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What is it? A Seat Leon Cupra, now with an additional 10bhp (so 286bhp total) from the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine it shares with fast Golfs, TTs and Octavias. Is that it? Well there’s a new exhaust, which is 5.8kg lighter than the old one and (wrongly) promises a “sportier sound”, but yeah, it’s all about the power boost. When the Cupra was launched with ‘just’ 276bhp it was mildly outrageous - though not unheard of - that a FWD hot hatch should have so much power. But since that day in 2014, the ante has been upped quite considerably.
Blame the Focus RS, which is only a little over £1,000 more than a now £28,675 5dr Cupra, but has twice the driven wheels and 60 more horsepowers. Then there’s the FWD Civic Type R, which is all a bit track-day enthusiast but awesomely full-on and properly rapid. In recent months, the Cupra has been comprehensively outmanoeuvred. So is there still any point to the Cupra? Oh absolutely. A bit down on power and ‘only’ FWD it may be, but a proper weapon it remains. A Focus RS or Golf R will own it down a damp road, but the Cupra doesn’t half behave well for something of this ilk. Doubters need only remember that sub-eight minute Nurburgring record, which still holds, at least until Honda decides to beat it. And of course there will always be those who prefer their hot hatches FWD-only… That extra power. Can you feel it? The numbers (scroll down for the full set) haven’t changed all that much. Comparing like for like, a DSG-equipped three-door Cupra SC is 0.1secs quicker to 62mph (5.6secs plays 5.7) – it would take Stig-like senses to notice any difference whatsoever without whipping the stopwatch out. There’s an identical 258lb ft of torque, too, albeit over a slightly broader rev range. One of the Cupra’s strengths has always been the way it delivers its power: relentlessly, and without ever feeling like it’s about to run out of puff. And we’re as impressed by the 290 as we were with the 280 when we first drove it. Which was very. And it handles as well as ever, with the VAQ diff tugging you clear of tight bends without too much drama. Civilized and capable, it’s as happy in full maniac mode as it is pootling along through town or down the motorway. This is less true of, say, the Civic. Care to remind us what the rest of the car is like? Absolutely. You can have it as either a three-door SC, five-door hatch or spacious ST estate, with your choice of DSG or manual ‘box. The estate is by far and away the one to go for. Competing hatches make convincing arguments for themselves over the SC and five-door, but there’s little that can match the ST for pace, space, price and everyday usability. It’s well worth having the optional Sub-8 performance kit. For a £2,685 you get four-piston Brembos and the 19s needed to accommodate them, plus a set of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s. Doesn’t just look ace (we happen to like the orange bits), but feels it, too. Should I buy one? Not if you already own a Cupra 280. You won’t notice the difference so it’s not worth the upgrade. If that’s not the case, go right ahead. It’s more usable day-to-day than a Civic Type R, feels maybe 95 per cent as rapid and is considerably less embarrassing to be seen driving. We’ll have ours as an estate with the orange wheels, please. The numbers (Cupra 290 SC with the DSG – it’s the quickest one) 286bhp, 258lb ft, 155mph, 0-62mph in 5.6secs, 43.5mpg, 149g/km CO2