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Driven: SEAT Leon ST Cupra 290. Image by SEAT.

Driven: SEAT Leon ST Cupra 290
On UK roads in SEATís load-lugging record-holder, now with more horsepower...

   



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Driven: SEAT Leon ST Cupra 290

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

Good points: Extra 10hp preserves all of the Cupra ST's brilliance, and makes it even quicker

Not so good: The interior isn't that exciting to look at

Key Facts

Model tested: SEAT Leon ST Cupra 290 DSG
Price: ST Cupra from £29,675; 290 Black from £32,785, car as tested £35,695
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: front-wheel drive, six-speed DSG dual-clutch automated manual
Body style: five-door estate
CO2 emissions: 154g/km
Combined economy: 42.8mpg
Top speed: 155mph
0-62mph: 5.9 seconds
Power: 290hp at 5,900- to 6,400rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 1,700- to 5,800rpm

Our view:

When it was launched in 2015 with 280hp, the SEAT Leon ST Cupra - emulating its hatchback brother - lapped the Nurburgring Nordschleife in less than eight minutes. In fact, it did the route in 7:58.12, making it quicker than the three-door Cupra and becoming the 'Fastest Ever Estate Car' around the awesome German circuit in the process.

And there's even better news for the Leon ST Cupra, as it now has an extra 10hp for 2016, bringing it into line with the rest of the updated hot SEAT line-up with a 290hp maximum. SEAT claims very minor improvements in the green data (up 0.6mpg and down 3g/km on CO2 emissions) and broadly similar performance figures (a 3.5 per cent output increase is not enormous...), although in DSG trim as tested here, the Leon ST Cupra can now crack six seconds dead for the 0-62mph sprint; that's an important psychological barrier for buyers of this type of vehicle.

Transposing the Cupra's EA888 drivetrain into the ST bodyshell hasn't diminished the brilliance of this Iberian motor one bit. The ST is a handsome thing anyway, so adding Cupra styling - 19-inch alloys, beefy bumpers, large air intakes and side skirts - only helps matters. The 290's only giveaway compared to a 280 is the number underneath the Cupra flag badge on the boot, and it's so small that no one will see it when you're out on the roads.

The cabin is as with the hatch. Spacious, comfortable, well-built and lavishly equipped for the money, but with the sneaking suspicion that Volkswagen would only let SEAT have the interior trims from a Mk6 Golf. Step into the Leon in isolation and you'll marvel at how far SEAT has come in terms of quality in two decades. Step into it from another VW Group product and you'll notice the small screen for the standard-fit satnav, the abundance of various shades of charcoal grey plastics and a lack of visual sparkle. However, there are just enough signifiers to make it worthwhile, like the white-flash trim, great bucket seats and flat-bottomed steering wheel backed by Cupra-specific dials.

Tackling the ST Cupra with a sensible head on, it's remarkably docile and comfortable when you're not on it. This is because it has Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) as standard, meaning you can adjust the dampers through three settings via the Cupra switch on the left of the centre console. In Comfort mode, the Leon turns in a superb display. It glides along motorways and A-roads on a wave of easy mid-range torque, the ride astonishingly supple (it's way better than a diesel FR Leon ST we drove two years ago on smaller 18s, which crashed through every pothole going) and the cabin hushed. It also turns in genuine economy approaching 40mpg on a run, which is decent. As a cruiser, it truly excels.

Step it up a notch, even just into Sport mode, and the Leon awakens. But don't mess about. Get the ST into Cupra mode and really cut loose. Because you'll be gobsmacked by how fast and involving a front-drive family wagon can be. We have one criticism here and that's the steering, which only comes across as either light or heavy, not feelsome. It's good but by the exalted standards of the rest of the car, it's the clear weak point.

Other than that, the ST Cupra is sublime fun. There's no 265hp entry-level model here, simply a choice of manual or dual-clutch DSG (£1,355) transmissions. That's no hardship, because the 290hp turbo motor is one of the greatest sounding forced induction four-pots of all. It has a rasping snarl to it through the lower revs, transforming into a metallic bark up into the peak power band. And boy, does it feel quick. OK, it still loses a few tenths to the hatchback, courtesy of 70kg of extra ballast, but no one in their right mind is going to complain about the sheer oomph of the ST Cupra.

Nor the handling, which is sensational. The limited-slip diff up front blesses the Leon with epic traction out of bends, there's little to no torque steer despite the fronts dealing with 350Nm, the brakes are faultless and the six-speed manual DSG works brilliantly as both a super-sharp sports transmission and also as a smooth pseudo-automatic. The cherry on the cake is that the chassis is actually throttle adjustable, so get the Leon ST Cupra dancing on your favourite back road and you'll be grinning from ear to ear. And going bloody quickly, no doubt.

The long and short of all this is that we adore the Leon ST Cupra, which hasn't been undone by the extra power. There's no additional front-axle unruliness in this 290 car compared to the old 280. The outcome, then, is that it's one of the best performance estates we've ever encountered, at any price or power, and it does everything really well - save for steering feel and the final degree of interior finishing. Perhaps the only problem now is that it's not quite the conspicuous bargain it once was. Even a standard ST 290 has edged ever closer to the £30,000 mark, instead of hovering around £28,000 as before, and with a Black Pack fitted it starts at nearer £33k, just for some styling accoutrements. Further toys on our test car saw its ticket heading into the high 30s, which is where it starts to make just a little less financial sense than it did previously.

Which then brings the sensational Volkswagen Golf R Estate into play. More power. More driven wheels. More pace. And not that much more expensive. If you could ever reach the limits of the Leon ST Cupra 290 on the road, it would be at that point that the Golf R would be coming up with some ingenious answers, courtesy of the best damping in the segment. So the Leon is pipped for victory right at the death by a distant stablemate. A pity for SEAT. But no problem to anyone who goes out and buys this fantastic ST Cupra. After all, it's still a Nurburgring lap record-holder, when all's said and done...

Alternatives:

Ford Focus ST Estate: The Ford is down on power to the tune of 40hp and we're not convinced the current ST is one of the Blue Oval's absolutely best chassis set-ups.

Peugeot 308 SW GT: Peugeot hasn't, as yet, dropped either of the 308 GTi hatch engines (250- or 270hp) into the SW, so you'd have to make do with 205hp. SEAT therefore monsters the Pug.

Volkswagen Golf R Estate: The slight increase in price of the Leon ST Cupra 290 has pushed it just a little too close to the magnificent VW Golf R wagon for our liking...


Matt Robinson - 17 Jun 2016



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2016 SEAT Leon Cupra ST 290 drive. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Leon Cupra ST 290 drive. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Leon Cupra ST 290 drive. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Leon Cupra ST 290 drive. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Leon Cupra ST 290 drive. Image by SEAT.

2016 SEAT Leon Cupra ST 290 drive. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Leon Cupra ST 290 drive. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Leon Cupra ST 290 drive. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Leon Cupra ST 290 drive. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Leon Cupra ST 290 drive. Image by SEAT.








 

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