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Another fast Seat Leon? The fastest, in fact. It’s the new Seat Leon Cupra R. It’s the third car to bear the name and comfortably the most powerful. Its 2.0-litre turbo engine now produces 306bhp, which is up 10bhp on standard and enough for 0-62mph in 5.8secs and a 155mph top speed. That power figure is the same figure as you’ll find in a VW Golf R, only here, it’s put through the front wheels only. There must be chassis changes, then? The wheels are more negatively cambered than a standard Cupra’s, which alongside more direct steering, makes the car quicker reacting in corners. There are bigger Brembo brakes and you can have super sticky Michelin Cup tyres as an option. The rear spoiler is carbon and provides some actual downforce, just like a Civic Type R.
Its electronic differential is set up the same as a regular Cupra’s, though, while the suspension is no lower. For many, the big selling point will be its looks. A new bodykit helps house the car’s slightly wider tracks and is more aerodynamic, but crucially it looks appealingly aggressive. You can only have a Cupra R in black or grey, mind. So it’ll always look mean, but only to those in the know. It’s otherwise subtle enough to stay off the radar, even with all that copper detailing. I assume ‘R’ means race… Its full name would translate as ‘Leon Cup Racing Race’ if it did. But either way, this is clearly a motorsport inspired car, and it’s the first Cupra product to be put together by the Seat Sport team that does all the company’s racing stuff. That means a regular Cupra is half-built on the full Seat production line near Barcelona, before being wheeled down the road to the motorsport people to have all the special bits screwed on. Which might lead you to believe this is a pummelling trackday special, and a right old chore to drive on public roads. The opposite is true. Our first miles in the car were an hour or two of urban and motorway driving; with the adaptive damping in its Comfort mode, it’s a very easy-going car. The engine note drops away at 70mph and it’s as useable as any other Leon. Big boot, lots of room and plenty of ways to charge your phone. Prod everything into Cupra mode and it hardens up noticeably. The ride is far more abrupt, the engine hits harder and sounds naughtier and the steering tenses up. There’s a tangible transition between its modes that not all cars with toggleable profiles exhibit. And what’s it like at its meanest? It’s more mature than its base car. Leon Cupras are hugely fun cars, but they’ve always felt a touch unhinged and overpowered, with lots of wheelspin if you’re not thoughtful with the throttle. The Cupra R – on dry roads, at least – is immediately focused and has no slack in any of its controls. Not a single horsepower is lost on pull away and once you get to a corner, turn in is sharp and snappy. It takes greedy entry speeds to make it understeer, and once you’re hooked into a corner you can get straight back onto the throttle to feel the diff project you out of the other side. It’s not quite as dramatic as the setup you’ll find in a Civic Type R or the old RenaultSport Megane, but it’s very effective. I was most impressed by the Cupra R in higher speed corners. It’s a properly stable thing and it would take some serious yobbishness to make it move around unduly. Which might strike you as a little bit too mature; for all its big wheels and carbon spoilers, this is the Leon at its most focused. There’s even white dials and a full Alcantara steering wheel rim to properly put you in the mood.
Is it too serious? Nope, there’s a sense of humour, too. The Cupra R comes as standard with a six-speed manual gearbox and you’re richly rewarded for changing up right at the very last second, with the same dramatic sound effects of a flat-out upshift with a DSG paddeshift transmission, albeit more rewarding because it’s taken some skill to elicit. Tickle the rev limiter for a second and you’ll get the full tarmac rally car bwah bwah bwah too. A more sensible DSG transmission lies on the option list, but just in case you’re tempted, that only comes with the normal 296bhp. Another reason to stay old school. Do you feel the manual’s extra 10bhp over standard? Not really, to be honest. If anything, the Cupra R doesn’t feel as boisterous as a standard Cupra 300, simply because it handles its power so much better. The frenetic feeling of speed has been neutered a bit, but the car is much more useable – and therefore quicker – as a result. It’s far from slow, of course, but 300bhp-plus hatches have been around for a little while now, and I think the shock value’s gone. Yeah, I’ve been spoilt. Sorry. How much is it? Err, £34,995. Add another £855 if you want the fancy tyres. There aren’t any other options: a touchscreen nav, Beats stereo, full phone connectivity, 19in alloys, LED lights, bucket seats and much Alcantara trim all come as standard. As does exclusivity. Seat is making 799 (most of them manuals), and a mere 24 are set to come to Britain (all of them manuals). Many of those have sold already. Its price is just about on par with the class, too; a top spec Honda Civic Type R isn’t much less, and isn’t a limited-run special. And don’t forget Seat has already topped 30 grand with the old Leon Cupra Sub8, a car less powerful and luxurious than this one. This Cupra R is as powerful as the current Leon will ever get. It’s the ultimate. But surely the Civic’s better? It’s probably more thrilling. It has more effective aero, is more powerful still and just happens to be a brand-new car with better tech. The Leon is a five-year-old car at its core, and bits of the interior give that away. Yet the Leon is very nearly as focused, very nearly as fast and its styling treads a path many will prefer. The Cupra R, plus the new Hyundai i30 N and (we hope) the next RenaultSport Megane all prove the Civic - no matter how talented - doesn’t have the berserk front-wheel-drive game to itself. They’ll all make for a brilliant group test… Verdict: A golden age for hot hatches continues with the most focused and fun Seat yet. That limited run will sell out quite quickly, we reckon. 8/10
£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.