Leon Estate VZ3
Cupra Leon vs Cupra Born: electric 'hot hatch' vs fast wagon
Christmas, Hanukkah, Dhanu Sankranti, Guru Gobind Singh, Hogmanay. It's the time for family get-togethers. So here's one. I took the Cupra Leon for a winter meetup with its sibling, the Born. Can we spot the relationship?
Hmmm. One's a four-wheel-drive fast estate with a front-transverse petrol engine. The other's an electric rear-motor rear-drive hatch. But does that mean they can't be related?
There is a common thread. Cupra's Leon is supposed to be a sporty thing, albeit one with a big boot. A handier hot-hatch. The Born is positioned as the zippiest version of the Volkswagen Group's MEB electric cars. It's more firmly suspended than a VW ID3, and its cabin has big-bolstered seats and trim that came from the changing shed of a surf school. Both it and the Leon roll on wheels like the blades of a food-processor.
The Born I'm in is a mid-ranger, with 204bhp, power that fails to sparkle in the face of 1740kg mass with driver. But it has the usual EV eagerness at low speed. The chassis is composed too. On some buckled Bucks roadways, it shows good control, and the steering is usefully quick. And yet it fails to engage me. The controls feel numb, and the cornering just won't come out to play.
In the days of Seat Leon Cupras you could usually rely on finding that sense of fun. But I'm still trying to unearth it in the Cupra Leon, even four months into my time with it. Prodding your way through the drive modes, you find three levels of engine noise (two just electric augmentation), two settings for the torque split, three throttle maps, four transmission maps, and somewhere upwards of a dozen damper programmes.
There's also a big ESP button prominently ahead of the transmission selector. "Have fun" it screams, in 48pt bold italics. Not sure I can obey.
And yet I really like living with this car. It's quick, and the sharp steering is beautifully progressive. It's secure on winter roads, useful and roomy, the ergonomics and driving position are great, and of course it feels snaky-low after any crossover.
Just after the driving the Born, I'm on a call with the head of R&D at Cupra. I have a bit of a rant about the Born's horrible touch-sensitive steering-wheel controls. Every time I turned a corner the volume went up or down or the cruise control re-set. Yet when I wanted to do those things I couldn't reliably do so. It's perfectly clear he too is uncomfortable, saying he'd arrived at the company after those controls were decided on. But his kids like them. We're both too old, it seems.
The Leon has proper steering wheel buttons and rollers. Unfortunately it shares the screen system with the Born. It's not just slow-reacting and a bit baffling in its menus. It has also proved, on many of the Skoda, Seat, Cupra and VW test cars we've driven at TopGear, to be prone to blackouts and freezes. The Leon has taken to blocking its volume control, both on the console slider and the wheel roller. Usually a re-boot cures it.
One day not. It jammed at debilitating volume on Radio 4 on a long trip while the others in the car were trying to sleep. I stopped the car and prodded for several minutes. In the end I managed to use the steering wheel source menu to shift it to an input that wasn't playing. So we had the sound of silence. Loudly.