Cars

The SEAT Leon Cupra R Is One of the Rarest Forbidden Fruit Hot Hatchbacks

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Take a Volkswagen Golf R. Give it a sexier body and a Spanish name. Make it front-wheel drive instead of all-wheel drive, but keep the 306 brake horsepower rating. Then make only 799 of them. It’s an odd recipe, but it’s a fun one that gets you this: the SEAT Leon Cupra R.

So, limited as it may be, can it hold its own against its Golf R cousin—let alone the rest of the increasingly crowded hot hatch market?

(Full Disclosure: I asked SEAT’s UK press office if I could borrow its Leon Cupra R for a spell and they said yes. They dropped the car off with a full tank of gas and returned a week later to get it. I’ve thrown a few of SEAT’s shiny shiny pics in with mine as well.)

Spanish automaker SEAT has been around for ages and a part of the monolithic Volkswagen Group for decades now. The Leon (and it’s “SAY-OTT Ley-on,” not “Seat Leon” if you’re doing this right) is a hatchback in the light of the Volkswagen Golf and Honda Civic, and is commonly found prowling Europe’s roads. The Leon Cupra is a dialed-up version; the Leon Cupra R is supposed to be the company’s practical performance flagship. And it shares its MQB platform with a ton of other VW Group cars.

SEAT’s spelled in all caps because it stands for “Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo.” The company primarily makes economical people movers at its factories in Martorell, Barcelona and El Prat. But like VW with its GTIs and Rs, Ford with ST and RS and of course Honda’s Si and Type-R variants, SEAT has had lowkey halo cars in its lineup for some time.

Until recently, SEAT’s performance cars were called “Cupra.” It meant that they were the ones to play in if you fancied a hot hatch with VW Group innards that wasn’t a Golf or a Polo. One that looks a bit exciting, for example. Now though “Cupra” is its own sub brand, taking the day to day SEAT cars, sticking a pointy logo on them, and giving them a whack more power.

The SEAT Leon Cupra R, then, is the last SEAT Leon Cupra before it inevitably becomes a Cupra Leon.

Photo: Alex Goy

What Is It?

A limited edition hot hatch made of sharp angles, copper bits, and power. The Leon is SEAT’s biggest hatch, going toe to toe with the likes of the Ford Focus, Audi A3 and more. That means you get plenty of space in the rear for humans and their stuff, and toys up front to keep you entertained and going in the right direction.

The standard Leon is a great car. It looks ace parked up, even years after it launched, and the tech doesn’t feel all that dated. The Cupra R gets the most power SEAT has to offer: 306 brake horsepower, some extra aero tweaks, adaptive suspension, Brembo stoppers, modified front camber, and a noisy exhaust. On top of all of that, it comes in an exclusive matte paint job, gets copper details inside and out, and gets bucket seats to boot.

Unfortunately, only 799 are available and they’re all sold, so this quick shakedown will be as close as most of us get spending time with one.

Photo: Alex Goy

Specs That Matter

It’s packing a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with 306 BHP and 280 lb-ft of torque. For the 24 cars available in the UK, that power is delivered to the front wheels by a six-speed stick shift. Left-hand drive cars could come with a dual clutch automatic. 0-62mph, according to SEAT, takes 5.8 seconds and it’ll clip 155 mph if you’re feeling lucky.

It weighs in at 3,203 pounds, which is pretty decent. The result of the punchy motor and that modestish heft is 24 mpg city and 41 mpg highway. If you can keep your foot lights on the throttle.

You won’t be hard up for luggage space thanks to 13 cubic feet of trunk room with the seats up and 43 with them folded down.

Photo: SEAT

What’s Great

Noise. Noise all day long. SEAT’s tailpipe tweakery has given the Cupra R a decent warble. It warbles gently in the car’s lesser driving modes, but in “Cupra” it sings the song of its people when you give it some stick. Its people, by the way, sing songs that sound like really great four bangers at full chat.

Handling. The tweaks made over the lesser Cupra have made the R pretty special. Turn in is stellar, and makes giving it some welly a real treat. It doesn’t feel like it’s going to push itself off the road even when you’re being, ahem, spirited.

Photo: SEAT

SEAT’s added some extra aero bits to the Cupra R. A cynic would say that they’re only cosmetic extras to try and justify the price. They’re there to reduce lift, so have a legit purpose, but they do make the car look smart in the process. They’re little additions, but make the car feel more special.

Speaking of special–the copper trim works really well with the matte gray paint. I went in expecting to think they’d make the whole affair look a bit tacky, but it works.

Photo: SEAT

What’s Weak

Limited edition silliness. Yeah, it’s cool to do limited runs of things (just ask Mazda–limited edition Miata, anyone?), but it seems like something of a waste to keep the R as such a limited run model.

