Cupra Leon ST 310 4Drive 2021 review – the next Spanish inquisition
It’s capable and handsome, but the new Leon ST lacks the performance and engagement of its predecessors
Cupra’s take on the small performance estate has long been an attractive one, combining the Leon ST’s practical body with a potent mix of VW Group’s high performance elements and all-wheel drive at a reasonable price. But what made previous examples really interesting was SEAT’s (or is that now Cupra’s?) habit of going off-piste in the UK by offering dealer-fit Abt tuning kits, larger Brembo braking kits and Akrapovič exhaust systems to its customers, taking otherwise familiar packages up and over what Volkswagen was willing to offer. For now, the new Cupra Leon ST 310 4Drive does without these extras. So, as a baseline for the new range, and with a slick new look, how does it get on?
The basics initially look good – that trustworthy starting point of a 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and Haldex all-wheel-drive system is present and correct. Peak power and torque figures are slightly less than those of the new Golf R estate at 306bhp (-10bhp) and 295lb ft (-15lb ft), the latter available from 2000rpm, and the ST also does without the R’s torque-vectoring rear differential. While power remains static compared to the previous model, weight seems to be constantly creeping up, the Leon coming in at a pretty chunky 1565kg – 83kg up on the previous-gen Leon ST. Front-wheel drive and/or lesser-powered Leons are reserved for the hatchback bodystyle.
The chassis and powertrain might be familiar to the old version of the ST, but the interior isn’t, and it’s a revelation – clean, modern, and full of interesting materials, making both VW’s and particularly Audi’s recent batch of interiors look cheap and bland. Yes, the infotainment system and overall lack of buttons still frustrate, but with the new controls on the steering wheel giving quick-fire access to the drive modes, the job of changing up the Leon from its comfort-mode default to something more responsive is nothing like as frustrating as the same process in a Golf R.
Even better, the Golf’s optional variable dampers are standard fit, so too 19-inch wheels on Hankook Ventus rubber, making the asking price of £38,570 seem like distinctly good value – if spending nearly £40k on a Leon doesn’t make you wince. Yet the reality is that in 2021 the likelihood of anyone actually dropping that sort of money in bulk on a car such as this is unlikely, with the monthly figure being a more important consideration.
On the road, where one would hope the Cupra Leon ST would initially bubble up with enthusiasm, the experience isn’t that fulfilling. The Leon’s piped-in engine tone feels contrived, the steering accurate but synthetic, and the transmission and throttle response lacking. Concentrate on making your inputs deliberate and things do tighten up, but it’s not particularly natural or intuitive, and the ST lacks the immediacy of a Renault Mégane RS and the enthusiasm of the new Hyundai i30 N.
As in its German counterparts, the variable dampers do work a treat though, and the overall ride and handling balance is well considered, if somewhat blunted by the Leon’s mass. That extra weight is felt under power too, with a merely average (but Golf R estate-matching) 4.9sec 0-62mph time. Despite lacking a chunkier set of Brembos available in high-spec Formentors, the standard set-up still provides plenty of power though, and a slightly more natural pedal feel than that of other VW Group variants.
Yet we just can’t help feeling there’s more to give, and indeed more to come. A little extra punch from the engine, sharper response from the steering, maybe some extra bite from the front axle – these all feel like small and achievable upgrades, which is where previous higher-specification models such as the Cupra R ST Abt edition excelled.
Of all the VW Group marques, it’s Cupra that seems to be most interested in pushing outside of a remit which has yet to be fully established being such a new entity – the Formentor VZ5 with its Audi-derived five-cylinder engine is a case in point. We sincerely hope that we see a little more of that rebellious spirit in future derivatives.
Price and rivals
Being purely all-wheel drive and with the most powerful engine option, the Cupra Leon ST is only available in two well-equipped forms. The VZ2 opens the range at £38,570, with the VZ3 variant starting at £40,535 and which builds on an already impressive roster of standard equipment with a different wheel design and heated leather sports seats available in either black or the fetching Petrol Blue.
Estate rivals include the aforementioned Golf R estate that will likely be both more expensive and not as well equipped when it reaches the UK later this year. Ford’s Focus ST estate is another alternative that’s crucially available with both a manual transmission and front-wheel drive. Although good to drive, as a package it does fall slightly short of the Cupra with its gruff powertrain and iffy steering.
Looking outside of the direct competition, ‘around £40k’ will net you the Mercedes-AMG CLA35, BMW’s 330i estate or even the Jaguar XE P300. Although less overtly sporty, all three are more sophisticated than the Cupra.