+ Distinctive design
+ Strong hot hatch performance
+ Better value than a Golf GTI Clubsport
- Cheap interior plastics
- Poor infotainment system
- Some options aren’t available in the UK
Verdict: The Cupra Leon represents an impressive hot hatchback with a distinctive character and an engaging experience behind the wheel. It walks the walk and talks the talk, all while being better value than its Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport sister car. Questionable plastics and frustrating infotainment system aside, it has earned its place in the competitive hot hatch arena.
What is a Cupra? That’ll be the most common question any owner will be asked for the next few years at least. This new brand stems from sporty Seats, but in the same way DS broke away from Citroen, Cupra is now its own entity. The aim of the game is to create more distinctive models that dare to be a little different, be them born from Seats or more bespoke offering like the recent Formentor. This new Cupra Leon sits in the former group.
It might be based on the Seat Leon, but while that family hatchback appears friendly and warm, the Cupra has a distilled aggression about it. That scowling face with rakish lights, sharp creases and a wide graphite grille sets the tone. Muscular lines run up the bonnet to the glass house, while a single clean line draws your eyes along the car’s waistline. A prominent boot spoiler, quad exhaust exits and some rather unique copper alloy wheels complete a a great looking car. It’s not as angry as a Civic Type R, but it’s certainly more characterful than a Golf GTI.
This flair for design continues inside as the interior is full of sculpted shapes and interesting details. A D-shaped steering wheel featuring prominent starter and mode select buttons is narrated by copper touches, as are things such as air vents. In a world of faux- carbon and an excess of glossy black surfaces, Cupra designers are being bold, and we think it pays off. Less impressive is the 10-inch touchscreen infotainment system which, just like its application in many Volkswagen Group cars, results in frustration. There’s also a quite a few harsh plastics that make up the cabin – a shame as this intriguing space is otherwise well executed.
Beneath its Petrol Blue matt paint (sadly, not an option in the UK) lives a 2.0-litre turbocharged four cylinder engine. It packs a healthy 296bhp and 400Nm of torque, putting it in the same league as the hot hatch big boys. Now, if those figures sound familiar, that’s because they are identical to the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport. In fact, there’s a fair amount of Clubsport bits within this Cupra – no bad thing. Officially it will do 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds, but there might be some politics at play here as that’s just 0.1 seconds slower than VW’s golden boy GTI with the same engine and gearbox.
Show the Cupra some challenging Tarmac and it relishes every mile. Generally speaking it has a nice flowing feel to it as the car is hunkered to the ground, affording a nice stable platform for your ‘go faster’ thrills, but start throwing it around and it’s clear that this hatch is keen to play. The front-end of this Leon homes in on the apex of a corner with plenty of determination, electronic diff doing its bit, it’s easy to trim off any understeer via the throttle. Tightening turns reveals a keenness to rotate, and in wet greasy conditions, even a bit of lift-off oversteer when provoked. Sadly, the steering’s lack of weight and feedback detaches the driver from the action somewhat, so you’re bit more reliant on what the brilliant chassis is telling you. A combination of selectable drive modes and optional Dynamic Chassis Control gives the Cupra Leon a good breadth of abilities that’s essential to any successful hot hatchback.
The biggest question on your lips his likely ‘this, or a Golf GTI Clubsport?’ While the Clubsport is an excellent car, and very much a return to form for the GTI badge, the Cupra is maybe 10% more exciting behind the wheel, if 10% less polished as something to live with. Factor in that the Cupra is also pound-for-pound better value, not to mention a more unique choice, and that might just be enough to get enthusiasts through the showroom doors.
Car interiors are all a bit predictable these days. Glossy piano black surfaces, mood lighting and a screen. However, in Cupra’s quest to differentiate itself from its classmates, being bold is the order of the day. Copper-coloured details highlight vents and trim the sporty flat-bottomed steering wheel for an unusual yet sophisticated look. The whole dashboard is an interestingly sculptural affair forged from textured materials. It’s a bit of a shame that when you start to prod around you find plenty of hard scratchy plastics that do detract from the premium intentions.
