mph performance for under £30,000 (from £29,840) is a compelling headline, and the Cupras are well specified overall, even if a DSG-equipped five-door with the Orange Performance Pack and Michelins no longer appears such a bargain at £34,440. There are plenty of rivals at this price point, soon to include the new Honda Civic Type R. 

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