MOTORS REVIEW: Cupra Leon
Rather than rush to get a taste of the new sanitised and affordable Cupra hatchback I was gripped by the fear that the writing was now on the wall for a car that has gotten gradually more powerful and capable over the past two decades.
With the dawn of SUVs, plug-in hybrids and full electric vehicles, Cupra has moved into the mainstream, occasionally outselling Seat as it finds favour with a new audience.
But the brand was built on the foundations laid by the Golf GTI-rivalling Cupra R of the early noughties and the car you see here remains most true to that boy racing bloodline.
A two-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine delivers 300PS and 400Nm of torque, via a seven-speed automated dual-clutch gearbox, to the front wheels.
With the help of a clever electronic differential, all that power is somehow transmitted to the tarmac to deliver 5.7 second acceleration to 62mph and a 155mph top speed.
Unbelievably it also proved capable during my test of delivering on claimed fuel economy of 35.8 to 37.2mpg, which is delivered alongside CO2 emissions of 172g/km.
This is not what the full-fat Cupra Leon is about, though.
Quad exhausts, an aggressive front bumper, 19-inch aerodynamic alloys and matte grey paint communicate that this is a hatchback with performance intent.
The copper detailing and tribal tattoo-style Cupra badges add another layer of thugishness.
And while a choice of four driving modes deliver changes to throttle response, gear shifts, speed sensitive power steering and Dynamic Chassis Control, it is the “Cupra” mode’s popping exhaust and chassis control that delivers on expectations.
Angry, head-down acceleration is the order of the day, with the fun of bona-fide turbo induction sounds on acceleration and popping and spluttering on the overrun as the car leans hard on its brakes ahead of the next bend.
There is poise in the chassis too. Just as I used to prefer the old front-wheel-drive Volkswagen Scirocco R to its faster, all-wheel-drive Golf R, the Cupra Leon’s front-end focus delivers real hot hatch chassis flexibility.
While it might not deliver the steering feel, chassis poise of a Renaultsport Megane or the subtle adjustability of Hyundai’s excellent i30 N, the way it grips and goes with brutal efficiency is eye-widening.
Point-to-point, the Cupra Leon is electric… Just not in the same way as its new crop of range siblings.
It also manages to fulfil the role of daily driver, however.
While road noise at motorway speeds is pretty intrusive its ride is acceptably pliant in its standard setting.
What’s more, the interior is a world away from that old Lean Cupra R that kicked-off Seat’s association with performance hatchbacks.
The brand’s now trademark copper detailing is unlikely to be to everyone’s taste, but the sculpted steering wheel is a great primary contact point, with its perforated leather trim and flat bottom.
The 12-inch touchscreen infotainment system and general architecture of the dashboard angles towards the driver too, giving a cockpit-like feel, while wraparound LED lighting strips add a dramatic ambience at night.
As ever, the latest crop of VW Group infotainment systems is not the most straightforward to use, with their haptic controls forcing prods of a flat surface rather than the reliability of more easily located physical buttons.
The DSG gearbox is accessed via a rather plasticky toggle-like lever now familiar to numerous VW Group models, with rather-too-small paddle shifters delivering manual shift from behind the steering wheel.
Three trim levels are available and the range-topping VZ3 tested here adds heated leather seats, a heated steering wheel, Matrix LED headlights, wireless phone charging and dynamic chassis control to a basic specification which features parking sensors, a reversing camera, connected infotainment and a full suite of safety technology.
It feels every bit the modern performance hatchback.
While the Cupra Leon’s increasingly rarefied levels of brutal hot hatch performance serve-up similar DNA to the cars that started the brand’s journey, its accessibility has taken a hit.
The car tested here came in at £42,495 after that Matte paint and a couple of other options added just over £2,000 to a £40,485 list price.
So, just as EVs are proving a challenge with lofty purchase prices, as is the hot hatch sector.
After a two-decade journey of ever more ramped-up performance, though, it feels very much a case of get it while you still can… even Cupra is on the verge of being reinvented for a zero-emissions age.