Say hello to the most powerful car ever to wear the Cupra badge: the new SEAT Leon Cupra 300. The numbers in the name come from its total power output of 300 metric horsepower, or 296bhp to the likes of you and I, but while it’s easily the hairiest SEAT yet, you’d hardly know to look at it.
SEAT’s cars have always been a bit edgier, a bit sexier than their Volkswagen Group stablemates, if a little subtler in appearance. When it comes to the Cupra, even the Golf R is more overtly sporting and that’s really saying something.
Really the only obvious difference between the Cupra and the standard Leon is the badging on the back, but unless you know what to look for Joe Public will probably never even realise what a Cupra is.
For fans, though, that’s all part of the appeal. To use a very specific analogy, the Leon Cupra has always felt like the George Harrison of the VW performance cars. Less visible than John or Paul, but those who like it will argue their guts out that it’s the best of all.
Power for the Cupra 300 still comes from the Volkswagen Group’s EA888 turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, the same unit used in the Golf R. Previous Cupras got the same motor in lesser states of tune, but the 300 gets the full 296bhp meaning that in hatchback form it’s for all intents and purposes a front-wheel drive Golf R.
That makes it 10bhp more powerful than the previous Cupra, while perhaps more significantly engine torque has been boosted from 350Nm up to 380Nm, which SEAT says markedly improves the responsiveness of the car.
Equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard the Cupra 300 can hit 62mph from a standing in start in 6.0 seconds flat, before going on to a top speed of 155mph. Opting for the dual-clutch automatic option drops that time considerable to 5.6 seconds, making it quicker than fellow frenetic front-driver, the Honda Civic Type R.
Previous Leon Cupras had a bit of a reputation for being quite scrabbly off the line, and the 300 could be accused of being the same. It’s got formidable power, sure, but it lacks any real finesse in the way that it transfers that to the ground.
Some rivals use four-wheel drive to better spread the torque out – we’ll talk more about four-wheel drive later, by the way – or trick differentials. The Cupra 300 is a little more basic and unrefined; heavy throttle application on cold tyres will see it spin the front wheels in first gear, second gear and even third and fourth if you’re really gunning it.
Not the fastest way to get yourself off the line by a long measure, but at the same time there’s something to be said for that feeling of keen unhingedness. The lead-footed will surely enjoy the sheer brutality of its power delivery and even though the front-wheel drive Cupra struggles to make the most of its newfound power upgrade it feels fast.
That’s arguably part of what’s so fun about the Cupra. On the surface, it looks understated but then dig the toe in and it’ll have no qualms with giving you a sharp smack about the chops.
Ride and handling
Now, we mentioned all-wheel drive a little earlier, the reason being that with this new model the Leon Cupra is now available with the option of four-wheel drive for the first time. There is a caveat, though; to prevent the Cupra cannibalising Golf R sales it’s only available on the Cupra ST estate, while the hatchback remains front-wheel drive only.
The extra traction afforded to the car by all four wheels being driven drops the 0-62mph time to just 4.9 seconds despite the estate’s extra weight, and will likely go some ways towards taming the intensity of the Cupra’s power delivery too, though that’s not to say that the standard FWD car is by any means lacking.
For a start, the Cupra 300 rides on suspension that’s lowered drastically compared to the standard Leon and which includes three-way adjustable dampers that can be altered via a button mounted in the cabin, while a mechanical limited-slip differential is included to boost cornering traction and reduce torque steer.
While the power delivery might still come with a smattering of exclamation marks, the Cupra really is a brilliantly supple car to drive and makes for a fantastically effective weapon with which to dismantle your favourite B-roads. Even in the stiffest ‘Cupra’ setting there’s a degree of looseness and movement in the chassis, which means that while it mightn’t feel quite as locked down to the road as some other cars it does feel a degree more playful than some of its rivals.
The Cupra-branded Brembo brakes are strong and bite well, there’s plenty of corner grip overall and the addition of the electronically-controlled front differential goes a long way to increasing its effectiveness in the corners.
We do have a couple of complaints about the car though, firstly the variable ratio steering which feels overly light and overly vague even in its stiffest setting, and which doesn’t engender all that much by way of confidence. As well as that, the clutch biting point with the six-speed manual gearbox is far too high.
If we were specc’ing our own Cupra we’d still opt for the manual as we like the degree of extra control that it affords us, however with such a high biting point it’s all too easy to squeeze on the revs before the point where the clutch engages, making high-speed shifts clunky and increasing the likelihood of wheelspin.
That said, one of the things we found most remarkable about the Cupra is how liveable it is day-to-day. Some modern hot hatches lean considerably more on the ‘hot’ side of the fence, thereby sacrificing things like refinement and practicality, but even on its massive 19-inch wheels it’s an impressively easy car to drive and eats up long-distance journeys with the best of them.
Interior and equipment
Inside, the Cupra’s low-key theme continues with a cabin that’s virtually identical to the regular Leon save for the addition of leather sports seats, some subtle Cupra badging and red mood lighting.
Depending on how you like your hot hatches this can be seen as a good thing or as a bad thing; we can understand how some would argue that it doesn’t quite feel special enough, but in our opinion it gels well with the Cupra 300’s quite understated character.
There are no complaints about the spot-on driving position, however, and while buyers can upgrade to a set of bucket seats for £1,300 to lend a more purposeful character to the interior, if you ask us the standard seats are just fine by themselves.
Equipment is decent as well, with the Cupra 300 getting the likes of a large touchscreen infotainment system with integrated sat-nav, plus cruise control, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. However, as with the standard car no rear-view camera unless you specify it as an option, something which can make reversing a bit awkward thanks to the small rear windows of the car.
Dimensionally, the Leon Cupra 300 is exactly the same as the regular Leon hatchback, with exactly the same practicality and boot space to match. If you would like to know more about the Leon’s interior, you can check out our full review of the new Leon hatchback here.
It’s important to point out that pricing is, or at least was, always core to the Cupra’s success. For less buck than pretty much anyone else was asking, you got lots and lots of bang. But now, the Cupra 300 starts from £30,155 for the three-door version, meaning that cars like the Audi S3, Focus RS, Golf R and Civic Type R are now all in the same price bracket.
In other words, while it previously might have made sense to get a Cupra as a more budget-friendly alternative to these rivals, the fact you can have a more powerful, four-wheel drive car for virtually the same price means that it’ll likely be reserved only for buyers who really, really want one.
Like other cars of its kind, running costs are naturally going to be much more expensive than those of a more everyday hatchback, however in terms of efficiency it’s not too bad. SEAT claims it can return 40.9mpg with 158g/km of CO2, and while you’re unlikely to hit that if you drive it like you’re meant to, on paper it’s better than a good many rivals.
When it comes to buying a hot hatch though, often the thing that buyers will be concerned about the most is how fun it is. Despite the fact that it’s a little rough around the edges – in fact, perhaps because it’s a little rough around the edges – the Cupra 300 is a proper hoot.
Although it might lack the all-out effectiveness of the Golf R or the Focus RS, it’s still one of the quickest and most frenetic hot hatches currently on sale, while also being usable day-to-day and easy to live with.
It mightn’t quite have the edge in terms of pricing that it once had and it lacks those last few degrees of dynamic sparkle that separates the good hot hatches from the great, but it’s still in possession of a pace and ability that’ll make it more than worth a look.