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Cupra Leon Estate VZ3 2024 review – Cupra’s rival to the Mercedes-AMG CLA35 Shooting Brake

The Cupra Leon has been updated to match its Golf GTI and Audi S3 cousins, bringing more power, a refreshed design and a welcome dynamic edge to the hot estate

Evo rating
  • Point-to-point pace, chassis balance, interior materials
  • Steering feel, price

Volkswagen has struggled to maintain its hold on the hot hatch market in recent years, with the launch of the Mk8 Golf not quite as well received as it had hoped. Its Spanish relative, Cupra, took the same MQB Evo platform to create its latest Leon in 2020 and while it suffered from the same infuriating HMI, we found it to be a more engaging package. For 2024, Cupra has given it, and its popular Formentor sibling, a mid-life update, and while changes are subtle, they help make it an even more attractive offering than before.

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As before, the Cupra Leon hatchback is offered only with front wheel drive, leaving space for the Volkswagen Golf R and Audi S3 in the VW hierarchy, and adopts a GTI Clubsport-spec powertrain with 296bhp from its 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine. If you want more than this, you’ll need the Cupra Leon Estate in its top VZ3 trim, which gains an additional 22bhp to deliver a 328bhp total.

Overall proportions have stayed the same, but there’s now a new ‘shark nose’ front bumper, with a more prominent lower intake, redesigned matrix LED headlights (standard on this top VZ3 trim) and a full width rear light bar incorporating an illuminated Cupra logo. In-line with Cupra’s colour scheme, cars of all trim levels come with plenty of copper highlights, with a matte Century Bronze (brown) and Enceladus Grey paintwork now on the options list.

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Inside, you’ll find the same faux-carbonfibre steering wheel, copper detailing and lacklustre centre console as before, but Cupra has made some important changes to bring the Leon up-to-speed with its rivals. There has been a noticeable increase in the use of more premium (and sustainable) soft touch materials, with recycled microfibre, a neoprene-esque material and a hard wearing fabric to be found on the seats and throughout the cabin. Where once there were expanses of hard plastic you’ll now find fabric cladding in most cases, lifting interior ambience and making it feel like a more premium product. While there is still some exposed hard plastic trim, overall material and build quality is strong.

Alongside the long-awaited backlit touch sliders for climate and volume control, the Leon’s infotainment system has now expanded to 12.9-inches in diameter, integrated more neatly into the dashboard and with noticeably quicker response – this new display is angled towards the driver and unlike some, doesn’t creak and bend during use. Most significant, though, is the inclusion of standard carbonfibre-backed Sabelt bucket seats with the VZ3, offering excellent support and comfort. The matte carbonfibre finish is also something you’d only usually expect to find in much more premium models, but the fact the carbonfibre mould matches the seats that made a debut in the limited-run Audi RS6 might help explain this…

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Carbonfibre mirror caps are also an option, with the weave intertwined with copper detailing as a nod to the Cupra colours in this particular car (ordinary carbonfibre is also an option).

Thankfully the changes go further than aesthetic tweaks, with the new range-topping Leon Estate adopting the same rear-axle torque vectoring unit as the new Golf R and Audi S3 that made its debut on the soon to be replaced RS3. Making use of an electronically-controlled multi-plate clutch, the system sends power to the outside rear wheel when under load in efforts to adjust attitude and create a more neutral handling balance. It even enables a new drift mode. Yes, this is still a thing. 

Switch ESC to sport, energise the powertrain mid-corner and the Leon rotates keenly. The resulting sensation can take time to acclimatise to as it’s an unexpected - but welcome - level of interaction unexpected of VW Group hatches.

This new rear axle unit does mask the numb steering, though, which is low on off-centre response and a sense of feedback. Cupra does give you the option to adjust steering weight through its numerous drive modes, but even these only seem to impact steering weight a quarter of a turn in, with load difficult to determine on corner entry. This is something that plagues the majority of cars on this platform though, with the Golf R and Audi S3 suffering the same.

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The Leon does a good job of managing its 1576kg kerb weight on the smooth Spanish tarmac we tested it on, with adaptive dampers offering further control should you require it. Weight distribution isn’t quite 50:50 (58:42) and on good (hot) tarmac its sticky Bridgestone Potenza Race rubber and the new rear torque vectoring unit, make the Cupra resistant to understeer. 

Power comes from the same 2-litre turbocharged EA888 four-cylinder as the rest of the hot MQB Evo range, and while power has seen a 22bhp increase, not much has changed in this department. It’s 328bhp peak is produced from between 5600 - 6500rpm with a 310lb ft peak torque figure at 2100 - 5500rpm, dropping its 0-62mph time from 4.9sec to 4.8, a tenth ahead of the Mercedes-AMG CLA35 Shooting Brake – top speed stands at 155mph.

Cupra is also offering the new Leon in plug-in eHybrid-form with up to 268bhp and with 62 miles of pure electric range, with mild-hybrid eTSI model also available for 2024. The entry point for the lineup is the 148bhp 1.5-litre petrol with a manual transmission, moving to 201bhp and 261bhp 2-litre four-cylinder variants with a standard DSG.

With power sent to all four wheels through a Haldex system, traction is rarely something you have to work for in range-topping VZ3 model, making acceleration undramatic – the lack of real exhaust sound in the cabin doesn’t help matters, with artificial sound making it impossible to hear. It’s undoubtedly quick and can cover ground at great pace, but the engine doesn’t encourage you to reach for its redline, with short shifting and use of the low slung torque a more satisfying way to drive. It’s this that makes it excellent for long-distance motorway driving though, with surprising power available in high gears, low in the rev range.

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Initial powertrain response is good with ESC turned off (thankfully a single, physical button press), with the seven-speed DSG transmission (there;s no manual option) as sharp and refined as it was before. In comfort and full automatic mode it blends into the background, but opt to change ratios yourself and it gives you exactly what you need, when you need it for the most part – we did experience the occasional slow paddle-to-shift response at full throttle, but it’s a strong transmission overall.

While the estate gets an extra 32bhp over the front-drive hatchback, a 155kg weight disadvantage puts it just 1bhp/ton away from the hatch (199bhp/ton for the estate and 198bhp/ton for the hatch). Though all-wheel drive gives the estate a better chance of making use of its output, drive to a single axle in the hatchback makes its lower power figure feel considerably more lively.

Brakes have also seen an upgrade in this mid-life update, with the Cupra Leon estate fitted with 357mm front discs as standard with an optional 375mm, six-piston Akenobo setup available in VZ3 trim,  rear discs are 310mm. Not only do these uprated brakes fill the 19-inch wheels well, they offer strong performance even on the long, fast downhill stretches of road. Initial bite is perhaps a little on the sharp side and they can be difficult to modulate at low speeds, but performance is great for a spirited drive.

Price and rivals

Though this update is mild, the changes across the board have made the Cupra Leon estate an even more compelling offering for those looking for a practical fast estate. While it still has its ergonomic flaws and lacks some of the fine driver-machine engagement we’d really like, it’s one of the best options in its segment. 

Cupra has yet to confirm UK prices, but expect an increase over the outgoing VZ3 edition’s £48,815 sticker price. In terms of rivals, Mercedes-AMG CLA35 Shooting Brake is its closest rival with 302bhp (plus 14bhp from an electric motor), and costs from £51,170. The £39,105 Ford Focus ST is a much more affordable offering but while the option of manual transmission is refreshing to see, a 276bhp output puts it some way behind European rivals.

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