A power boost makes the Seat Leon Cupra 300 faster than ever, but it’s more of a GT than a hot hatch
What is it?
We may live in an age where environmental responsibility, safety and connectivity are all important for any manufacturer, but the Seat Leon Cupra 300 is the latest hot hatch to get involved in a good old-fashioned power war.
Sure, the likes of the Mercedes-AMG A45 and Audi RS3 are knocking on the door of 400bhp, but those are stretching the limit of what a hot hatch is. If we look at more affordable pocket rockets, then a figure of 300 ponies is starting to become the new target for Focus-sized front-drivers.
So with the Volkswagen Golf R now gaining another 10bhp, there’s room in the Volkswagen Group hierarchy for a quicker Cupra. It now has a round 300 metric horsepower, or 296 Great British horsepower. Torque is also up by 22Ib ft to 280 and is channelled through a six-speed manual or a dual-clutch automatic gearbox.
You also get an electronically controlled limited slip diff, adjustable dampers and a lightly revised interior and exterior. While a four-wheel drive variant of the estate is optional for the first time, we’re looking at the regular three-door with a manual ‘box.
What’s it like?
Despite an abundance of firepower under the bonnet and 19in alloys filling the wheel arches, the Cupra is pretty understated. Yes, you get more aggressive-looking bumpers and twin exhausts, but there are no wild wings, huge vents or other boy racer favourites. As with the old Cupra 290, to the uninitiated it could be any other Leon hatch.
That softly, softly approach extends to the driving experience. Considering the skinniness of the tyres’ sidewalls and the performance-tweaked suspension, the Cupra is surprisingly compliant when the dampers are left in Comfort mode. Yes, you do feel rough roads and expansion joints, but you’re never jostled around too much.
With an engine that happily pulls quietly from very low revs, it’s actually quite a relaxing mode of transportation, right up until you decide to give it some welly. On a smooth dry road, the Cupra accelerates ferociously, pushing you against the back of your seat and sending the speedo needle soaring. Change up a gear and you’ll find a quick and unobstructive shift.
You do get the feeling that maybe there’s a bit too much power for the chassis, though. Leave the traction control on and it’ll stick its oar in all too readily. Turn it off and you’ll still get the odd flash as the Cupra wheelspins through first gear and into second.
Throw in a bump in the road and things get even worse. Under hard acceleration, there’s a bang and a jolt through the front suspension as if some of the bushes are made of Dairylea (other soft cheeses are available). Given that unruliness, we were surprised to find very little in the way of torque steer.
That’s probably because the slippy differential is a particularly weak one. Unlike the hottest of Renault Mégane Renaultsports or the Honda Civic Type R, which will pull you around a corner under power, the Cupra almost seems to rely on electronic interventions as much as the locking of the differential.
So, what about the handling? The first thing you’ll notice is the standard fit Progressive steering system that ramps up the ratio as you wind on lock. It’s certainly a real boon when you’re negotiating a multi-storey car park, but it does rob the steering of feel.
Get past that and you’ll soon find out that the Cupra has tonnes of grip. What it doesn’t have is the kind of delicious adjustability that marks out the very best hot hatches. Overspeed in a corner and you will understeer.
We also found that while you can ramp up the firmness of the adaptive dampers, they work best in Comfort mode on anything other than the smoothest of surfaces. Try Sport or Cupra mode on a B-road and it feels like you’ll pogo into the nearest ditch.
As for the interior, there’s a new larger touchscreen and a wireless phone charging area, but no real improvement in the overall ambiance. Everything is black or dark grey, there’s some truly awful carbonfibre-patterned fabric and some flimsy plastic that isn’t all that well hidden. Considering how a Golf R is barely any more expensive, you’d hope for better.
Should I buy one?
We suspect that there are plenty of people out there who like the idea of a hot hatch, but don’t want anything too uncomfortable or brash. For those people, the Cupra could be worth considering thanks to its good cruising manners coupled to a real powerhouse of an engine.
If you think a hot hatch should be fun above all else, then look elsewhere. The problem with the Cupra is that it only ever feels competent rather than downright exciting, and it isn’t actually all that cheap. At this price point, we’d be very tempted by the Golf R if you’re after the ultimate all-rounder or the Ford Focus RS if you want a real adrenaline pump.
2017 Seat Leon SC Cupra 300
Location West Sussex; On sale Now; Price £30,155; Engine 4 cyls inline, 1984cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 296bhp at 5500-6200rpm; Torque 258lb ft at 1800-5500; Kerb weight 1395kg; Gearbox 6-spd manual; 0-62mph 5.9sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 40.9mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 158g/km, 28%; Rivals VW Golf R, Ford Focus RS