With the new Leon Cupra R, Seat has taken an already decent car and given it the extra zing it needs to face up to the hot-hatch pack, says Brett Fraser .
The letter R is becoming the suffix of choice for car makers wanting their tearaway tin boxes to stand out from the rest of the sporting crowd. Jaguar has its XJR and XKR, Nissan its Skyline GT-R and Honda a selection of Type-Rs. Now Seat wants us all to go "aah" (and, perhaps, "ooh") over its new Leon Cupra R.
This isn’t the first Cupra R from Seat. Last year there was an Ibiza Cupra R, a suitably extreme and hot-headed hatchback of which only about 70 were imported; it made few headlines outside the specialist motoring press. While hardly lining it up to be a top-10 seller, the Spanish manufacturer hopes to shift 250 Leon Cupra Rs a year and to divert any glory the model might attract on to the rest of its line-up as the company strives to become the sporting marque of the VW Group’s mainstream ranges, rather like Alfa Romeo within the Fiat group.
There’s already a non-R Leon Cupra; it’s a largish hatch in the mould of the Golf GTI, except it’s cheaper and more fun. What the standard Cupra doesn’t have is that final edge, the zing that would see it compete head-on with the current rulers of the hot-hatch pack, the Honda Civic Type R and Renault Clio Sport 172. And that’s where the R comes in.
The Cupra R was co-developed by the company’s regular boffins and its Seat Sport racing division. Given how good the standard Cupra is, it would have been easy for them merely to fiddle with the body kit, tweak the 1.8-litre, turbocharged engine a little and slap on the R badges. But the changes go far deeper than that. As well as modifications to the engine management system, the inlet and exhaust systems are new, and there’s a second intercooler to improve the efficiency of the turbocharger. Not only does this increase the power of the 20-valve, four-cylinder motor from 178bhp to 207bhp, it swells the torque output to a vigorous 199lb ft, a peak it maintains from 2,100rpm to 5,000rpm.
One of the few criticisms levelled at the standard Cupra is that its brakes aren’t aggressive enough. UK-bound Rs answer this with standard upgraded discs and Brembo calipers; to squeeze in the bigger stopping equipment, our cars also have to be supplied with the gorgeous 18in alloy wheels that are optional in other markets.
More surprising and less obvious than any of the aforementioned are the lengths Seat has gone to in upgrading the suspension. The R sits lower to the ground than the standard Cupra and has firmer dampers but softer springs, so that comfort isn’t completely sacrificed to body control. Seat has also designed a subframe for the front suspension, installed a thinner front anti-roll bar and a faster steering rack. It has also reworked all the suspension bushing; at the back, this enhances the effect of the Leon’s rear-wheel steering geometry. In less technical terms, the Leon is now more agile but no less comfortable.
Not much has altered inside, although there is now the option of a Recaro seat package that provides deep-dished chairs front and rear. The front seats are marvellous, wedging you in position no matter how hard the R’s considerable lateral forces attempt to shake you free from their embrace. The problem is that they’re so bulky they reduce rear legroom to almost nothing - even young children will complain about being in the back. But, as I said, they are an option, if only for those unencumbered with family, friends or social guilt.
Even in the R’s standard seats, you’ll have a ball behind the wheel. The Leon’s new-found potency brings the whole car alive, endows it with a crispness of response and ready obedience that sets it apart from its nearest sibling. There’s enough urgency to the way the R accelerates under full throttle and sufficient big-hearted brawn in the mid-range for it to keep pace with the best of the hothatch breed, even if it doesn’t feel as manic as the Civic Type R.
A well-balanced blend of brisk, accurate steering, lively though never nervous handling, firm yet forgiving ride quality and an electronic stability system that errs on the side of entertainment makes the Cupra R a less compromised - and to some extent less uncompromising - package than some rivals. By comparison, the Civic is wild-eyed and raucous (which is, it has to be said, part of its appeal to many), the Clio 172 is not as well connected to the driver, and the Golf GTI is, well, plain dull. If you don’t mind a hard ride and limited space, the new MINI Cooper S is worth considering for sheer driver appeal, but that’s in a class of its own anyway.
Because the Leon Cupra R isn’t destined to reach these shores until the end of summer or autumn, Seat isn’t yet able to be specific about the price, other than to say it will be "less than £19,000"; that’s hardly cheap, but the car will be well kitted out and there is nothing else with so much horsepower for so little money. Seat should have no trouble at all shifting its 250 Rs a year.