Those sat up front are seated in a pair of leather sports seats, tattooed with obligatory Cupra badging. There’s plenty of adjustment to get comfy, and thanks to the bolsters not being overly aggressive, these posts should serve you well on longer journeys.
Brace yourself for yet another ‘copy and paste’ critique of the Volkswagen Group’s 10-inch infotainment system that has been incorporated in many cars. Cupra are using the touchscreen as well, and surprise surprise, we still don’t like it. Graphically it looks great, with slick animations and plenty of real estate display nicely illustrated options. However, this system is clunky, laggy at times and its haptic buttons are terrible to use on the move. Plug in a smartphone for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and some of these issues go away, but the ultimate solution would have been for some switchgear to be retained.
Open the rear doors to reveal a bench for three, which goes one better than the two of a Honda Civic Type R. Back passengers have really good levels of leg room to stretch out, and headroom isn’t bad either. As with many cars, it’s the middle passenger that pulls the short straw thanks to a chunky transmission hump that has to be straddled.
The fascinating concave boot lid lifts clear to present a nice wide aperture and a pretty good cargo space. It measures 380-litres – interestingly 9-litres more than a Golf GTI – and will prove ideal for weekly shops or even a medium size dog. However, there is a considerable load lip to keep in mind.
This EA888 engine will be well known to those who like their performance Golfs. It has been used in the GTI and Golf R, but more interestingly is that the Cupra receives it in the same pumped-up tune as the GTI Clubsport. That means more power and more torque. Performance is sent to the front wheels by a 7-speed automatic gearbox that’s smooth in operation, yet rapid to respond when cogs are summoned in anger.
It’s the 400Nm of torque that really defines this engine as opposed to its 296bhp. The mechanical muscle is supplied nice a low in the rev range, enabling really strong initial acceleration before continuing to pull cleanly. We have a hunch the car might be a little faster than its official 0-62mph time. The combination of mild synthesised engine noise and a grunty exhaust that crackles helps add some theatre to the drive.
At low speeds in a mode such as comfort, the drivetrain is highly polished and rather refined.
What buyers will really want to know is how this car differs from the more costly Golf GTI Clubsport – a car that we praise highly. Pottering about, it’s worth noting that the Cupra does ride a tad firmer at low speed, even with the optional Dynamic Chassis Control. It’s far from intolerable, but something that separates these two ever so slightly in terms of comfort. The Cupra is also more susceptible to road noise at higher speeds.
On the performance side of the coin, the GTI Clubsport represented a big improvement in terms of dynamics and excitement over the regular car, the Cupra takes that one notch further, though. Driven at a pace on some good roads, you can feel this Leon’s eagerness in its changes of direction and its bigger 370mm brakes allow you to tackle the Tarmac with more vigour, safe in the knowledge that the stopping power is there. Nibbling at the brakes also reveals how you can manipulate the chassis to get the back to go all light and cleanly rotate through tight bends. Start being devilish and you can really get this Leon moving about in the right conditions.
Driven smoothly and precisely you can cover ground quickly, and the stability the car offers on undulating roads conjures plenty of confidence. Engine response in Sport and the unflinchingly fast gear changes gives you the sense that the car is as eager as you are. A unique Cupra setting actually feels more at home on UK roads than Sport, perhaps softening those dampers a little. You can also create your own individual preset mapped to your desires and preferences.
Hot hatch enthusiasts will be yearning for more weighting and feedback from the steering to really feel what those front tyres are up to. Even in the sportiest Cupra mode more could be done, but this is also an affliction of the Clubsport with both being far better than the common garden GTI. However, steering response to inputs is rapid and the motion nice and accurate. Combine its light-footedness with a lack of body roll and plenty of grip, you’ve got a really entertaining hot hatch on your hands.
There’s no doubt that the Cupra Leon is a worthy addition to the hot hatchback fraternity. Dynamically speaking it just nudges past the GTI Clubsport, maybe at the cost of some refinement, but equally qualified assets for buyers include its distinctive character and overall value.