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First drive: SEAT Leon Cupra R. Image by SEAT.

First drive: SEAT Leon Cupra R
Super-rare SEAT Sport-built Leon Cupra R is the hottest machine from the Spanish yet.


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SEAT Leon Cupra R

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

SEAT revives the Cupra R badge for the most powerful and most focused road car it has yet built. This special Leon does feel a cut above its regular siblings, but it has one major problem: rarity. Just 799 Leon Cupra R models will be built in total and, of those, only a handful are coming to the UK, arguably the biggest hot hatchback market in the world. So is that limited supply a mistake on SEAT's part, or has it got this limited edition five-door malarkey bang on the money?

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: SEAT Leon Cupra R
Pricing: Leon Cupra from 30,155; Cupra R 34,995, car as tested 35,850
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: front-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: five-door hot hatch
CO2 emissions: 170g/km (VED 500 first 12 months, then 140 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 38.7mpg
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
0-62mph: 5.8 seconds
Power: 310hp at 5,800- to 6,200rpm
Torque: 380Nm at 1,800- to 5,700rpm

What's this?

The SEAT Leon Cupra R, kind of like the Spanish version of a Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport - but not a Clubsport S, as the Leon isn't quite as focused as that stripped-out German special. However, it is the first road car with significant input from SEAT Sport, the company's motorsport arm, and indeed part of the build is carried out by it. Basically a half-built Leon Cupra is taken from the main Martorell production line and worked upon, by hand, by the same group of people who build the Leon TCR customer touring car, to create the Cupra R.

The main points here are an increase in power to a Volkswagen Golf R-rivalling 310hp, meaning we've now had FIVE different outputs for this generation of Leon Cupra (namely, 265-, 280-, 290-, 300- and 310hp). However, unlike the Leon ST Cupra 300, the R doesn't get 4Drive four-wheel-drive traction, so it's flowing both 310hp and 380Nm through the front axle alone. Further, here in the UK, we only get six-speed manual models (DSG is an option in other markets), meaning that the on-paper 0-62mph time for this Cupra R is a tenth slower than a DSG-equipped FWD 300hp Leon. And it's a whole heap less accelerative than the four-wheel drive Leon ST Cupra, which will dip below the five-second mark. Hmm.

Nevertheless, there's much to salivate over with the Cupra R. SEAT hasn't merely turned the wick up on the EA888 2.0-litre turbo four engine, as it has made some significant changes to the chassis of the Leon to help it cope with the additional horses. It has more negative front camber and a wider track, courtesy of the wider tyres on some gorgeous 19-inch bespoke alloy wheels. SEAT has also worked on the immediacy of the variable ratio steering just off dead-centre - making the car quicker to react to steering inputs - and fiddled with the Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) dampers to suit the Leon's more extreme nature. There are also some potent Brembo brake calipers added, which are finished in black.

Which is an apt time to talk about the visuals. Don't get too attached to the matte grey paintwork. Sadly, that isn't coming to the UK, as here you simply have a choice of either grey or black, but both of them are metallic shades. However, the Leon Cupra R is a superb-looking hot hatch. Those glorious alloys are bicolour black-and-copper, and indeed it is copper which marks out the R above other Cupras most easily. It's used for the door mirror caps, the detailing in the front airdam, the SEAT logos front and rear, and the 'CUPRA' badging on the bootlid. That teams up nicely with some carbon fibre, for the front splitter, rear diffuser and tailgate spoiler, while the window surrounds are gloss black. You'll probably also have noticed the body side blades (side skirts, more readily) with carbon fibre accents, and the slightly more aggressive rear bumper with two vertical vents sitting either side.

The outcome is a Leon which looks incredibly mean and, thankfully, the anticipation is not frittered away when you slide into the cabin. There's still the slightly bland fascia design that is the chief weakness of all SEATs, but at least here the company has lifted things with a set of sensational bucket seats, plenty more copper highlights, a legend near the gearlever that details the limited build status of the car and some gloss black fillets of trim. Then there are the real draws: Alcantara for the steering wheel and gearknob, and a completely new set of dials in the cluster with a light grey finish. Slightly distasteful 'carbon-effect' vinyl on the door cards aside, the whole cabin of the Cupra R feels more special than that of any other hot Leon.

And it's well-equipped, so much so that the only option available on the UK's meagre allocation of cars is a set of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres for 855. These super-sticky, track-oriented boots were fitted to our Spanish test vehicles; you otherwise get Continental Sport Contact 6s if you don't choose the Michelins. Therefore, everything else you see and use on the Cupra R - the DCC, the eight-inch touchscreen, the Beats audio, the adaptive cruise control, the Kessy keyless entry and go with wireless phone charging, and much more - is all part of the 35,000 asking price. Which, although it invites the almost obvious sneering put-down of '35 grand for a SEAT Leon?!', we don't think is a huge premium, given you'll pay at least 30,155 to get in a Cupra 300 SC.

But there's a sticking point to all this copper-clad goodness. Which is this: you're unlikely to ever even see a Leon Cupra R, much less own and/or drive one. Just 24 of them will come to the UK, and most have already been snapped up, in some instances (anecdotally) by people in the same families, so it's very likely the Cupra R will be as common a sight on our roads here as a unicycling penguin that can play the French horn. And that's a real pity, as we shall come to see from the driving experience...

How does it drive?

