SEAT León Cupra R (2010)
by David Finlay (2 July 2010)
The León Cupra R is the fastest production car that SEAT has ever built, but there seems to be no reason why we have had to wait until 2010 for it to arrive. The familiar two-litre turbo petrol engine has been available in 256bhp under the bonnet of the Audi S3 for some time, and SEAT even waited for a few months after Volkswagen launched the similarly powerful Golf R to bring its own version to market.
Still, it's here now, and one thing that immediately makes it more attractive than its close relatives is that it is a great deal cheaper. £25,205 is a lot more than you have to pay for the slightly less powerful León Cupra, but it's around £5000 less than Audi and Volkswagen are asking. On paper, the £3700 premium over the Cupra seems harsh for a mere 0.2 second improvement in 0-62mph times (the R manages the run in 6.2 seconds), but in real life the R feels substantially quicker.
It sounds better, too. Turbocharged four-cylinder engines rarely make a particularly stirring noise, but SEAT has clearly devoted a lot of energy to sonic tuning of the exhaust, and under power the Cupra R gives a very pleasant rasp. This isn't apparent in town, so you're unlikely to cause heart failure among frail or timid pedestrians, but out in the country you certainly know all about it.
You also know all about every last lump and bump in the road surface. This ride is harsh, man. I don't particularly like it, but I don't object to it nearly as much as I did in previous hot Leóns. The issue with those cars was that their suspension was too stiff to be able to cope with an average UK road. In the case of the new Cupra R, the jiggling is entirely down to the 35-section tyres on 19" wheels (I'd go for taller rubber on smaller wheels myself, but I can't imagine any true Cupra fan being of the same opinion).
The difference between this car and its predecessors is that the suspension is much softer, and much more capable of dealing with imperfections in the tarmac. It never once felt like it was bouncing out of control, even when a colleague and I took turns at giving it large on deserted back roads.
We took that process to a whole new level at Rockingham race circuit, which SEAT had booked for the media launch. If you've either been at Rockingham yourself or watched TV coverage of the races there, you'll know that most events are held on a combination of an infield circuit and a banked oval.
SEAT kept us away from the oval (it wouldn't have given much idea of the car's capability in any case), so we spent our time on an all-infield course with some exceptionally good corners, including a 100mph double-apex downhill righthander which has become one of my favourites in the UK.
The drive at Rockingham gave us the chance to find out what the Cupra R does at the limit. And what it does is understeer. There is very little you can do about this. Even if you really monster it into a corner, to such an extent that the back end breaks away, you're probably not going to spin because the front will start to lose grip to an even greater extent about half a second later, at which point you're left to wait while the various electronic safety systems sort things out for you.
If I had been testing the Cupra R for a forthcoming race, I would have been back in the pits within three laps, demanding that grip be taken away from the rear. But it's a fast road car, not a racer, and on a trackday I reckon that owners will have a great deal of reasonably safe fun. On the road, it seems completely unstickable.
To sum up, then, the Cupra R is quick, it handles very well, it sounds great and it's several thousand pounds cheaper than other cars made of the same stuff. Can't say much fairer than that, can you?