Suddenly, the hot hatch landscape has shifted: the Leon Cupra is cheaper than the Golf GTI, has more power and is loaded with more equipment. It’s gown up, but packs a bigger punch than any front-drive hatch this side of the 276bhp Vauxhall Astra VXR – which it matches. So how has a car based on the Golf GTI, even using the same engine, been able to steal its thunder?
So it’s better than a Golf GTI?
On paper, yes. The Leon, which uses the same MQB platform as the Golf and Audi A3, is powered by the same 2.0-litre turbocharged engine as the GTI as well. There’s an entry-level version for £26k – three doors, six-speed manual, and a Renaultsport Megane-matching 261bhp – but that’s an entrée to the real treat here: the 276bhp ‘Cupra 280’. The 280 means PS, of course, which is 60PS (59bhp) more than a regular GTI (217bhp) and, if you pay extra for the Performance (profit) pack on your Golf, you’ll get 227bhp and a sports diff.
Why buy the 280 when the 265 is cheaper?
This is where the Leon wins the rational argument. For a £1250 premium over the 265, the Cupra 280 brings with its power bump 19in wheels with massive brakes, sat-nav and awesome bucket seats. The seats are a little like the smaller Fiesta ST’s, but not as tacky. Yet the real treat is that as standard equipment, the 280 gets the GTI’s front-diff as well as its Adaptive Chassis Control. Want a five-door GTI with the same spec? You’ll need to spend £30,325, and you’ll still be 49bhp down on the Seat, which costs £27,240. So an extra 49bhp for £3k less…
What about the driving experience?
On paper, it wins here, too: 0-62mph in 5.9sec for the manual – that’s a massive 0.7sec ahead of the GTI. Yet the clever thing about the Seat’s power advantage is that it helps make it a different car behind the wheel. It’s quiet around town, and all tyre and wind noise on the motorway. It’s perfectly livable around town, with the Comfort chassis setting making it compliant and comfy ride and that sweet burble from the engine. Even in the firmer chassis settings, it deals with bumps quickly and confidently.
The electric steering, which is also changed by that button on the dash, is wobbly in Comfort with a lot of play on centre. Change to Sport, and the suspension and steering firms up, but there’s still body roll, although it’s well controlled and works with you. It’s by no means sloppy, but even in Cupra mode – the holy grail of its chassis settings – the ride’s compliant, the steering weighty but not communicative, yet the overall result is a devastatingly quick hatch.
Hang on – 276bhp through the front wheels equals torque steer, right?
No. Vauxhall’s Astra VXR does a stellar job of nailing down the front-end, and our first impression is that the Leon’s in the same league. The nose of this car is massively obedient, and you have to drive it from the front with all that power.
When you’re on it, there’s that brilliant engine note that’s strong yet slightly deeper than the GTI’s. The Brembo four-pot brakes, which are standard, hold up well with good feel, and the six-speed manual is a tad notchy but has a good action and is precise. This combo lets you power down super early out of a corner, once you have that nose tucked in – a cinch with those 235mm-wide Bridgestones.
Roadholding is brilliant, and with that front end following the corner like a sniffer-dog on a suspect line, you can plant the throttle and there’s relentless shove from that turbo four engine. It’s only on rare occasions that the nose will push that bit too far, and you have to back off to pull it back into line. In the dry at least, this thing puts all of its 276 horses to the ground if you’re smooth and doesn’t let up, with its maximum 258lb ft of torque spread from 1750-5600rpm.
There is one caveat here: save yourself £1285 and skip the DSG. The six-speed dual clutcher is fast, has that delicious fluff-pop between changes, and is 0.1sec quicker to 62mph, but it still suffers from sporadic lack of response. Out of corner you can call on it to change down, and the throttle takes a quick break for a lifeless pedal, upsetting the momentum. Take control: buy the manual.
You still haven’t said if it’s better than a Golf GTI...
This is a tough call, especially not having had the pair back-to-back. Yet the Leon is not gunning for Golf: it’s chasing the Megane RS and the Focus ST, as well as the VXR Astra. The comparison to its stablemate is inevitable, though, and the one thing Seat cannot offer is an iconic nameplate. That, in turn, makes a Golf seem the smarter choice, with better resale. Yet for that, you get less equipment and not as much punch as the Leon.
The thing is, the GTI is all about balance: it does everything really well. The Cupra, with its extra power, isn’t a better car because of it, but factor in the extra gear, and it’s exceptional value. And brilliant as it is, buying a Golf GTI is hardly an inspired choice. Seat’s just made it that bit harder to decide…