Nine-time 24hrs champion gives the current crop some tips
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£28,440 when new
Haven’t you driven the Leon Cupra before? Yes, numerous times. But this is our first taste of the Seat Leon Cupra 290 in the UK. That ‘290’ signifies its new power output; it’s up from 280 to 290ps, which translates into 286bhp in old money. Driving the front wheels only through your choice of manual and paddleshift DSG gearboxes, prices for the Cupra 290 start at £28,380 for a three-door, though there are five-door and estate versions, too. That’s a lot for a Seat. It is, but thankfully, it’s a good one. We’ve already been pretty enamoured with Leon Cupras past, and adding power has not affected that. More so than ever, this is a seriously big-lunged car that rollocks along with an intensity that outstrips its quoted power figure. It may be down on power compared to the Honda Civic Type-R, but it gives absolutely nothing in pace.
Does it handle all that power? Yes and no. It was all lovely and smooth on Spanish roads on our first acquaintance, but on the slightly damp, bumpy roads that lie in reach of TG towers, it’s a different story. Enthusiastic throttle use in the first three gears can lead to lots of flashy orange if you’ve got the traction control on, and abundant wheelspin if you haven’t. But we’re loathe to criticise to too much. In a world of performance cars that make things very easy for their driver, which massage talent and cover up mistakes, it’s nice when a car demands some mechanical sympathy from its user. It proves the people who put it together like to give a car their all when driving it. The Ford Focus RS drifts. Bet this doesn’t. Well, no. It’s not four-wheel drive, and there’s no button to press to access easy powerslides out of every empty corner you find. But the Leon is still bloody entertaining: drive this thing with vigour and it can be very, very exciting. Braking into a corner can excite its rear axle, upping the sense of agility, while there’s a diff on the front axle to pull you aggressively out of corners. Get it on a track - with lots of lovely run off - and there’ll be oversteer to explore. It’ll just be the accurate, efficient sort, as opposed to the smokey, drifty stuff of that Ford. Don’t go thinking it’s rough and ready like that Civic Type-R, though; its handling is never anything less than confidence-inspiring, and the Cupra is a placid, useable car in day-to-day life. Its suspension is always pretty firm, but if you can cope with that, it’s just like any other Leon. Anything else to report? The brakes are really good. There’s lots of braking power from the very top of the pedal, but they’re still easy to use smoothly. And while there’s undeniable appeal to a slick DSG twin-clutch auto, the manual gearbox is very good. Unless your licence only allows you to go auto, you simply must have it. It’s satisfying to use and the ratios are lovely and short, so on a quick piece of road, you’ll get plenty to chance to flick up and down the gears. With so much torque from its engine, though, you can also leave it in third or fourth and focus on everything else if you so wish. You like this car, don’t you? Yes. Its subtle styling and slightly dull interior might lull you into thinking it’s a bit meek, but the Leon is far from it. It’s marvellous: friendly when you have to do the dull stuff, yet properly intense when you don’t, and more proof of how much fun front-wheel drive can be. A few years ago, a hot hatch of this quality would have probably topped its class. But competition is so, so fierce now. There’s the brilliant, raw stuff (Civic Type-R, Renaultsport Megane 275), the sensible but satisfying stuff (VW Golf R, BMW M135i) and a car that manages both (that pesky Focus). Even Kia makes a good hot hatch these days… So what should I buy? Ultimately, we’d point you in the direction of the Focus or Megane if you want a circa-300bhp hatch for thrills, or the Golf for an all-rounder. But this Leon is snapping right at the heels of all of them. If, for whatever reason, it grabs your attention most, you won’t be disappointed.
£18,325 – £33,785
It was already great. Now it's even better. It's easy to see why this is many people's default hot hatch
£18,100 – £31,085
A fun car with a practical side, but no longer one of the sharpest hot hatches on sale
Breathes even more fire but is now able to deploy it with more finesse.