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SEAT Leon

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9/10

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Road Test

SEAT Leon Cup Racer driven

Driven December 2013

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The boot is enormous. Room for two weekly shops, at least. It has five doors and makes use of the Volkswagen Group's venerated MQB architecture, including the excellent multilink rear suspension. The steering wheel adjusts for reach. The trip computer, displayed via a hi-def screen, is clear and informative. The 2.0-litre turbo engine is smooth and might just sneak over 20mpg. You can have a double-clutch gearbox, with paddle-shifters.

All legitimate excuses to put this Leon at the top of your hot-hatch shopping list. And there's more! For starters, it's been turned up to 330bhp, with the bonus horsepower coming courtesy of a bigger airbox with competition filter, a boostier turbo, reprogrammed ECU, a stainless steel exhaust and a more pumpy fuel pump. The springs and dampers are race-spec (and very adjustable). This early prototype has hydraulic steering, though finished cars will have an electric, speed-sensitive system. It is, clearly, more than a match for the Audi S3 or the VW Golf GTI, with both of which it shares many parts...

Downsides? It's nearly two metres wide. There's a good chance you'll crack your head on the way in, on one of the roll cage's many thick tubes. You sit deep down, halfway along the car, so your shoulder is level with the B-pillar. Tied down by a full racing harness in the wraparound seats, it's hard to see over the dashboard. There's no traction control or ABS. No aircon, either. And if you drive it on a public road, you will be arrested.


Of course, you won't drive it on a public road, because this isn't just any old Leon. It's the Cup Racer, an off-the-shelf touring car eligible for anything from a dedicated one-make racing series to the World Touring Car Championship. It's also ideal for intimidating ratty old Clios on track days. Move over, chaps...

Flick the ignition master switch, press the silver starter button on the centre console and the engine bubbles into life. Clutch in, grab the tall gearlever - sprouting from the floor like a carbon stalagmite - and clunk into first gear in the manner of a large motorbike. Ease out the clutch (you won't need it again until you stop), feed in a good dose more power than you would in a regular Leon, then off you go. For a racing car, it's not too grumpy, though from the moment you move, it's keen for you to get on with things.

Our car has the optional sequential gearbox, and it's a complete sucker for punishment. It begs for full-throttle upshifts and will stutter if you even think about lifting off the gas. Changing down requires a firm biff with your palm, while braking as hard as possible. Otherwise it gets upset, at which point the back end gets floaty. I suspect the flappy-paddled car would be easier to drive at proper speeds - at least for those of us without oodles of race-car experience - as you'd worry less about the see-sawing weight transfer the ZF 'box magnifies.

It weighs 1,120kg, and the interior is naked, with just a smear of carbon fibre here and there. Flick the metal floor, and it plinks. It's a little echo chamber in here and - in the Spanish heat in which we find ourselves for this test - a torture chamber. The transmission whines and whirrs and bores right into your skull. It's a classic touring-car noise, straight from the onboard footage familiar to tin-top racing fans. From outside, it's all metallic and angry, with venomous spits when you come off the power and a cackling cough as the 'box bites into the next gear.

The steering is fairly light, even at garage-exit speed. And the ride is soft enough to feel a slight tip as you press the brakes, with a whiff of roll as it turns into a corner - nothing compared to the weighty lollop of a road car, but enough to let you know what the car is doing, or what it intends to do. Of course, you could wind up the springs and firm up the dampers, but it's unlikely that it'll slap you around the face. Provided you warm up the slicks.

The Seat motorsport crew has given us a set of short gear ratios for this mediumly fast and twisty circuit at Castellolí, north-west of Barcelona. Which means that short-shifting is the order of the day. Tug the lever. Full throttle. Whoosh. Shift again. Whoosh. Ride that turbo. It's fast but not terrifying, and there's a full aero kit to help sucker it down along the straights. Otherwise, it's all about the mechanical grip; after a few laps you feel the tyres chewing harder into the road (it's front-wheel-drive), the rubber warming like putty in hot hands.

This sequential version is a shade under £95k. A DSG-equipped car is £75k - about the same price as some track-day specials. A BAC Mono, for example, will set you back over £100k. The Cup Racer looks like decent value next to that. Alright, so you'll have to tow it to the circuit, but with the 20 grand you'd save by going for the cheaper gearbox, you could buy another Leon. With a diesel engine. To which you could attach a trailer...

Dan Read

Verdict: An off-the-shelf touring car in which to humiliate track-day mortals. And with flappy paddles fitted, it's not just for the pros...

Stats: 1984cc, 4cyl, FWD, 330bhp, 250lb ft, n/a mpg, n/a g/km, CO2, 0-62 in n/a secs, n/a mph, 1120kg, From £75,000

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