SEAT Leon CUPRA 280 – Driven

From its humble beginnings in 1996 the Cupra name has grown into a badge to be reckoned with. However, it’s been 2 years since we saw it on the back of a Leon so a new Leon Cupra is something to get excited about. The prospect of 280PS and a mechanical differential just heightens the anticipation.



What’s New?

The Cupra is powered by a revised version of the EA888 found in the 220PS Golf GTI. In the Leon it’s tuned to 280PS although there is a 265PS entry-level model. Boosting the sporting credentials are a wider track and fully independent rear suspension. The ride height is slightly lower than the FR model (10mm front, 5mm rear) and spring rates are increased by 10%.

The Golf GTI donates its progressive steering rack that reduces the lock-to-lock count from 2.4 to 2.1. Dynamic Chassis Control is standard too, the first time SEAT has employed this technology.

Working with the DCC is a VAQ electronically-controlled mechanical differential that’s capable of shuffling 100% of the Cupra’s 350Nm to either front wheel. It’s another first for the Leon and gives it a fighting chance against the likes of the Megane 265.

The Cupra Look

Look carefully at the front and you’ll notice the fog lights are replaced by bigger air intakes. That’s an unusual choice but when you’ve got the Leon’s excellent full LED headlights as standard fogs aren’t necessary.

Look to the rear and you find a pair of oval, chrome tipped exhausts flanking the usual diffuser-style bumper. Note the absence of side skirts and flared arches. The 280 model boasts a rear spoiler while the 265 makes do without.

The wheels are unique to the Cupra (18s on the 265, 19s on the 280) and cover larger discs (340 x 30 front, 310 x 22 rear). Bridgestone Potenzas are fitted as standard.

The result is a Leon with true sporting intent but one that avoids the showy appearance of some rivals. It’s very similar to the Golf GTI in that respect, a view reinforced by the uninspiring shades on the colour chart. Red, black, silver and three shades of grey are available. The pale Nevada Grey is unique to the Cupra but is a far cry from the bright yellows, blues and oranges of the past. That’s a shame.

On The Road

The first thing that impresses is the refinement. In comfort mode the Cupra rides the Spanish motorways like a limo, quiet and smooth, the engine surprisingly discrete. If you’re used to Cupras of old this will come as a surprise.

Switch to Sport mode and the engine note hardens, the throttle response is more immediate and the suspension tenses up but the Leon loses little of its composure. If this translates onto British roads we’ll have a car that’s incredibly easy to live with on our non-EU funded roads. Cupra mode takes this a step further and might be a bit too much for the UK but sets the Leon up for track work.

The new steering rack has good weight and makes the Cupra feel alert although it would have been nice to have more feel. The good news is that it is free from torque steer and the diff does its job admirably without corrupting the steering. Through tight 2nd and 3rd gear corners you can really feel it pulling the nose in and that just boosts your confidence.

In fact, the Leon Cupra does all it can to boost your confidence. There’s ample grip from the Bridgestones and as long as you have faith in the differential you can power out of corners with ease and no messy understeer. The brakes are strong and progressive, avoiding the over-servoed feel of some other VAG motors.

The engine is spot on too. With 350Nm to play with from 1,750rpm to 5,300rpm it picks up quickly in any gear. On the mountain passes around Martorelli the Leon could sit in 3rd gear and pull itself out of tight hairpins before eagerly surging to the rev limiter. It’s incredibly flexible and very willing, and all the time you’re treated to an aggressive exhaust note courtesy of the sound symposer.

On The Track

A short session on the Castelloli circuit, north-west of Barcelona, saw me behind the wheel of a DSG-equipped 280. It’s a great circuit, fast with varying gradients and cambers, and is a good test of the Cupra.

The DSG setup is the same as ever but ties in well with the driver modes. Activate Cupra mode and the ‘box lets you direct the action with the wheel-mounted paddles. Up-shifts are quick without it feeling like you’re punishing the car, downshifts are rapid but there can be a delay if you ask for multiple shifts in quick succession.

The wonderful on-road composure makes the Cupra feel a little numb on track but it is quick, sure-footed and extremely capable.

Interior

The latest Leon really raised its game in terms of interior quality and this is reflected in the Cupra. The cabin is largely the same as the FR although the seats are upgraded with alcantara-lined upholstery and leather side bolsters.