Photo: SEAT

Casual Driving

A fast hatch based on a model that normal people go and do their shopping in on the day to day could be a recipe for disaster. A harsh ride, silly power map, and rear window blocking wings can turn something great in to something awful (More disclosure: I’m one of the people who think the Hyundai i30N’s ride makes it dreadful.)

However, we live in an age of adjustable driving modes and the team at SEAT didn’t take any chances. It’s perfectly comfortable around town. OK, its huge wheels do make for a bumpier ride than the base Leon’s would, but it’s nothing that’d upset your mother.

The A-pillars are a touch on the thick side, so keeping an eye out in tight junctions can be tricky. Similarly, the rear window is so tiny it’s not really worth it being there at times. Thankfully the car is covered in parking sensors and the like so you won’t clatter a wall while trying to back in to a space.

Photo: Alex Goy

Keep the car in its most basic setting and it’s easy to drive, comfortable, and, well… “carish.” It’s not so big you’d be nervous about a narrow side street, not so small that you have to think about what you’re taking with you. It’s sensible in much the same way a Golf R is sensible–there’s a big wodge ’o power under the hood but you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.

Aggressive Driving

In the infotainment menu screen there’s a menu for changing what drive mode the car is in. Individual lets you set it to your own style, Sport beefs things up a bit from the Comfort setting–the car’s default setting. It’s nice that SEAT thought any of the 799 people who will sit in the hot seat of these things think they’ll actually use anything other than the fourth mode: Cupra.

Photo: Alex Goy

In Cupra all the usual things get set to F*&K YOU, MOM. Steering, springs, engine. As I was in a UK car I had a six-speed manual to play with, so the gearbox couldn’t rebel along with them. I got to do that myself. What was a perfectly decent car to float around town in becomes something really rather different. It wants to play with you, goad you in to driving fast and making noise. This is pleasing.

The first thing you notice is the noise ramping up. That 2.0- liter motor may have found a home in more than a few VW Group vehicles, but it makes a fine noise here. It’s still not as loud as the hooligans in McDonald’s parking lots would like thanks to turbos muting the noise, but it does the job. It pops and bangs and makes big grins happen.

Photo: SEAT

Front-wheel drive means the Cupra R’s 0-62 time is a little slow compared to the similarly powered Golf R, but in gear it doesn’t feel any slower. It pulls hard and will get you to the speed limit in less time than you’d expect. The pull is addictive in the SEAT, it makes you want to feel it more and more. Find a twisty road and you’ll be pushing for more–for the car to push you back in your seat just one more time.

Speaking of pushing, it can mess with your face. SEAT’s popped an electric differential up front to try and tame the horses falling out of the front and it kinda works! It doesn’t entirely quell torque steer, sadly. Find some rough/damp tarmac, put it in second, line ’er up, and mash the gas… and you’ll turn slightly left if you’re not paying attention. However, in the bends the diff is basically magic.

Turn in, meter out the power, wait a moment and BAM, you feel the car tighten up and pull you around. Much like the torque itself, it’s addictive. Not long ago the thought of 300 horses through the front wheels was mocked, that you’d be able to get it around a bend without washing off and getting impaled in some sort of shrub? Not a chance. Today, though, it’s eminently possible. And really damn fun.

Photo: SEAT

Braking has previously been a bit of an issue with fast SEATs. The slightest prod of the anchors used to result in a giant lurching stop. I always made sure to avoid driving for 30 minutes after breakfast as it was so lurchy.

Has that changed in the R? Sort of. It’s nowhere near as bad as I’ve experienced on older SEATs, but it’s still a touch too keen to show you the top of the steering wheel. Handy in a pinch though.

Having a six speed stick shift is becoming increasingly novel, but it’s alive and well here. It’s a decent shift attached to a well weighted clutch. It can be a little tough at low speed, but nothing to complain about if you’re in to hot hatches.

In short–it’s an absolute blast to drive like you’re on fire.

Photo: Alex Goy

Value

Time for the bad news. In order to get one of the 799 Cupra Rs you’d have to shell out a smidge less than $46,000 (at current UK/US exchange rate. Thanks, Brexit!). Which is a lot of money when you consider a Honda Civic Type R is $35,700.

In the UK the price difference is a little less: £2,000 between the Cupra and a GT-spec Civic. It’s also a touch more than an option-free Golf R as well. The question is: how much do you want a limited edition car?

Photo: SEAT

Verdict

There’s a lot to like about the SEAT Leon Cupra R. It’s a charismatic machine, one that stands out in the parking lot, excites when you want it to, and can do the day to day stuff.

It has a problem, though. No matter how many copper bits, limited edition plate things you pop on it, or warbly noises fall out of its bum, a Civic Type R does the whole FWD hot hatch thing better, and a Golf R offers the same package with two extra driven wheels thrown in.

On the wildness scale it sits between the two–the Golf being eminently more sensible, and the Honda being… the Honda. If you’re a Cupra fan and want something special to roll in, fill your boots. Otherwise, there are other options to seriously consider.

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