► Seat Leon Cupra 300 2.0 TSI review
► We road test the Golf R from Spain
► 300 horsepower, DSG auto transmission
Unsure (to this day, some might hazard) as to how Seat slotted into range of marques under its control, the VW group's decision to brand the company the 'performance wing' of its automotive kingdom hatched the first Cupra, an Ibiza, some 20 years ago.
Ignoring a run of 100 limited edition Leon 310 variants that went on sale to the Dutch alone in 2008 (secret hill aversion?), Seat dubs the new Cupra 300 'the most powerful road car in the brand's history'; this award garnered through further tweaking of the group's stalwart, 2.0-litre turbo warhorse, with power boosted by 10bhp to 296bhp, and torque by 22lb ft to 258lb ft.
And, surely, the addition of all-wheel drive?
Er... Sort of. Clearly reluctant to stack it against dangerously able competition from within the VW group - in the guise of the Audi S3 and VW Golf R - both three- and five-door hatchback versions of the Leon Cupra 300 are available with front-wheel drive only, and a choice of six-speed manual or DSG dual-clutch automatic transmissions.
Only the third bodyshell of the range, the ST estate, will be available with all-wheel drive, paired, as standard, to that oleaginous DGS gearbox.
This move is designed to leave us instinctively pitching the new Cupra against front-wheel drive rivals such as the Honda Civic Type-R, Peugeot 308 GTi, Focus ST and the forthcoming Megane Renaultsport, doubtless destined to be available in the full panoply of Cup, Saucer and Spoon variants.
Thing is, and it's quite a big Thing Is, bang for your bucks has always been a central tenet of Seat's Cupra, but, with this new range priced from £29,840 to £34,170, that advantage appears to have been entirely washed away, bringing all-wheel drive alternatives such as the S3 and Ford's hilarious Focus RS strongly back into contention.
Indeed, a three-door Golf R with DSG transmission is currently listed at £130 OTR less than the new Cupra SC front-wheel drive equivalent, making something of mockery of Seat's decision to not fit all-wheel drive across the range in order to avoid just such a comparison.
So how is the Cupra 300 supposed to win me over, if not on price?
Um, yes, well. The standard Leon is an undeniable pretty car, so it's pleasing that the application of Cupra slap has been tastefully limited on SC and five-door variants to a mildly more aggressive looking front end, reworked door cills and rear bumper, a rear roof spoiler, bespoke 19-inch alloys and red, Cupra-badged brake callipers.
On board, the multimedia touch screen has increased in size to eight inches, the handbrake lever has been superseded by an electronic alternative, and a flat-bottomed Cupra helm and piano black detailing added. Comfortable sports seats that hug reassuringly without feeling relentlessly clingy complete a minor upgrade to a cabin with which there was absolutely nothing wrong at the outset.
Everything else important is where you left it in the outgoing Cupra 290; Macpherson front and multi-link rear suspension with electronically adjustable hydraulic dampers, variable ratio steering, a mechanical limited slip differential and a choice of four drive profiles which effect modest adjustments to the steering, dampers and throttle, and, on DSG transmission versions, the gear shift programming and exhaust din.
Don't tell me; it goes like a stabbed rat with traction issues...
The only variant I sampled on dry roads was a manual SC, which proves to be predictably fast - cracking 62mph in 5.7 seconds and revving freely to over 6000rpm - but too unpredictably fickle in several key departments to be overmuch fun...
Throttle application when accelerating hard from slow speeds requires a ridiculous delicacy of touch if you don't want the powertrain to bite back with kangaroo-aping activities worthy of a learner driver, the gear change is notchy and not particularly engaging to use, the variable ratio steering is anything but intuitive when trying to stitch together a sequence of corners, and the position and modulation of the brake pedal relegates heel and toe work to a level of difficulty more usually associated with making love standing up in a hammock.
All of which, despite the addition of a torrential downpour, makes the DSG-equipped Cupra a far more wholesome proposition. Basically, it smoothes all the rough edges from the process of making rapid progress, leaving you free to find out just how much grip can be found on sodden surfaces.
And the answer - once heat in the P Zeros shackles twitch 'n' slither bouts of axle tramp and traction control interference - is plenty. Stop fretting about the steering and just get on with it, and the Cupra responds entertainingly to bullying with a pleasing sure-footedness. This isn't the pointiest front end out there, but it is remarkably sticky nonetheless, and with flappy paddles taking the grind out of gear changes, only two pedals to worry about and exhaust baffles open to extract the full Rice Krispie, fun comes thumping back into the equation.
But could I live with it every day?
Yes indeed. Moments of mechanical crudity and a lack of ultimate precision are more than offset by the Cupra's capacity to cruise in comfort. Even in its most aggressive setting, the suspension offers a remarkable degree of pliancy and overall ride comfort for a car of such capabilities.
Dial everything our through the drive profile switch and the car metamorphoses most satisfactorily into a practical, comfortable hatchback with enviable reserves of power. Take a Focus RS out of a hoon, but switch to another car for daily sensibilities and a bit of a breather. Do the same in a Cupra, and the only switch you'll need is on the dashboard.
In the right configuration, then, the Cupra 300 is a commendably able act, combining performance, entertaining handling prowess, admirable practicality and surprising cruising comfort. Trouble is there are rival, all-wheel drive machines even within the VW group that manage the same trick, with greater traction and grip, for similar money.
With sales having increased by 28% worldwide since 2012, Seat must be doing plenty of things right. But we're not at all sure that somewhat over-pricing the new Cupra is one of them...
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