Cupra logos appear on the flat-bottomed steering wheel, door sills, centre console and speedo while red LED lighting in the door and roof add a bit of night-time colour.

Vital Statistics

The official figures make for great reading, especially when you see how far the Cupra has come since its last incarnation. 42mpg is amazing for a car that can hit 62mph in just 5.8 seconds and is as happy on a track as it is on the school run.

SEAT have worked hard to reduce weight on this new Leon and the result is a saving of 75kg on the Cupra. With a kerb weight of 1,395kg that equates to 198 bhp/ton, more than enough to see off most of its competitors.

How Much?

Officially you can get into a SEAT Leon Cupra for £25,690 but that gets you the 3 door 265 with manual ‘box. For this you also get the best of the Leon options list including DAB radio, all-LED headlights, dual-zone climate, all-round parking sensors and automatic lights and wipers.

Step up to the 280 and prices start at £26,940. This gives you more power and adds those 19 inch wheels, black trim, roof spoiler and sat-nav. You can also pick the DSG transmission and 5-door option, both of which are unavailable on the 265.

Does this make the 265 the poor relation to the 280? On paper, yes, but factor in damp, weather-ravaged British roads and you might find that the smaller wheels make the 265 easier to live with, despite the small drop in power.

Against The Competition

With 280PS the Cupra easily outguns its main rivals. The Audi S3 is quicker but costs over £30k, the Astra VXR feels heavy and unruly, the Focus ST seems too frantic.

The Megane 265 remains the one to beat for outright driving thrills. Its Cup chassis, beautifully judged steering and blistering pace give it the edge on track and road, but the Megane is outclassed in all other areas.

What the Cupra does so well is beat the Golf GTI at its own game. The Leon Cupra is so much more refined than it used to be and feels more grown up, the same qualities that made people forgive the GTI for its lack of outright pace. Now the Leon is a lot quicker, better looking, just as refined and cheaper too. There’s no rational argument for choosing the Golf other than the desire for a VW badge.

In summary

The Cupra badge is back with a bang and a mighty one at that. As a road car the Leon Cupra trounces most of its rivals in terms of pace and price but doesn’t cut corners. The new technology has been used to great effect and allows the Leon to deploy every bit of its performance with ease.

Don’t forget you can choose between three-door style and five-door practicality too, widening the Cupra’s appeal even further. Expect to see plenty of them on the UK roads in the coming months.

All we need are some brighter shades to match that youthful, vibrant Spanish image. Something tells me we won’t have to wait long before the colour charts need reprinting.

Future Plans

You could order a Cupra today for delivery in March but hold on a minute. SEAT have some optional upgrades on the way, including uprated Brembo stoppers and front bucket seats like those fitted in the old Cupra R. They’re not available to order until July so you may want to hold back for a short while.

Will we see a ST Cupra?

Maybe, maybe not. SEAT haven’t committed themselves to a fast Leon estate but it would make an exciting alternative to the Focus ST and Octavia vRS.

Will we see a Cupra R?

Again, SEAT are uncommitted, and if the Cupra does as well as it deserves to do that may cause concerns for those higher up in the Volkswagen group. Rumours of a Cupra R with over 300bhp and all-wheel drive are rife and it would prove a serious threat to the Volkswagen Golf R and Audi S3. Will their German masters allow it to happen?

ModelSC CupraSC Cupra 280SC Cupra 280Cupra 280Cupra 280
Doors33355
TransmissionManualManualDSGManualDSG
Engine2.0 TSI2.0 TSI2.0 TSI2.0 TSI2.0 TSI
Power (PS / bhp)265/262280/276280/276280/276280/276
Torque (Nm /lb.ft)350/258350/258350/258350/258350/258
Kerb Weight (kg)1,3951,3951,4211,4151,441
MPG44.144.142.244.142.2
Top Speed155155155155155
0-62 mph (s)5.95.85.75.85.7
CO2149149155149155
VEDFFGFG
Price£25,690£26,940£28,225£27,240£28,525


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Author: Chris Auty

Voted the Breakthrough Blogger of 2013 by SEAT and the Guild of Motoring Writers , Chris has lived and breathed cars since he was old enough to say 'faster'. With a penchant for hot hatches and an allergy to public transport, he would much prefer to drive a bad car than never drive at all. Fortunately his family has learned to put up with this obsession and the internet has provided a channel for his ramblings.

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