Let's be honest, the changes over the regular Leon Cupra aren't enough to have you wide-eyed in disbelief as you cover your first few exploratory miles in the R. If you've not driven a Cupra for some time, the R will feel barely any different. But two things to bring up at this juncture: the first is that we have always absolutely loved the Leon Cupra, right from the moment it burst onto the scene in 2014; and the second is that, once you get past those first few miles and start delving deeper into the Cupra R's repertoire, you'll start to convince yourself that this is another front-drive hot hatch which makes all-wheel drive look totally redundant.

Everything that is good about the standard Cupra is preserved. Hold the R at a steady-state cruise with the DCC in its softest settings and it is a perfectly docile, muted five-seat hatchback with a big boot, that's easy to drive, a doddle to place accurately on the roads and blessed with a well-weighted set of major controls. Yet even without subjecting it to a rigorous workout, the steering shines. It's already meaty and informative in a way the regular Cupra's rack isn't (quite), with a real keenness about the way the Leon changes direction.

So then you open the engine up a little more, just to sample the performance, and it feels so ridiculously strong for a mere 2.0-litre four-banger. Sure, we've experienced this motor in a multitude of other applications throughout the wider Volkswagen Group, but here in the 1,453kg Cupra R, there's a raw energy about it that is nigh-on irresistible. We expected more from the soundtrack, as a resonance from the R's sports exhaust system at about 3,000rpm makes the SEAT drone at motorway speeds, while any pops, cracks and burbles from the tailpipes are limited purely to the hardest of driving in full Cupra mode. But there's still that hard-edged timbre to the Leon's voice and a soaring pull of acceleration out to the redline that makes it feel tremendously quick indeed. That 0-62mph time is more a reflection of the challenges of transmitting 310hp/380Nm to the road surface; once on the move at anything above 30mph, the Cupra R feels every bit as on the pace as a Golf R.

But it's the chassis that wins the day. The Cupra R has the mechanical VAQ limited-slip differential and, with that pointy steering, additional front camber and the adhesive Cup 2 tyres, it makes for one of the most startlingly direct and pleasurable front-ends on any production car going. The Leon simply scythes into corners with a rabid fury in the dry, minimal degrees of steering lock seeing the nose darting into the apex.

And if, by some unearthly chance you manage to miss the apex, then slap on the gas and the VAQ hauls the Cupra R to the inside of the corner with a vicious glee, in a manner that makes you think someone has installed one of those giant roadside magnets we last saw on the futuristic levels of Lotus Turbo Challenge III on the Amiga (look it up, kids). Honestly, on the roads, with no rain around and the Cup 2s nicely warmed through, nobody even remotely half-competent behind the wheel will experience understeer or a frustrating lack of front-end grip.

Which is not to say that the car is all about the diff. The Cupra R has a reasonably mobile back end, although its preferred modus operandi is hugely grippy. In Cupra mode, the DCC dampers provide rigid body control without there being too much in the way of tramlining or bump-steer, although lighting up the fronts in the lower gears does see the car squirming from side to side across imperfections; not torque-steer, as such, more a sense of keeping both hands on the wheel at all times during activities. Despite this, the Leon Cupra R is a car where you can fully exploit its power reserves, without fear of it spearing off on a tangent that isn't of your own doing. And if you don't like the firmest DCC setting, then use the configurable Individual drive mode to have the car at its most aggressive, before dialling the shocks down to 'comfy'. The result is an epic B-road blaster.

About the only dynamic black mark we can fling the way of the Leon Cupra R, apart from the relative modesty of the soundtrack, is the difficulty of heel-and-toe for road driving. Normally, a Leon Cupra is pretty good at this sort of thing, the action of the brake pedal and the height of the throttle being near-spot on, but the extra bite of the Brembos and the bigger brake discs mean that unless you're doing track-day level, last-of-the-late-brakers stopping on the roads, you never get the middle pedal down far enough to blip the throttle. Or maybe it was just us. And the rubbish shoes we were wearing (not-a-racing-driver's excuses 101)...


Looking fantastic inside and out with its copper-tinged dark and brooding menace, boasting the most potent version possible of the 2.0-litre turbo engine and blessed with a handful of dynamic upgrades that sharpen what was already one of our favourite hot hatchbacks, the SEAT Leon Cupra R is undoubtedly up there with the very best five-door performance machines going, be they two- or four-wheel drive. It provides a motoring experience that deserves mentioning in the same breath as current handling luminaries like the Ford Focus RS, Honda Civic Type R and Hyundai i30 N (yes, really).

It's not even terrifically expensive for what it is, either, but the very limited edition status that gives the Cupra R its additional cool and fiscal values is also its undoing, as it's going to be a hyper-rare machine here on these shores. To the lucky two dozen who do end up with one, congratulations: you undoubtedly have the best-driving SEAT ever built and one of the greatest hot hatches of modern times.

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Exterior Design

4 4 4 4 4 Interior Ambience

4 4 4 4 4 Passenger Space

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Luggage Space

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Safety

4 4 4 4 4 Comfort

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Driving Dynamics

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Powertrain

Matt Robinson - 29 Nov 2017    - SEAT road tests
- SEAT news
- Leon images

2017 SEAT Leon Cupra R drive. Image by SEAT.2017 SEAT Leon Cupra R drive. Image by SEAT.2017 SEAT Leon Cupra R drive. Image by SEAT.2017 SEAT Leon Cupra R drive. Image by SEAT.2017 SEAT Leon Cupra R drive. Image by SEAT.

2017 SEAT Leon Cupra R drive. Image by SEAT.2017 SEAT Leon Cupra R drive. Image by SEAT.2017 SEAT Leon Cupra R drive. Image by SEAT.2017 SEAT Leon Cupra R drive. Image by SEAT.2017 SEAT Leon Cupra R drive. Image by SEAT.


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